Mary Jane stood over the trunk and opened the binder to the last page. The most recent entry was during her first year of university. It listed a student adviser that had helped her sift through hundreds of dusty old volumes in the school archives for her thesis research material. That kindness was repaid when she helped that adviser to organize alumni lists and scholarship requests. There was no indication of helping her adviser, on the list. She decided on the spur of the moment to update the list to discover if her debt of gratitude to the people that had improved her life had ever been repaid with acts of kindness of her own.
She rooted around until she found a small bundle of pencils held together by an elastic band; She pulled a red pencil crayon used for editing copy out of the bunch. Then she fished a much pummeled and lumpy woven floor cushion out of the trunk and put it on the cold cement basement floor. She sat cross legged on the huge cushion and went through the binder from back to front, latest to earliest. First she marked down how old she was when the entry was made. She did that because she noticed her currently neat handwriting became bigger and messier as she approached the front of the binder. The closer she got to the front, the younger she was when the entries were made.
All of the newest entries at the back of the book had been repaid with similar kind or compassionate acts. She had made an effort in her final year of high school to thank or help the teachers, neighbors, friends and colleagues that had helped her on her journey through puberty and young adulthood. It was the first page with her earliest entries that intrigued her the most. Almost all of the small acts of kindnesses had been repaid over the years, but but not all. There were two glaring unpaid debts.
The first was Brenda Madison, the soprano soloist who had died in a plane crash. Brenda had moved away before Mary Jane could repay the many times Brenda was kind, helpful and mentoring toward the young teenage girl she was at the time. She could not personally thank Brenda, but she could remember Brenda in her prayers.
The second was Andrea Kavenaugh, who had been so important to Mary Jane's development all through high school. She regretted that she allowed her deep friendship with Andrea to fade away without fully expressing her eternal gratitude for all of the small incidents of caring, kindness and friendship. She fervently hoped her private investigator could find Andrea.
Except for Andrea and Brenda, she fulfilled the list's original purpose to show gratitude and kindness to the people who had made a difference in her life. With their help, she grew from a sad and lonely girl of very modest means in a trailer park, to a well adjusted, happy and well paid educator.
This was Mary Jane's list of the earliest entries on the first page:
LIST OF GRATITUDE Susan Joyce Smith - for being the best mom in the whole world, and for giving me this story journal. Written at age 10 (a debt of love and gratitude that could never be fully repaid) Officer Jason McKnight - For arresting that bully last year, and for putting Christmas dinner on our doorstep for the second year in a row. Written at age 10 (deceased, debt repaid by giving a long impassioned and grateful eulogy at his recent funeral) Mrs. Amelia Crenshaw - English teacher - for giving me a third prize notebook that she must have bought herself, because it wasn't on the list of prizes on the entry form. Written at age 11 ( deceased, but debt repaid by many visits to her at the nursing home before she died) The person who gave me a pair of mitts by putting them in my locker vent. Written at age twelve. Later discovered to be Andrea Kavenaugh (missing) The person who put the cookie and apple in my desk for my lunch. Written at age thirteen - later discovered to be Melissa Baker. ( Still best friends, debt paid by many acts of kindness back and forth over the years.) Melissa Baker, Jocelyn Anderson, Andrea Kavenaugh - for making my bus ride to and from school less than totally horrible. Written at age fourteen (debt paid back and forth by many social visits and acts of friendship, except for Andrea who went missing)
LIST OF GRATITUDE
Susan Joyce Smith - for being the best mom in the whole world, and for giving me this story journal. Written at age 10 (a debt of love and gratitude that could never be fully repaid)
Officer Jason McKnight - For arresting that bully last year, and for putting Christmas dinner on our doorstep for the second year in a row. Written at age 10 (deceased, debt repaid by giving a long impassioned and grateful eulogy at his recent funeral)
Mrs. Amelia Crenshaw - English teacher - for giving me a third prize notebook that she must have bought herself, because it wasn't on the list of prizes on the entry form. Written at age 11 ( deceased, but debt repaid by many visits to her at the nursing home before she died)
The person who gave me a pair of mitts by putting them in my locker vent. Written at age twelve. Later discovered to be Andrea Kavenaugh (missing)
The person who put the cookie and apple in my desk for my lunch. Written at age thirteen - later discovered to be Melissa Baker. ( Still best friends, debt paid by many acts of kindness back and forth over the years.)
Melissa Baker, Jocelyn Anderson, Andrea Kavenaugh - for making my bus ride to and from school less than totally horrible. Written at age fourteen (debt paid back and forth by many social visits and acts of friendship, except for Andrea who went missing)
Mrs. Grace Astleford - Salvation Army store manager - for saving her own daughter's outgrown clothes to sell to me at ridiculously low prices. She preserved my pride by not treating me like a charity case. Written at age fourteen (retired, living with her daughter in town. Debt repaid with many ongoing social visits to her home, often with baked goods)Brenda Madison - for being such a good sport when I jumped in on her solo. Written at age fourteen (Became a popular recording artist. Died in a plane crash on the way to her final sold out concert - debt of gratitude unpaid)
Pastor Jason Brown - for welcoming me into the church and the choir, and for making me feel like I belonged.Written at age fourteen. (Still preaching, still a good family friend. Many acts of kindness paid back and forth over the years)
The entire Baker, Anderson, and Kavenaugh families, for making me feel like an accepted member of their group. ( A debt of love and gratitude that could never be fully repaid.)
Her contemplation of that childhood list was interrupted by her husband Mark's call down the stairs.
"Honey, there's a man on the phone for you, and he better be a relative!"
Jane Anne followed his teasing laughter up the stairs. Mark knew that he was the love of her life, he knew there would never be anyone else in her life but him. He just liked to tease. It was part of his charm. He put his hand over the receiver as she walked into the kitchen.
"It's the private investigater we hired. He's in Alberta, he called collect."
Jane Anne laughed as she took the receiver.
"I'll take it off his bill." She pulled back her long hair as she fitted the receiver to her ear.
"Hello Mr. Sheaffer, do you have any news?"
"I do indeed, Mrs. Baker. I have a lady who really wants to talk to you."
There was a small silence then she heard a familiar but still strangely different voice come over the line.
"Jane Anne?" It was Andrea!
That was all it took, just her name, to make Jane Anne burst into tears! On the other end, Andrea also wept. It was several minutes before either one of them could speak.
"I missed you so much Andy!"
Jane Anne cried, using Andrea's nickname from school. No recriminations, no third degree, just a heartfelt declaration of the love and companionship that she still held in her heart for one of her oldest and dearest friends.
After that, there was no stopping them! After ten minutes or so, Mr. Shaeffer tapped Andrea on the shoulder.
"I imagine this collect call is coming off my bill, why don't you have her call you back?"
Andrea repeated the message to Jane Anne, who agreed.
"Listen Andy, I know that Melissa and Jocelyn will want to talk to you too. Do you have a computer?"
"Yeah, do you want my email?" Andrea replied.
"Of course, but do you have a computer call system? I have, and so do Melissa and Jocelyn. We talk long distance all the time."
"I have a call system too, do you want to conference?"
"You bet I do!"
Before they hung up, arrangements were made to conference call the following day. 'The Fearless Four' were together again, linked not only by electronics, but by a deep friendship that had lasted two decades. During the course of the conversation, Jane Anne discovered why Andrea had chosen to disappear into the Midwest of Canada.
The other three friends already knew that Andrea had a child out of wedlock, but they didn't understand why she hadn't come home with her child. Any or all of the three of them would have helped her in any way she needed. Andrea knew that, but she was ashamed to come home.
The first thing she did when she found out she was pregnant, was to call her mom. She wanted Andrea to come home to have the baby, but her father didn't. He was a staunch church goer, and very rigid in his beliefs. He said that Andrea could come home.. alone. He had no intention of helping her to raise an illegitimate child, so she would have to give it up for adoption!
Andrea refused, and so her mom had left her father. She had gone out to Alberta to help Andrea raise the child, who was currently ten years old. Andrea had met a wonderful man when her son was two years old. They got married, and he adopted her son to raise as his own. They now had two more sons together. There was a lot of laughter and discussion about how much trouble young boys could get into.
There was one question that hung in the air, unasked up to that point. Finally, Jane Anne dredged up the courage to ask it.
"Why didn't you call us in all those years? You've got to know that we wouldn't judge you. You could have lived with any one of us, if your father wouldn't accept you."
There was a long silence.. None of the other three spoke. Finally, Andrea's trembling voice came over the computer's speakers.
"My husband Nathan...."
Again a silence. Andrea had to screw up her courage to tell the rest, but she hadn't seen her friends in ten years. She didn't know how they would react to the information she was about to give them.
"My husband Nathan is of African descent. I thought if the town couldn't accept an illegitimate child, they certainly couldn't accept a racially mixed marriage!"
There was no silence this time. Jane Anne was the first to jump in.
"That's it? You disappeared for ten years because your husband has a better tan than we do? Give your head a shake girl! Come home for a visit. Let us meet him and the kids. we all have kids of our own, and some of them are boys. I'm convinced they'll all get along just fine."
Everyone knew that there was more to it than the color of Nathan's skin. There were cultural differences, and racial attitudes that had to be addressed, but now that they were all together again, they would cope. Andrea probably wouldn't move back East, at least not right away, but there would be summer vacations and long conference calls among the four friends. There would be many years ahead for Jane Anne to repay all of the small kindness that had shaped her life.