One of my favourite books as a child was Sara Crewe, Or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Anglo-American writer who later wrote The Secret Garden. In one scene, the poor orphan Sara, neglected and abused, returns home to her cold and draughty garret to find that someone has lit a fire in the hearth, spread a beautiful carpet on the bare floor, and set a table with delicious things to eat. I loved to imagine myself as the child stepping into this fairy-tale scene, overcome by the idea that somebody has seen her neglect and wants to care for her. But I also loved imagining myself as the anonymous benefactor. In fact, it was the creativity of this secret benefactor that stirred my imagination the most. While little Sara is out in the rain, her unseen guardian angel is devising exactly the kind of comforts she most needs—the warmth of the flickering fire, the beautiful colours and soft textures of the woven carpet, and the tea tray loaded with sweet and savoury treats. Giving, it seemed to me, requires careful observation, as well as good timing and attention to detail. It is a creative art. But where it will lead is anyone’s guess. Will a relationship between benefactor and recipient follow (as it does in the story of Sara Crewe) or will they never meet each other face to face?
In the late 90’s when my father had retired from his law firm, but still did pro bono work and still went downtown, he knew of a parking spot near the Bayshore Inn where he could leave the car all day and it wouldn’t cost him a penny. To get from there to his office building he took a shortcut along a lane behind some dilapidated houses. One day he noticed an old Ford sitting in the laneway. For weeks it sat there. The right rear tire was completely flat, but otherwise the car, though old and a little beat-up, looked in good shape. At some point, he also noticed that the insurance on the car was due to expire. Most people would have continued to walk by, without putting these two pieces of information together. To my father, they suggested someone with a dilemma. The car-owner couldn’t pay for the insurance, and he couldn’t pay to have someone come and fix the tire. If the tire could be repaired, then the car could be dealt with, but moving it with a flat tire was impossible.
At one time my father raced cars as a hobby and still had some of the equipment necessary to the sport, including a refillable tank of pressurized air. One day he brought it with him on his commute downtown, carried it down the lane, unscrewed the valve-cap on the flat tire and filled it with air. The next day he was curious to see if the car would still be there and if so, whether the tire would be flat once more. The car was there, and the tire didn’t look too bad. Clearly, it was a slow leak. How long, he wondered, till the car owner became aware that his car was driveable and the insurance hadn’t yet expired? Two days later the car was gone. Whoever owned it never knew how it happened that his flat tire miraculously filled with air. As for my father, for days afterwards he enjoyed imagining the expression on the car-owner’s face at the sight of his tire. Though he never learned who the owner was or what happened to the car it didn’t matter. He was content with having contributed one small piece to someone else’s puzzle.