I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.
Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.
Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.
Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.
I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.
He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.
When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.
I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.
It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.
This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.
When I think of all the wildly wonderful things I’ve had the privilege of experiencing in my life, I’m more than a little cowed by it all. How does someone with a pedigree made primarily of jolly and kindly, if intelligent, ordinary folk get to rub shoulders and shake hands with nobility, both real and hereditary? The only blue in my family’s bloodstream is that of unusually unmixed Norwegian-ness for Americans, and the only green in its coffers was always the modest, hard-earned kind.
But here I am, flitting around just as if I belonged, in a great company of educated, artistic, skillful, cosmopolitan people and living like nobility myself. It certainly doesn’t derive from any actual grandness on my part any more than from goodness. I simply think myself the living illustration of undeserved largesse and unmerited grace. I might be especially skilled, at least, at being the receptacle for those who pour out all those gifts, and I am not one to deny them the pleasure, either.
[If you happen to be looking for another outlet for your excess generosity, here I am!]
In fairness, I sincerely hope I can learn to be nearly so generous, in turn, as others have always been to me. I know there are plenty of folk with far smaller resources than mine who’ll gladly have even a thousandth of the joy that’s mine, and I’ve also learned along the way that those who have been so outrageously kind to me seem always able to increase their own happiness in the transaction. Giving as gift: now, that’s the way to go.
What gleaming and pellucid light is this
That dances from the darkness into view,
As gently kind and tender as a kiss,
Drawing the violet warmth out of the blue—
What is this gracious, guiding, welcome light
That, numinous, its blessing shines on me
And bids me then, so warmed and kindled bright,
In turn to shine? ‘Tis Hospitality.
What, then, the lantern lighted as we part
To guide and keep us as we wander on,
No longer cold and dark as at the start,
Though time find us all yet asunder, gone—
What is the lamp that makes each soul a sun
And lights the path to gather us anew
From ends of earth, that beckons everyone
Back home? It’s Love that lights the whole way through.
There’s comfort in the midst of darkest night
Where Love and Hospitality alight.
It’s my sister’s birthday again—not that she’s getting old at a ridiculous rate, but rather that I have three sisters, so their birthdays occur with a certain frequency, since we all have different birthdays despite people’s occasionally mistaking two or more of us for same-day siblings. While we are separated by gaps, there are enough commonalities in our selves and our looks, I suppose, that it’s not entirely shocking anyone might make such an assumption, but those who know us see the vast array of differences more sharply than the less informed might.
And that, my friends, that differentness, is a grand thing. I adore all three of my sisters and love that we have enough in common to be real friends as well as family to each other, but we are clearly the better for having our unique characteristics and points of view and experiences to further enrich our life in common. It’s those distinctions that keep us from being in any way interchangeable and certainly, from having nothing to talk about when we get the all-too-rare chance to visit. We’re all four fabulous, if you ask me!
Take Sister #3, for example, whose natal day we remember on this date (I’m second of the four). From when she was very small—and she was mighty tiny indeed—her fierce drive for perfection and her native and highly honed intellect awed me. She ‘gets’ things that I will never wrap my head around, things like mathematics and the myriad business-administrative powers that keep the machinery of life and work and family ticking along in ways that only happen to me by lucky accident. She is and was the athlete and outdoorswoman I could only dream of being, and her cookery and baking, frankly, kick my measly skills to the curb. And she’s beautiful, inside and out, even if as a typical sibling I didn’t always manage to remind her so as often as she deserves.
That’s all just for starters, but if I were to go on too far I’d sound like I was making her up out of fairy wings and dewdrops and cookie dough, so instead I shall just wish her a spectacular birthday and a year full of wonder and happiness, beginning to end and for many birthdays and years to come.
Let us raise a crystal glass of Champagne Brut to toast the passing
Of the weeks and months, the years, to raise resounding shouts of “Cheers!”
We’ll ping the flutes “Salut! Cin Cin!“, tip up the stems and drink it in,
For nothing makes it taste so great as bubbly wine to celebrate
(Though if you care not for its pop, I recommend a Lemon Drop)!
…but I can’t guarantee I’ll be smart or committed enough to take advantage of it. I may represent the truly average human in that, though it’s hardly cause for admiration or celebration. We’re just good at being too blind, stubborn, ignorant, lazy and foolish to make proper use of whatever riches are set in our way. It’s silly enough that I can sit at the brink of a well pouring out pure, cold, sweet water and die of thirst, but that I would fail to fill a cup for any of the other thirsty people waiting for my smallest effort becomes a much more significant omission. I should be better. I could be better.And I want to be better. The first step, surely, has got to be simply paying attention. Am I so accustomed to privilege that I have acquired wealth-blindness, forgetting how rich I am, or worse yet, have succumbed to that ugly disease, Entitlement? I must teach myself to renew my awe and wonder at what is good and great in my life. Then I must remember to make wise, generous, jubilant and extravagant use of it all. A whole new year lies ahead, a whole new series of opportunities for improvement. See you at the brink.
A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.
So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.
This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.
The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.
The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.
What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.
Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.