An attic reveals love's lessons

Every year in mid-October, when the air grows crisp and leaves crunch underfoot, I climb the squeaky stairs to our attic for a brief reminder of long-ago Halloweens. There, hanging on a clothes rack, is a child's witch costume dating from the 1950s. An appliqued pumpkin adorns the front, offering a splash of color against the black fabric. A cape covers the shoulders, and a broad-brimmed hat rises to a perfect point. All that's missing is a child to wear it on Oct. 31st.

The costume was the handiwork of my mother, who probably burned more than a little midnight oil that year as she stitched identical costumes for her two young daughters. Who could have imagined then that half a century later, it would still stand as a testament to her skills with a needle and her gifts of time and talent?

The costume represents more than just a seasonal pleasure. Beyond unleashing happy memories of trick-or-treating around our Midwestern neighborhood, it serves as a tangible reminder of the countless labors of love that go with the territory of family life throughout the year. Children may be too young to appreciate these efforts fully at the time. But as they grow up and perform their own acts of generosity for others, they - we - understand the selflessness that has been passed down by parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors.

As I run my fingers over the costume, I think about other long-ago acts of giving that remain etched in memory. Some come with objects attached.

In our basement, a large yellowware bowl, 15 inches in diameter, serves as a reminder of the angel food cakes my grandmother made for each of her four grandchildren on their birthdays. Whatever other obligations she might have had on those days, she found time to whisk 13 egg whites by hand, turning them into high, airy desserts. The bowl brings those family celebrations back.

Other acts of love are intangible.

I think of the evenings my father spent explaining difficult algebra or geometry lessons to his daughters. Whatever we learned about math as we sat at his desk is hardly part of our everyday lives now. But what remains are memories of his patience, an invaluable gift.

And then there were the Sunday afternoons my grandfather spent helping me learn to drive. We would take his big Buick to the empty parking lot of a nearby shopping center - yes, children, there was a time when stores were not open 24/7 - and practice parking, backing up, and turning. Beyond the practical help he provided, the sessions offered a chance for intergenerational sharing.

Ask friends what they remember about labors of love in their families and some are likely to recount touching stories about sacrifices of time or sacrifices of money. Whatever form these gifts take, the full extent of selflessness often remains a giver's best-kept secret. "Oh, it's nothing," he or she will modestly say, making light of something that often means everything to the recipient.

And so it goes with my attic reverie. As I hang the witch costume back on the rack, turn off the light, and head downstairs, I think about today's parents, engaged in their annual autumn scramble to put together just the right costumes for pint-sized ballerinas, ghosts, pirates, and Harry Potter look-alikes.

These parents may have the advantage of more ready-made Halloween outfits to buy. But whatever time they might save at the sewing machine is more than consumed by their growing parental obligations. Check the soccer field in any suburb on Saturday mornings, where legions of parents are postponing weekend errands to cheer on young players. And consider their endless chauffeuring to music lessons, athletic practices, and play dates. For many, all of that comes on top of demanding jobs.

Selflessness takes many forms. My generous-hearted grandmother - she of the angel food cake fame - might have had the best approach. When we would thank her for an act of kindness, she would say simply, "Pass it on." Advice for giving doesn't get much better than that.

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