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Helen, my mother-in-law, is my role model for giving, just as she is my role model for widowhood. Twice widowed, she learned from her first experience. I consciously emulated her when Lev died, and I often cite her as an example of how to “do” widowhood well. Today is her birthday.

Everyone in the family would agree that Lev and his mother were the most generous people we ever knew. They lavished gifts on those whom they loved, and Lev in particular loved almost everyone who crossed his path. Because he had benefited financially from the heartbreakingly early deaths of his father and grandfather, Lev never saw himself as the owner of what he had but merely the caretaker for future generations. His gratitude for all that he had led to his boundless generosity. I was keenly aware that all that I had was due to his stewardship and generosity, traits that he learned from his mother.

Before Christmas each year, Helen drove down from San Antonio with a trunk packed as full of gifts as Santa’s sleigh. Then on Christmas Eve, she and Lev’s stepfather returned with another carload of gifts. If the children gave her a Christmas wish list, she sought to give them everything on the list. When Lev collected antique German beer steins, she bought an entire collection for him. I often asked for small luxuries that I could not afford to buy for myself. Purses were often on the top of my list, for Helen had superb taste. One unforgettable Christmas, I asked for a small brown leather clutch to carry in the evening—dressy but not an evening bag. On Christmas morning she handed me two beautifully wrapped boxes and told me to take my pick. One was a classic quilted Chanel, the other a Judith Leiber snakeskin with semi-precious stones set in the frame. All these years later, I still carry that Judith Leiber purse occasionally—always a reminder of her generosity.

Helen died on March 21, 1996. About seven weeks later, on Mother’s Day, as I sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast, huge tears unexpectedly began to roll down my cheeks, splashing into my cereal bowl. I was overcome by the sad thought that “I’ll never have another beautiful purse unless I buy it for myself.” I was not crying over the loss of the gifts. I was crying over the loss of the giver. Afterwards, the pile of gifts under the Christmas tree shrank dramatically. Lev and I became the givers of most of the packages under the tree, and far fewer gifts bore tags with our names on them.

In the final year of her life, she commissioned an artist to paint a portrait of her two great-grandsons, then 4 and 2. Later, I returned to the artist and asked her to paint a portrait of Helen as she looked at age 85—wrinkles and all. “Anyone can look good when she’s young,” I told the artist. “I want us to remember how remarkable she was in her 80s.”

I have sought to be the kind of mother-in-law she was—as generous with my children’s spouses as I am with my children. Now, the next generation is marrying; and I attempt to welcome the grandchildren’s chosen ones with the same generous, loving spirit that Helen exhibited toward me and later, toward my children’s chosen ones. We still tell the stories of Granny-Great, and her spirit lives on in the tradition of giving in our family.

Adapted from my book-in-progress, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS.

Photo: Helen, with Lev and the grandchildren on her wedding day.