More than twenty years ago our family moved into a new neighborhood. We had three, almost four small children, and my mother was going to live in the one wing of the house we had built specifically so that she could. To the west of us lived an older couple who had been the only ones on the street for years. They had cultivated quiet and solitude with the same meticulousness with which they pampered their velvet lawns and immaculate gardens. No one in the surrounding neighborhood knew them very well. They didn’t go to the predominant church up the street two blocks, and since they had no children to chase into other people’s concepts of them, they remained an aloof mystery to those who had occasion to walk dogs or charities past their door.
All the time that we were building we were aware of their indignation that we were doing so. During our constant visits to the site we saw only fleeting glimpses of them peering from their patio or getting into their car. They never said a single hello and became almost specters that made our imminent move a touch eerie.
By the time we moved in it was Christmas. Winter lay ahead with all of its contained seclusion. Except for a few fox and geese and snowmen in the front yard, no one desecrated the no-man’s-land that now lay between the Hugos’ property and ours.
Then spring came. Muddy runoff drained from our unplanted yard onto the pool-table-green lawns of the Hugos. We built immediate and thorough sumps under the bulldog eyes of our unconversational neighbors. Soon our children were riding audacious tricycles into the forbidden driveway and chasing balls onto the unfenced premises. The sandpile we put in on the west of our house brought an unqualified demand for a high grapestake fence between it and their patio ten feet away.
By summer, loud parties on that patio reverberated through our bedroom that overlooked it. In the bedroom below ours we often rocked and coddled sleepless children wakened by the noise of the parties next door that had no child-imposed curfews. And so it was with little-quelled irritation that we lay in our bed above that patio that fateful Saturday night in July to overhear the Hugos, this time just the two of them, at 2:00 A.M. coming home from a night out. By then we were certain that they were insensitive carousers whose only standards were horticultural and isolationist. After all, what kind of people could be anti-church, anti-neighborhood, anti-children, anti-everything that made sense to us, their now very alien neighbors to the east? And what chance had we ever had to understand any of their doings? We had not had a single real conversation with them.
The dialogue between the two of them boomed into our open windows. She had a very distinctive voice—and he was very hard-of-hearing, so it was not the first time we had been inadvertent eavesdroppers on her directives. “These blasted cats!” she exploded. “Look at them—all over our lounge! People at least have the decency to keep dogs home, but cats! They can run like tramps and ruin anything and nobody takes them seriously!”
We stared at the ceiling, knowing that the “cats” were without question the two new kittens that our daughters, particularly our six-year-old, had been loving for the past week.
“What are they doing out?” I hushed to Mel. “I thought the girls put them in the storage room.”
Below us, the one-sided conversation continued. She was saying, “You just take them and get rid of them. Go on. Right now. I’m not going to stand for this.”
Unbelieving, we lay openmouthed as we heard the garage door go up, the car start, and leave. “They wouldn’t! Tell me they wouldn’t!” we said to each other. Silence. For seventeen minutes, silence. Then the car back, the door up, the door down. Silence.
“You don’t really think …”
“No. Nobody would just … But what else?” There we lay, steaming, till Sunday morning.
Before leaving for priesthood meeting, Mel blistered over to the Hugos’ front door. We had searched everywhere, and there were no kittens. The girls had been up since 7:00, hunting and crying. Mel is a magnanimous man and usually slow to anger, but he came back from the Hugos’ with his ears red and his jaw clamped. He had to rush to his meeting, but told me that Mr. Hugo had admitted taking the kittens away and that Mrs. Hugo had been furious and had said they would never tell where they had taken them and that it was better than we deserved not to have the police on our wayward backs.
Eight months expectant and holding the hand of the four-year-old I dragged with me, I went pounding to the Hugos’ door to demand the revelation of where our kittens were. When Mrs. Hugo opened the door, I began with, “Do you have any idea of what it means to a little girl to have something happen to her kitten?” I’m sure I was lighted up by the outrage that now moved me past any politeness. But I had no chance to inquire further. Mrs. Hugo moved just far enough forward to open the screen door and screech at me, “You get out of here, you troublemaker! You’ve been nothing but trouble from the minute you came around here. Now get out!” And she slammed the screen and then the door on my now totally fired indignation.
I stormed home bent on if not revenge at least retribution. The girls were crying, and I was blubbering. Mother met me at our door. “I hear there’s a problem,” she said with her usual calm.
“A problem!” I whooped, and proceeded to crash through the details of the battle.
She let me huff and fume, even in front of the children as I recall—something she never would have approved under normal circumstances. That was undignified and destructive. But when I was through—a grown 32-year-old woman, ranting that I wanted to call the police myself, or something, anything—she sat me down, and the children, and said very quietly, “Emma Lou, this is a pivotal moment in your life with the people next door. You’ve moved in here, and you expect to stay. Probably so do they. And they were here first. You’ve introduced a lot of frustration and bewilderment into their established lives. But I’ll bet anything that Mrs. Hugo feels just as terrible as you do right now.”
“Oh, sure,” I huffed. “She’s probably swimming in regret.”
“You know, I’m sure she is,” Mother said. “And it’s up to you to make amends.”
“Yes, you and your little girls.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, not even from Mother. Mother had always had unusual, sometimes bizarre ways of handling life and teaching us to, but this was crazy. I wasn’t going to go penitent to someone who had so thoroughly wronged all of us.
“Oh, yes you will,” Mother said, with the quiet firmness that had always marked the finality of a decision. “You will help your girls pick the nicest flowers in the garden (goodness knows we had few enough that first summer) and then they will take them over to Mrs. Hugo—without you. I don’t trust you as much as I do them. And they will tell her how sorry they are that their kittens were a nuisance.”
“And then what?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“And then—good relations with your neighbors for the rest of your time here.”
I still thought it was all backwards, but I did remember a scripture somewhere that said something about letting him who has been offended be the one to apologize for whatever caused the offense. (See Matt. 18:15–20.) At any rate, I sent the children off with their bouquets of pansies and castor beans.
Before they had even made it back to our door, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Hugo, and she was crying. “Oh, Mrs. Thayne,” she was saying, “those darling children—and flowers! If only you knew how sorry I am! I’ve always had a terrible temper—and it’s ruined my life. I guess we all say and do things we’re horribly sorry for—and we never get to say so.”
I was crying and sorry, too. Standing there in the kitchen, I heard her saying where they’d dropped the kittens, offering to take us there and help look for them, saying she’d like to put an ad in the paper for the kittens or buy new ones for us, saying how well she remembered how much her daughters loved kittens when they were little, how long ago that had been, how much she missed her family, how far away they were, how much she would like to be friends.
I can never remember feeling more warmth flood between two people. Before Mel came home from church, the Hugos had taken us hunting for the kittens (in vain), and we had invited them for dinner. Mother and Mrs. Hugo had chatted about grandchildren and flower arrangements, and I had noticed how much Mr. Hugo seemed like my Uncle Willard.
For the fifteen years that we lived next door, the Hugos were a pleasant and broadening part of our lives. Our children came to know them as givers of candy and interest in any project. And they taught us much. Though we still had many things not in common, we came to appreciate their need for privacy, their different kind of conviviality, their sincere adherence to a code unlike ours in minutiae but astoundingly similar in principles.
When Mr. Hugo died, it was Mel that they asked to say a prayer at the funeral that was not in our church. And it was Mrs. Hugo who brought flowers from her bounteous garden to our door as the moving van came to take her and her loneliness to live with a daughter in Detroit. “Thank you for the flowers over the years,” she said.
As we held each other in the first and last hug we were to share, I thought how different that departure would have been if my wise little mother had not sat me down and taught me how to let the Golden Rule be more than mere abstraction on a page. These twenty-eight years later, I look at our world and say still, Thank you, Mother, for showing me how to let the diverse good in others enlarge my otherwise limited view of what is there.