I have often wondered about the many ways our families shape our experience. What gifts were we given? What attitudes? What did we reject? What did we absorb by osmosis without even noticing?
I grew up in an atmosphere of volunteerism. It was just part of my world, like the furniture and the wallpaper. My mother provided the model for that in my earlier years, but my father fit the mold, too, throwing himself into volunteerism more when he retired. Mom was a so-called “stay-at-home mom”, as she didn’t have to provide additional income. The cultural norm did not support women doing paid work if they didn’t “have to,” but she was on the go most of the time out in the community. Although she was usually there when we got home from school, she was very involved in various organizations, including the P.T.A., P.E.O., United Way, garden club and various service projects. Beyond that, she was an instigator, creating or helping to create what she felt was needed in our small town.
In her later years, she became fascinated with bonsai trees and studied with a master in Japan to learn how to shape and grow them. She was a co-founder and first president of the Midwest Bonsai Society, which started in a potting shed in Dundee, Ill., and blossomed into a thriving organization, now part of the Chicago Botanic Society. She passed on those gifts by example, as well, pursuing her passion, creating something new, unafraid to take leadership.
Prior to marriage, Mom worked for the St. Louis, Mo., utilities company and had her own radio show. As the local Betty Crocker, she shared recipes and cooking tips while touting the advantages of new, modern appliances. Mom had graduated from high school at the age of 15. Had she been born later, she probably would have started her own company or risen to higher management in an established company. As it was, the community benefitted from her ideas and energy, free of charge.
Some of what she created was just plain fun. She and my dad loved ballroom dancing, and in those days there were more places available with live bands and large dance floors. But, she wanted more than just a place to go, so she organized a formal dance club with other couples, and four times a year they would get dressed to the nines, go out to dinner and then trip the light fantastic. For you young’uns, “dressed to the nines” meant they looked awesome: the women wore formal dresses, high heels, full makeup, and sparkly costume jewelry with some even flaunting real gems. A visit to the beauty parlor was mandatory, and the outfits were topped off with stoles or capes. The men were decked out in black tie and tuxedos, and far from complaining, they enjoyed it; at least my dad seemed to. He preened like a peacock, wearing a long, black wool overcoat and even a top hat. I think he was very aware that he looked hot…although the expression in the day would have been cool or fab or just plain sexy.
My father also had a rather unique pre-marriage story— he had served as a missionary in Brazil as an Episcopalian priest, then left the church, probably as a disillusioned idealist, taking a job with General Motors in the personnel department. Quite a cultural shift, although he was still working with people and teaching. He never talked about his experiences as a priest, so I don’t know any of those stories, but he never went to church again except for weddings and funerals. He was in charge of training managers throughout GM and felt he had developed unique management techniques; he intended to write a book about his theories and practices. He took an early retirement at 55 years old after he had a brush with death during a fire in our house, but he never got around to writing that book. What he did do was volunteer as a trainer for the Chicago Public Health Department and for a multi-level organization sponsored by a coalition of churches intended to help inner city residents find work, get an education, etc.
I don’t remember my parents ever talking about the importance of volunteering or helping others. They just lived it. William Shakespeare said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away,” and it seemed like they did, repeatedly. They did not attend church, but they sent my brother and me, where we were certainly exposed to positive attitudes about helping others and opportunities to do so, as we both were through our Scouting programs as well. There is a saying that goes something like this: “If you start a kid volunteering, you’ve got a volunteer for life.” That certainly was true for us. Volunteering as a family is a terrific way to get kids involved, away from the TV and the video games, doing something together to help out, whether it’s picking up litter in a favorite park, dog walking at the animal shelter, staffing a water table at a marathon, helping at the food shelf, or joining a Habitat for Humanity crew. Volunteering can help kids develop good work habits, learn about keeping commitments, feel a sense of their own worth, and learn new skills while exposing them to a wider variety of people and ideas.
Our family didn’t do a lot of our service work together, but my mom and I did work on a parallel venture. She helped get the American Field Service foreign exchange student program started in our town and served as the first president of the adult chapter, while I served as the first president of the student chapter.
I sometimes feel that my parents boxed themselves into a conformist, middle class 50’s-era life that didn’t fit them very well. There was a lot of socializing and drinking in their crowd, which speaks to me of boredom, escape and numbing out. I wonder if the depths of their spirits were fed, and if Mom’s intellect, in particular, was challenged and nurtured as it might have been. I think they sought to feed their hearts and minds through their voluntary contributions.
It can be easy to dwell on what was missing in our families, where we felt shortchanged, where our parents or other family members could have done better, where we could have done better. It has been helpful for me to remember that none of us had professional parents, and to recognize the qualities I admired in them that they passed along, tucked in the mashed potatoes and in the air we breathed.
“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” Unknown