This morning Ellen has something on her mind. Ellen is the woman who helps take care of my kids. She lives just over the ridge. She and her husband heat their house with the wood they chop, and they depend largely on the food they grow. This is not a back-to-nature thing. This is just how they live in a valley that offers little reason to leave.

Usually, Ellen's morning news is kitchen-related. Her weekend, she'll say, was all about canning tomatoes, or it was about making goat cheese, or it was about the Ziploc bag of special sweet-bread dough that someone gave her, with directions to leave it on her counter for 10 days, kneading it twice daily; on Day 9 she was to add flour and other ingredients; on Day 10 she was to divide the dough into six smaller loaves; then after baking two of them she was to put the

remaining dough-divisions into Ziploc bags and give one each to a friend with

directions to do the same, thus keeping the loaf alive. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh, this is too much trouble,' " she told me last week. "I was going to just throw the thing away. But I didn't have the heart to break the chain of giving."

But this morning, well, Ellen seems to have more than sweet bread on her mind. She is taking off her coat. She is a solidly built woman in her mid-fifties with fine features, Irish eyes and skin that looks thin but never cracks. "You wouldn't believe what happened yesterday," she says, finally. She shakes her head gently. "I just hope I handled it right."

I settle in for the story.

"I got . . . approached," she says. "In the ladies' room at Wal-Mart."

Approached? I don't know what she means by approached. I nod, trying not to appear stupid. "The woman," Ellen says. "She was kind of fat, but not like giant or anything. I was washing my hands. I could see her in the mirror looking at me. Then she started inching toward me."

She says the woman turned to her. She says the woman tapped her on the shoulder. "And she said, 'Can you help a homeless person?' "

Oh. So a homeless person hit her up for some change? I'm somewhat taken aback that this is even a story worth telling. Surely there must be more . . . plot. I think of my last trip to the city, all the people I saw who wanted change. It's so

common it's background noise. I wonder if Ellen has ever even been to the city.

"Now, I read the papers," Ellen says. "And maybe this woman was homeless. But she could have been a drug addict instead. She could have wanted me to help her buy drugs. Oh, I just don't know if I handled it right. I can't get it out of my mind."

I don't know what to say. I can't remember the last time I discussed the ethics of giving money to strangers, but I'm pretty sure it was a very long time ago.

She sighs. "So I told the woman, I said, 'This has been a bad year for us in our house.' Which is true. But probably not as bad as her year, you know?"

"Well, I don't think -- "

"So I said, 'Ma'am, I can't give you anything,' " she says. " 'But I can pray for you.' Which is true. And I have been praying for her ever since this happened. But I was shaking like a leaf. I mean, I went out of the bathroom and I told Carl, I said, 'Carl, you are not going to believe what just happened!' "

But I am still not even sure what happened. It depends on your worldview. It depends on where you have been and what you have seen. To some, nothing happened. To Ellen, an entire parable happened, so fresh, so exciting, too loud to even see the lesson in it yet.

"Do you think I handled it right?" she says. "Because afterwards I could have kicked myself. I could have taken her for a sandwich. You know, they make grilled cheese right there in that snack bar."

"It sounds to me as if you handled it great," I say, thinking of all the times I never handled it at all. I think of a time when I was innocent; I think of the "hungry strike" I held at age 10. I refused to sit at the dinner table unless we opened our home to hungry people. Everyone laughed. Everyone thought that was so cute. I didn't get it. Now I get it. This is how parables work. Truth can be so raw it makes you squirm.

"She did say, 'Thank you,' " Ellen says. "And I am praying. You know, if she's a drug addict or a homeless, prayers work the same."

"That's what I hear," I say, trying to stay on neutral territory, having no idea why.

"Anyway, so the other thing I did this weekend was, it was finally time to bake the sweet bread. We had some with our dinner. It's not half bad! But now I have four loaves to give out."

I can see what's coming: the chain of giving. Oh, dear. I look at the floor, but it's too late. "You want to take a loaf?"

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is laskasmail@aol.com.