I should start this story by saying that my family has always been a fan of grand gestures. When I left to study abroad in France, my parents and my sister brought a boom box and serenaded me while I stood in the security line (I wish I still had the red-faced photos to prove it). When my sister’s best friend moved out of town, we choreographed a flash mob to “Call Me Maybe” for thirty of our family and friends to send her off in style. And when my sister graduated from college last year, we booked a gospel choir to surprise her at her party and sing all her favorite songs. My mom and sister are usually the brains behind the operation and it’s me, my dad, and my brothers who rally behind them no matter how ridiculous we feel at the time. These gestures, big and small, have always been a great reminder that we’re all happiest when we’re making other people happy.
My mom had been dreaming up a little project to pay it forward on her birthday. Her vision was this: she and my brother Camden would pick up two dozen pink balloons (ordered to the local florist by my sister) and drive to New York to meet me. My mom and I would walk into Grand Central Station (Camden behind the camera) and pass out the balloons to anyone who wanted one. We’d walk in with two big bunches of balloons, put a smile on a few people’s faces, and get to see the 24 balloons dispersed across the floor of the train station before we left.
These things always feel a little awkward at first (“Hi, I’m Mackenzie, would you like a balloon? Oh, no? That’s cool, welp, have a nice day!”) but of course it was a home run. We started out targeting little kids in strollers but eventually got comfortable handing them out to adults who looked like they were having a tough day or tourists who were posing for pictures. And you know what? Every last one of those 24 people broke into a big smile when we handed them their balloon.
We met a mom with three teenagers and gave them all balloons. My mom explained that it was her birthday and she wanted to spread a little joy to other people. The other mom had just come from Starbucks, where a stranger ahead of them had bought their drinks. A week before that, she had paid for a woman’s purchases at Goodwill, allowing her to buy two outfits instead of one. I teared up thinking about how much better the world is when we all participate in these random acts of kindness.
My mom, brother, and I were standing on the balcony pointing out all the balloons we saw when the other mom came racing up the steps with a pastry from the food court downstairs. She thanked us for making her day and wished my mom a happy birthday. It was completely extraordinary — my mom was so thrilled, and the other woman was so touched — and yet so simple. If I felt a little silly walking into Grand Central with balloons fifteen minutes earlier, I walked out on cloud nine knowing those balloons had made a little difference in two dozen people’s days.
As luck would have it, the footage didn’t turn out so great but the impression it made on me and my brother is one I won’t soon forget. I’m so lucky to have such an awesome family and a mom who wanted to celebrate her birthday by making other people feel like it was theirs. Happy birthday, Mom. I love you!
P.S. If you’re feeling inspired and want to put a smile on someone’s face, here are a few more ideas for paying it forward. If you have your own favorites, please share in the comments!
1. bake cookies for your local homeless shelter
2. call your grandparents
3. leave a 100% tip for great service (I first did this for my 101 in 1001 list!)
4. pay for a stranger’s coffee or drive-thru meal
5. put change in an expired parking meter
6. say good morning to someone on the street (for some reason, this is the easiest way to put a skip in my step)
7. volunteer at a school, senior center, or soup kitchen