Grace, ex gratia

Now and again, it became imperative that I tackle my father on the really important things in life. Unfortunately, the only time one could pin him down was at the meal table, and at that, there was no interrruption of my father's eating schedule. ''Dad,'' I said with just enough breath to make it more than a whisper, ''Can I have a bike?'' It was a normal question for a thirteen year-old boy. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have asked. But I had heard about bikes, and conversations in the schoolyard became increasingly full of bicycles and the travels one could make on them. The embarrassement of being the odd boy out stood to be greater than incurring the wrath of my father, and so it became imperative that I put my need to him.

His reply was not unexpected. Without moving his eyes from the paper, or his ear from the radio, and with a forkful of sausage midway between plate and mouth , he said, ''Only if you buy it yourself.''

I remember thinking at the time that I shouldn't have asked. Not asking was itself something that I inherited from my father. He never asked for a thing, unless he could either exchange or buy it, or unless a long and tried friendship rested on the gift. My father saw no reason to change his habits for the benefit of his offspring.

It seemed to have stood him in good stead in his life. My father never got into debt, asking for nothing he could not earn or purchase for himself. But it also stifled his character by limiting the availability of his friends to share their lives with him. He perhaps felt that if he ever asked for anything, one would say, ''Only if you buy it yourself.''

And with his father as the nearest (and dearest) example, it never occurred to his son to do anything else but go out and earn the means to buy his bike. So , up at 5:30 a.m. each morning, I presented myself to the local newsagent, and delivered the morning paper. Soon my piggy bank (an old cocoa tin,) was full enough for me to make the first down payment on a shiny red bike. My father, I thought, was right.

Because it worked, asking was replaced by doing. And all through the years, I learned to be independent and alone. If I could do it myself, why bother to ask? Why bother to borrow if you can get it yourself? But I have learned that the requests that we make of ourselves and our friends and fellowman are a sign of our need to progress, not of our want. I have since found out that going to another for something you need is both communicative and enriching.

To ask of another is to want to share. It seems to me that there is much to share in this world. The last two decades have emphasized independence, to the degree that people have built up walls around them upon which they proudly stand and say, ''I did this all by myself, and asked no one.'' Yet, this is never true. Music and painting, exploration and discovery are perceptions that are personally exemplified by individuals, but even so, what the world shares and captures is the universal themes in such expressions. And fear of losing one's individuality can be best denied by pointing out that daughters are not made redundant by families, nor are violins vilified orchestras!

When I am told in intimate conversations how one is left a legacy of property , or stocks or bonds, from his father, I am tempted to feel just a smidge of shame that my father was not ''successful'' in the world's meaning of the word. He ''left'' me the world to make my living in, and to be who I want to be in it.

One often has to learnm to ask in the same way that one has to learn to receive. ''To ask amiss'' is something that we learn through asking, but to ask with expectancy and to give with no thought of reward very quickly establishes what is important and substantial in the world. To ask the impossible will often determine what ism possible, sometimes by comparison, sometimes by elimination of unreasonable requests. I have received much through asking. The most precious gifts are those that I have been able to expand upon and return a hundredfold to others.

Now my children are asking me for the world. I tell them that, despite the signs, the world does not easily give up its treasures. The biggest and brightest gems lie deep. I also tell them that gifts are there for the asking, but not necessarily for the taking. Life's jewels are given gladly, but in return for something given in return. Perhaps that is what my father was trying to tell me all the time.

Children's questions wear down upon one's composure at times, but if the asking is for building, rather than simply wanting, why should there be any exhaustion in giving of oneself to children - or adults? I encourage my children to ask of my experience, of my love and of my sense of giving, knowing that each must have the opportunity to accept what he deems most necessary to his growth and reject that which impedes it.

Life is made simple by simple acts. I remember once going to a friend and telling him that I was concerned about other friends who came to me to borrow money. I was in a turmoil between my principles about lending money and wanting to help my friends. His answer was simple. ''Never lend anything to anyone you wouldn't want to give them in the first place.'' That settled it for me. True giving is free from any obligation that makes giving a ''loan.'' Gifts become debts when not given freely. And shouldn't our true gifts be given freely, and presented to another in the same way? Then charity will be free of finances, love unburdened with personal claims, and giving and receiving, all that we will ever require, will be ours for the asking.

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