I was a young girl of 12 and it was our first summer on The Farm and it was a hard one. But it also was filled with good food straight from the warm earth. My mother had a talent for growing things in the city despite its polluted air even 70 years ago; people knew it then to be unhealthy. But in the clear air of the country, in the soil of her loam filled garden, her talents blossomed as did her crops.
We were getting produce ready for the stand near the road. As we were preparing the fruits and vegetables, selling them as fast as we put them out, friends from the city were arriving. They were diverse characters. Some were people in her circumstances with many children and little money. A few were wealthy but the outstanding characteristic of all these relationships was mutual respect.
Toward the late afternoon, I was tired and whiny. The source of my irritation was the fact that my mother was giving to her friends, without charge, the best and finest of what we were putting out. A bushel of potatoes here, quarts of strawberries there, a basket of fresh vegetables here.
But the strawberries were my argument. I loved them and the ones she grew were the reddest, juiciest and largest I had ever seen. They were sweet clear through and the dream stuff of that first June on The Farm. With the heavy cream separated from the rich milk the excellent cows gave, these were mine she was giving away. The strawberries summed up my resentment.
‘You can’t keep giving away our profits!’ I said. ‘You have given away half of all our produce!’
She turned to me and in a voice I have not forgotten with the lesson that has stayed with me.
‘These are mine’, she said. ‘I will do with them what I please. These are for me to give away if I want to. No one can tell me who to give to. My friends may never do anything for me but if one of them does some thing for my children or my grandchildren, then that will be payment for me.’
I have thought often of that lesson in gift giving, in giving what is yours. In the course of my days, when someone did something for me I did not expect, there was the lesson in strawberries. When so much has been done for our children by their friends and ours, the lesson in strawberries comes up.
When time, whole weekends of time, have been given to sit with a sick child, to listen to an impoverished spirit, to make dinner when the task seems insurmountable and appetite non-existent, to do any of these when time has become our most precious commodity, it is a gift of Spirit. When a check arrived unexpectedly from someone whose only reason was ‘I remember how I would have felt to have received this’ or the someones who oftentimes helped our children through school because ‘it was done for me.’
I thought of the lesson in strawberries.
As I review a life where so much has been done for me and mine, from sources unexpected, I am grateful for the lesson in strawberries. My mother gave what was hers to give, what she worked for and gave freely. She was paying it forward long before the idea became novel. I do not forget.
When we are asked to pay forward for gifts given and received, we must remember the lesson this lady of ten thousand lions strong leveled me. As the world works and fights to uphold democracies all over, we must remember from where most of us come.
I see my grandmother in the wrinkled old faces that I find mirrored every day. With tears pleading simply to go home. Will I forever see Richard Engel embrace that lined face younger than I am with a history I will never match? And a devastated country fractured beyond recall surrounding?
Let us pay it forward so the children’s children do not have to assuage our anguish forever. Pray let it be so.