I wish you could have met my godmother.
I call her grandma as I have known her all my life. She was a stout German lady with kind eyes and hugs. She would give me ’S’ shaped shortbread cookies (my initials are 'SS'), a funny card, and a dollar for every year I was old on my birthday. She was all the things I dream a grandma should be.
I’m the oldest son in our first generation immigrant family from Guyana, South America, who came to Canada in 1966. When my mom was in the hospital about to give birth to me a year later, there was no family around her to help. As my mom recalled the experience to me, I could tell it hurt her deeply.
“I was there when all my sisters gave birth to their children and I stayed with them for weeks after. Having no one there when you were born was so sad. It made me miss home.”
Enter my grandma.
I just found out yesterday, 50 years later (!), that my grandma had asked the hospital staff if she could be with my mom in the hospital for the week she was there. My mom told the staff that my grandma was her only family here in Canada and they graciously allowed her to stay. My mom still remembers every day with her.
I asked grandma once why she was my grandma. She said, “Steve, I know what it is like to be an immigrant. To be an outsider with no family. You are my family.” She was an outsider German immigrant into a German community that apparently was stealing jobs. She had to start her family with little to no support. Struggle is a great teacher of compassion.
It got me thinking about kindness over time.
Do things you do right now in kindness matter 50 years later? It’s an intriguing question because it can steer you into action or apathy, depending on what your answer is.
The company I work for, MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates), helps to create and support business solutions to poverty. Sometimes that means training, money, research, conversations, advocacy, or even (gasp!) listening. MEDA works with people and communities all over the world that are sometimes isolated and without support.
But the most intriguing thing about MEDA’s approach is that it is an investment. Not monetarily, but in time. Change takes time and seeds need to grow. Ideas and interventions don’t happen overnight and roadblocks will happen along the way.
Compassion and kindness are twin sisters. You can’t have one without the other. Both are needed for synergy, and kindness in particular has motives that you don’t always expect.
My grandma expressed kindness to new immigrant families because she knew what it was like to be a lonely immigrant. MEDA started out in 1953 with a group of kind business people investing in a dairy business in Paraguay.
I don’t think the MEDA business people in 1953 had any idea that the long term reach of their humble beginnings would change millions of lives.
I don’t think my grandma ever thought that hundreds of people that would come to celebrate her life at her funeral, with most of them coming from immigrant families.
An investment of kindness does take a person with an eye to the future - to dial the world just a little bit better, without any expectation of reward or recognition.
Kindness does matter over time. You may not see it in the short term, but it echoes in other people’s lives. We are all proof that kindness works.
I miss my grandma.