When I was seven, I used to go door-to-door with my mother in the housing project where I grew up. She knocked on doors and asked the residents for donations to the American Lung Association. Some would give a few coins; others, on rare occasions, a whole dollar; but most would silently shake their heads “No.” No matter the amount, my mother thanked the giver; wrote his or her name, address, and offerings on her large, white-lined envelope; and placed the money inside.
After what seemed an eternity, though actually just a few hours, we returned to our apartment, and my mother counted the money. The yield didn’t match the effort: I don’t think she collected more than $10. Still, she sent the skimpy collection to the organization whose logo was on the front. I remember thinking it looked like a red telephone pole.
Even as a child, I knew my mother’s actions were extraordinary. Asking poor people to give to an organization whose mission held no perceptible connection to their daily struggles to put food on the table, clothes on their children, and a roof over their head wasn’t what you did. Other charities gave to these folks; you didn’t ask them to give. To them, her efforts likely seemed foolish.
Fortunately for me, my mother followed her own beat. She’d regularly sweep up trash on the sidewalk, shovel the common walkway after a snow, and plant flowers year after year—marigolds and petunias—to complement the gloriously perennial purple irises that ringed our small front garden.
Although my charitable giving is modest, I faithfully and regularly donate to causes to fight AIDS; to stop genocide, hunger, and homelessness; to support public broadcasting, the arts, and public education; and to heal families. And I volunteer my time to empower little girls and fix our badly broken public schools.
I do these things because I believe I’ve been given much, so much is required of me. The me who trudged along with my mother on a seeming fool’s errand knows that the why of it took shape long before I could explain my motivations. I never asked my mother why she collected those donations, and, ironically, the lung cancer that killed her twenty-one years ago prevents me from asking now.
But had I asked, my mother’s response would’ve been simple: “because I can.” That’s what she would’ve said. But from that look in her eyes and her daily efforts to make life a bit brighter, I know she also acted on hope—hope that tomorrow would be better, hope that her actions somehow would make a difference, and hope that the peace she felt giving herself over to these possibilities would sustain and carry her forward to see the sunshine of another day.