The Gift of Giving

By Helen Cassidy Page:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire is all good, but not everybody rocks Christmas. At least not 24/7 like the songs and ads for stuffing piles of gifts under your tree would have you believe.

Speaking of gifts, I read a good book last month. Stay with me here, I’m not unraveling from too much spiked holiday punch. Books are a big deal with me, and they make me think of two people who also loved books: my beloved sister, Rita, and my best friend of sixty-one years, Wendy.

Rita, older by fourteen years, read to me before I could hold a book by myself. She helped me fill out the form for my first library card, and many years later, she proofread the books I ended up writing.

Wendy? Well, she was a prodigious reader, as many as a book a day when she was on a tear—and Wendy was often on a tear about something or other. Especially about a book she loved, or one she didn’t. We’d spend hours on the phone comparing our lists of fave reads.

So when I saw an article on the website last month on the five best books of the year, as you can probably imagine, I jumped for it. My reading tastes have changed since Rita introduced me to fairy tales and The Three Little Pigs. Now I seek out western realism, stark drama with a few serial killers thrown in. I’m turned off by sugary romances with happily-ever-after endings and feel-good self-help tomes where everything is a journey. I’m 80 years old. I know how the world works. It’s not a journey. It’s a slog and, please, stop with describing picking out face creams and new colors for spring as a "journey."

So I skipped over the first four books on the list and was about to move on until I saw number five: 29 Gifts by Cami Walker, an account of her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis at 35 and having a spiritual advisor yank her out of her self-pity stew with a challenge of giving 29 gifts in 29 days. The title spoke to me as if through a megaphone.

Though I don’t have a serious illness, I knew in my bones this was the real deal. I’ve had enough experience with giving to know Cami had been given the good goods. I spent the most rewarding five years of my life during the height of the AIDS crisis volunteering for an organization that provided services to that community. All I can say is if you want to find purpose and meaning, give yourself to a cause greater than yourself.

I downloaded the book from the library and began listening to it at the gym as I pedaled my stationary bike. By the second chapter—when Walker described how she began crawling out of her depression by giving gifts of positive actions to others—I’d decided to embark on the same challenge.

I kind of knew what I was after when I volunteered back in the ‘80s. I didn’t have a clear picture of why this challenge appealed to me. I wasn’t ill or facing tragedy, but I didn’t question the call.

My first gifts seemed simple enough. A batch of homemade muffins for a neighbor who always leaves my Sunday paper at my door. An hour of my professional-writing coaching time to a writer who’d hit the wall. A New Yorker right out of my mailbox without reading it went to another neighbor who loves them and does many favors for me. And so it went during November when I ended the first week.

When December rolled around, I began to wake under a dark cloud, which is unusual for me. I picked apart my feelings and realized the holiday blues had hit me because, as you may have guessed from the way I’ve used the past tense in writing about Wendy and Rita, both of them passed away this year. I’ve lost enough loved ones to know that these anniversaries can hit hard. Put that anniversary on top of Christmas, and no chirpy Christmas scene was going to pull me out of my funk.

Let me tell you a little about Wendy and Rita.

My friend and my sister knew each other, of course. Wendy and I were so close that we shared almost everything in life. We went through marriage, motherhood, divorce, the dating marathon again, work-life, aging . . . Celebrations with one another’s families. We loved one another’s children. Wendy was on Rita’s Christmas gift list and sent her a box

of her favorite candy each year. Wendy faithfully wrote to Rita encouraging cards when her husband had his strokes.

Helen & Wendy (1976, 1991, 2003)

So it’s not unusual that I think of these two women this first Christmas without them. One thing they had in common was their love of C