One of my grandmothers was a physician. We called her “Grandma Doc” which was altogether cooler than Meemaw or Grans or some of the other nicknames people give to distinguish one grandparent from the other.
Her life would make an interesting book; she was the child of Armenian immigrants who fled to the United States to escape the Armenian Genocide. She became a doctor at a time when female physicians were almost unheard of. She practiced a country charity sort of medicine, working herself to the bone without getting much money at all. (My parents tell a story about her, a medical doctor of at least fifty calling them to brag that she was a “thousandaire”. She finally had a thousand dollars in the bank.) Her home was a symphony of charity and squalor. Stray animals lived there along side dogs she named Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. (Because they would follow her all the days of their lives.) She adopted four children to supplement the red-haired giant of a man she gave birth to. One of those adopted children was my father, who grew up alongside her menagerie, well-fed and encouraged in his appetite for knowledge. Thanks to her he had a stable religious home and was able to go to college.
She was an amazing woman.
I say this to let you know that the fact she seldom remembered my birthday isn’t as big a deal as you’d think. We were all predisposed to cut her some slack, seeing as she was–unlike most people’s grandmothers–busy healing the sick and changing the world. I just learned to accept early on that Grandma Doc wasn’t a great one for sending birthday cards. Since my Grandma Graffis seemed to have that angle covered–complete with the dollar bills every kid looks forward to–it wasn’t a big deal.
So when Doc remembered my tenth birthday it was a memorable occasion. For one reason or another she was actually at our house. (Which, now that I think about it, is probably why she remembered in the first place.) She handed me a five dollar bill and a little paper booklet printed in black with orange highlights.
Oh. Yeah. Now is probably the time I should mention that when the Charismatic movement swept through Protestantism in the sixties and seventies Doc enthusiastically surfed the wave. She spoke in tongues and went in for the boisterously demonstrative worship that went along with that style of belief. She was very much, to the core of her being, devoted to Christianity in its most outlandish forms. Including, it seems, the reading of strange tracts from odd prophets. The one she chose to service as my tenth birthday card (in 1980) was all about how the world was going to end in 1982. So one of the few fivers I ever got from her came with the dire pronouncements about the Last Days.
I spent the money right away, since such a tract is really a disincentive for saving. I also spent the better part of the next two years just absolutely certain that I shouldn’t look forward to anything scheduled later than March of 1982. The fellow’s argument was very persuasive to my ten year old mind. I had loved the book “Heidi” and when I heard they were making a new movie about it I was ecstatic. Then I heard the movie was going to be released in the summer of 1982. So I mentally crossed it off my calendar.
Of course we all know how it turned out in the long run, Earth still being here and all. But I did take several lessons away from that, the first being that Christianity isn’t meant to scare people into believing it. That’s cruel and contrary to the central message.
The other lesson I took from it was that gifts are tempered by the way they are delivered. The most treasured and generous of gifts (such as $5 in 1980–$12 in today’s money) can be rendered useless if it is accompanied by threats and terror. Good gestures don’t exist in a vacuum. They are always, always, always shaped by the style of giving. I think that may be one of the best reasons for not bragging about your good deeds. Yes, it looks tacky. But it also mars the purity of the deed itself and can backfire badly.