Payment in kind

MY education in neighborliness began when I took a coffeecake to the new couple across the street. Jane and Alfred moved here from a close-knit retirement community in Arizona so they could be near their daughter. Perhaps I should confess that I have never been a very good neighbor. Actually, it was to make up for ignoring the neighbors who moved away that I made the friendly overture to Jane and Alfred.

Three days later a knock at the door called me out of my basement office. Since I work at home, I don't normally welcome social calls in the middle of my office hours. But there stood Jane with my disposable cake pan in her hands.

Oh brother, I thought. I had purposefully used a disposable pan so she wouldn't have to return it. Eager to get back to work, I reluctantly invited her in.

``I don't want to bother you,'' she said, ``but I saw you had children and I thought they might like these.''

I peeled back the foil cover on the pan and saw that it was full of fresh-baked cookies. I had once read about the custom of never returning a pan empty, but this was the first time I had experienced its benefits. I was touched and sorry that I had been irritated by her visit.

Yet the irritation returned each time she visited or called - always to extend a kindness. Once she brought a jar of homemade orange marmalade. Another time it was an unusual jelly made from pyracantha pomes. If Jane observed a change in our schedules, she would call to inquire about our health.

She needs my friendship because she's lonely, I thought condescendingly, and I vowed to improve my attitude.

On Halloween Jane invited me for a visit. ``I have some candy for the children,'' she said. I sat shyly on the couch, and while Jane served me chocolate cookies, I talked with Alfred for the first time.

Just before Christmas, Jane asked me to look at some items she had made for a church bazaar. She led me into her spare bedroom and I was astonished to see sweaters, booties, afghans, hats, and slippers displayed on every conceivable surface.

Her industry surprised me; I had been too wrapped up in my own life to think about what she did with her time.

``Oh, by the way,'' she asked, ``would you mind if I mailed my letters from your mailbox?'' Her mailbox was in a hard-to-reach place at the side of her house. After that I saw the red flag raised most days. Jane explained that she and Alfred had many friends in the places they had once lived, to which the volume of her correspondence attested. I was surprised, having assumed that because they were visited by only their daughter, Jane and Alfred were friendless.

``One Saturday you'll have to come over for homemade doughnuts,'' Jane said another time. ``We used to have so much fun in Arizona. We'd call all our neighbors and say, `Come as you are!'''

I could picture their sunny Arizona backyard full of friendly neighbors dressed in bathrobes and Bermuda shorts. I recognized that I had always been somewhat selfish in my philanthropy, reaching out to people only when I was in the mood.

I was quite unaccustomed to Jane's type of neighborly persistence, and I wondered whether I had been missing something by resisting the friendship it offered.

Last month Jane asked if I could come over for cake. Well, I thought, searching for an excuse - the kids will be coming home, and I need to go to the post office, and then there's dinner to be made....

But who can resist such kindness?

``Yes,'' I said finally. ``I won't be busy at all.''

Three place settings lay on the dining room table. Jane served chocolate cake and coffee in china dishes. The kitchen smelled like my grandmother's. As we chatted like old school chums despite our 50-year age difference, I suddenly realized that Jane didn't need anything from me. She simply wanted to share the fruits of her full life.

Last week I took a coffeecake to my other neighbors.

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