Not if I keep my dad’s legacy alive.
My dad’s a smoker—always has been, as long as I’ve known him. I once pickpocketed his Marlboros in hopes he’d break the habit. But cigarettes are his stress reliever. And, Lord knows, raising five kids in a small New England town on one income is far from a stress-free life.
So, I learned over the years not to resent his habit. To this day, I think of Dad every time I walk past a cloud of second-hand cigarette smoke. One memory in particular that sticks with me, in fact, relates to his smoking habit: a Y2K family road trip to visit a relative in Kentucky.
Mom and Dad piled my siblings and me into our car at the time—a Chevy Suburban, fresh off the used-car lot. The sticker price on the car was $17,000—$30,000 in today’s dollars—and, understandably, Dad bought the car only after chain-smoking a few Marlboros.
That road trip, though, was the longest one we ever went on as a family. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well. Before the final leg of the drive, Dad made a pit stop at a gas station in West Virginia, where a woman solicited dad for money, saying she needed cash for gas.
My dad paused for a moment before responding to the woman. No doubt he was keenly aware of the five pairs of eyes watching him intently from the back seats, wondering how he would respond to the woman with frizzy, blonde Tonya Harding hair.
But, eventually, Dad pulled money from his wallet and handed it to the woman, saying “God bless you,” or something like it. Minutes later, the woman exited the store, opening a pack of heaven-sent cigarettes, then whipped out of the gas-station parking lot in a fire-engine-red sedan.
Was Dad a sucker or a Good Samaritan for giving the stranger money that day on the back roads of West Virginia? Is charity up in smoke these days? I’m not convinced of the answer to either question. Maybe Dad, on some level, knew the stranger who approached him that day didn’t need gas but a smoke break.
At a time when individual giving is plummeting, public trust in the nonprofit sector is declining, and giving from wealthier households eclipses donations from more average givers, Dad’s gift was defiant. It was a gesture of hope and encouragement to not hold on too tightly to earthly things.
Dad’s gift belies the idea that everyday men and women aren’t as charitably inclined and, instead, is evidence that some charity simply isn’t being acknowledged by the IRS—whether gifts of cash directly to friends, family, or strangers, or even generous tips to service workers. The list goes on.
One thing’s for sure: I and my siblings forever captured in our minds Dad’s gift that day and, for as long as I live, I’ll never look at a pack of cigarettes without also thinking about my dad’s generosity—even though he sure could’ve used that money to fuel our gas-guzzling Suburban.