The nature of true giving

Like so many Americans, I am spending too much time this week shopping for presents to give my children, feeling unsure that the gifts I buy are things they will use or even want.

I need - we all need - to remind ourselves, during the relentless commercial countdown to Christmas, to reach back and remember our true lessons in giving.

I was given my love of reading because my daddy loved to read and had a study full of books he spent time with every day.

On our living room mantel in Bennettsville, S.C., was a complete miniature set of Shakespeare's works. Buying books to improve the minds of his five children was an indisputably higher priority for him than buying a toy or nonessential clothing.

From my parents' examples, I was given my belief that I and others could do more than complain, wring hands, or give in to despair at the wrongs rife in the world.

Daddy, a teacher-preacher who never raised his voice in the pulpit and who tried to educate our congregation's mind as well as touch its heart, taught that faith required action and that action could be sustained only by faith in the face of daily discouragement and injustice in our segregated Southern society.

I was given strength from my mother's strength in the face of tough challenges. I remember once, after I became a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi, I brought home to visit Mama a small girl who'd lost an eye when marauding Mississippi whites sprayed buckshot through the windows of her family's house.

I'd been instructed by Jeannie's mother how to remove, clean, and replace her glass eye, which I felt able to do in theory. When confronted by the reality, though, I quavered. Seeing my hesitation, my mother gently pushed me aside, and quickly did it without missing a beat.

I was given my concern for children without homes and parents unable to care for them from my mother, who took foster children into our home after Daddy died.

I am still ashamed of my resentment and jealousy when I was asked to share my room with a homeless child for a few days. As I grew older, nearly a dozen foster sisters and brothers were reared by my mother. I was given a way to deal with fear by Miz Tee - Mrs. Theresa Kelly - who lived in a four-room unpainted house with a big front porch and a small back porch on Amelia Street in Bennettsville.

I loved to stay with Miz Tee when my parents were away for a convention or to visit a relative. One day when a big summer storm was whipping up, Miz Tee told me to go out on the back porch and bring in the clothes hanging there so they wouldn't get drenched.

As I went to obey, a clap of thunder boomed and I ran back and told Miz Tee I was scared of being struck by lightning. She calmly explained to me about faith in God, as she returned with me to the back porch to gather in the clothes, "When it's your time, it's your time, when it's not, it's not...."

And I was given my understanding of our great common black human heritage because my high school English teacher, Mrs. Walker, invited Langston Hughes to read to us, her students, and because the famous poet took the time to come to Bennettsville to do so. His visit gave me a special connection to the poet I called in my college diary "marvelous ... down to earth and unassuming."

Like many of us, I no longer have or even remember most of the presents I found under the Christmas tree as a child.

But I carry with me and treasure the lessons in living I was given throughout my childhood by my parents and by concerned and loving community elders.

May these memories give me the strength to stop shopping, and instead to give a child a true gift - time spent with a caring adult, time spent sharing some of the great lives and spirits of mentors who have enriched, informed, and helped shape my life.

* Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund, in Washington. This article is drawn from her autobiography 'From Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors' (Beacon Press).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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