bird feeder
Photo: Kate Lacey
I once got a huge expensive flower arrangement from a person I didn't like, who sent it out of pure guilt. It had a hideous bird-of-paradise in the middle and I thought it would never fade and die. I hated it.

Yet the kindness of a friend who will give time and energy, no money involved, will stay with me forever. Like my friend Della, who is a truly great cook. One of her acts of friendship is to invite her less skilled friends to come stay overnight, and then she teaches us to make three knockout meals. She is full of great hints like don't try to cook the starter or the dessert the day of the dinner; these must be cold or prepared a day ahead so you can concentrate on the main dish with a free heart. You can ask her anything, no matter how silly. Like what does it mean when the directions say, "Cook until ready"—surely the most annoying piece of advice ever given. When is it ready? Is my ready your ready? Or what about "reduce by half"? It can't possibly mean throw half the dish away, so what does it mean?

I have another friend who will lend us her 10-year-old son for a morning.

"Show Maeve how to open a computer file and put it in a folder."

"But she must know how to do that by now!" he wails, appalled.

In his world people are born knowing how to do that.

My friend tells him of stories and novels wandering around in cyberspace because I don't know how to tie them down in my computer. Another week she might send this sterling lad to tune in the television or set the answering machine or download from the digital camera. It's a fabulous gift, so much more welcome than that awful flower arrangement.

I know a woman who hates ironing with a passion, while her neighbor regards it as a peaceful, almost therapeutic thing to do. Every Monday at lunchtime they visit one house or the other. Mary irons eight shirts beautifully; Susie takes silver powder and an old toothbrush and cleans the intricate bits of Mary's silver, making it gleam. One hour and a bowl of soup later, they are happy people with a huge sense of achievement.

I have been blessed with friends who do things rather than buy things: friends who will change books at the library, take a bag of your old clothes to a thrift store, bring you cuttings and plant them in a window box, fill the bird feeder in your garden when you can't get out.

What do I do for friends?

Not enough, but I can help them write difficult letters because I know writing should always be shorter rather than longer and clearer rather than more complicated. I make lists of good DVDs to rent so they won't be perplexed at the store. I take great pictures of them at happy times and send them copies, and I show them how to construct a family tree, which they always end up loving.

Never mind money, the gifts of time and skill call into being the richest marketplace in the world.

Maeve Binchy, whose book Tara Road was an Original Oprah's Book Club selection, passed away July 30, 2012, at 72.