08/17/2012 02:40 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

We Get What We Give

His name is Lincoln the Lion, in honor of the mascot at my daughter's elementary school. We bought him last year at the zoo, where Angie and I went to celebrate her first week of kindergarten. Full of school pride, she spotted him right away, tethered to a gift shop display case by a long red leash.

He's the perfect stuffed animal -- plush, sweet-faced, just the right size to hold under one arm during the day or hug against your chest at night. He was also the first toy Angie grabbed as we sifted through our bedrooms one afternoon looking for items to donate to our local women's shelter.

"I want someone else to have Lincoln," she said. "He'll make some kid really happy one day. Besides, I have Moo Cow."

Her generosity surprised me. Usually when I ask Angie to find toys for the donation box, she comes back empty-handed. To her, everything is worth keeping.

My first instinct was to stash Lincoln in the back of my closet, knowing my daughter would change her mind in a week and want him back. I considered tucking him into her chest of childhood keepsakes, along with the identification bracelet she wore in the hospital after she was born and the baggie of brown clippings from her first haircut.

Then I realized that honoring Angie's desire to pass Lincoln along to a less fortunate child was more important than holding onto a toy or a memory. After all, she and I had been in need ourselves not so long ago.

When she was two years old, her father and I separated and eventually divorced. She and I moved out of our family home and into a rental apartment in the town where I was raised. I was scared, confused and heartbroken, and I wanted to be closer to my parents as I attempted to reorganize our lives.

We started out with only what fit in the trunk of our Mazda: a suitcase of winter clothes, a shopping bag of sippy cups, her favorite blanket and my favorite yoga mat.

Our new apartment was so empty it echoed. We slept on an air mattress and borrowed my father's old cooking pots, the ones he usually saved for camping trips. Money was tight, but we did the best we could.

When the local university called about a job interview, Angie and I went to a thrift store so I could find a professional outfit. I bought a pair of black slacks, a silk top and a pair of leather Mary Janes for eleven bucks. I nailed the interview and became a part-time secretary. Things were still tight, but they were getting better.

I don't remember the exact moment that Moo Cow came into my daughter's life, but I know it was about the time I started working. My friend Brad, also a single parent, arrived at our doorstep one day with a truckload of hand-me-downs for our apartment. He had coffee mugs, a microwave, a couch and two plastic bins of toys for Angie -- all things his daughters had outgrown or decided to pass along.

There were books and baby dolls, plastic race cars and clothes for playing dress-up.

Underneath all that was a fluffy stuffed cow, which eventually became Angie's most beloved toy. He was soft and huggable, perfect for lugging to daycare and snuggling under the covers.
It was the most difficult time of our lives, but Angie and I got what we needed. She got a special toy that made her feel secure when everything around her was changing, and I got a friend who cared about me when it seemed no one else did. We also got clothes, shoes and anything we needed for our apartment at the local thrift store.

Brad moved on and so did I, but Angie still has Moo Cow. She sleeps with him every night. He's a bit worse for wear, with a stitched-up tummy and a missing eye, but she loves him just the same.

Now my daughter is in first grade and I'm a full-time graduate student, thanks to a scholarship from a foundation that helps journalists. I am grateful to all who have helped us get where we are.

I believe we are all here in this world to help one another. I believe that what we give, we receive. What we take, we should replace. Angie believes this too. She understands that we are all connected. That's why Lincoln is perched on our donation box, on top of those Mary Janes and a stack of outfits suitable for a job interview. We may not need those things anymore, but someone out there does. For one mother and her child, it could make all the difference.