LINKS. I thought of you

It all began when Cecil arrived at our front door with a maple dining table and four captain's chairs. A nice set. Only thing was, we liked sitting on piles of pillows on the floor, eating from an extraordinarily beautiful two-foot-wide plank retrieved from Lake Michigan. We'd spent hours hand-rubbing it until it positively glowed. We had actually chosen to simplify - put heavy furniture in storage for a while, line walls with nubbly apple crates for books and candles, and enjoy long wintry evenings chatting while sweet potatoes and onions roasted in the brick fireplace - all in the center of Boston.

But sweet Cecil had bargained for and hauled table and chairs to us - ''When I saw it, I just thought of you on the hard floor trying to eat from that old board.'' We did try it for a few days. First under the window, then near the fireplace. Maybe by the patio door....

On Friday, I came from work to find the whole set in the bedroom. A futon with a maple dining table and chairs?

On Saturday, we decided that another family would use and enjoy it more than we did. An ad in the paper? A garage sale? A notice on the bulletin board at work?

On Sunday, the polished maple table and chairs stood proudly on St. Germain Street. ''Please help yourself. And pass it on when you're through with it,'' the sign read.

In 10 minutes much commotion on the sidewalk brought us all to the shutters to peek. A father and son, motioning wildly, arranged and rearranged the tabletop amid legs and chairs in the car trunk. All the while speaking Russian! My college Russian helped me understand that Mama was indeed going to get her wish.

Freely ye have received, freely give.m That was to come to mind many more times in the next few months.

It was Arbon, Switzerland, where Bill and I moored our canoe for lunch. A reporter, Karl, cornered us at a garden restaurant. ''Where are you from?''

''The US. We're taking our canoe down the Rhine from the Alps to the Netherlands.'' His pencil flew across the page of a notebook.

''Have you taken photos of all our castles along the Rhine?''

''No, our Nikon is at the bottom of the Mississippi River - a harsh reminder of last year's journey.'' He asked if we ever tired of paddling. My husband grinned. ''Well, let's just say that I paddle while my wife sits in the bow and knits.'' We gobbled Reganbogen Forella (rainbow trout), there were waves and smiles all around, and we shoved off. Bill paddled, I knitted half a sleeve before it was time to begin looking for a place to pitch our tent for the night.

A voice from shore - ''Throw me your line.'' It was Karl! ''Here, take my camera.'' He'd driven the shore road - following us, trying to guess where we would stop for the night. Just so he could give us his camera! So now we have pictures of baths in the Rhine, swans craning necks over fluffy cygnets, and yes , even a castle or two.

Freely ye have received, freely give.m

A few evenings later, a bit stiff from weeks of sleeping on the banks of the Rhine, I leisurely and laughingly pointed to a tiny, fairylike house on stilts on the river's edge - an octagonal, shuttered, pink and green charm of a cottage. Storks atop the chimney, and swans floating all about. ''That's where I'd like to sleep tonight,'' I said, trailing my fingers in the crystal water. Bill maneuvered the canoe to shore. We found Emil by trial and error. Lots of French smiles and American ones, and unbelievably, we got the message across that we wanted to rent the little house. ''Oh, no,'' he laughed, ''that's our guest-house.'' All this through our 13-year-old interpreter. ''He says one never rents a guesthouse. He says when will you move in, he will help you unload the canoe.''

A week later, rested, clean, and caught up on our letters home, we again loaded our canoe and bade a fond farewell to our now dear friends, and shoved off again.

Freely ye have received, freely give.m

As we loaded the canoe this time, though, I wondered if I was beginning to understand author Helen Hoover's words, ''I tried to thank the woman who'd been so kind to us, but I'm afraid my effort fell far short of what I tried to say. I wondered if the time would ever come when we could repay all this kindness. I knew that we'd repay it by helping someone. It didn't matter who. And in turn....''

Then, it was my birthday. Mail hadn't reached us for weeks. We'd been away from home for three months. We'd just arrived in a small village, and I was feeling lonely. To cheer me, I tucked a flower behind my ear and we set off to find a place to stay.

Tubingen is a university town, though, with not a room to spare. At an ancient cathedral, standing on cobblestones, I looked up to see a most lovely restored home. Four stories, nestled between pale yellow buildings, with shiny black shutters and spunky geraniums in the window boxes.

Again, ''That's where I'd like to live.'' Bill started the search for the owner and found Axel and Gudrun in the garden. ''We're looking for a room.'' Soon, we were seated on a balcony high above the village, enjoying strawberries as big as lemons, chatting about our families and our journey, and the flower tucked behind my ear. Axel winked as he spoke: ''We want you to be our guests. You could stay in the lavender room on the third floor.''

A few mornings later at breakfast, Gudrun asked if we would do them a favor. ''We're leaving next week for our holiday in Portugal,'' she said. ''Would you stay here to take care of our house while we're away?'' Would we? A month in this village, getting to know the postman, the baker, the outdoor market where I would go toodling off with a basket under my arm - this all sounded wonderful to us. We had a grand time playing house all summer.

Freely ye have received, freely give.m

Home beckoned us with the coming of autumn. We settled in Michigan this time, in the old homestead - a large summer cottage on Lake Michigan with a small cabin for wintering. I'd been home two days when a hand-holding couple settled next to me on our beach. ''Do you ever rent the big cottage? We're looking for a place for the weekend.''

I answered, ''No...'' Freely ye have ... ''we don't rent it,'' received ... ''but,'' freely give ... ''you can have it for your stay here.'' My heart leaped. What fun this was - expanding our family, and becoming part of so many others'! We spent the weekend in the winter cabin, had a bonfire on the beach with the family in our big cottage - bushels of laughter, singing, stories, and marshmallows....

Merci, Emil. Danke, Axel and Gudrun and Karl. Thanks, Cecil.

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