Harwood, Md. — ''Young man, you're such a good listener, you've made our stay at Oakwood even more thrilling,'' the impeccably dressed woman affirmed with the poise and charm befitting a Philadelphia matron. Having progressed well beyond my youth and considering myself quite a talker, her compliments, not to mention her praise of our bed-and-breakfast inn, were music to my ears.
From the beginning, our experiences as bed-and-breakfast hosts have played to the strains of this sweet-sounding music - a delightful series of warm, joyful moments shared with people who were total strangers (or perhaps friends-to-be) only moments before. This gentle touch of friendship, supplemented by modest economic rewards, has thoroughly justified the decision to open our early 19 th-century manor to guests.
Bed and breakfast - overnight accommodations with breakfast included - is laughter and animated talk around a kitchen table adorned with a country breakfast, freshly cut flowers as a centerpiece, and the smell of bacon, eggs, and toast permeating the air. It's people reaching out to people, with host and guest sharing a travel experience, unattainable through expensively packaged alternatives.
To the host and hostess, a bed-and-breakfast operation is also washing dishes , cleaning bedrooms and bathrooms, and sweeping porches - all of that so-called drudgery work that 20th-century America has fought to rid itself of. But there's a difference. The pleasant memories of meeting people, one on one, linger on, transforming what might otherwise be considered menial tasks into mostly playful activity.
We have played host to more than 40 couples (including a few children) who live from Maine to California and from Florida to Michigan - 11 states in all. (A few well-traveled couples were born abroad.) Most came in the summer, with several guests arriving in the spring and fall, and a few in the winter. We have had newlyweds, grinning from ear to ear, and people nearing 50th anniversaries. Some were talkative, others shy. Some were highly educated, some less formally trained. There were the suave and debonair and the uncomplicated.
But most important, all were delightful, wonderful people, each imbued with a human dignity that made his or her presence a real treasure - as if a gift. Each encounter reinforced a basic belief that human qualities held in common far outweigh whatever superficial differences there might be.
The common denominators of living, revealed around the kitchen table, have touched on the joys and sorrows of growing older, concerns about children and the future of America, and the humorous, loving world of family pets. (As a side benefit our two dogs and two cats have appreciated all the extra attention they received.)
We have tried to be good listeners, learning much in return, and have concentrated on making a guest's stay comfortable and memorable.
It is at breakfast that many of our funniest experiences have occurred.
A Romanian man who works in Washington, D.C., entertained us and his wife, too, by graphically demonstrating how to prepare an onion for serving as a side dish with bacon and eggs.
First, while relating exotic tales of Eastern Europe, he calmly peeled a medium-size onion. That task completed, he placed the skinned treat very carefully on a cutting board next to the stove. Then, with a little fanfare about the colorful peasant origins of this time-worn technique, he suddenly uttered a mighty grunt that startled the entire household, our pets included. With the full weight of his rather massive body he slammed an open fist down with a thundering crash. The flattened remains of the onion, purged of their sharp-tasting oils, were then sliced and served with the main course.
Moments later profound amusement replaced our incredulous stares when his nonplused wife apologized that she had no prior knowledge of this ''technique.''
Whenever I wonder out loud if there is life after housework, I remind myself of another personable couple. The husband, a Canadian, and the wife, an Italian, filled our mealtime conversation with wonderful stories about their business assignments in Africa and elsewhere (green mambas in the bathroom, no less).
Reminiscing about a particular tour in Africa, he explained, ''Then the agency transferred us to Ouagadougou in Upper Volta, just down the road from Timbuktu. It was remote, so very remote that none of our friends, who had always found an excuse to see us before, ever showed up.
''Except . . . .'' He hesitated for a moment, as if struggling with a lump in his throat, ''except for my mother-in-law. She has followed us everywhere. Even to Ouagadougou.''