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Be Kind To Strangers

24 Jun

The old lady at the end of our dead end street was always kind to me. The other kids called her a witch because her yard was always messy, filled with trash, old cars, and used up furniture deposited there by her ungrateful sons. From my second story bedroom window two houses away, I would see them drive up in pick up trucks, often a different one each time, remove their trash, and set it in their mother’s yard. The trucks were always rusting or broken. It was obvious these boys did not care for themselves, let alone their poor mother. I would watch as she would scream at them to leave with their trash, then finally cry when they left. I would check on holidays before going to my grandma’s house to see who was with her; there was no one before I left or after I came home. I knew she was in there alone because the lights were on and the wood smoke from the small wood stove would billow from the chimney. I watched her chase away the other kids who would wander down my street on dares to approach the “haunted house” and talk to “the witch.” Finally, after two years of observing her and watching too many ABC Family specials, I wanted to give her a reason to be kind to me.

I went to her house with a trash bag from our kitchen on a warm August day. I had two sandwiches in my pocket, because I was ten and I knew if you wanted to make friends, you shared your lunch.  I approached the gate cautiously and started picking up pieces of trash on the public side of the fence. Immediately, she came out and started screaming. I blinked, looked at her and didn’t move. I didn’t say a word either. I let her be upset; at ten years old I expected this from her. Finally, she screamed at me, “Are you deaf or just stupid, imp?” I held up the bag then took a sandwich from my pocket. “If you don’t mind, ma’am, I’d like to at least clean the sidewalk then share my lunch with you.” She stopped and looked at me. She looked like she didn’t trust me, but she said, “Fine. Stay on that side of the fence.” She turned and walked to the porch to sit and watch me.

I cleaned that fence for two hours. When I was done, I was tired and hungry, but I went back to the metal fence gate and held out the sandwiches. She came down from the porch and took one from me, turning it over as if I had added poison as a trick. Finally, she leaned on the fence and we ate together. She began to smile at me and I asked if she wanted me to help her with her yard. She looked around sadly and said, “Yes, I think I would like that.”

Every Saturday, I came back and picked up more trash. I worked out a system with my mom so I could either take the trash to the dump or leave her trash with ours for regular pickup. I couldn’t do much about the big items, but I tried to make them look better by raking leaves and caring for the grass. My dad and I spent a Sunday at the garden store choosing flowers for the fence.

Luckily, the sons didn’t come back that fall or winter. I continued to clean for her, and she would make me treats from her kitchen. She let me into her house and it was immaculate. It was well kept and looked like a typical home. There were areas of disrepair, but it was evident that these were projects which were too big for her to handle alone. I helped where I could, but I was young and she was old. We were limited.

On Christmas Eve, my family always had a ham dinner with just the residents of our house, then we were allowed to open one present. Candles were lit and cookies were made for Santa, even as we aged. That year, there was one more person in our home helping us celebrate – there was even a gift for her from my parents and a handmade gift from me and my sister. She helped with the cookies and she seemed to light up. She even laughed often – it was a pleasant, tinkling sound. There was a small glint of sadness in her movements, but even at ten, I knew she was missing her own family.

She went home that night and I was comforted to see the wood smoke coming from the chimney. I was proud to have given her a peaceful Christmas, at last. I continued to help her out all winter and we became very close friends. Kids stopped bothering her as the snow flew; bullies don’t favor the cold.

That spring, a surprise snowstorm hit our town. My mom and I went to the old lady’s house as the warning reports were hitting the news to make sure she had enough food and wood for the stove. She did, and she planned to stay in her home despite the offer to stay with us. “You’re just down the road,” she replied, “and if I need anything I know you’ll be here by the by to check on me.” She smiled and hugged my mom, then me. We left to reinforce our own storm supplies.

The storm came. There was six feet of snow. The first story windows were covered and the rooms were dark. The power came and went. We were indoors for a week. The snow plows on the street pushed the snow drifts higher, which made it difficult for us to dig ourselves out. We all went out together and dug through our driveway slowly. It took us another two days to get out of the massive snow piles in front of our house after a week of waiting out the flying snow and blistering winds.

I watched the old lady’s chimney every day. There was smoke every day, which made me rest easy. She was okay over there. After we dug our home out of the drifts, we proceeded to her house to find her front door. That took us another three days. While we dug, we never heard from her. I was so excited to surprise her when we reached her! She must not even see us, I thought!

We reached her door a week and a half after the snow storm started. There was no answer. My parents looked at each other funny, then tried the door knob. It was open.

We entered, calling her name. There was no answer. We walked through the house, shouting for her. Still, no answer. Finally, we found her in the basement, slumped in front of the wood stove. She wasn’t moving. The wood stove was bitterly cold, and though I had seen smoke coming from her house just yesterday, it was evident that it hadn’t been used for days.

When the medical team was able to reach her later that day, they said she had died from a heart attack the day the snow storm started. I told them that was impossible since I had seen smoke coming from her chimney every day. My dad told me there was no way that was possible – that stove hadn’t been used for almost two weeks. I locked myself in my room. Later that night, smoke rose from the chimney.

Her sons took a full year to settle her estate. They both tried to live there but stayed less than a month. I always hoped she was chasing the ingrates away, letting them know she would no longer tolerate their insubordination. It finally sold to a family who cared for it and cleaned it up. Every night, however, even when it was supposed to be empty before the new family arrived, the smoke would come out of the chimney on schedule. Even after the new family stopped using the old stove, removing it and replacing the heating with modern electric, I would notice smoke coming from that chimney. I hope it’s a sign to me that she’s okay now, and that her pain has ended.

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7 Responses to “Be Kind To Strangers”

  1. A writers strange life. June 24, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    I hope she is fine.

    • A writers strange life. June 24, 2012 at 8:58 am #

      I am so stupid, this is a story right?

      • rebeccawrites78 June 24, 2012 at 10:38 am #

        Yes, sweetie, it’s a work of fiction – and anyone who homeschools their kid is certainly NOT stupid. You do something I won’t even attempt. You deserve a pat on the back.

      • A writers strange life. June 26, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

        Uh, I am a teenager. I am the one being homeschooled.

      • rebeccawrites78 June 27, 2012 at 5:56 am #

        Oh…. oops. Haha. Well, I hope you’re enjoying the blog. It’s my (third) baby.

      • A writers strange life. June 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

        I am.

  2. Velda Bicknell July 7, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    Greetings from Colorado! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to check out your website on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the knowledge you provide here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, great site!

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