Last month I had a dream about Dad. My favorite dreams are those that include my parents, leaving me feeling deeply loved when I awaken. And often sad in missing them. This specific dream inspired me that morning to think about kindness and generosity, traits Dick Montgomery was both known and admired for. Yes, while we may glorify people after they die, although I suspect it can be equally easy to vilify someone, I tried to give a fair view of my dad in the pages of My Music Man.
I wonder if this recent inner conversation about kindness and generosity was triggered by Dad’s old Honda finally biting the dust. A year or so before he died, he stopped driving and gave the car to his eldest grandchild, taking great care to change the title. We still refer to this vehicle as Pops’ car. The same Honda we found both black licorice and dozens of music CDs in the glovebox long after he died.
Generosity has its roots in kindness and grace. I had shared in my memoir the time I most failed in the kindness department. This memory shared in the excerpt below is one of few regrets I have in my life.
“Nudging into junior high, I was a shy new kid facing the intimidating task of navigating the road map to thirteen-year-old girl-friend-making…..The school counselor, in an effort to help assimilate the apparent social misfits of junior high, included me in an invitation to a newly formed 4-H cooking club…..After school on the appointed day, I walked the five blocks to our meeting location, just a block away from Dad’s office at the La Grande Observer, following directions on the invitation. I arrived at the house, eagerly imagining what new friends I might make. And I saw, as the door opened, that the host, my new girlfriend, was the girl mercilessly teased for her serious congenital facial deformity…..I was kind to the girl and polite to her family. And I returned for each of the six weekly sessions. But the discomfort in the pit of my stomach even today reminds me of what I didn’t do. I didn’t stick up for her while the mean junior high boys yelled horrific names at her outside the school and in town. I long ago forgave my actions as a lonely, self-conscious preteen. But I am still sorry I moved away before I found the maturity to become a real friend. Sorry that I didn’t ask Dad for advice. Sorry that I didn’t understand, then, what a really kind man he was.”My Music Man, Chapter 17: Interrupted
Might it be that this memory led me to further explore the themes of connections, grace and kindness in both Beyond the Ripples and Humanity’s Grace? Our dad was both kind and generous, and I’m sad we never spoke about this regret of mine. Yet, our dad also seemed to know how to not enable others. I am certain he learned a lot about that challenge during his own recovery and decades’ long journey that involved mentoring others in Alcoholics Anonymous. My parents didn’t always agree on when was the right time to pull the plug on assistance to grown children in need. And as a parent now, I must say I understand. It is so difficult as we recognize the challenges each human faces to decipher how much help is enough? How much is too much? It’s a very present conversation in many families today, as it is in the global and political landscape. Whether we were raised in the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or a “it takes a village” family or community; it might be that most of us lie somewhere in between. Often we simply have to go by our gut to decide how much is right, sometimes never knowing for sure if what we gave was enough or too much.
Now that Humanity’s Grace has been out for several months, I find it insightful for me to revisit its stories. I had no real plan as I attempted to show the impact of grace, mercy or kindness on each character. It is Marjorie who rises out of the pages of Humanity’s Grace to struggle with “how much is enough?” I have heard from more than one reader who identified with Marjorie’s inner struggle.
“Marjorie walked back to her car and pulled the keys from the outside pocket of her bag. She unlocked the door and groaned with relief as she sat on the warmed car seat, still chilled from sitting so long in the library. She was ready for a nap or an early bedtime, but knew she must concentrate on driving to arrive safely back at the cottage. All the reminiscing led her to another question in the swirling sea of questions. Perhaps, after Marie, was when she should have done something. After he lost his friend and broke his heart. She has no idea what it was she might have done, for no school counselor or teacher ever warned her that Paul was headed on some bad path. None of them knew Paul like she did, though. She was the one who dedicated her life to make each moment better, falsely believing he would grow out of it, all the while Paul must have learned to pretend everything was okay. And now, was it too late?“Humanity’s Grace, A Mother’s Heart
As I crafted each of the fifteen stories comprising Humanity’s Grace, I pondered kindness, in all its degrees. What is grace? Mercy? I knew each of these to hold different meanings, and yet to be so related to each other. Yesterday I found this stickie note in a pile of papers not yet making their way into the recycling bin. Doodles of book titles before I landed on what eventually felt perfect.
At the time I searched definitions of the word grace. I uncovered “An attractively polite manner of behaving” and “Simple elegance or refinement of movement.” Christians may identify Grace to be “The free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” Kripa is identified as the concept of Divine Grace in Hinduism. What most speaks to me is this definition of Secular Grace: “The proactive acceptance, love and caring for our fellow human beings person to person.” This definition goes on to acknowledge that “there is nothing more valuable, moral or ethical than people loving and accepting one another.”
I remember being out in public with my mom’s mom, Grandma D, in my early teens and being embarrassed when she would show a stranger photos of her adored grandchildren. These 45 years later, while I don’t tend to show photos, I talk to people who are strangers to me all of the time, learning their stories, sharing a smile and a greeting. My perfect job would pay me to walk communities, meet people and learn their stories. (Um, I kind of do that anyway, just not for pay.) More often than not it might be in hindsight that we find clarity in what we gain in this simple act. And so, while my parents might have occasionally disagreed about how much was enough or when to back off, one thing is undeniable. They both knew that the basic kindness we can offer those around us at each moment we find ourselves in is always a right choice.