When I was seven, I loved to go to Natalie Redmond’s house. Her parents weren’t getting along (there was rumor that Mrs. had hurled a salt shaker at Mr. during a particularly heated exchange) and they were vying for the loyalty of the children by buying one each of everything that might spark some fever of loyalty and attachment. Consequently, Natalie had a miniature riding stable with tiny, flocked horses and a stable of working tack, as well as several shelves of Breyer horses, a harem of Barbies and not one but two Easy Bake ovens. My parents’ taste ran more towards the restrained and educational, and while I was certainly not materially deprived, Natalie’s house was, then, what a day at Barney’s with an Amex Black card would be today.
One morning I returned from a sleepover at Natalie’s tired and cranky, only to be told that we were all going to rake leaves and clean up the yard. “I can’t,” I explained to my parents as they sat at the kitchen table “I told Natalie I’d help her clean up the toys in their basement after lunch.”
“Charity,” said my mother, looking over the rims of her glasses, “begins at home,”
It didn’t make much sense at the time, but then my father was also given to telling us that “England expects every man to do his duty.” It seemed like a trap, a way to deprive oneself of the opportunity to do anything exciting or deserving of public acclaim. I could clean someone else’s basement and be told what a good girl I was, what a wonderful helper, or I could spend hours raking our leaves, jumping in trash cans to pack them into their black, plastic bags, and get nothing for my labor. Where was the joy in doing the expected, the mundane, the unnoticed good?
I am not much more evolved at forty nine; seven times the age when I first decided that doing good tasted better when it was chased with the heady feeling of looking good. I am quick to work in the community, to comfort someone outside my family who is bedeviled by loss or loneliness, or to donate to those in need. If I am honest, I have to admit that every time I pick up neighborhood trash after a big football game, sit with a recent widow or take a bag of practically new clothes to Volunteers of America, I see myself from somewhere outside my body. I see myself glowing ethereally, bathed in the golden light of being good, doing good, making a difference in a troubled world. Ignoring the secondary gain, I can believe, for a time, that I could do anything if I set my mind to it – make school lunches healthy, make my workplace “green,” and possibly even free Tibet in my spare time. I am cleaning the Redmond’s basement all over again, a nice girl helping out and giving her time so that others might feel some relief from piles of naked Barbies, hungry hippos and miniscule bridles.
The curse of seven times seven years is that I know in my marrow that charity really does begin at home. The public displays of goodness make some things better, but I have a hard time getting that self-righteous tingle if I have not spent time listening to my own kid explain why he loves dub step music, or read the story my husband thoughtfully sent to me because he knew I’d love it. It’s my duty as a compassionate human being to help where I can, give what I have, be a listening ear when it’s needed, but that duty includes time and attention for those who I love most. If I can listen to an elderly volunteer at work tell the same story five times, I must extend the same courtesy to my own mother. It is less impressive, and sometimes I want to be able to say to those who live in my heart that they, of all people, should cut me some slack – I shouldn’t have to “do” for everyone at home, and they should understand that a beneficent soul such as mine needs a break from time to time. I could never say to my elderly volunteer that I have a migraine and that if she tells that story one more goddamned time I will fall wordlessly to the floor in paroxysms of boredom and frustration. I can, and do get short with my mother when she launches into a story I have heard many times before. I can do it because we love each other so much, which seems…wrong, and right and normal and terrible.
The people who love me when I am a raging bitch, yelling about the pile of dirty socks or sulking because baseball has been on in the living room for three straight nights, those are people who deserve my love, attention and charity. No one will ever know the things that I do for the people I love in the private, intimate theater of home, and there will be no awards, acclaim or credit. At most, there will be a “thank you,” unseen, and unregistered by anyone in the greater world. It is not glamorous, it is not tingly, and I cannot imagine myself an angel among mankind because I step up and give the dog a bath. It is those small charities, though, the quiet, unseen acts, that build a foundation for every gesture made towards the greater world.
My mother was always right, and tomorrow I’ll call her and tell her. It won’t free Tibet, but it will make her very happy.