My personal love language is “Acts of Service”, which means you’ll earn more points with me by taking out the garbage than by buying me gifts or telling me how great I am. (As an aside, if you have not read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, do yourself a favor and do it … now.)
Don’t get me wrong, like anyone, I enjoy unwrapping a birthday or Christmas gift, especially if it is a particularly thoughtful one that lets me know the giver really considered me, really knows me. In other words, the thought behind the gift often means more to me than the actual gift. For instance, a vintage copy of a John Steinbeck or Gene Stratton Porter book purchased at Goodwill and still in the plastic bag would be more appreciated than fifty yard line tickets to a Panthers’ game wrapped in foil gift wrap with a big scarlet bow. The book says you know me. You’ve listened to me expound on my favorite authors or tell the story of my dad reading “Freckles” to my brother and me as children. You know I would rather read anything, including the menu at the worst restaurant in town, than watch a football game.
When I give a gift, I try to really think about the recipient. I learned from the master in gift giving, my mother, Joan Cartner. She was a thoughtful giver. Sure, we got underwear and school clothes sometimes for Christmas, things we needed, useful things. We also got gifts that said, “I see you. I know you. I love YOU.” Impractical gifts, sometimes … like the antique diamond wedding band I admired in a boutique in Florida in June of my sixteenth year that wound up under the Christmas tree that December. Mom paid close attention. She might see me pick up a sweater at Belks in September and put it back down because it was too expensive, then surprise me with it months later at Christmas.
When it came time to open gifts, we would have to prompt Mom to open her own. She was too rapt, watching us open the treasures she had found for us. Our smiles, our exclamations of surprise, our pleasure, were fuel for her soul. She plucked angels from Angel Trees and packed shoeboxes for Samaritans Purse. She packed up a hot lunch and picked me up and drove to Statesville, the car loaded down with decorations and gifts, to surprise her wheelchair-bound ex-brother-in-law. She sang joyfully as we put up an artificial Christmas tree for him, placed presents underneath it, then plated her delicious meal for him. The smile and sparkle in his eye that day made her Christmas that year.
It’s no secret I admired my mother for many reasons. Her generosity, her caring nature, and her thoughtfulness were modeled for me day after day. No last minute guest was ever without a meal or a gift to open. I wondered at times if she wrapped up things she had purchased for herself just so some friend Curtis or I had sprung on her for Christmas dinner would not be left out when it was time to open gifts.
My mother passed away on August 12, 2001 after rotator cuff surgery. A thrown blood clot hit her heart and she was gone three months shy of her 62nd birthday. Four months later on Christmas Eve, with tears in my eyes, I handed my sister-in-law the Christmas present that my mom had purchased for her the weekend before that surgery. Instead of worrying about the pain and the physical therapy she had facing her after that surgery, mom had been worrying about how she was going to be able to get her Christmas shopping done.
After she was gone, I lost the joy of giving, of doing for others, for awhile. Christmas was excruciating. More than the pile of gifts, I missed sharing the joy my mom got from thinking about, buying for, and doing for others. My brother and my father seemed not to care at all about Christmas, which had been so important to her. They wanted to just forget about it. That didn’t work for me at all. Finally, like I do quite often, I ask myself WWJD? … not What would Jesus do? but What would Joan do? What would she want me to do? The answer was … do what makes you happy. Mom was never one for listening to the crowd or being controlled. She followed her joy. When I asked myself what would make me happy, it was to follow in her footsteps. To be a thoughtful giver … not only of physical gifts, but of time and acts of service. To chase the high you get when you see surprise, gratitude, pleasure, in the eyes of someone you care about.
Mom’s giving nature, her acts of service to others shaped me. I learned from her that sacrifice can lead to pleasure; that thoughtfulness, being observant and mindful, service focused, is the best way to show the people in your life how you feel about them. I saw how people regarded my mom, how they appreciated and respected her, how they valued her friendship and love. She taught me that doing for others was the way to show love, so that is how I perceive and receive love, how I show and give it. Nothing makes me happier than finding the perfect birthday or Christmas gift for someone I care about. (I’ve been known to buy Christmas gifts in January and the perfect birthday card months away from the person it would be perfect for’s birthday.) I like to surprise Darryl with a spotless house, cleaned from top to bottom on what was supposed to be my day off (though he isn’t nearly as appreciative of that as I would be if the tables were turned, since he’s a Physical Touch instead of an Acts of Service, like me). I am happiest when I am doing something for someone else. I feel most loved and cared for when someone does something for me, even something as mundane as taking out that trash I mentioned before.