“Any apples today?” a cheery voice asked at my studio window. “Winesap, Wealthy, Northern Spy? Can’t you use a bushel?”
I stepped out into the haze of an October noon to take a look. At first glance, the woman seemed older than the world’s aunt. Her face, wrinkled with twice my years (I was then an arrogant 26), was an herbish bouquet that made you think of tansy and thyme. But the most remarkable thing about her was the light that burned in her wonderful brown eyes.
I followed her to a small truck with the legend Euphemia’s Apples painted on its side. She plied me with samples, and I ended by buying a bushel of red-cheeked Winesaps. On credit, of course. Cash was the one thing in the world I lacked just then. I had a wife, a baby, ambition—everything but money. “Pay me whenever you like,” said Effie, climbing into her truck.
All pretense of payment was dropped during that desperate autumn while our funds, food, and fuel ebbed to alarming lows. Euphemia came often, always bearing some gift: a gallon of maple syrup or a jar of peaches.
She guessed that my work was not marching and could see that I was too young, too inexperienced, to make it march. Well, there was nothing she could do about that. But she could do something about my woodpile—and she did. One day before Christmas, she rode up in her truck. It was covered with pine boughs, and under the holiday camouflage was a half cord of seasoned rock oak sawed into just the right lengths for my drum stove.
There were other generosities, always unobtrusive. Our baby was not doing well, so Effie financed my wife’s trip to New York for consultation with a specialist.
We were not the only recipients of her kindness. Effie’s soul was a house of many mansions, jammed with people whom she had befriended. One day she read in the paper that a pregnant mother traveling from San Francisco had arrived penniless in New York, only to learn that her husband had been killed in an accident. Effie cashed a $500 bond and sent her the entire amount. A lifelong correspondence with an intelligent and grateful human being was Effie’s recompense.
Effie was not a rich woman. Her income, derived from investments she had made while running an interior decorating shop in New York, had never exceeded $200 a month. The 1929 crash reduced this to a pittance, which she eked out by peddling her apples. But even when her funds were lowest, she always managed to help someone poorer.
One of Effie’s cardinal principles was never to “lend” money. She preferred to give it outright. Surprisingly often, the money came back. Many times I saw her come out of the post office waving a check. “Bread cast on the waters,” she’d say triumphantly—adding, with a touch of rue at the wasting years—“ever so long ago.”
In dealing with touchy customers like myself, Effie tried to conceal her generosity under the guise of a business arrangement. For instance, her father, who had been a painter, had written his autobiography. In the trough of my worst financial crisis, Effie dug out the dusty manuscript and offered me a fee for editing it. Not until after her death did I learn that she had sold another bond to pay me for this job.
Effie’s chief delight was conversation or, rather, a kind of Scheherazade storytelling. I would sit enthralled while she depicted the lives and loves of people she had known in Paris, Rome, or New York, furnishing her discourse with heroes, heroines, and villains.
One day she told me her own story. At the age of 30, she had dared break the taboos of her day by having a secret love affair. Five years later, her lover died. The remainder of her life was spent “in unmourning remembrance” of her short-lived happiness. This memory gave Effie her special sympathy for young husbands, wives, and lovers.
Years passed before I was able to return the money that Effie had given me from time to time. She was ill now and had aged rapidly in the last year. “Here, darling,” I said, “is the negotiable part of what I owe you.”
Tears were in her eyes as she handed back my check. “Don’t give it to me all at once,” she pleaded.
“Why not, Effie?”
Her face was very old, tired, and beautiful as she said, “Give it back as I gave it to you—a little at a time.” I think she believed there was magic in the slow discharge of a love debt—some secret talisman that would shield her against death till the account was closed.
The simple fact is that I never repaid the whole amount to Effie, for she died a few weeks later. At that time it seemed that my debt would forever go unsettled. But a curious thing began to happen.
Whenever I saw a fellow human in financial straits, I was moved to help him—as Effie had helped me—by small outright gifts of money. I can’t afford to do this always, but in the ten years since Effie’s death, I have indirectly repaid my debt to her a dozen times.
The oddest part of the whole affair is this: People whom I help often help others later on. By now, the few dollars that Euphemia gave me have been multiplied a hundredfold. So the account can never be marked closed, for Effie’s love will go on compounding interest in hearts that have never known her.