Melba Panabaker was my downstairs neighbor in my first apartment after college. When I met her, I envisioned us having a dynamic relationship like you see on T.V. She looked like the surrogate grandma of a casting agent’s dreams: no more than five feet tall, soft and full, with a round, inviting face. I imagined sharing with her the angst of my early twenties, and in return she’d offer snippets of wisdom that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
I had to pass her front door to get to mine, and on the day I moved in, she welcomed me into her home. She’d lived here, in Jackson, Michigan, her whole life and was eager to share its history and her history with me, but every time I saw her, it was the same thing—the same stories, the same one sided conversation, and my same disappointment that she wasn’t the lively octogenarian I’d hoped she’d be.
She was lonely. She didn’t seem to leave the house much, her big Buick always parked in the same spot, and she didn’t have many visitors. Her husband had been a baker, and with a last name like Panabaker, it seemed he had no other choice. He had passed away a few years earlier, and although her children and grandchildren loved her and kept in touch in the formal ways with birthday cards and holiday gatherings, I didn’t see them around very much.
Every time I passed her door after a long and boring day at my first job, I’d pray she wouldn’t open it, so I could go upstairs and unwind without having to make generic small talk or listen to her stories on replay. And every time I hoped for this, I felt guilty, because I knew the right thing to do would be to stop and say hello. We were living similar daily lives, just sixty years apart. I was lonely, too, living alone for the first time in a new state, very far away from my family and friends. We could have helped each other, but I was in too much of a funk to make the first move.
Six months passed, and we settled into a polite, distant relationship full of head nods and grins and how are you’s. Then, it was Valentine’s Day, and I had a craving for cake. The end cap at the grocery store featured six-inch pink heart-shaped cakes, perfect for a party of one. I was inexplicably excited to get home and eat this cake.
As I passed Melba’s door with my groceries, I thought about the cake and paused. It really was meant for a party of two, so I knocked on her door. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Melba. I saw this cake at the store and thought you might like it.” Her blue eyes grew clearer behind her large-framed glasses and her tight white curls quivered softly as she smiled, nodded, and thanked me. “Have a wonderful evening,” she said as she closed the door.
Frankly, I was disappointed she didn’t offer me a piece of my cake. Back upstairs I foraged for something sweet to take the edge off and went about my usual nightly routine.
The next day I went to work and stopped in the break room. Some office kitchens are full of extra food and goodies that coworkers bring from home, but not this one. It was sterile and boring, like the rest of my job, except for today.
This morning an entire sheet cake lay on the table. The “H” and the “A” from the “Happy Birthday” message were already gone, and the rest of the office was circling the table with me, ready to cut their slice. Someone had over-ordered their desserts for a recent party, and we were the beneficiaries of the mistake. I had seconds, my sweet tooth seemingly insatiable since my disappointment from the night before.
At home that evening, my doorbell rang, something that never happened to me in the days before Amazon Prime. I skeptically approached and peeked to see who was on the other side. There was Melba, with a cake! “I enjoyed your cake so much last night that it made me want to bake myself again. I made this for you. It’s Red Velvet.” I thanked her several times over and closed the door, only later realizing that I hadn’t invited her in. I was so touched by her unexpected gesture that my manners abandoned me, just as they had for her the day before. I ate some of that cake, too, and thought about my good luck:
I gave up one cake and got two in return.
Call it Karma or God’s Will, or a happy coincidence, but this is the story I will share with my children to teach them that generosity of spirit, time, and money pays off in spades.
And then, I will serve them cake.