Monday, September 21, 2009

My Generous Neighbor

Part of me is still a child. I will meet someone or find myself in a place from my childhood, and suddenly a mixture of thoughts and emotions from a point in the past will arise in such a powerful way as to temporarily conquer all of my subsequent years of growth and experience.

Sometimes this can be a pleasant occurrence, like the time a scent took me to a late night in my Mom’s kitchen when I was eight or nine. It was the night before Thanksgiving. We kids had already been in bed for some time when I awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I could hear Mom working out there. Even in my bedroom I was ensconced in a web of delectable smells.

Unable to restrain myself, I slipped out of bed and sheepishly wandered into the kitchen. Mom was busy preparing for the next day’s festivities. She still had a lot of work she wanted to finish before collapsing into bed. I’m sure that the last thing she wanted to do was to deal with a child that should be asleep.

Mom had a habit of mixing up a little extra dough when she made pies. She wanted to make sure she had sufficient. If she ended up with leftover dough after making pie shells, she would roll it out, cover it with cinnamon and sugar, roll it up, and cut the rolled dough into what looked like tiny cinnamon rolls, which she baked along with the pies.

I came into the kitchen that night after Mom had just removed a batch of pies, including a few little pie crust cinnamon rolls. She took pity on me and allowed me the guilty pleasure of enjoying a couple of these delightful treats. As I snacked, she talked to me in a more grown up way than was usual. I don’t remember anything we talked about, but I felt important and trusted as I went back to bed.

Sometimes these attacks of childhood memories are less pleasant. I will run into someone I haven’t seen for decades with whom I had an unfortunate childhood experience. Although years have passed and we have both become different people, the poignancy of the distant event will invade my mind.

Something like this happened when I encountered a man that had bullied me around back when we were kids. It was only by sheer force of will that I forced down the fight or flight response and was able to chat amicably.

The other day a man passed away that played a very important role in my family’s life during my formative years. He was a large, gregarious man that has been bald on top ever since I could remember. He wasn’t always good at protocol, but his love of people was palpable. This man and my Dad served together in church positions. Some of the children in both families were close in age, so we occasionally did things together.

I will never forget how this man made possible a very important event for our family. My parents had scrimped and saved for years hoping to put aside enough money to visit my Dad’s family in Germany, none of whom my parents had seen since before they married.

My folks saved enough for the two of them to go to Germany on a tight budget. They had wanted to take the kids, but the financial realities of our family’s working class income meant that there wouldn’t be enough savings to pull that off for another eight to ten years. While Mom and Dad could afford to go by themselves, what were they to do with the kids?

This man and his wife went to three other neighbors that had kids with whom we kids often played. These four sets of neighbors then came to my parents and explained the plan. My parents would go to Europe for a month while these neighbors cared for the kids.

It was kind of strange only seeing my brothers at school and/or at church. But the month passed well. The day before my parents were to return, these four families took their own money and went shopping. They cleaned our home and filled the cupboards and refrigerator with food. My parents were overwhelmed with this outpouring of generosity.

But generosity was simply this man’s basic nature. I watched as he gave countless hours to good causes, both publicly and privately. He was always helping people. He served twice as the president of the local Boy Scout council. He and his wife volunteered for years at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Yet they constantly found ways to serve others privately and without fanfare.

Hardship comes even to the best of people. Almost all of this man’s children have chosen paths that have brought challenges and sorrow. Encounters with these people, my contemporaries, trigger some recalls of childhood memories — some sweet and some less so. Regardless of their choices, I wish each one all the best. I hope that each realizes that their father was a great man.

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