Giving Something Back

January 25, 1991|By JERRY SHEINBACH

I read recently about a person who explained a notable contribution to a worthy cause by saying he wanted to ''give something back.'' The expression brought to mind a personal recollection.

At 13, I needed weekly shots over a two- or three-month period for an asthma condition. My mother had passed on and my father could not leave his one-man business so my Aunt Leika made an hour-long subway trip each week to our house, escorted me to the clinic, waited an hour or two there, and then made the two trips back. It was easily 5 or 6 hours out of her day. I was certainly old enough to go to the clinic on my own but my aunt felt she should come each week mostly to be sure they took care of me and didn't shunt me aside because I was a youngster.

I wasn't particularly happy about any detour that took me away from the schoolyard and my friends for the better part of a day, and while I probably offered an obligatory ''thank you'' I doubt that I expressed any significant appreciation for her efforts. My father was very appreciative of her help and concern for my welfare, but as a self-centered twerp it never occurred to me that she had to rearrange her whole day, make several tiring trips, wait around, and then go home to fix dinner for her family.

On numerous other occasions, Aunt Leika came to our house to take care of matters that my father could not handle because he simply could not get away from his business. My brother and I accepted her support and affection without thinking very much about it. At that age, we assumed grown-ups were supposed to love you and take care of things while we did our homework and hung around with our friends.

Many years later, when I was old enough to know better, Aunt Leika had grown old. We were now separated by 200 miles. As most people's is, my time was filled with the demands of work and daily living. Weekends were busy, too, with our children, the house and so on. I could easily think up several other reasons for not visiting her often. I can't think of any good reasons for not phoning her regularly, but I didn't do that either. I loved my aunt and I now had the maturity to appreciate the efforts she had undertaken on my behalf, but I was still very much caught up in my life and somehow incapable of realizing that it was time to ''give something back.'' She died a few years later.

The pace of life at our home slowed considerably when the children left and career was no longer such a big deal. I began to spend more time looking backward on my life. Slowly, almost without realizing it, I began to think about my Aunt Leika and other people who had helped me when I was a teen-ager. I began to feel the first twinges of guilt as I considered the opportunities I might have used to visit her more often. It became clear that I could have done much more to demonstrate my affection and to show this giving woman how much I appreciated what it cost her to give us a helping hand on so many occasions.

Perhaps many of us could learn from cultures that revere the aged. The elder who has lost much emotional strength, discipline and clarity of thought is nevertheless respected and honored in many cultures for what he was in yesteryear. While it is entirely appropriate to focus most of our energy on the newer generation, it seems to me we might produce a kinder, gentler society if more of us were to give something back to those who did for us when we were youngsters.

It has been many years since I last had the opportunity to say ''thanks'' to my Aunt Leika. Her selflessness taught me what giving is. It took a long time, but I also finally learned that as important as it is to the recipient, ''giving something back'' can be even more important to the peace of mind of the giver.

Jerry Sheinbach writes from Towson.

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