Wonder

One of my favorite words is the word wonder. As a mom, it reminds me of my kids when they were all little. I loved watching them as they looked at the world from their vantagepoint, asking why and how about everything. They would construct new realities where they were teachers or bus drivers or soldiers. To make it seem real, they would use the information they had about their own experiences and then fill in the rest with their imaginative sense of wonder and possibility. What they chose didn’t always make sense to me, but, with a little reflection on what had happened in the days prior, I could usually uncover their reasoning.

For example, our youngest son loves to pretend he’s a dentist. He grabs a pair of latex gloves and a couple of plastic spoons and a straw, and he instructs me to lie down on the sofa as he places a pair of sunglasses on me. Once he’s draped a paper towel across my chest like a bib, he tells me to open wide. He puts the straw in the corner of my mouth like that sucking tube at the dentist office and begins poking around with one spoon while the other spoon is his “mirror”.

After a few minutes, he says that I have fifty cavities (which makes my cavity to tooth ratio a little off), and I should relax while he calls a different dentist to come in and pull out all my teeth. He pretends to make a call on an old, out-of-use cell phone, then he comes back and says that before the new dentist comes, he’s supposed to clean my teeth. Although it seems like a waste of time to clean teeth that are about to be pulled, I go along with it because I get to lie on the sofa while simultaneously playing with my kid. Mom Win!

He asks me which flavor of toothpaste I would prefer, so I ask him what my choices are. He says (and this is verbatim because I wrote it down right after we played) he has grape, orange, applesauce, Dr. Coke, alcohol, and Sprite. I tell him I’d like orange, but he says not to pick that because it’s too boring. “Okay. Then what do you want me to pick?” I ask. He says, “You should pick alcohol so that you will be like this…” and he acts like he’s drunk, stumbling around and tripping over the footstool. I tell him I don’t get drunk, so I’ll just stick with orange flavor, thank you very much.

Now I could be concerned that my 10 year-old son is talking about alcohol and getting drunk, but I use my own sense of wonder and remember the episode of I Love Lucy he recently watched when Lucy drinks too much of the Vitameatavegamin while filming a commercial and gets tipsy. I know he’s communicating what he’s seen in the world through imaginative play, so I can react accordingly. This works with my son, because we spend a lot of time together and I’ve made it my personal mission to become an expert on him and his three older siblings. But what about when people act or say things that are questionable and we don’t know them so well?

I heard a couple of therapists on the radio a few months ago discussing what life may be like for people venturing out on the other side of this often frightening pandemic. They said that many will suffer from PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a serious condition which may have long lasting repercussions. The therapists recommended that we should strive for PTG, or Post-Traumatic Growth. The trauma is still there, but the emphasis is on the growth which can occur. They also discussed how we should regard those people with whom we come in contact who may be suffering, and their suffering manifests itself in ways that make them a bit unbearable to be around. One of the therapists said, “Instead of judgment, turn to wonder.” I had to park my car and write down this phrase, because it was so perfect. What if instead of judging someone, we asked the question: I wonder why? How would that change the interaction or even the relationship?

Our youngest son, the aspiring tooth-puller, spent most of his first five years in an orphanage on the other side of the world. Because of his rough start, we have had to wonder a lot—about behaviors and motivations and unknown history—and so has he. Back in April, when we celebrated having him home for five years, the same number of years he spent away from us, he told me, “Before I had a family…before I was five…my life feels like a long, black line with no words on it or a blank piece of paper. Mom, what was there when everything was blank?” I had to stop right then and write that down, too, because sometimes my hearts feels like it’s being crushed into tiny pieces and those pieces become lodged in my throat making it almost impossible to swallow, but wonders never cease.

Forget yourself

When my husband and I were first married, we lived in an apartment which was conveniently located right next to a Kroger. There were many times when I would park my car in my designated spot by our apartment and walk over to the grocery store after work to pick up a few items for supper. I reasoned that the exercise would do me good, and by the time I waited for the traffic to slow down to make the necessary turns out of our apartment complex and into the store parking lot, do my shopping, then do the reverse, walking was just quicker. (Now that I have four kids—3 teens and one that isn’t a teen but eats like one—and a grocery list as long as my arm, it’s hilarious to me that I would routinely walk out of Kroger with only a couple of bags.)

 

In order to make the trek from our apartment to the Kroger parking lot, I would have to climb down a fairly steep set of steps carved into the side of a bank of dirt. If memory serves me, there was a railing, but, though I was in my mid-20’s and somewhat spry, it could be a precarious climb.

 

On one occasion, I was met at the bottom of the stairs on my way back to my apartment by a tiny elderly woman who had a similar idea. I’m not sure if she lived in our apartment complex or if she was heading to the nearby senior center, but she also had groceries to haul up the steep stairs. I could tell she was trying to decide how she could safely make the ascent as she hung two or three bags on each wrist and stared up at the incline.

 

“Can I help?” I asked, setting my bags on the ground. The woman nodded and handed me her groceries which I carried to the top of the steps. Then I came back down and held her arm as she slowly made her way up. I headed back down one more time to get my bags and made another offer. “Can I help you get your groceries somewhere?”

 

“No, dear,” she answered, revealing a slight accent, maybe something Russian or from a country in Eastern Europe. “I can do for myself now.” She reached into her ancient pocketbook and pulled out a change purse.

 

“You don’t need to pay me,” I told her. “It was no problem.” Ignoring my words, the woman grabbed my hand and thrust a pile of dimes into my open palm. “Seriously. I was happy to do it,” I said as I tried to refuse the coins.

 

But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “When someone wants to give you something, you should take it,” she barked irritably. She snapped her change purse shut and shuffled off to the left. I eventually headed to the right, the cache of dimes growing sweatier and sweatier in my hand as I walked across the steamy asphalt to my apartment. I felt abused and chastised, wondering what I’d done wrong.

 

I’ve thought about that woman many times, and not because it was an especially unusual moment. It didn’t spark a lifelong friendship Tuesdays with Morrie-style or change my outlook on grocery shopping or stair climbing or the irrelevance of coins in our U.S. currency. Though it happened more than twenty years ago, I think the reason that made that memory stick in my head was her insistence that I be paid for my simple chore and her obvious frustration with me when I tried to refuse it.

 

But that’s the thing about helping others—or really any interactions we have with other humans—there can be a lot of layers, both for the helper and the person being helped. What’s the helper’s motivation? Could the aid being given somehow hurt the person being helped? With all the ways to intentionally and unintentionally offend, it sometimes makes you wonder if it’s even worth it to get involved.

 

I turn to the advice which the Apostle Paul gave to the Philippian church. He said, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (The Message)

 

Forget yourself long enough to see the best way to help, offering equal parts dignity and compassion.

What’s real?

As we watched a complicated battle scene in the new Mulan movie a few nights ago, my youngest son said, “It would be hard to be an actor.”

 

Assuming he was referring to the acrobatics required to do things like flip around on the back of horses while shooting arrows at a pursuing enemy, I replied, “It would. They must’ve practiced this scene a bunch of times.”

 

He paused a minute then said, “Yeah…and also why would you sign up for a movie if you’re just going to get killed?”

 

“Who got killed?” I asked.

 

“Well, that guy and that guy.” He pointed at the screen. “And that guy with the arrow in his chest. They’re all dead now. I wouldn’t want to be an actor.”

 

“They aren’t really dead!” I told him. “They’re just pretending.”

 

“Are you sure? They look dead.”

 

“I’m absolutely sure. No one was killed making this movie.” I thought for a minute, then added, “And it’s the same in other movies, too. They are always just pretending to die, and then they put fake blood on them.”

 

“Ohhhh…” At least outwardly satisfied by my answer, he finished watching the movie, hopefully with a new perspective about the craft of moviemaking and the exciting career of stunt professionals.

 

Reflecting on his film-related epiphany, I wondered if he’d been thinking this all along, that actors in the movies had been actually dying, like the man in the Darth Vader mask had really perished in Luke Skywalker’s arms. I also understood why he chafed at my frequent comments about how he should be an actor because he’s so funny and expressive and, let’s face it, very dramatic. While I thought I was paying him a compliment, he may have assumed I wanted him to kick the bucket on the silver screen.

 

Perspective is such an essential tool in understanding the motivations of another human being. The well-known phrase goes something like this, “To understand another person, you must walk a mile in his shoes.” I like Atticus Finch’s counsel to his daughter Scout even better in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

 

Atticus’ advice is more of a submission to empathy than just tying on a pair of shoes and going for a walk. It’s a desire to absorb every nuance of their viewpoint and outlook. How do they see the world and how does the world see them? But it’s possible to take this to the next step. Because even after trying our best to be empathetic, we may have to admit that the other person’s opinion just doesn’t make sense, and then what? Just agree to disagree? I’m sometimes challenged to figure out how to live on the same planet with some people so ideologically different than me, let alone the same country or even the same street. The only way to move forward is with a heaping helping of grace. In spite of how I feel about them and what evidence I have about the truth, that undeserved and magical gift is as much for me as it is for them.

 

I’m glad my son and I had our conversation about movies, because it gave me just one more glimpse into the mind of one of my favorite people. It’s a bit disconcerting to realize that he has been thinking that all of these actors have been dying voluntarily, and, even worse, that we’re all okay with it. But now that it’s out there, I can put it right. We can discuss it and the truth is revealed.  Then I can show him what’s real.

On the lookout for angels

Since the task of feeding our family of 6 falls to me, I spend a lot of time in grocery stores. For the most part, I’m a Kroger girl and always have been. Other than a few years when my mom tried shopping at Mega Market (the place in 100 Oaks Mall where you had to bag your own groceries), I was raised on Kroger—smiley face stickers and “let’s go krogering” jingle and all. I will sometimes venture into other stores if necessary, but I like knowing where things are in my regular place—start with produce, move on to soups, then pastas, etc.

 

Last week, after dropping my youngest son off at soccer practice, I needed to do my weekly grocery shopping. I was going to pass a Publix to get to a Kroger, so I decided to get crazy and go inside a different store. Sometimes I even surprise myself.

 

Nothing was in the same place. I kept walking past things on my list, and then I had to backtrack (which was made even more difficult by the “do not enter” and “enter here” stickers on the floor). As a rule, I only go to Publix if we’re in Florida, so I kept reminding myself I wasn’t on vacation.

 

To make things even more confusing, when I was finally done shopping and the cashier was ringing up my items, the friendly bagger boy posed a puzzling question through his face mask. “Got big plans for the weekend?” he asked. I paused before answering. So many thoughts swirled in my head.

 

“The weekend?” I stammered through my own face mask. “I have been thinking today was Monday all day. What day is it?”

 

“It is Monday,” he responded. “I just like planning ahead.” I told him that I had no idea what I was doing in five days, but I liked his initiative.

 

As I drove home with my van full of groceries, I thought about my shopping experience and how it’s possible to feel like a stranger even when you’re just a few minutes from home. It can be an unsettling feeling. It’s a good reminder to be on the lookout for actual strangers (not just Kroger shoppers who’ve wandered into Publix) who might need a little help.

 

At the end of the Book of Hebrews, we see a final list of exhortations: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

 

The author is reminding the readers that the best way to love is to share, share their successes and sufferings and suppers. To love each other like we’re family, even if we aren’t related. I can’t imagine a better reward for showing hospitality than to be treated to dinner with an angel.

Words

I am a logophile, a lover of words. When I’m attempting to write something—fiction or non-fiction—I work diligently to dig up the most perfect word from the disorganized quarry that is my mind (especially lately). When I find that prized word, an amazing feeling washes over me. Instead of a runner’s high, I get a writer’s high. My heart pops and stutters. My breath catches in my chest.

 

On average, the words I love the most aren’t necessarily long ones with complicated origins. Not often choosing lengthy words like perspicacious and parsimonious and preantepenultimate (which, by the way, means third from the end), my preferred words could be easily understood by kindergarteners. Though my favorite words are often only constructed of one or two syllables, they evoke feelings and clearly conjure up a scene for the reader.

 

I love fanciful words that remind me of the magic of nature, like wind and whisper. I think of invisible, curly threads wafting up and down with a backdrop of a brilliant, blue sky. Ungraspable, no matter how many times you reach out, but you smile broadly as you chase after them.

 

I love welcoming words that remind me of rocking my babies, like near and held. There’s a warmth to these words, an invited closeness, a safety. When my husband holds me with his strong arms and I bury my face in his chest, I can feel the tenseness in my shoulders relax and a giant sigh escape from deep inside me.

 

I love lonely words that remind me of ripples in a still pond, like echo and shadow. These words have sound and shape, while holding a certain degree of melancholy. They conjure a vision of a lone hiker on a cliff, shouting his name into an empty canyon as he stares down into the darkness made from the imposing rock faces surrounding it.

 

But the interpretations of these words are based on my own experiences. You could ask a hundred other people what connections these words make for them, and you’d get a hundred different replies. This is the power of words, and what makes them both life-giving and dangerous. It’s impossible to remove ourselves from our own experiences as we look out at the world, and yet it’s a task we must exercise daily.

 

The word wind might mean a pleasant, gentle beachside breeze to me, but if you mention it to someone who’s lost everything in a tornado, that person would have a different reaction.

 

The word shadow might remind me of walking my son to school as we discuss the lengths of our silhouettes, while someone else might interpret shadows to be the presence of overbearing figures in his life.

 

The word held imparts happiness as I am often the giver and receiver of welcomed embraces, but the idea of being restrained evokes only pain for someone who’s freedom and safety is frequently restricted.

 

This is why language is so important. We must find the words to build up and empower others, not destroy them so that we seem elevated. Whether it be a voice shouted in peaceful protest echoing off the boarded-up windows of a business or a whisper of encouragement to those near us, the words must be intentional and designed to edify. As author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “When language fails, violence becomes a language.” So now it’s my turn to listen.

Tunneling back

Since November 9, 2019 marks the 30thanniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this moment in history has reappeared for a little while in the news. I was a teenager when it came down, but I realize now that I knew very little about this wall. I knew it was symbolic of the horrors of Communist Soviet Union and that President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” in a speech he made outside the Brandenburg Gate and a boy who liked my older sister gave her a chunk of stone that was supposed to be from the actual wall to somehow get her to go out with him. (It didn’t work.)

 

I didn’t know that the wall went up in 1961. I assumed it was constructed just after the end of World War 2, when Germany was divided by the conquering nations—Soviets getting the eastern half and America, Britain and France ruling the western half. But the wall was a result of a slow simmering pot of dissatisfaction with the lack of freedom in the east and a controlling dictatorship. The Soviets didn’t like that so many people were leaving their side. Once the wall went up, that pot of unhappiness and misery had to build in intensity until the people could no longer abide the cruelty it enforced.

 

I have been listening to an interesting BBC Radio podcast called “Tunnel 29” about a group of people who worked to help others escape from East Germany into West Germany. There are heartbreaking stories about families and friends being separated first by barbed wire, then thick concrete walls, trenches and land mines. The wall was heavily guarded and the East German Police employed spies to find those who might want to defect. The people were desperate to get out.

 

The podcast focuses on one German man in particular named Joachim. He escaped from East Germany and was soon approached by a team of people wanting to dig tunnels under the wall. Joachim was an engineering student, so devising methods for removing dirt and pumping in fresh air and constructing scaffolding was his expertise.

 

Without revealing the many plot twists and perilous moments in Joachim’s story, one of the most astonishing realizations I made while listening to the podcast is the group’s dedication to the rescue mission. When Joachim escaped, he took risks, but this was to save himself. He was willing to do whatever it took to get out of East Germany or die trying. The tunnel diggers jeopardized their own freedom and possibly their lives, but from the position of safety. They were in West Germany. They were safe. Many of the other diggers were also escapees. They knew what was waiting for them on the east side of the concrete wall, and yet they started digging…digging toward danger.

 

This mentality may explain why so many social workers were once foster kids. And some medical professionals spent a lot of their childhoods in pediatric hospitals. And sometimes police officers grew up in homes where abuse was common. And the best caretakers to dying loved ones are cancer survivors. So often and contrary to human logic, the people who escape danger are the ones who are more likely to turn around and start digging in the direction of those who need rescuing.

Biker wave

While vacationing in Florida and visiting a couple of amusement parks during Fall Break, I came to a realization: We parents need our own biker wave. You know what I’m talking about—a motorcyclist passing a fellow motorcyclist takes his left hand off the handlebar and does a peace sign with two fingers pointing to the ground.

 

It’s a show of camaraderie. It’s a way of saying, “Hey there, fellow human with similar life experiences! I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool!” (Or something like that. I’m not a motorcyclist so I couldn’t say for sure what that small hand gesture means, but it seems positive. All I know is it doesn’t work as well with minivans.)

 

I had this epiphany while watching a mom, dad and two young sons at Sea World. The dad had hit his limit. His older son was whining to the point that he had apparently lost his ability to walk normally. The dad was attempting to move him forward through the crowd and the boy was floppily walking like he was the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Ozbeing forcefully removed from a sit-in against Munchkin oppression.

 

Once they made it to a short brick wall that served the dual purpose of creating a flower bed and providing seating to all of the hot and weary park attendees, the dad roughly sat the son down and told him not to get up. The boy began to cry, maybe from physical hurt but mostly from having his father lose his cool and aim it in his direction, while the dad looked at the Sea World map in his hands.

 

I couldn’t stop watching this scene. It just felt so familiar. Your kids, those darlings you would lay down in front of a bus for, can make you straight up crazy. I noticed right away that this particular family was comprised of adopted children with mom and dad of one skin color and sons of another. So from my own experience, I knew there were so many layers to what was playing out in front of me.

 

The crying son stood and tried to grab his dad around the middle, but the dad peeled him off and told him to sit back down. The mom who had been talking to the younger son sitting in the stroller calmly stepped in and said, “Let him hug you.” But the dad wasn’t ready to receive affection. He was mad. The mom hugged the son instead, and in a few moments they were on the move again, in search of rides or treats or shows.

 

Before we left the park, I saw this same family and the dad was holding the older son in his arms while the boy slept, his face cradled in the dad’s neck and his little arm slung across the dad’s strong shoulder. They had made their peace.

 

I wanted to reach out to this family and say something encouraging. I wouldn’t offer advice or try to show them how to parent their boys. I just wanted to flash that biker wave as if to say, “This is really hard, isn’t it? I’m sorry you guys had that moment of tension and separation, but I bet you get more things right than you get wrong, so keep on going. I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool.”

Seeing

When my children were younger, I taught them to look at adults when they spoke to them. “Give her your eyes,” I would say when someone asked them questions or complimented their Sunday clothes. This is basic courtesy. It’s the foundation of face-to-face communication. When you look into the eyes of another human being, you are saying, “I am listening.”

 

When I demonstrated for my children how to safely cross the street, I taught them to make eye contact with the drivers. “When you look at them and you know that they see you, then you can cross in front of them without worrying,” I would say as we idled at the edge of a sidewalk, making our way to school in the morning.

 

Something happens when two sets of eyes lock. There’s a silent click that occurs, a momentary understanding, a brief acknowledgment. That moment may not translate into anything permanent or even positive. It may not get filed away as a significant memory, but there is magic in seeing and being seen.

 

I try to practice what I preach, making eye contact with all people, even those who don’t conform to the norms of society. I try to look without staring into the eyes of the disabled. I want my eyes to speak when my words might be too clumsy. I want my smile to say “Hello! I’m happy to see you!” I want to remember the words of Robert Hensel, the man born with Spina bifida who holds the Guinness World Record for the longest non-stop wheelie in a wheelchair. He once said, “There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.” I want to see more.

 

I remember so clearly when I fell in love with my husband, nearly a quarter of a century ago. This was the first time I participated in the romantic equivalent of a staring contest. It seems pretty cheesy now, but in the initial puppy love phase, we would look deeply into each other’s eyes without feeling foolish or pressured to break the gaze. The more and better he knew me—the real me, not the “First Date” version—the more I could allow myself to be seen by him. During our dating years, when he sometimes saw me at less than my best—throwing up that one time or post-wisdom teeth removal with bloody gums and high on pain meds, this vulnerability became easier.

 

We may not gaze deeply into each other’s eyes as much now, but I have been known to enter a room and stare at him while trying to remember why I came into that room. I’m not sure if that counts, but it does seem to help. Maybe he’s my North Star and his job is to realign my compass so I can get back on track. He raises his eyebrows as if to say, “Can I help you?” and I squint my eyes in concentration as if to say, “Hang on. Don’t anybody move. I’m thinking.”

 

It’s remarkable what truly seeing can accomplish. And what a difference it can make if we just look up and give each other our eyes.

Family Reading Night

At the end of February, I was given the opportunity to speak at a Family Reading Night at my son’s elementary school. I spoke for about 20 minutes about different types of book genres and my writing process. I showed the kids (and their parents) examples of the books I’ve written. The kids were great listeners and asked really smart questions at the end.

 

Before the second session started, I asked my son Ezra, who was born in Africa and added to our family almost 2 years ago, to pass out bookmarks I had brought for all of the kids in attendance. Three elementary-aged girls—two younger white girls and one older black girl—sitting at my feet, waiting for my talk to begin, noticed my black son calling a white woman “mom,” so they asked me about it.

 

“Is he your son?” asked the older girl, probably a 5th grader.

 

When you have an adopted child of a different race, this is a normal question and, in my experience, not usually meant unkindly, so I’ve found it’s best to just answer honestly and without a lot of details. You can always elaborate if they need more information.

 

“Yes,” I answered.

 

“He looks different than you, like you’re light and he’s dark,” one of the younger girls, a 1st grader, commented.

 

“He was born in a different country, but he’s in our family now.” I wondered if they would ask the uncomfortable question: what happened to his real mom? That’s the one that makes my chest tighten up and causes me to scan the room to see if Ezra heard the question, so I can read his face. As a rule, adopted parents prefer to be considered real (It’s not like I’m invisible or anything), but I have been around the block enough to know that vocabulary sometimes fails us, and what people say isn’t always what they mean. In other words, it’s not helpful to assume people are judging the whole adoption/race thing and get yourself all worked up.

 

But these girls didn’t ask the dreaded question, so I didn’t have to talk about the sad events in Ezra’s life with perfect strangers. Instead, these precious leaders of tomorrow had this discussion:

 

1st grade girl: Did you know that a long time ago dark-skinned people couldn’t go to school with light-skinned people? But Dr. King told them that was wrong.

 

5th grade girl: Yeah, Dr. King wasn’t president but he was still really important. He told us that we’re all the same.

 

1st grade girl: That’s why it doesn’t matter if your son looks different than you.

 

5th grade girl: You can love everybody.

 

The other girl who had been silently listening to this enlightened discussion finally spoke. She said, “I’m excited about your talk but I feel like I’ve already learned a lot from you guys.”

 

I jotted down the words they said before I left the school, because…come on. That’s amazing. When you start thinking we adults have really made a mess of everything, say a prayer of thanks for the kids at John Pittard Elementary School.

 

We can get along. We can talk it out. We can learn from the mistakes of those who came before us. When kids are shown loving, mature examples of empathy and given a chance to spend time together in this kind of atmosphere, they will figure out how to make the world a better place.

The Meanest Man in Town

Mr. Hopper was universally regarded as the meanest man in town. He just didn’t like kids—not in his grass or near his car or close to his mailbox or even in his peripheral vision. At 3:00 pm every day, he made sure to position himself in his front yard with his garden hose in hand. It only took a few showers for the kids to re-route their walk home from school. A shortcut wasn’t worth an afternoon of soggy socks and sodden tennis shoes.

As people moved away and new families moved in, the reputation of Mean Mr. Hopper grew to legendary proportions. Some said his wife had left him, and he hadn’t been the same since. Others said he had fought in Vietnam leaving him bitter and angry. One unsubstantiated rumor claimed he had been an informant for the Feds, now forced into hiding from the Mob.

The neighborhood’s assumptions about him were challenged every year on December 1st. Rain or shine, Mr. Hopper spent the day dragging inflatables and wooden cut-outs from his garage. He untangled miles of orange extension cords and blinking Christmas lights, pausing from time to time to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the bright red handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. He carefully placed the reindeer figures in the seats of the five-foot tall Ferris Wheel before plugging it in and checking that all the lights along the edge worked properly and it rotated smoothly. He set the giant, inflatable M&M near the oak tree then started up the fan that breathed life into the flat green bundle of shiny fabric. Scaling the old splatter-painted fiberglass ladder, he hung the icicle lights on his gutters along the front of the house. By the end of the day, hardly an inch of empty space remained, including the front porch where super-sized versions of The Grinch, Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Mickey Mouse stood guard.

The final piece to Mr. Hopper’s tribute to twenty years of Day-After-Christmas sales was the life-size Mrs. Claus cut from plywood and painted with poster paints. She stood front and center with one hand waving to any passers-by and the other hand holding a plate of tree-shaped cookies. Mr. Hopper would remove his handkerchief to tenderly wipe away any grime she had collected from the dusty garage, then he would stand back to survey his hard work. Without a smile of satisfaction, he would give the yard a nod and walk inside the house to await the increasing darkness that would add magic to his display.

As the days leading up to Christmas tumbled by, more cars would slowly roll past the bright house. On many occasions, Mr. Hopper could be seen peeking out his living room curtains. When drivers caught sight of him, they would speed up to continue down the street rather than risk being on the receiving end of a a fist-shaking from this grouchy neighbor.

“I can’t imagine why a man that ornery would want to do his house up for Christmas,” Mrs. West said to Mr. West as the Hopper house twinkled in the rearview mirror. “They say he’s as tight as a miser with his money. Makes you wonder what he thinks about his electric bills when they come in the mail ‘round this time of year.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

One year Mrs. Haven returned to town on Christmas Eve. She was an elderly woman who had been Mr. Hopper’s neighbor nearly thirty years before but had moved to San Francisco to be nearer her only daughter. Having been the town’s first librarian, she had been invited to the opening of the new public library. At a reception following the ceremony, one of the patrons asked Mrs. Haven if she had kept up with any of her former neighbors.

“No,” she said as she carefully held a plastic cup of punch, “I’ve lost touch with everyone, I’m afraid. It’s too bad because we lived here for ten years.”

“Where was your house?”

“We had a lovely split-level on the corner of Maple and Birch.”

“Oh my! Isn’t that next to Mr. Hopper?”

“Charles Hopper? Yes, that’s right.”

“Muriel Haven, how did you ever stand living next to that man?”

“He was a wonderful neighbor.” Mrs. Haven furrowed her brow with a confused expression. “He kept his lawn neat and his wife baked the best cherry pie.”

“His wife?” The circle of people took a step in toward the center, closing in on Mrs. Haven like a pack of hungry wolves.

“Yes. Charles and Penny were a dear couple. I suppose Penny has passed on now. She would never leave her bed after little Charlie’s accident…” Mrs. Haven paused to sip her punch and glanced at the faces surrounding her. “Of course you all know about the accident.” No one spoke or even breathed. “He was only four when he was hit by a car in the street in front of their house. Poor Penny was such a sweet, meek, little thing. She just crumbled into pieces. My husband and I moved a year or so after the accident and when my letters were unanswered…well, we just never heard what came of them.”

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The late local news had ended. Mr. Hopper had just turned off the television set but he had a difficult time pulling himself up from his recliner. He knew he had to turn off the outdoor lights before preparing for bed, but he dreaded the moment when the brilliant brightness would be extinguished. The sudden darkness always made him feel blind and unsure of what lurked just beyond his yard. He reached up to switch off the floor lamp so that he could fully appreciate the cheerful flashing and whirring outside.

Thoughts of a little boy with blond ringlets tearing open the wrappings on a new train set Christmas morning made a hollow ache spread from his stomach to his throat and into the deep sockets behind his eyes. He had spent the past thirty years trying to forget the son who had been a joyous surprise to an aging, childless couple. He had worked hard to prevent any children coming within twenty feet of his door but memories are no respecter of boundaries and garden hoses. He always told himself that he did it for her. He kept them away for the same reason that he put out the lights and decorations every year—to bring her back to him—to make everything the same as it had been before Charlie. In moments of honest introspection, he admitted that he also did it for himself to prove that he was still alive. Sometimes he needed more proof than just the air entering and exiting his old chest.

“Charles?” a weak voice called from the back bedroom.

“Coming, Penny.” Mr. Hopper folded the leg rest on his recliner and stood, then he went to kiss his wife goodnight.