Like many people on the planet, I feel the shifting plates of fear, anger and worry beneath us. As we move throughout the election season with Covid-19 rates rising again, it’s hard to not to think about the suffering as we move into the holiday season.
Ever an optimist, I make lists of the progress. I’m ready to make amends and begin healing our violent history of the “haves” versus the “havenots.” But I am not naïve, and I know there are plenty who won’t even come to the table for a discussion. My father included.
This year for many, it will be a return to small gestures that are more meaningful than grand gifts of years past — unless, of course, your last name is Kardashian. For some, it will be another year to object to Thanksgiving as we consider the plight and land ownership of Natives Americans. For others, it will be an oblivious festival of over-eating to numb our feelings for those less fortunate.
As my children make their wish lists, I’m asking big questions about having, wanting, desire, and connection, much to their chagrin. Is it ok to celebrate when others are in need? Having a social worker for a mother does have its drawbacks.
I’ve been collecting stories for years on what makes a good gift. The first question I ask is “What is the best gift they’ve given or received?” I inquire as to whether there is anyone they feel challenged to give to. I want to know how they see others and what makes them feel seen.
During a recent interview with a television actress, she revealed that she used to get beautiful letters from her father. One was sent with a 1981 penny taped to it with the message, “It was a very good year,” the year of her birth. Another letter encouraged her to stay in New York City after 9/11 when she was making plans to fly home. He’d encouraged her to stay because she was strong and had something to offer the people in the city who needed her.
She teared up as she shared these tiny moments and explained the memories were bittersweet, since she and her father were no longer in contact. I shared that I hadn’t talked with my father in years.
Her vulnerability inspired me to reach out to my father. I knew he had a story that I’d heard many times, and I thought maybe he’d like to participate in this project of giving and receiving, seeing and being seen. I sent him an email the same day.
His reply was quick and curt. No, he wouldn’t be willing to share this 10-minute story that he’d told a thousand times. He wasn’t interested in my project. And that tiny sliver of hope that I took everywhere like a little change purse, that could increase joy through connection, was dashed again.
I particularly liked the story because it exemplified a time when someone felt unseen and misunderstood. My father had given everything he had to complete his PdD, suggesting it nearly killed him. When he graduated, his mother gifted him a name plate for his desk. He was incredulous. How could she do so little? At the time he told me the story, we discussed how his mother had never completed high school and how intimidated she must have been by his accomplishment. We talked about the possibility that she had no idea how to celebrate him.
I wasn’t too surprised that my father didn’t want to help. He’d left my mother and me after I was born, and I didn’t meet him until I tracked him down in my twenties. We’d had a fractured and tenuous connection at best. You might call me naïve or even stupid for continuing to try.
We came from very different worlds, and I used to joke that he spent a lot of time visiting the Scare City. I’d been raised with ideas about miracles and manifesting magic, whereas he’d had to contract from the world, always afraid of being cheated or scammed. This was nothing new in his eighty-second year; it seemed unlikely I would have any capacity to drag him along with me.
Waiting for my watch to be repaired the next day, I saw a man on the other side of the glass display case showing a fan of bills from his wallet to the woman helping him. She laughed, “Oh yes, I remember.”
He explained to her and to me as I was watching transfixed that everywhere he goes, he gives people two-dollar bills. He does it at restaurants and gas stations. When he gets massages.
“Get it? I’m two-dollar Bill. My name is Bill. This way people will remember my name.”
I asked him more about this gesture, and he explained the tracking numbers on the bills that show where they came from. Now he has a waiter who collects the ones that start with the number eight.
As we were chatting, as often happens with me, he begins to tell me more about himself. He grew up in Los Angeles, but his father came from Montreal.
I said, My father came from Montreal.
He said, I’m a blue-eye Jew from Montreal.
I said, My father also has blue eyes.
He said his father was Aaron Schwartz and his family was in the textile business. Everyone knew the Schwartz family.
I said my grandfather was a furrier.
We compared our ages, and Bill determined he could be my father.
He asked the saleswoman to pass me a two-dollar bill. We exchanged numbers, and I left the shop filled with the glee of a child who’d been given a lollipop.
What I didn’t mention to Bill was that since my son left for school in Hawaii, I’ve been sending him a card every week with twenty dollars in it for his lunch and snack money, but I always add a two-dollar bill so he knows how special he is to me and how much I miss him.
As I drove away, I thought about this tiny miracle. I didn’t want much from my father, but it was more than he had to give. But I didn’t shut myself off from the having. In being open to my desire, I was handed a small gesture of giving and kindness from a man who resembled my father in many ways. The only difference was that he connected with my generosity.
There are many people who cannot see what we have to give. There are many people who will never get us. When we fan the flames of our discontent, we decrease our opportunity for connection, big or small.
Ask for what you want. Be ok if it doesn’t come in the form you imagined and then delight when it arrives and surprises you. Right now, tiny miracles are what keep me going.