“I owe Mark some tomatoes,” she said, gruffly, handing me a basket at the back door.
This happens all the time: neighbours stopping by to thank my husband for having performed some major (or minor task) with one of the indispensable tools he inherited from his father. The rewards range from artisanal beer to gluten-free baked goods to homegrown vegetables-mostly tomatoes and cucumbers. (We never get a cherry pie. Just once I’d like to get a cherry pie.)
Mark has an uncanny ability to look out for our neighbours. We will celebrate our 10th
anniversary in this small town in November and in that time I’ve learned that his good deeds have a truly genuine impulse: he is not expecting anything in return. When he pulls out the lawn mower or the ladder or a bucket of drywall mud, it is love that guides him, not personal gain.
To Mark, the deed itself is its own reward and a good deed doesn’t constitute a debt between neighbours and friends. Looking out for one another, being there to offer a helping hand, to say “yes” when someone needs you is what community means.
“Can I pay you?” people ask. Mark is quick to divert talk of dollars and cents. Just as a village doctor might have done a century ago, he says, “Bring me some cucumbers when they’re ready.” (I need to teach him to say, “Bring me a cherry pie” instead.)
But people don’t like to owe anybody anything these days. Perhaps they never did. Anyway, the signals of neighbourly generosity seem more complicated, less readable than they once were. We must have our checks and balances-personal outreach must be weighed and measured. Heaven forbid if our cups actually overflowed!
Holding the basket of tomatoes, I watched our neighbour walk away, feeling stuck on the word “owe” and the curmudgeonly tone in which she’d said it. The exchange felt less like an expression of gratitude and more like the weight of an onerous debt that had been paid in full.
The whole exchange bugged me. She reminded me of myself.
“Never be beholden to anyone!” “Don’t put anyone out!” These were values drilled into me
by my father when I was young, just as they’d been drilled into him. My husband got Black & Decker tools while I got a megadose of false pride.
I find it strange, though, because my father’s parents were pioneers. My dad was raised on the milk of human kindness in a deeply Christian community that worked together in countless ways. I’m not sure how or why he distilled such a potent application of this message.
Unfortunately, I grew up not being able to tell the difference between someone being kind or someone who was, as he said, “just being polite,” who really meant for me to say “no thanks” because to do otherwise would have meant I’d made a burden of myself.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve spurned true expressions of generosity: “Let me give you a ride,” when I’ve been in-between cars, or “I’ll buy you lunch,” in-between paycheques.
My husband has often said, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just accept a gift?”
“I don’t know,” I say, almost childlike, wishing I had a better answer. Of course I continue to pray that someday I will learn to be more innately and intuitively gracious. Until then, I, for one, don’t think “sorry” is the hardest word at all: “thank you” is top of my list.
Michelle Hauser is a former fundraiser, turned newspaper columnist and freelance writer. She and her husband Mark live in Napanee, Ontario with their son Joseph and worship at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Her work includes contributions to CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and The Kingston Whig-Standard. She can be reached through her website at www.michellehauser.ca