Sunday, February 20, 2011


My mother would have been 90 years old on February first, and in March it will be 20 years since she passed away. I miss her profoundly in so many ways, but one of the greatest ways that she influenced me is that she was one of the most generous people I've ever known, both with her hands and with her heart.

Mother was a child of the Depression. In 1930 her father took his family to wait out the bad economic times living off the land on a homestead in Southern Oregon. Mother's memories of that time read like "Little House in the Cascades," complete with carrying water from the creek, going to a one-room school, and picking wild berries. Grandma, one of 14 kids, had grown up on a ranch in Idaho and knew how to sew and can. She made underwear for the girls out of flour sacks and scrimped and made do. Grandpa sold cord wood in town and did odd jobs to earn money when he needed to buy things at the general store. Knowing Grandpa was out there with four little kids, the storekeeper kept an eye on him. Once he gave Grandpa a case of unlabeled cans that he couldn't sell, but not knowing what it was didn't matter when the kids were hungry. Mother said she'd never forget the smell when the can opener pierced the tin. It was spinach, and it tasted good.

For Christmas that year, the family got a box of used clothes and toys and were so grateful that someone remembered them. Grandpa, orphaned at eight, had grown up in a Masonic Home where the thoughtful matron saw to it that each child had fifty cents to spend for Christmas every year. Likewise, Grandpa took his children to Woolworth's in Roseburg and gave them each fifty cents to buy gifts for their siblings and parents.

For the rest of her life, Mother tried to make life better for other people. She appreciated what she had and though my parents were never wealthy, they shared their blessings. Mother gleaned apples from nearby orchards and made sure her widowed or financially struggling friends had a box of apples. Every year she bottled a thousand jars of fruits, vegetables, juice, jam and sometimes meat. She made sure all the kids in the family had coats and boots for the winter if their parents couldn't afford it. When she took me to school at BYU, she'd stop on the way home at a dry bean warehouse in Idaho for a couple of sacks to divide up among friends and family in Portland. She noticed when other people needed something and was always on the lookout for a way to satisfy that need. When something came into her hands that she couldn't use, she'd pass it along to someone who could. Other people might have been insulted and thrown the thing in the trash, but not Mother.

Growing up with this kind of mother, I never resented the treasures she brought home from the Good Will store. I understood what it meant to have a generous heart. Our children will never forget the trips we took with my parents, full of adventure and laughter and good food and endless interesting information (Mother was a walking encyclopedia). When we moved in 2009 and downsized, I had the kids come and help me clean out closets so they could take away what they wanted. They can enjoy their "inheritance," such as it may be, and I have the pleasure of watching that.

In our world of selfishness and narcissism and "what's in it for me," a generous person is a rare find, even a treasure. I could do a lot worse than to be like my mother.


Mary said...

You know, I think the Depression shaped the greatest American generation with values that we've forgotten too easily. I hope it doesn't take another depression or war for our society to recover those values, but I'm afraid it might.

Your mother sounds like a wonderful woman.

jww said...

Beautiful! Yeah, I have many many fond memories of her, and I do always remember her birthday and the day she passed away. Her generosity influenced me greatly, too.

Jordan said...

Grandma once gave me all the change in a piggy bank she kept in her office. She also had me cash in all of the cans for recycling. These concepts were so foreign to me coming from Utah. It all ended up to be $30 or so. For child of 10, that was A LOT of money. I remember buying Squeezeit juice and being able to afford little toys and treasures as we traveled through Oregon and the coast on our trip. It's a great memory I have of her.

Megan said...

What an amazing woman. I love the story of the shopkeeper and the cans of spinach.

We all should be more like her! Thank you for sharing.