We are very little, my cousin Tamara and I, and we are walking with our grandfather someplace in Switzerland, at a summer resort, each holding on to his hand. "You see that forest?" He points to the distant woods. "I've just given it to Tamarochka! You see that lake? I just gave it to Bellochka!" We skip with pleasure at this largess, as delighted as we are with the funny rhymes he thinks up for us, and the secret languages he invents for us, and the little stories he makes up just for us, his grandchildren, that the rest of the world, which knows him as Scholom Aleichem, the famous writer, does not receive from him.
I did not realize until later, after he had passed away, how much I had been given.
People like my grandfather have a talent for giving. They know instinctively what would give pleasure; they know unerringly how to give -- unobtrusively or playfully, as the occasion may demand. They give with a light hand; the burden of gratitude never lies heavy on any shoulder.
To my grandfather, giving was as simple as taking a walk -- it just happened. Once he came home without his overcoat. "Where's your overcoat?" my grandmother asked. "Coat? What coat?" "The coat you wore when you left the house." "Oh, that. I gave it away." "To whom?" "To a man who didn't have a coat."
A talent for giving, like any other talent, cannot be taught; it can only be cultivated, provided it is there -- an inextricable part of personality. Giving well requires imagination, gusto, humor, deftness, affection, tact and a capacity for pleasure:A woman silently places a choice morsel of food on her husband's plate.A child proffers a proud potholder made in Arts and Crafts.A friend quietly spends a night at a sick friend's bedside.A man presents a whole lake to his granddaughter.
All this is giving -- as is praise, and sympathy, and laughter, and a box of homemade brownies.
Love is the ultimate giving, an expression of one's best self; undiluted, unadulterated love that seeks . . . I was about to say: that seeks nothing in return -- but that is almost impossible. In every love lurks a need to be loved back.
They give best who have been given, who have been loved. There is a tradition of birthdays in our family, originated by my grandfather and continued by my mother and later, by me with my own children. On the eve of a child's birthday, we tiptoe into his room in the middle of the night to arrange the presents around his bed, so that immediately upon awakening, he would see them all, no matter how modest -- a whistle, a balloon -- lovingly wrapped in bright paper and gay ribbons. Then comes the ceremony of opening them in front of the whole sleepy family in robes and slippers.
Contrary to the cliche', to receive is as blessed as to give. Those who enjoy giving enjoy receiving. Yet many find it difficult to receive graciously, to say a simple "Thank you." They are embarrassed by a gift; they cannot handle a compliment. Their discomfort sometimes makes them overgrateful, which, in turn, embarrasses the giver.
When giving comes directly from the heart, it can never disappoint or embarrass. A mother doesn't have to be taught the art of offering her breast to her child. The purest giving has no other motive but to give. It seeks pleasure rather than gratitude, fun rather than sacrifice, sharing rather than barter. It is a warm and generous impulse: a wad of chewed bubble gum offered in a child's outstretched hand -- as spontaneous as a laugh. It is a talent, a gift.
And those who have received from them remain forever rich.