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One evening, over dinner with friends, my husband and I were discussing one of our first homes. It was an apartment in a small mill town far from the large city where I had grown up. I knew few people and felt a sense of despair about living in the area. The occupants of the five or six surrounding apartments in the old office building had far different modes of life from me. Frankly, at times the residents frightened me.

While relating the story, I suddenly remembered that right next door lived a bona fide Swedish masseuse who must have easily deduced from her vantage of years a green, young neighbor who was unaccustomed to the particular slice of life around her. With gentleness, she took me under her wing, and every so often she would invite me over for a concert on her most prized possession, a tiny electric organ. Except for the circumstances, our lives might never have mingled.

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When I finished reminiscing, one of our visitors quietly said that a friend had been provided when I needed one.

This tiny remark was shot like an arrow against a lacquered ball of memories stuffed on the back shelf of thought. As it shattered, out tumbled names and faces of others who had also been there when needed.

From the old apartment building, we moved into a duplex up on a hill overlooking the town. Our new landlord was a retired man, a Greek who had arrived in America as a young person and had worked his whole adult life in the mill. Perhaps because I never ridiculed him when he spoke of life in the old country, he became a friend. I don't think he had many. He commented one day that when he first started to work in the early quarter of this century, he was spit upon for merely being different.

Eventually we exchanged dinner invitations, and I learned to eat yogurt. He learned to eat our flambeaued disasters on the barbecue. On occasion, I would address letters for him when he felt concern about his shaky handwriting and he would share home-grown vegetables with us.

Another mill town was much farther from my childhood home. The day we moved into our weather-worn rented house, a cheerful neighbor poked her head in the door to invite two tired strangers with one tiny baby for dinner. As I was to learn, her house regularly emitted fragrant smells of baked breads, jams, and home canning. She became an on-the-spot grandmother, loving and cheering on a baby's first steps. We, in turn, cheered on her husband, a retired school principal, when he ventured out on his new motorcycle as his wife snorted, ''The old fool!''

Across town, I met a woman through a want ad advertising some old oak chairs. I discovered we shared the same faith, although my commitment then was noncommittal. Nevertheless, she gave me a religious book and a smile which remain with me, though the chairs and her name are long gone. Our two paths would not cross again, for our family was soon transferred.

The last mill town, before we chose other employment, was a rough spot brimming with rivalry and resentment. New residents working for a new mill vs. old residents whose families had lived whole generations in one place sparked continual problems. I was kept busy overseeing the construction of a new house, running after a toddler, and expecting a second child.

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One afternoon, as we shifted lumber in the mud, a young girl appeared around the wall and said, ''Hi, I'm Wendy.'' Sunshine and laughter played on her face. Shortly, her mother and father emerged from the mud hole across the street where their house was springing up. A friendship had been launched on a child's laugh.

After we had both moved into our new houses, in the middle of an icy winter night, my husband was sent racing across the street to pound on a window. A baby was on the way, and the hospital was many miles away. I had managed to get to the car, but at that moment our young daughter appeared at the doorway in tears. She had awakened in time to see her mother leaving. In night-robe and slippers, my sleepy-eyed neighbor raced to our home to scoop up the frightened child. My friend took my place when the need was great. A few years later I consoled this neighbor through a deeply sorrowful time. It has been two families in harness, pulling us both through a difficult period.

As I sat at the end of a day filled with memories - of laughter and tears - one point stood out so clearly that I was astonished to realize I'd overlooked it for so long. During all the years of constant moving, I'd always thought I was so very far from home, but now I understood, home had never been away from me.

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