The gift of giving

“I’ll have my Starbucks money soon,” my mom would announce this once a year.
“And I want you to use it to pay off a specific bill or debt.”

She told us she had purchased stock in Starbucks before the company really took off and received a healthy annual dividend. This would translate into a very generous gift, usually $1000 for each of her kids. I wouldn’t think anything of it all year, but it was a nice announcement when it came.

We have all heard the saying “‘tis better to give than receive” but it’s really hard to believe that when you are a child. I can honestly say that I always wanted to receive more than I wanted to give. Each year, I used to go through the Sears catalogue circling every toy I wanted for my birthday or holiday. I wanted whatever my friends had or what weird thing was the hot trend (but never a sucker for the Pet Rock). I always “needed” another Star Wars action figure, a bike, skateboard, soccer ball or pair of OP shorts. It took me a very long time until I actually understood the importance of giving and how fulfilling it can be.

My parents were always extremely generous when I was growing up. I’m not talking about them being the “spoil-our-kids” type of parents. My parents always gave us what we needed, like the obvious: clothes, food, a nice home, love, high standards and encouragement. We didn’t necessarily receive an abundance of riches of material things we “wanted,” but we were richer than most when it came to receiving other things. We were exposed to film, music, theater, travel, art, literature, cultures and cuisine. My parents gave to nonprofits, youth organizations, created memorial funds in honor of relatives and children of friends and were foster parents to a girl in Kenya.

My mom particularly liked to help us all out in her own special way even before the Starbucks money. I would get treats after the dentist or doctor appointments on the condition that I “behaved.” After having to go on long shopping sessions with her, I was treated to lunch at The Chafing Dish restaurant inside The Broadway department store or a gingerbread man from Los Altos Bakery. Without fail, my mom bought pencils from the handicapped man who came to our door once a year. She made me shake hands with the man, even though I was terrified. I was taught that it is important to help those less fortunate.

From time to time, as a child, I was told to put my old toys and clothes together so we could give them to the poor. It was hard to part with favorite shirts or pants even though I hadn’t worn them in a while, but off they went. That was my passive act of charity.

The Starbucks money was very special to my mom because she knew it would be helping her kids reduce some debt or buy something that would make us very happy. It was special to us, too, since it felt like found money.

The gift of giving ran throughout the family. My grandma Ruth used to slip me a $5 dollar bill with each visit. She’d say, “Hey, kid, come here” and try to be really sly about it. It was worse to refuse the gift because she would just insist. I do regret my selfishness at age 17, 19 or 22 when I spent it before I got it. I took her kindness and generosity for granted.

My grandma Fay would show up at each and every family function with an armful of kitschy gifts for us all. More impressively, she solicited stores for donations of all types of items. She would take three buses across Los Angeles to collect stuffed animals, bring them home and sort them all over the house only to sell them at a rummage sale and give the money back to charity.

My dad took us (and still takes us) on mystery trips of all types that turn into cultural experiences, instilled in us the gift of “carpe diem” and most incredibly provided a great education through his years of hard work at USC.

I lucked out and married a woman who is generous to the Nth degree. Alissa wants to give, donate or buy this and that for someone. If a friend or a friend of a friend is having a birthday party, she wants to buy all the decorations. It’s in her nature. She creates lists and plans and diagrams of things that will help someone out the most. For me, I think the gift of giving really caught on once we got married. Together, we give to nonprofits, youth fundraisers and friends in need. For my 50th birthday party, I asked people not to give me gifts but to bring either donations for the Ronald McDonald House or books for the Cubberley Elementary School library.

And I sneak gifts for my daughter Marley all the time.

I have learned there is a great satisfaction of giving and fulfilling a need for someone or some place. I was lucky enough to participate in Justin Rudd’s “Long Beach Giving Project,” where you are challenged to give away $1,000 to those that need it most. How incredibly satisfying it was to provide something that would help make a difference in a person’s life.

So, back to the Starbucks money. The Cohn kids would be involved in our routines throughout the year and then be surprised again as my mom made sure that we knew that the Starbucks money was coming. It certainly seemed to come at the right time.

But, shortly after my mom’s passing we learned the truth. The truth was that there was no Starbucks money. Never was. She had been giving us the money out of her own account, probably Social Security or retirement money and just disguised it. My dad had no idea what we were talking about when it was brought up.

She did it just because. She wanted to help and to make us happy. What a revelation. It was giving just to give, and now I want to do the same for family friends, coworkers and those in need. Alissa and I will continue to do it, to find reasons to do it. I can selfishly feel like George Bailey and be the richest man around. We will continue to honor my mother with her boundless kindness and generosity.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and will receive things that make you happy. I also hope that you will give to family, friends, coworkers and those in need just because you want to and because you can.

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