She started out by bringing me a Texas sheet cake, what my Georgia relatives would call a “Co-Cola Cake,” a made-from-scratch chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. After the second one arrived a week later, I protested that I could not possibly eat the entire cake. Jessie cheerfully offered to take half the cake to the ladies at her bank.
I first met Jessie when I bought my first home in my mid-30s. She was my next-door neighbor in Durham. The occasion was not an especially happy or triumphant one since months earlier my relationship ended with a man I thought I was going to marry. Jessie represented what I feared I’d become. A spinster. Alone. Not chosen. In her mid-70s, Jessie had recently retired after working as a secretary at the Veterans Administration Hospital for more than 30 years.
After the cakes, she left a quart of homemade vegetable soup on my back porch. And then another. The first two quarts were delicious; I put the second two quarts in the freezer, hoping my taste for it would return. I wrote her a thank you note. Then I bought her a funny card. I struggled with how to reciprocate. Exasperated, I invited her to join me for supper one night at a neighborhood diner, not realizing that she’d soon start treating every Monday like it was a standing weekly commitment.
Almost overnight, I found myself feeling resentful of this “contest” of kindness. Like all good Presbyterians, I’d been taught growing up that it is better to give than to receive. In fact, I much preferred the role of giver.
When I shared my exasperation with my minister one Sunday after church, he smiled and said, “Maybe the lesson for you, Chris, is learning to receive.”
I knew he was right. Jessie’s generosity was boundless. She was undeterred by my cool demeanor– and the Great Wall of China around my heart. Doing for me gave her such joy. It dawned on me that there is an inherent power in the role of the giver. After all, the giver chooses the circumstances, the what, the when and the how.
If I enjoyed giving so much, who was I to deny her the same pleasure?
As I prepared to leave for work one morning, I saw Jessie peeking through her bedroom blinds as I took my dog outside and filled his water bowl. Before I could get to my car, Jessie was out her front door in her bathrobe to get her newspaper. She said something kind about my being all dressed up, noting that I must have some important meetings. She insisted on giving me a big hug and telling me to have a great day at work.
After a while, this started to become almost a daily ritual. I started leaving the house a few minutes earlier so I wouldn’t be late for work.
When I focused on communicating my genuine appreciation for her kindness, Jessie beamed. I recognized her need to be needed, and I discovered that that my expression of appreciation to her gave me joy. And the truth was I needed practice receiving.
During this season of giving, some of us will be called to receive. Let us do so graciously and confidently, knowing that by expressing our gratitude and appreciation, we are magnifying the joy of the giver.
Chris McLeod, J.D., is president of Giving Matters Inc. in Charlotte.