Every day of October I will give $100 to someone I encounter during the course of my routine. I got the idea after receiving a check as beneficiary of my mother’s retirement fund. A number of people have asked me to explain more why I am doing this and, particularly, how it honors my mother.

My mother, Gina, died in May at age 89. She was born in Berlin to a wealthy Jewish couple who spoke French at home and travelled extensively. As a teenager in the late 1930’s her parents sent her to supposed safety in England, where she moved in with a family of strangers. She spent the war years in London as an enemy alien and joined the British Army’s search and rescue efforts. Because of her small size and athleticism she was teamed with a dog and sent into the rubble of bombed out buildings to locate survivors. Through a series of miracles (the details of which I could never extract from her), my mother was reunited with her parents in New York City in the 1940’s. Although her education was interrupted and she never finished high school, Gina perfected her English by reading Dickens, eventually spoke without a trace of a foreign accent, and became a nationally recognized expert on the education of gifted children.

Despite my mom’s privileged background, years of displacement and trauma resulted in a scarcity mentality that permeated our family’s emotional life and left me with scars of my own. My father was successful in the Ginsberg family gas station business and, later, as a Legal Aid attorney. That didn’t keep my mother from scrimping and saving with single-minded fervor, budgeting a single dollar for meat to feed our family of four, then holding back half of the meal as “leftovers” for the next day. Until I was old enough to recognize my mother’s shortcomings along with the trappings of middle class suburban life, I thought we were dirt poor.

My father had a heart attack and died suddenly when I was 17, a few months before I was to start my freshman year at Barnard College. Believing financial ruin was just around the corner, my mother told me I was on my own; without my dad’s income there was no money to pay for my education. A serious rupture in our relationship developed when she refused to provide information to the financial aid office, jeopardizing my ability to start school. With the help of the college I became emancipated, took out loans and started classes through a work-study program.

My mother remarried, developed a successful career and lived very comfortably. Yet, she remained convinced until she died that her future held peril and financial uncertainty. As for me – practicing many of the frugal habits she taught me, I worked hard and eventually paid off all my student loans. Some sore spots persisted in our relationship although we spoke almost every day and, finally, found genuine sweetness with each other.

I have to admit that my mother would think this a silly exercise, at best. I tried countless times to convince her that she could afford to be generous with herself, her grandchildren and in support of causes she cared about. But she was always puzzled by the notion of giving money away, and would certainly never have handed cash to a stranger. From her perspective, she had earned everything she had and there was no need to share.

So, why am I giving away a month of hundreds? In part, I want to prove to myself that I can do something a little crazy and unexpected and that life will go on (and – possibly – even improve). I want to be more conscious of the people around me and to challenge my notions of worthy-ness. I believe I honor my mother in striving to be my best self.  And I hope to honor and preserve the person she might have become (had history been more kind) by performing random acts of generosity and sweetness in her name.

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10 Responses to The Truth About My Mother

  1. Richard says:

    A beautiful tribute to your mother…and ultimately to the thoughtful and compassionate daughter she raised. Go Jill!

  2. Kathy Rodgers Pettit says:

    Jill, I read this with tears in my eyes. I never knew your mother’s background, even the fact that she was not born here in the US. I do remember when your dear father died, what a shock it was, and I was happy to hear that your mother had remarried and was in a good relationship. I always really liked your mother and her willingness to put in tireless hours to make sure that those with intellectual gifts were provided for as well as those with academic deficiencies.

    I guess this conversation and your experiement both speak to the power that money has in modern society: the power to help as well as the power to damage. Clearly, your mom lived more in the latter area (as a victim of that power, of course) and it seems that you might have collateral damage in that area too…am I right in sensing that you are perhaps using this financial legacy from your mother to change that for yourself? To move from the shadow side of money’s power to a place where it is just another tool to do good?

    This brings me to the thought that your donation of time to rebuilding in New Orleans was a true gift of good as well, given, I assume, without as much thought as this project is taking. Those were days out of your life given to helping others (as are many of your days from what I see..). Isn’t that a true gift to others, in a real sense? Can money sometimes be used to “do good” where time is what is really called for? I have watched many parents whose children were on a sports team or in a church group write a check when their participation was what was really needed.

    Now you, Jill, already walk the talk in that area! But your experiment has gotten me thinking about my own ideas about money, time, giving, volunteerism…all ways to step outside of ourselves and bear each other up in some way. For that I thank you. There was a time in my life, not SO long ago, where everything I did was volunteer – children’s choir, Meals-on-Wheels coordinator, fundraising for the Waldorf school my daughter attended, visiting nursing homes and homebound, reading volunteer in the lower grades, track mom, chaperoning events – the list goes on and on. I guess as she grew up I gradually stopped doing things “for free”. Have I become selfish? I’m afraid so. But I am rethinking this as I follow your 31 days, and maybe some others who are following your blog are doing the same. Could this be part of the legacy, indirect as it is, of your mother’s gift to you?

    Thank you for sharing this process…and for allowing me to ramble on about my thoughts. I hope it makes some sort of sense in reading it. You’ve created a great forum for the discussion of an issue that we often keep very shallow (probably because feelings about money are so nebulous and deep-seated).

    Be well.

    Peace.

    • Kathy- Thank you! This is exactly what I was hoping for by starting this conversation, and I am grateful to you for taking the time to write and share your thoughts. It is true that this process is about exploring the power of money and giving, as well as healing a scar left by my mother’s limitations. To have others share in this process, as you are, and extend the reach of my mother’s gift is an amazing thing. She would be astounded by all of this! As for what you say about giving time- it is true that time is an especially precious gift. You have given your share and then some! Sometimes writing a check is the easy way out. On the other hand, you can’t pay the rent by volunteering. Money is a life force in our world and none of us can survive without it.

      Thanks so much for following along. This process would be much less meaningful (and less fun) without your voice. Keep talking! Jill

  3. Timea says:

    Jill — I LOVE the idea. I love the idea of your not settling into being ‘sensible,’ of your challenging yourself to be your best self and to honor your mother both for who she was and who she might have become. Her history is really quite startlingly weighty. I can’t remember if I gave you my essay “Dwarf Armies” ever. If I have, it’s about lists and organizing and being free and, well the crazy dwarf army general in me also loves what you’re doing.

    I hope you will give an account of each of your 31.

    I am thinking, szunyog, this would make a glorious book!

    Love,

    T.

  4. Thanks so much to you and the entire dwarf army! I would love to see the essay; can you send it to me? Lots of love.

  5. Barry says:

    Beautiful

  6. Chuck Page says:

    Jill, I love what you’re doing! Congratulations on being courageous, risk-taking, adventurous and charitable to the nth degree. Your mother is EXTREMELY proud of you and is smiling from above, to be sure!!!

    -Chuck

  7. Joy M. Ruplinger says:

    Dear Jill,
    Your story is extraordinary in that you have challenged yourself to reach out to people you don’t know. This is what our world needs for us to ever grow as humans. I work with youth in the N/NE area where there is an increase in gang activity. All these kids need is to have one person show an interest. You probably did more with that single act as with the giving of a C note. However, money from unexpected places never hurts either. There are so many needs and your story is a humbling one. Rock on and may you always be surrounded by the care of your mother and peace from all directions.

    Sincerely moved, Joy

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