You probably know that last Saturday was Pay It Forward Day, a “global initiative that exists to make a difference by creating a huge ripple of kindness felt across the world.”
But here’s something I bet you didn’t know:
I invented Pay It Forward.
Okay, “invented” may be too strong a term, but before you start calling me Al Gore, let me clarify.
Did I write the 1999 book? No.
Did I write the screenplay for the 2000 film? No.
Did I start the Global Pay It Forward Day in 2016? No.
In fact, I didn’t even coin the phrase, but nonetheless, I thought of it before anybody else. It all started in 1984.
That was when my husband and I, married almost a year and expecting our first baby, bought our first house. Our neighbors, Ed and Chris King, were about half a generation ahead of us. Our family was just beginning while their youngest was in high school.
We couldn’t have had better starter neighbors for our first home. If we needed a tool, Ed had it. If I had to borrow a cup of anything, Chris had it. If my 12-year-old car wouldn’t start, they gave me a lift. Once, when our two-year-old fell and cracked her head open, Ed came over and sat with our sleeping baby while I took the patient for stitches. Being long-time residents of the area, they had good recommendations for everything from automotive repairs and local markets to Chinese restaurants and cut-down-your-own Christmas tree farms.
But here’s the thing. As much as they did for us, there was just nothing we could do for them. They had late-model cars that were in good repair and young adult children to run their errands in them. They already had whatever baking dish, gardening implement, specialized saw, or over-the-counter medicine a family could possibly need. They never needed a babysitter, or tips on how to fix a leaky sink, or someone to talk to when you were going crazy at home with three kids under six years old.
I felt guilty about our lopsided relationship until I had a tremendous epiphany:
We can never pay back the Kings for everything they did to help us in the infancy of our marriage and family. But one day we’ll be that slightly older couple next door, with all the wisdom and gadgets and ice packs, and then it’ll be our turn to help the new kids on the block while expecting nothing in return.
In other words — words which I do wish I’d thought of then —we’d pay it forward.
And that’s exactly what happened. As our own kids were finishing high school, a young family moved in next door, about half a generation behind us. They borrowed rakes and wrenches, got sage advice about puppy training, home maintenance, and landscaping, and knew who to call when their car wouldn’t start. Even though smart phones were still just a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye, I wish I’d been home to see Mike shimmy in the basement window the day the wife locked herself and the kids out of the house.
I hope our former neighbors realized the favor they were doing by letting us help them. Maybe not then, but surely when they were loaning their electric drill or springform pan to the “kids” next door.
As I think about all of this, two things come to mind.
When I was in my early 20s and getting set to move out on my own, my mother offered advice I’ve never forgotten: “Don’t ever be afraid to ask anyone for help.” Hmm. Maybe I didn’t come up with this concept entirely on my own after all.
And the other moral of the story?
Well, if you’re a writer and you have a tremendous epiphany, don’t wait 34 years to write about it. If you do, someone else is going to create a catch phrase for the ages, and beat you to the book and movie deals.