Although I give my parents full credit for showing their love and affection and for trying to provide their children with a happy childhood, my early years weren't always idyllic. I dealt early with bullying in school and sometimes at church, abuse from an older relative, and in grade school I often felt haunted, struggling with the sensation that there was nowhere I could go to be safe. As I reached junior high I began to pay attention to the news, where I noticed daily reports of cruelty, wanton destruction, theft and murder. So by the time I hit age 12, I had already developed a cynical attitude about people and their motivations. Based on my own experiences and the things I'd seen on TV and in the newspapers, I couldn't believe most people were good any more; human kindness and compassion might exist, but they had to be the exception rather than the rule.
Most Americans experienced a hard financial crunch during the fall and early winter of 1981; galloping economic stagflation created high unemployment, devalued currency and played havoc with grocery prices that seemed to creep higher every week. Even in more prosperous times, it was tough to raise a family of six kids in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Mom and Dad had always worked together to make ends meet. But by early December 1981, Dad -- who made a tenuous living as a freelance graphic designer -- had been out of work for months. He was actively seeking work out of state, but meantime he and Mom were trying to keep it together with no ready money, living off our dwindling emergency food storage and trying to scrape up enough cash to pay the mortgage every month.
We kids had already been told that our Christmas gifts would be small and simple that year. Because any money that came their way was earmarked for necessities, Mom and Dad had gone through their personal belongings to see if they could find anything suitable for our Christmas gifts; they'd already decided that, as the oldest, I could appreciate a pearl ring that had once been Mom's, and had sorted out several other items as gifts for the other children. Meanwhile, Dad made extra money by approaching various businesses around the Bay Area and offering to paint Christmas windows for them.
Then, one Saturday about two weeks before Christmas, Dad went out to paint windows and didn't come back. On the way home, he swerved to miss something on the wet road -- the police thought it might have been some teenagers playing "chicken" with his car -- and went over a 50-foot embankment. He was killed instantly.
Mom looked to her family and Dad's family for help in the days immediately after Dad's death, but at first she didn't want to ask for any other kind of assistance. She reasoned that our family had always gotten by without going to anyone for a handout, and she wasn't prepared to start then. But as it turns out, she didn't need to -- news got around anyway, and people started coming forward to offer their help. Some of them were people we knew -- family, friends, neighbors, people from school or church -- but many more were total strangers who had heard about our family's situation from a friend of a friend, or who had simply read my dad's obituary in the Contra Costa Times, looked us up in the phone book and decided they had to do something.
I can't tell you all the acts of kindness people did for our family -- there are literally too many to count -- but I can give a small sample. People we knew came over to be with us, mourn with us, give us blessings and let us talk through our grief. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus came to our house, spoke to all of us kids and asked what we wanted for Christmas, and took notes. Strangers sent us money in the mail or dropped off gifts or food on our doorstep. At one point there were five turkeys in our freezer.
And then Christmas morning came, and we discovered that someone had gotten in cahoots with my uncle to deliver gifts to our home while we were all in bed. There had been a few modest gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve. By Christmas morning the entire living room was packed with presents -- all the way to the stairs.
The news may not reflect it, and personal experiences may not always bear it out in the short term, but I am now convinced that the majority of people have a desire to do good -- that if they have an opportunity to perform a kindness, especially for someone in crisis, they will usually rise to the occasion. I didn't believe it at first, but when you're faced with hundreds of concrete personal examples of selfless compassion, it becomes very difficult to deny the good side of human nature.