Unexpected gifts are the best. I first learned this 20 years ago when I used to buy fresh milk from a dairy every other night. I was studying a lot, and it was one of my few outings. I would put on a pair of sandals, a crisp white blouse, and a worn blue skirt. I felt my neatness was somehow a shield against the men in the barn, who scared me a little with their workingmen's silence.
My friend handled the money while I watched the milk spin in the vat or sidled over to see the cows.
The last time we went, the old man followed us out, closed the door, and eyed me closely. ''You're not from Hampshire College, are you?'' he said.
I felt self-conscious in my neatly pressed clothes. ''No, I'm not,'' I fudged, regretting it was so obvious.
''Come here,'' he said. An obliging innocent, I followed him around the corner of the barn. He reached into his pocket and flipped open a switchblade. My heart stopped. Then he bent down and sliced the last heavy pink bloom off a spindly old bush. He held it out without a word. The thorns were huge. When I got home I pressed it in a big Bible, and it still hangs on my wall.
Ten years later, it happened again. A group of us was the second-to-last party to leave the Ritz Carlton's tea room. Black-suited, barely civil waiters glided soundlessly, dimming the lights, moving the harp, clearing the tables. One of them approached our table. I knew we shouldn't have stayed so long, and I braced myself for a rebuke. With the slightest of smiles and the slightest of bows, he handed me a rose from one of the flower arrangements. It was long-stemmed and glowed cranberry red in the lamplight. I carried it home in my briefcase, feeling like a queen.
The arrival of these roses helped me to remember that life is indeed wondrous and romantic and that there is something at work that is above the ordinary giving and getting.
I met my husband on a fly-fishing trip in northern Maine, and I can tell you the precise moment I fell in love with him. It was after something he did for me: a humble, discerning act of kindness that, like those roses, seemed to come out of nowhere, for no apparent reason.
It was my first fishing trip, and I was eager to learn and eager not to be a problem. (Don't complain and don't make them wait, advised my mother.) I fished with Jack and Glen for two days; Paul was to join us Tuesday night. He was a registered Maine guide and had had clients that weekend.
It was the end of a long day. I was wiping out my wet boots in front of the wood stove. Paul had just arrived and was sitting nearby in an easy chair.
''You know,'' he said, ''if you stuff those boots with newspaper they'll be dry by morning. Stuff it in real tight, and leave them near the stove.''
I had liked Paul the moment he walked into Jack's kitchen for our pre-trip, food-planning meeting. He had an easy, gentle manner and a bright smile. Somehow, though, he seemed to know me already, and that made me shy and skittish. What I didn't know was that a few months earlier Jack's wife had given Paul an earful about what a wonderful person I was. Ah, small towns!
I was tired, it was late, and his advice didn't seem to make sense. Camp conversation turned to the proper care of wet leather, weatherproofing techniques, and the advisability of beans and hot dogs for dinner. The next morning I found my boots next to Paul's boots in a neat row near the wood stove. They were tightly packed with newspaper and perfectly dry. I swiveled around. Only Paul was looking my way and he just smiled.
Since then he has given me more roses than I can count.