Telling our stories is so important. We learn something in the asking and in the sharing of life stories. The everyday stories of everyday people become extraordinary to the rest of us if we take the time to listen. A story my mother told me (below) became a living history that inspired dozens, perhaps now hundreds of people to share a little extra love, compassion, empathy or cash.
Who hasn't been inspired by someone doing something they don’t consider extraordinary? What we may consider courageous, gracious, honorable, or risky were just momentary choices others made on an average day. We’ve all been drawn to someone who has changed our worldview, even if for a moment, and reminds us of the depth, strength, and importance of our human connection.
But, how can you feel that spark of connection with others if you don't share your story? For example, you know your mother or father, but it will always be from your perspective as a child. You may now have a mature, adult relationship, but you cannot view them through a perspective other than your own. Parents and grandparents have life histories very different from the one we see as they related in a variety of ways to friends, colleagues, or community organizations.
My father was well known for his gentle demeanor, quick wit, and patient counsel. My mother was regarded for her love of learning, leadership qualities, cackling laugh, and skill at managing money.
I grew up with a feeling that there was enough money for us to live a middle class lifestyle, but no more. What I did not know until my mother was in her 80s and began sharing bits and pieces from her life, was how often they shared money with others in need; without requiring a reason. Knowing her from my perspective, this does not sound like the Bette Tuskey I knew at all! Even she was unaware that generosity was a theme in their lives until I made the observation for her one day while asking her a few questions about her life.
She looked perturbed at the thought of being perceived as such a generous person (she sometimes chided Dad for giving away his allowance). Having no debt and an amply supplied savings account were of paramount importance to her. From my limited experience, she strictly limited the sharing of her hard-earned money and encouraged people to help themselves out of a jam.
Reality, however, did not reflect this tough exterior. Time and time again, mom and dad simply trusted that if someone asked for help—friend or stranger—that was cause enough to give what they could in the moment; even if giving meant delayed gratification for themselves for a planned purchase or the gift drew their savings low. The amounts they gave were not trivial, often running into the hundreds or more. I learned from mom that the money was only occasionally repaid. This fact mattered not to the next person in need.
I never knew this level of generosity was a cornerstone of my parent's marriage until I had planned some conversations with my mother. I asked her specific questions, giving her time to remember and answer thoughtfully, which sometimes happened over days or weeks.
This revelation caused my husband, Mike, and I to reflect on our own generosity. The result was to host our first, Pay-It-Forward New Years Party several years ago. Every guest was surprised as they entered and we handed each of them blank, sealed envelopes that contained a $1, $5, $10 or $20 bill to be used to help someone else—known as “paying it forward.”
As the evening wore on, I overheard several conversations recalling a time when someone was the recipient of unexpected and humbling generosity. Very quickly, the conversations turned to creative and thoughtful ideas of how they might spend their pay-it-forward money.
It was this seed of story from my mother that germinated into two of us becoming mindfully generous, which bloomed into 50 people taking the lesson and growing gardens of benevolence that continues to bear fruit and spread encouragement into the world.
For months afterward, stories trickled back to us of people who took the money we gave them and multiplied it to pay for a tank of gas for someone, to fund a women’s business in a country striving to overcome violence and oppression, or to give an extra big tip to a waiter having a bad day. One can only imagine the wave of paying it forward that happened as a result of each of these acts of kindness.
Shortly before mom died on April 19, 2011, she requested that I write her tribute Life Story Book and include some of the memories she shared during our many recording sessions through the years. With more than 40 hours of various recordings, this will take years to accomplish. However, I printed her first book, a highlight reel of her life together with my father, “Art & Bette – A Lifetime of Love” in 2011 to encourage her to share with her healthcare providers in hospice. I also published the first in a series of books dedicated to her life’s journey from my unique perspective as her youngest child. She was indeed encouraged and honored by these books for many months before her passing. I treasure the pride she took each time she shared them with those around her, inspiring and connecting with each one through the amazing, everyday stories from her life.
I encourage you to do the same. Write your stories while you can, and share them to inspire others. You really are that interesting!
Join other storytellers starting Jan. 8 for my online, guided memoir writing workshop, My Life Stories.