Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Wealthy Man--An expanded version also posted on Huffingtonpost

This is a Christmas and Hanukah season like no other. Many people have lost money. Millions are out of work, and those who still have jobs fear for their own future. That was a full plate of despair already and then Bernard Madoff appeared to savage whatever joy was left, and to tear into shards the trust that is fundamental to a democratic society.

It is a bad time but it is a good time too, because most of us are reflecting on what matters and in the end we may deepen the faith that sustain. I have a dear friend whose Jewish father after flying planes in World War II built a great fortune. He was intending to donate most of it to charity including building a wing on a hospital on Long Island for children with special needs. Now most of that money is gone and he feels he has betrayed so many people when he has betrayed no one at all.

His daughter wrote this letter to her father and shared it with me:

"There are no words to describe how sad and rage-filled I have become. I don't even want to write what I have been fighting in my heart. This season perhaps more than in any other years, we have decided to give whatever we can (and of course it is much, much less than other years) to help others who have so much less than we. I have heard from my kids who are doing the same. Dad, if you ever wanted to know what your legacy to us really is, it is this. That in bad times for our country and our people, we give what we can to others rather than in giving unnecessary trinkets to each other. We stick together as a family in unity and love. This is our strength. This is what we teach our children. Happiness is not an entity to be pursued, but a feeling that overcomes you when you have lived a meaningful life."

I've been having some bad times too that have made me reflect in ways I have not for years. In recent days both my mother and my mother-in-law have been in the hospital. My mother-in-law is still there and my wife is with her in Washington, D.C. I decided that I'll fly up from my Florida home and spend Christmas with my mother and brothers in New Jersey and then take to train to Washington to be with my mother-in-law.

My mother came from a poor family in Westport, Connecticut. Her father worked in a lumber yard and as a chauffeur for the owner. She was the only one of seven children to go to college. She was very smart and she received a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago in the Thirties, probably the most exciting college in America. She didn't have enough money even to sit up all night on the train to Chicago. She took a bus. The driver worried about this innocent young woman finding her way in a difficult part of Chicago and he drove the bus out his way to deposit her in an on-campus building. She was too afraid to go out and she sat her room eating a Hershey bar for dinner.

My mother needed to earn room and board. First thing in the morning, she went into the office that handled these things. They told her that she should go to see Mrs. Hays because if Mrs. Hayes liked you she would hire you right away. So my mother walked over to this great house, and Mrs. Hayes, whose husband was the grandson of President Rutherford B. Hayes, hired my mother to work twenty hours a week taking care of her young children and doing other duties.

The first evening Mrs. Hayes asked my mother to set the table. She went into the dining room and carefully set the elegant table. When she finished Mrs. Hayes came over to my mother and said, "Helen, you've made a mistake." My mother was mortified to have made an error on her very first day, and she went back into the dining room to check everything again. But as hard as she looked, she could not see what was wrong. So she came back to Mrs. Hayes and said she didn't understand. And Mrs. Hayes said, "Helen, you didn't set a place for yourself."

And so for four years my mother sat at that table. In class she met my father who was a graduate student and became a professor at the university. I remember growing up Mrs. Hayes visiting us. She was just another friend. My father has left this earth and my mother lives in a continuing care community in New Jersey and has what she unfailingly tells me is a wonderful life. And a few months ago two of the Hayes my mother watched over, now old and retired, came to visit my mother and pay their respects.

And so I'm flying up to New Jersey for Christmas to be with my Mom and my two brothers and their wives. I'm sorry my wife and my mother-in-law won't be there for family and friends are all that matters. I don't care how much money you have, how much money you have lost, if you have family and friends you are wealthy. And I am a wealthy man.

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