WHEN I was a bride, I received a gracious gift of advice which has blessed my marriage in many ways. An older woman in the neighborhood where my husband and I first settled came to call on me one Saturday afternoon. In her hand she carried a paper plate covered by a white paper napkin. As she entered our living room, she handed the package to me and said, ``This is the shared loaf.''
I removed the paper napkin to see waxed paper covering a small loaf of wheat bread. The woman sat down on our couch and told me, ``For years I have baked an extra loaf, which I can share with someone.'' She said she had found much happiness in such sharing.
``If you wait until you can make big gestures, the chances are good you will never get around to sharing,'' she told me. ``But you will find it easy to share a little from what you already have now.''
She had such a happy face, and she had made me happy by her sharing, so I reflected on her words. Well, a bread-maker I am not, but I do like to bake cupcakes, and I decided to try her system.
My first attempt at sharing consisted of placing four little cupcakes on a paper plate covered with a plain napkin, and taking them to the friend who had brought me the bread. She seemed pleased that someone had reciprocated in trying her idea.
Next time I baked cupcakes, I shared two with the lad who was mowing our lawn and sent home another four to his parents. The mother telephoned her thanks for them, and for our giving her son a job. He proved a good workman who learned to do other chores for us.
Gradually it became a habit to share from the batch of cupcakes, remembering the widow at the end of the street, the young mother with her baby in the stroller who stopped by to chat when I was working in the garden.
Later when I went to work in an office, it was possible to continue the informal tradition. The woman in charge of the department appreciated the cakes, for she had not yet learned to enjoy baking. The shared loaf that had become the shared cupcake added to my homemaking joy because it was such an easy custom to follow.
Then one memorable day the shared loaf moved out of the kitchen into other phases of my life. I learned that colored leaves from the trees in fall made a nice addition to letters to another state. ``How I loved to see the red and yellow gifts from your trees,'' a friend wrote. ``It was almost as good as standing with you to admire fall coloring near your home.''
The gift had cost me nothing but putting the leaves in the envelope. What else could I share? Soon there was a large envelope addressed to three children who had recently moved from our area and who were enrolled in new schools. Into the envelope I put an assortment of items from our home.
There were postage stamps cut from envelopes that had come from abroad, advertising stickers sent by firms eager for my business. I learned that by putting a wide-tipped pen through the writing on the back of scenic post cards, the same cards could have double value when sent to the children to use in illustrating school papers.
It was fun to have an envelope ``in progress,'' flap open into which I could place bright cutouts from travel brochures, or menu cards. The sharing involved an attitude of remembrance, not of spending money on trinkets. And the children wrote enthusiastic letters telling me how they made good use of the materials I mailed to them each month.
Sometimes there were larger items I could share - the book I had read and enjoyed that might have meaning for someone else and did not need to remain on my shelves, probably unopened again.
Later I went through a shelf of poetry books and found two that could be sent to a young woman now charged with giving ``the thought for the day'' to a newcomers' club.
Sometimes the vase in which a rose-bud had arrived for a birthday could be used for a nosegay of tiny chrysanthemums for the new arrival on our street.
Across the years, the value of the shared loaf has increased with each new discovery about the joys of using what is available in greeting others. The woman who called on me when I was a bride may have thought she was sharing a loaf of bread. But I know now that she was truly sharing a portion of herself and giving me a priceless gift that has enabled me to pass along the wonderful knowledge of her loving heart.