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Jewish World Review June 6, 2001 / 16 Sivan, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports


Charity begins at homes with lemonade stands

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WOODSTOCK, Ill. | "You want some lemonade?" the kid hollered at us from across the street. My old street, actually, West South Street, the street on which I spent much of my boyhood, the street on which, as a kid myself, I sold lemonade at a similarly rickety sidewalk stand.

"You're our first customer, and the first customer gets it free," the boy said. My sister and I looked at each other. The look said: How can you beat free?

So we walked across and bellied up to the bar at the corner of South and Hayward streets. Two boys sat (well, sat in the up-and-down ways boys sit) on chairs behind a small table just one house down the sidewalk from the house in which my sister and I grew up. She and I were in town for a visit and were taking a look at the home of our childhood.

I held my cup of free lemonade and took a sip (hoping the kids' parents had made it).

My sister asked them where they lived. They pointed to two houses down Hayward. It was hard to tell which ones they meant. And, anyway, the people we once knew who lived in those houses no doubt were, like us, long gone.

"Do you know what?" I asked the boys.

"What?"

"When I was about your age, I lived in that house right there. And I used to sell lemonade right out here at the edge of this same sidewalk."

"You did?" one boy asked. He seemed intrigued. The other kid was more interested in finding their first paying customer.

"Yes, I did. And one day some high school kids drove up in a car. One of those big boys in the car got out and came up to me and handed me a dollar, but he didn't want any lemonade. He just handed me a dollar and left."

I reached into my pocket and pulled out four quarters.

"Here," I said. "Maybe some day you'll remember this the way I still remember that."

The kid took the money. My sister and I headed up the hill toward our old house. I had waited nearly 50 years to do that, and it felt good.

It's really quite astounding how we remember small acts of unexpected kindness. I have no idea why that high school kid back in the 1950s gave me a whole dollar -- quite a prize then. But the experience made me believe what I still believe, which is that sometimes grace -- pure, unmerited favor -- falls on us, some unimagined gift from an unimagined source.

Sometimes the best of human nature simply pours forth unbidden and unexpected, undoing our cynicism, making us feel foolish for having doubted goodness.

I don't mean to say that such acts of impulsive charity and surprising dispensation make us vulnerable to cheats and knaves because we trust everyone everywhere to behave similarly. But I do mean to say that the teen-ager who gave me a dollar once at my lemonade stand here helped to create in me the capacity to believe in kindness. If children never experience grace, they often grow up counting the cost of everything and always keeping score.

How lovely life can be -- at least for a while, at least with some people -- when you don't have to keep score. And that's what small acts of generosity can teach a child.

About 100 miles south of Woodstock is Streator, Ill., where my late mother and her sister grew up on a farm. Their parents, my grandparents, were soft-hearted (but sometimes hard-headed) Swedes who, as immigrants with accents, learned how to work hard and become part of the American social fabric. They also knew about grace.

When a visit to my grandparents' ended, we'd head out to the car to go home. And as we shared farewell hugs, Grandpa invariably would give us four kids a dollar each, as Grandma looked on approvingly. Our parents insisted that we not come to expect this largess, and we tried our best to learn that lesson, though sometimes grace leads to expectation, just as repeated acts of mercy can lead us to misinterpret justice as punishment.

But surely that is a risk worth taking. Surely it is better to open up children to the healing and tender balm of generosity than it is to fill their lives with rigid laws demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Acts of grace can teach children how to hope, how to love. There are times to teach responsibility, duty, commitment, obligation. But if that's all we teach, we get fettered children who always calculate precise gains and losses, children whose buds never bloom.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved