My grandmother kept two freezers full of food at all times; she was a product of the Great Depression, born in 1916. Every time she saw a neighbor, or the garbage man, or the mail carrier, she offered him something from her home. A cookie. A juice box. Perhaps something she made that morning. My grandmother was very social, and she knew everyone in the neighborhood. People were constantly stopping by to see her, gifts in hand, and she always had something in return. She was known and remembered her for her generosity of spirit.
"It's nice to be nice," my grandmother used to say on a regular basis. I heard her, but I thought it was just one of those silly things that grandmothers say. I didn't know it was her mantra.
My mother learned how to be nice from her mother, and the lessons stuck. My mother is an East Coast-born Sicilian with a sharp tongue and a tendency to speak her mind (so now you know where I get it), but she is also known for being someone to count on. She is the first in line to offer help and kindness to anyone who needs it.
In fact, at this writing, for the past two weeks, my mother has been keeping vigil at the bedside of a friend who suffered a double stroke. Nearly every day, she has arrived in the morning and left in the late afternoon, breaking only for lunch at the hospital.
My mother doesn't see this friend often; she didn't know her husband well. But it's someone who means something to her in her life and has known for many years, and she feels that being there for her is where she needs to be.
It was snowy and cold outside, but I had another appointment and I was out, and I thought I should go and sit with her and her husband and keep him company, she told me when she first heard of her friend's stroke.
"Are you going to go every day?" I asked her, after a few days.
"Yes," she said. "No one should have to sit at the hospital alone. I remember what it was like, all of those times I took you to the hospital. At least you could talk to me."
And so she has. Every day, she greets other visitors and mutual friends, brings old cards and scrapbooks she has saved and reads to her. My mother tells her stories about shared experiences. Just in the last couple of days, her friend has opened her eyes and started to talk again. My mother is there to hear her start over again. She is there to keep her friend's husband company and give him the opportunity to talk to another adult who cares about his wife, too. He has come to depend on her these last couple of weeks, and they are in constant contact, checking on her friend's condition and sharing stories and hope.
My mother has always shown me the way to doing the right thing. She doesn't shy away from funerals or miscarriages or heart attacks. She brings meals to families who need help. She knows what to say in every situation; and even if she's not sure, she makes her best effort.
"It's nice to be nice," she reminds me.
This summer, the father of my high school boyfriend passed away two days before I was scheduled to come home to my parents' house for vacation. I asked my high school sweetheart's wife if she would mind if I came to the funeral, because it seemed like the right thing to do for his family. His wife is a lovely, warm person who is not threatened by flames that burned out more than two decades ago. I told my mother I was going, and she said, "We'll come with you."
Of course they would. There was no hesitation, no "Let me check my schedule" or "I'm not sure if we should go." My parents drove my son and me to the church for the memorial service, and my mother gave the deceased's new widow a big hug and whispered words in her ear that brought a grateful smile.
And now, I try to emulate this spirit, passing down the line. There are friends with sick children, downtrodden spirits, traveling husbands. There are so many ways to be helpful. Drop off homemade cookies. Or share a book with someone. Or just come and sit. Send a text. Take five minutes to call. If I make half the effort my mother and grandmother made, I am doing something good. It doesn't have to be a big thing in time or money to mean something big to someone who needs a little help.
I have seen it come back to me a hundredfold.
Have you ever heard that someone is "too nice"? It's not supposed to be an insult. It should be a compliment. Nice doesn't mean weak. Nice doesn't mean you let people step on you. Nice means that you care. It means that you consider others' feelings. Nice means that you try to make the world a better place.
Last week, my son was sick and was out of school for more than a week, and no fewer than five friends called or sent texts offering to run errands, get groceries, pick up prescriptions. They have dropped off treats, coloring books, movies to watch, activities to do while at home. They email and call and text and ask me how we're doing. They have made me feel loved.
It's nice to be nice. I hear you, Grandma. Loud and clear. And I hope, with all of my heart, that I do your legacy justice... and that my son learns how to be nice, too.
Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, published author, wife, and mother based in Austin, Texas. She's a co-producer of the Listen to Your Mother show in Austin, and her blog, Two Cannoli, was named a Babble Top 100 blog in 2013. In 2014, she was named a BlogHer Voice of the Year.