I learned about kindness from my late Aunt Giovanna “Jennie” Scaffidi.
Her legacy for treating all people with respect and humility has left a quiet but indelible mark on those who knew her and still influences me even after her death in April at age 88. It was said she would take a long bus ride to repay a penny.
Aunt Jennie routinely chose kindness in her daily duties as a public servant in Baltimore’s Office of Right of Way Permits, which issues temporary permits for things such as driveways, alley closures and curb repairs. Her good will extended to customers and co-workers alike. For instance, she’d miss a ride home to stay late to finish processing a permit application for a builder or construction company so they could begin work on time. Against everyone’s advice, she co-signed loan papers for a co-worker’s son. She ignored city policy and paid for the removal of a tire boot on a city resident’s car because he needed it to drive to work.
The charitable contributions continued outside of work as well. She volunteered at church bingos and festivals. She always remembered to give thoughtful notes and small gifts at birthdays or holidays to those around her. And despite being afraid of dogs, Jennie kept her promise to a dying neighbor and took in the dog the woman left behind — a chihuahua named Tiny.
Nobody could escape my aunt’s kindness. She welcomed all around her, including Jehovah’s Witness missionaries who knocked on doors weekly to spread their message. To the consternation and objections of her daughters, she would invite them in to pray and say: “Don’t you know, there’s only one God?”
Many of her random acts of kindness were revealed after she died, when people she had helped came forward with their stories. “Jennie was a kind, caring woman with a beautiful smile,” wrote Rosalie Ranieri, founder of the Father Rusty Pandola Learning Center on its Facebook FanPage post announcing her transition.
Her grandson recalled how she welcomed him and a large group of high school friends during an impromptu visit. A table with punch and cookies awaited the group when they arrived. She welcomed them all because they were her grandson’s friends.
How we treat others is a choice, one that reflects character. With so many things beyond one’s choosing — such as parents, ethnic background, skin and eye color, religious upbringing — a person’s character can be defined by their choices. Kindness is a choice. During this holiday season’s seemingly impossible hope for peace on earth, exercising kindness might be the first step toward achieving the ever-elusive worldly peace. During an interview, Joanne Rogers dispelled the notion that her husband Fred Rogers’ legendary kindness made him a saint, saying that if you put him in that category, it means kindness toward others becomes unattainable. She preferred that people remember him as being hard-working.
For most of us, giving gifts this time of year can be easy. In fact, with the help of online shopping, we can be relieved of even wrapping them by sending them straight to family and friends with a few mouse clicks. Choosing kindness might be the greatest and toughest gift of all, one that won’t break our banks but could bring about the most lasting, unexpected and gratifying outcomes. Poet Maya Angelou, who suffered horrific abuse as a young child that rendered her mute for a period, credits the kindness of a teacher named Bertha Flowers for profoundly impacting her life, for helping her find her voice again by introducing her to an array of African-American artists and other writers who influenced her later in life.
We all might have a Mr. Rogers or a quiet, unassuming Aunt Jennie in our lives. Or not. But a legion of ordinary people — the fabulous humanity of us — show up, work hard, forgive the most horrible actions, help others, agree to disagree, demonstrate generosity with amazing acts of love, and like Aunt Jennie, live quietly committing acts of kindness at every chance without fuss or fanfare. Mark Twain wrote, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
We can choose to live by their example of being present with empathy, compassion, and kindness in order to achieve peace on earth, and as the hymn goes, “let it begin with me.”