When I was a graduate student, I had a cat. I had no particular affection for her, no doubt because she had none at all for me. But she was a gift from a friend. So I satisfied the basic requirements of cat ownership—food, shelter, immunizations—and she and I tried, pretty successfully, to stay out of each other's way. There was an old couple living a few doors down, holdouts in the spreading student slum that was pushing their modestly respectable neighborhood always deeper into weediness and dishevelment. The man was very gruff and cross. His wife had, so far as I know, only one facial expression, which I would not hesitate to translate as "I don't like him, either." Weather permitting, this old man sat outside in a lawn chair, pointedly not speaking to everyone who passed. He would sit there for hours, under his maple tree, and beside his bird feeder and his birdbath. And one terrible day, as I was sitting on the porch steps reading a book of no interest, the old man came up the sidewalk and said the first words he had ever said to me—"Your cat killed my bird!" He said, "That bird came back every year! It knew me! It would eat right out of my hand!" He showed me the very hand it would eat from, in the gesture of offering, futile now. He was baffled by the enormity of the fact that my cat should have mistaken that bird for just any ordinary bird, baffled by an irreversible loss that nothing could compensate. And so was I. In his sad fury, he tried to make me feel how terrible it was, and yet I could see he did not trust me to feel it. I did feel it, and I do. If I could go back through my life and put certain things right, that bird would be seen to before many things of objectively graver importance. If I had known that there was, in that neighborhood, a bird unique in the universe, who remembered its way back to that somber house to eat from that speckled hand, that cat of mine would never have left my sight. But in fact there was little to say and nothing to do.
It is terrible to realize how little we can know about the real value of anything. Value, all but the most trivial forms of it, is created in relationship, and created in the uniqueness of the relationship. The best good I could have done for my old neighbor would have been to mind my cat. How I wish he could have regarded me during those years with only habitual contempt and never have had occasion to speak to me at all. My great gift would have been not to deprive him, not to impoverish his life. The first generosity may well be attentive respect. I had noticed that birdbath, but only that it was awkward, weighty, gray—of a piece with everything I thought I knew about that man.
All the ecologies of value grow and elaborate themselves in deepest privacy. Even we might not know what a home or a friendship means to us until we leave it or lose it. So how can we have sufficient care of other people not to do harm, out of indifference or clumsiness or the failure of imagination?
Here is another tale from my youth, another lesson, as I take it, in the intense flourishing of value, in fact a blossoming tropic of value, contained within a very specific and private, even solitary, experience. I have never been much good at the things most people do. One summer, while I was in college, I worked for one day as a waitress in the restaurant of a hotel in my hometown. That was my first and last venture into a world my college friends managed with aplomb. They all had summer jobs in scenic places. They dealt with people. It seemed to me to give them an enviable kind of social authority. I knew that my own unbroken history of unemployment, grateful as I am for all the reading I got done, amounted basically to hiding out. So when my job lasted only one day, I was not at all surprised, though I was deeply alarmed at having every relevant anxiety justified.
I spilled just the tiniest bit of soup into the lap of a well-dressed man. I was sent forthwith to the kitchen and spent the rest of that somber day washing lettuces.
A shy, small, older woman, a lifelong waitress, I suspect, felt for some reason that I had been treated unjustly, and brooded on this thought till her shift was over. Then she came to me in the kitchen, scooped handfuls of money out of her apron pockets, and spilled it out onto the table. She gave me a look of fierce satisfaction—she knew what was right, and she would make things right, bearing all the cost herself. I remember that money spilling from her hands, a magnificent gesture that made manifest in all those dollars and quarters and dimes the value they had for her, the wonderful gift she was making to me.
I could not take her money. And I could see that my refusal of it hurt her. Frankly, it had seemed about right to me that I should only be trusted with lettuces. I don't know what story she had been telling herself all those hours that could have made her indignant for my sake, so her gift took me by surprise. Even all these years later, when perhaps nothing of her remains in the world more vividly than my memory of that look of hers, that angry, joyful look, as she threw her small weight against the arbitrary powers of her world—even now I don't know what I should have done. Of course I could not take her money. It flowed like silk from her hands. It was beautiful to her.
Next: "When she imagined that moment..."