by Harriet Kay
In 1967, my husband and I were starting our life after college, and we were pretty poor. Russell had an entry-level job that didn’t pay much, we had college loans, and we’d made some stupid choices with credit cards, so we had lots of debt to deal with. Our son was born that summer, and I had to stop working and stay at home with him, which only compounded the financial squeeze.
We were living in an apartment in Evanston, Illinois, a moderately affluent suburb north of Chicago. We got involved socially with a large group of couples of various ages, some from our church and some connected with my husband’s job at Northwestern University. They all had children, we shared many common values, and they gave us helpful hints about raising our son.
This active group of people went many places and did many things together. We enjoyed being with them. Even though we often couldn’t afford to go with the group, they always made us feel welcome when we came.
Toward the end of that first summer they planned a picnic, and invited us. I asked what I could contribute. “Oh, bring some potato chips,” my friend said.
I figured there wouldn’t be much food — hot dogs, chips, and lemonade — and was relieved that I didn’t have to spend more than a few dollars on the event. I bought two large bags of the least expensive brand of potato chips I could find.
However, when we got to the state park, I found a veritable feast laid out. Heaps of chicken and watermelon, big bowls filled with homemade salads of all kinds. Even homemade ice cream and cake. There we were with our two bags of potato chips. I felt mortified and thought about leaving. I told a close friend that I was terribly embarrassed to have brought so little.
“Oh nonsense,” she said. “In a few years, it’ll be your turn to bring the chicken.”
Today Russell and I are starting to think about retirement and our son is grown. The century has turned, and it’s the year 2000. Yet I still remember that picnic and how our friends made us feel included and valued for who we were, not what we had.
Their generosity stuck with me all these years, and it’s shaped both my feelings about others and my behavior in helping them.
We couldn’t possibly pay back all the people who brought chicken for us when we were unable to afford it. They’re scattered all across the country, and we’ve lost touch with them. But that’s not the point.
The chicken we enjoyed 32 years ago is a debt my husband and I owe — and will always owe — to the future.
It’s not an obligation to be paid back but rather a promise to pay forward. We still have lots of younger friends who have trouble making ends meet. Nowadays, we bring the chicken.