Every day of October I will give $100 to someone I encounter during the course of my routine. I got the idea after receiving a check as beneficiary of my mother’s retirement fund. A number of people have asked me to explain more why I am doing this and, particularly, how it honors my mother.
My mother, Gina, died in May at age 89. She was born in Berlin to a wealthy Jewish couple who spoke French at home and travelled extensively. As a teenager in the late 1930’s her parents sent her to supposed safety in England, where she moved in with a family of strangers. She spent the war years in London as an enemy alien and joined the British Army’s search and rescue efforts. Because of her small size and athleticism she was teamed with a dog and sent into the rubble of bombed out buildings to locate survivors. Through a series of miracles (the details of which I could never extract from her), my mother was reunited with her parents in New York City in the 1940’s. Although her education was interrupted and she never finished high school, Gina perfected her English by reading Dickens, eventually spoke without a trace of a foreign accent, and became a nationally recognized expert on the education of gifted children.
Despite my mom’s privileged background, years of displacement and trauma resulted in a scarcity mentality that permeated our family’s emotional life and left me with scars of my own. My father was successful in the Ginsberg family gas station business and, later, as a Legal Aid attorney. That didn’t keep my mother from scrimping and saving with single-minded fervor, budgeting a single dollar for meat to feed our family of four, then holding back half of the meal as “leftovers” for the next day. Until I was old enough to recognize my mother’s shortcomings along with the trappings of middle class suburban life, I thought we were dirt poor.
My father had a heart attack and died suddenly when I was 17, a few months before I was to start my freshman year at Barnard College. Believing financial ruin was just around the corner, my mother told me I was on my own; without my dad’s income there was no money to pay for my education. A serious rupture in our relationship developed when she refused to provide information to the financial aid office, jeopardizing my ability to start school. With the help of the college I became emancipated, took out loans and started classes through a work-study program.
My mother remarried, developed a successful career and lived very comfortably. Yet, she remained convinced until she died that her future held peril and financial uncertainty. As for me – practicing many of the frugal habits she taught me, I worked hard and eventually paid off all my student loans. Some sore spots persisted in our relationship although we spoke almost every day and, finally, found genuine sweetness with each other.
I have to admit that my mother would think this a silly exercise, at best. I tried countless times to convince her that she could afford to be generous with herself, her grandchildren and in support of causes she cared about. But she was always puzzled by the notion of giving money away, and would certainly never have handed cash to a stranger. From her perspective, she had earned everything she had and there was no need to share.
So, why am I giving away a month of hundreds? In part, I want to prove to myself that I can do something a little crazy and unexpected and that life will go on (and – possibly – even improve). I want to be more conscious of the people around me and to challenge my notions of worthy-ness. I believe I honor my mother in striving to be my best self. And I hope to honor and preserve the person she might have become (had history been more kind) by performing random acts of generosity and sweetness in her name.