Even before Dad called Sister Willingham by name, I knew it was her, and the last thing I wanted to do was to waste a perfectly good Saturday in her yard. I felt myself stiffen with resentment and rebellion, and my cheeks colored and warmed with a frustrating tide of irritation. Grabbing a slice of toast, I began spreading it thick with jam while Dad talked.
“Sure, I think he could help you out,” Dad said, nodding his head. “Well, he does have a ball practice in the afternoon, but I’m sure he can have things taken care of at your place before then.”
When Dad came back to the table, he poured himself a glass of orange juice and took a sip before saying anything to me. Since Mom and the three younger kids had left earlier to do some shopping and wouldn’t be back until later in the afternoon, Dad and I were the only ones home.
“That was Sister Willingham,” he remarked casually, setting his glass down.
I munched my toast without responding.
“She wondered if you would mind helping her out for an hour or so.”
I cleared my throat. “I have a talk to prepare for sacrament meeting,” I mumbled tersely.
Dad picked up his glass again and sipped his juice, watching me the whole while. “It should only take an hour or so, Ryan. Couldn’t you spare that much time? She said she’d pay you.”
“Pay me!” I growled, pushing back from the table. “She never pays me, not in full. Oh, she counts out a few quarters and maybe peels off a dollar bill once in a while, but it’s not pay, not for the time I put in. And then she always asks, ‘Is that enough, Ryan?’” I looked up and asked, “What am I supposed to say, ‘No, it’s not enough. I make three and a quarter an hour when I work at the store?’ or ‘Mel Richardson pays me ten dollars for a couple hours of work?’” I shook my head. “She might as well ask me to do it for free,” I complained. Dad didn’t respond. “And why does she always ask you to relay the message to me?” I continued sourly. “I’m not a little kid. I’m 17. Why doesn’t she ask me? I can answer for myself.”
Dad sighed, finished his juice, and began clearing off the table. “You should feel flattered that she trusts you.”
“I wish she’d flatter somebody else,” I grumbled, pushing back from the table and taking my plate and glass to the sink.
“I’d go myself,” Dad spoke up, “but Bishop Hall asked me to go with him over to the welfare farm this morning to hang some doors on that new storage shed.”
“So I get stuck with Sister Willingham.”
“Have you ever stopped to think that she might hate asking you as much or more than you hate being asked?” I didn’t answer. Dad began rinsing the dishes off. “For almost 12 years Sister Willingham’s been a widow. All her life she’s been able to do things for herself. Now she can’t, so she has to depend on somebody else. She’d pay you three and a quarter an hour if she had it. She probably pays you twice as much as she can afford. You’re worth the pay. I’m not denying that. Brother Richardson hires you so he can spend an extra afternoon playing golf, not because he really needs you. He should pay you a good wage.”
I shrugged, trying to appear indifferent, but my conscience was pricked and I felt a touch of shame. “Maybe it’s just the way she goes about it,” I muttered. “Why doesn’t she ask me personally? She knows I live here, that I can answer the phone as well as you. I’ll tell you why,” I argued, attempting to justify my reluctance. “Because she’s afraid I’ll turn her down, and she wants you to make me go.”
“I’ve never made you go, have I?”
I laughed dryly. “I’ve always gone because I knew if I didn’t you’d probably make me or tell me I couldn’t take the car or something else. You would, wouldn’t you?” I asked pointedly.
Dad smiled wanly and wiped his hands on a paper towel and tossed it in the garbage under the sink. “Maybe I would,” he admitted. “I’ve always been proud that you’ve gone on your own.” He knit his brow. “I suppose I’ve—well, I guess I’ve—” He shook his head. “I’ve hoped that you would want to help Sister Willingham on your own.”
“For the pennies she pays?”
“Maybe there’s more in it than pennies. If I were interested in the money, I’d see if Brother Richardson would hire you more often.” He turned from me and put the juice and butter in the fridge. “Some things we do because—” He pondered. “Some things we do just to help somebody out. I’ve wanted you to help Sister Willingham. I don’t deny it. I suppose I’ve wanted you to get more out of it than money. Perhaps something money can’t buy. But as long as you do it just for the money—well, as long as you take the money, the money’s all you get.”
Dad left me in the kitchen and went to get his tool box and coveralls. A few minutes later the bishop pulled into the driveway and honked once. Dad hurried to the front door. He opened it and then paused in the doorway. Without turning to face me he called, “Ryan, it’s up to you what you do with Sister Willingham. I won’t make you go. And in the future I’ll let you talk to her. I won’t commit you to something you don’t want to do.”
I stayed in the kitchen and finished washing the dishes, not that I had to or that anybody really expected me to, but at least that way I was busy, and being busy was justification for not going over to Sister Willingham’s. But the dishes were soon finished, and I was still pestered by persisting thoughts of Sister Willingham. Finally in exasperation I sighed and grumbled, “I could use a little money. Troy’s birthday’s coming up. I might as well earn a couple of bucks as sit around the house all day.”
Five minutes later I was knocking on Sister Willingham’s screen door. As I hammered on the screen’s wooden frame, it creaked and shuddered on its loose hinges. I noticed that the paint was beginning to chap and peel and the screen had pulled out at the bottom. I looked behind me at the front yard. The grass needed trimming, the shrubs could have used a good pruning job, the irises along the front of the house needed thinning and weeding. I looked away; the whole sight made me feel just a little uneasy, a little ashamed for being so reluctant to come.
The front door opened slowly. “Why, hello, Ryan,” Sister Willingham said, squinting at me through the rusted screen and pushing her slipping glasses up on her nose. She chuckled. “I’d almost decided you couldn’t come.” She pushed the screen door open. It whined and rattled closed behind her as she stepped outside. “I’ll show you what I need.”
Sister Willingham was a frail-looking, gray-haired woman in her middle seventies. Her cheeks were sunken, her face creased with countless wrinkles. When she walked, she shuffled along with her shoulders stooped, her pale-blue eyes peering through thick, horn-rimmed glasses. Her voice was always a little high-pitched and irritating in tone, and yet she was a pleasant enough person—perhaps too pleasant for me this morning because I was almost looking for an excuse to dislike her. I would have felt better had she been cranky and complaining. Then I could have justified my irritation. As it was she made me feel guilty.
We went around the house to her backyard garden. Brother Al Willingham had always had a garden, probably the best on this side of town. After he died Sister Willingham tried to continue the tradition, more as an honor to him than because she really wanted it. I never went to her yard when she didn’t reminisce and brag about the earlier gardens of her husband’s, and I always knew that in her eyes nothing I did would ever rival his work.
“The garden needs weeding, Ryan,” she remarked, her shrill voice cracking as it did quite often. “We’ve had so much rain this spring that I haven’t had a chance to weed it.”
I stared out across the garden without speaking. From where I stood it looked like a tangle of weeds and grass, no garden at all. Of course, the garden was still young. The spring rains had allowed the weeds to thrive and almost choke the vegetables out completely. I could only see the four rows of corn struggling in the midst of the carpet of weeds, and even they were being overrun.
“There’s a good morning’s work there,” she grinned at me, “but a big strong boy like you can get it done. I’d do it myself, but it’s so hard for me to bend down and my hands just can’t hold the hoe anymore.” She shook her head. “That’s the kind of job Al just loved. Of course, he would have never let it get that bad. But he liked the challenge of getting the ground ready, fighting the weeds back, and bringing the plants up from the soil. Nobody ever hoed a garden like my Al. He had a green thumb for sure. Why, I think he could have raised a garden on a slab of concrete.”
Sister Willingham looked over at me. I ignored her and stared gloomily out at the tangle of weeds. “The Browns are taking me to the temple,” she explained. “I’ll be gone until six or so, but I can pay you as soon as I get back.”
You don’t have enough to pay me to do that garden, I thought to myself. I’d be here a week and still not clean that mess up. I swallowed. “I doubt I can finish it,” I said, sounding less irritated than I really felt. “I have a talk to prepare for tomorrow and a baseball practice this afternoon.”
“Well, do what you can.” She smiled. “Every little bit will help. But if you can, get the ditches cleaned out. That’s the important thing. My irrigation turn is Monday.”
For ten minutes after she left I browsed through the mat of weeds in search of anything worth salvaging. I found the carrots, radishes, and beets hidden completely in the weeds. The zucchini and cucumbers were easier to find because they were in hills and had grown almost as fast as the weeds. The green beans, the peas, the tomatoes, and the bell peppers were almost choked out of existence. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even want to start. But after showing up, I was committed to do at least a little bit.
She had said that what she needed most was to clean out the ditches for her irrigation turn, so I decided to do that and leave. “That’s all she’d pay me for anyway,” I murmured. “Someone else can do the weeding for their service project.”
I got her shovel and attacked the main ditch running along the top of the garden. The shovel ripped and tore through the mat of weeds and grass. I didn’t clean the ditch really well. I didn’t worry about getting the weeds and grass along the edges or up on the bank. I concentrated on the weeds in the bottom of the ditch, just so the water could pass through for a week or so.
After the main ditch I began ripping jagged little ditches up and down the rows and around the hills of cucumbers and squash.
The sun was hot and unmerciful and beat down with a fury. Drops of sweat trickled down my face, but I didn’t stop to rest or find refuge in the shade. I just wanted to get the job done and get out of there.
By ten the ditches were semiready. At least they’d get her through her first irrigation turn. I leaned the shovel and hoe against the back of the house and left, not once turning back to admire my work. There wasn’t anything to admire, and I knew it.
I was in the bathroom washing my hands when Dad came home. He came in behind me, his hands dirty. “Well, the bishop and I hung the doors,” he announced jovially. “It wasn’t as big a job as I’d thought. I see you made it over to Sister Willingham’s.”
I shook the water off my hands and grabbed a towel. “I put in a good hour and a half. I did five dollars worth of work, that’s for sure.”
“Well, that should make Sister Willingham happy.” He glanced over at me and smiled. “There’s always a good feeling that comes with helping someone. Not because you have to but because you want to.”
“I just wished she’d chosen a day when I didn’t have to prepare a talk for sacrament meeting.”
Dad laughed and dried his hands. “Preparing a sermon is easy. Living one is what’s hard. You’ve lived one this morning. It will be a cinch getting one for tomorrow.” Dad hung up the towel and slapped me on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you, son.” He started to walk away and then stopped. “Ryan, don’t expect a big wage from Sister Willingham. In the long run the money isn’t the important thing anyway. Some things you can’t ever buy with money. That good feeling is one of them.”
I went to my room to work on my talk. I opened the scriptures and perused the pages, but I kept seeing the unfinished garden and thinking of what Dad had said. An uneasiness erupted and festered inside me. I couldn’t shake the nagging guilt, a guilt I didn’t even think I deserved. Irritably, I tossed the scriptures aside and lay back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling and feeling trapped.
Suddenly I became resentful. There were lots of kids around, kids that had done a lot less than I had to help Sister Willingham. Why should I have to feel guilty when they escaped without the slightest prick to their consciences? How many times had I mowed her lawn, raked her leaves, pruned her shrubs? At least I’d helped out a little. That was more than anyone else.
I grabbed my scriptures again and turned to Moroni, determined to forget Sister Willingham and her annoying garden. I had a talk to prepare, I argued. The bishop had given me the assignment long before I knew anything about the garden. My first responsibility, I insisted, was my talk.
The bishop had asked me to talk on faith and had suggested Moroni 7 [Moro. 7] for a reference. I thumbed leisurely through the pages of Moroni, reading very little from the blur of words but contemplating faith in general. Faith seemed like a safe topic. I could easily extol the virtues of faith without committing myself to action, but still I found myself struggling to study.
“I just won’t let her pay me,” I finally grumbled in exasperation, unable to shake the tenacious guilt that continued to raise its accusing face. “That should satisfy everyone. After all, Dad said I should do it for nothing. That way anything I do is a gift, and not even Sister Willingham can complain about a gift.”
I nodded and hunched over the Book of Mormon and began to skim through chapter 7 of Moroni. For a moment I thought I was done with the garden; then I came to verse eight [Moro. 7:8]. Before I could skip over it, the words leaped out at me and stung me with a poignant rebuke: “For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.”
I read the passage once, twice, a half dozen times, searching for an out, some scrap of evidence that would free me from the verse’s pointed accusation, but there was none. I knew better than anyone that I had resented and begrudged the giving of the gift. The fact that I didn’t demand a price for my selfish labor didn’t change the real intent of my heart.
I shook my head. Mine was a shoddy gift. I couldn’t deny it. And merely preparing a talk on faith didn’t change the glaring reality of my uncharitable act toward Sister Willingham. Suddenly I remembered something that Paul had said. I couldn’t remember the words exactly, but the message was clear, something about a person having all faith, even enough to move mountains, and yet, if that person lacked charity he was nothing.
I could work all day on my talk for sacrament meeting, and Sunday morning all I’d have would be a sour sermon of empty words. The people in church didn’t need my talk nearly as much as Sister Willingham needed her garden weeded.
As I pondered Paul’s words I could picture Sister Willingham coming over in the evening, prying open her worn coin purse and counting out the quarters and dimes and smoothing out a wrinkled dollar bill. The doleful picture released a trickle of compassion, a trickle that increased as Paul’s and Mormon’s words whispered in my mind.
Slowly I closed the Book of Mormon and stood, knowing that this was one sermon I would have to live long before I attempted to preach it from the pulpit.
I left my room and started for the front door. “Where you headed?” Dad asked from the kitchen.
“I got a little job to finish,” I answered simply.
“Do you want a sandwich or something. It will be time for lunch in an hour or so.”
“I’m not hungry,” I called and slipped outside, returning to the garden.
I attacked the corn first. Perhaps because it looked easier. Hunched over with the hoe gripped tightly, I started down the rows. It was slow, tedious work, and I soon discovered that I could use the hoe only part of the time. To really do a good job, I had to pick away at the weeds with my fingers.
When the four rows of corn were completed, I looked back and admired them. The tender stalks, freed from their tangled prison, contrasted drastically with the rest of the garden and allowed me a pleasant peek at the garden’s pending potential.
The squash and cucumbers were next. My hoe ripped and tore at the grass and weeds and broke up the hard ground so the tender roots could breathe and grow. Puffs of dust exploded and got in my eyes and nose. The sun’s heat increased, and it became a constant battle to wipe the sweat from my eyes. My back began to stiffen and then ache and finally throb. Every few minutes I had to straighten up and rub the feeling back into my tortured muscles.
The morning passed and slipped into afternoon. The sun reached its pinnacle and then began dropping to the west, but the heat continued. It must have been around two or two-thirty before I had finished everything except the last three vegetables. All the while I had been dreading the radishes, beets, and carrots. Now my back was tight and stiff; my fingers, cramped and raw. Dirt had pushed itself under my nails and pressed itself into my pores and made my hands dry and chapped. Two blisters had sprouted and burst and were now red tender spots.
For a moment I was tempted to stop and perhaps come back another time to finish. Sister Willingham wouldn’t have room to complain now. I’d done a good job. She’d be content. I shook my head. I knew that when I came back, I came intending to do more than merely squelch complaints. I had come to finish a job. I intended to do it.
Dropping to my knees, I started on the rows of carrots. Though the rows were short, each one required at least 30 minutes to complete. Three o’clock came and went. I didn’t even think of my baseball practice, not until close to five when I was just finishing the last row of beets and staring over at the single row of radishes, the last part of the garden to be weeded.
“Hey, where were you, Ryan?” a voice called to me from the corner of Sister Willingham’s house.
I looked up and saw Dusty Hamilton approach. Groaning softly, I stood and winced at the pain as the blood in my legs began to circulate. I brushed off my jeans and worked my fingers to get some feeling back into them. “I forgot about practice,” I grinned sheepishly. “I had a little job to do here.”
Dusty looked over my shoulder at the garden. “Looks like you’re almost done. Why don’t you take a break and come with me to get something to drink. I’ll die if I don’t drink something soon.”
All I’d had since breakfast were drinks from Sister Willingham’s hose. A cold drink was certainly tempting. “I better finish here,” I said, declining.
“You’ve only got a little left. You can come back.”
I pondered, then shook my head. “Sorry, Dusty. Maybe another time.”
Dusty slapped his mitt against his leg and remarked, “Oh, well, suit yourself. I’ll be thinking about you when I have that nice cold lemonade.”
I watched Dusty walk away and then sank to my knees again.
It was five when I finished the garden. It looked like a miniature battlefield with the dying, wilting corpses of a thousand weeds strewn about the ground and the freed, victorious vegetables swaying gently in the warm breath of wind that passed along the ground. I admired my work and felt a surge of poignant satisfaction course through me. Then I noticed the ditch bank that had been haphazardly done that morning. Now it looked so out of place next to the meticulously manicured garden. I snatched the shovel and attacked it again, this time cleaning the edges as well as the bank itself.
Tired and stiff, sweaty and dirty, I shuffled around the house for home, but when I got to the front yard and saw the uncut lawn, the unpruned shrubs, and the irises along the house, I knew I wasn’t finished.
The lawn wasn’t large and there weren’t a lot of shrubs, so I was finished there within 30 minutes, but the irises were a little different. Once more I took hoe and shovel in hand and set to work weeding and thinning the irises as Sister Willingham had showed me last spring a year ago. After weeding the radishes, beets, and carrots, this was easy.
I was just smoothing out the dirt around the last corner of the iris bed when Sister Willingham pulled up in the driveway with the Browns. The sun was casting long dark shadows and I was partially hidden behind the front steps, so she didn’t see me until the Browns had left and she was starting up the walk to the front door.
“Is that you, Ryan?” she asked, squinting through her thick lenses. “Why, I didn’t expect to see you around, not this late.”
I smiled sheepishly and stood. “Oh, I found some other things that needed doing,” I explained.
Sister Willingham peered at the iris beds. Her gaze went to the lawn and the shrubs. She didn’t speak. She set her bag of temple clothes down and shuffled around to the back of the house to inspect the garden. I didn’t follow her. I dropped onto the front steps to rest. I knew my body ached. I knew I was dirty and sweaty. I knew I’d be stiff and sore in the morning, but all the discomfort was blanked by an all-pervasive warmth, one that made me feel as though I glowed. I smiled and closed my eyes.
“I don’t know what to say,” Sister Willingham spoke, her voice breaking. I opened my eyes and saw the tears on her cheeks. “I hadn’t expected you to stay so long, to do so much work. I’ve never seen it look so good, not since Al did it himself.”
“Oh, I don’t know if it’s that good,” I grinned. “I can’t grow beans out of concrete yet.”
“I don’t have enough money to pay you right now,” she continued, “but I’ll get it. I promise. I’ll make it right with you.” She pulled out her little coin purse. “I do have some of it now. I’ll give you all I’ve got so that—”
“Sister Willingham,” I cut in huskily, feeling my own voice crack and being so glad that I hadn’t had to watch her pry open her purse with the garden the way I’d left it in the morning. I was so grateful that I’d returned. “I didn’t do it for money.”
“Oh, but I want to pay you.”
I shook my head. “I did it—” I stopped. I wasn’t even sure why I did it. I shrugged and smiled, my whole insides warm and satisfied. “I just wanted to do it.”
“But I have to pay you.”
I shook my head again. “I’m afraid that would ruin it,” I whispered. “I don’t need the money. There’s pay enough in it for me.”
“But I’ll probably need you again. I couldn’t ask you if I knew I hadn’t paid you for the work you’ve already done.”
I smiled wanly and shrugged. “I’ll come again,” I said, standing. “Just give me a call. Or leave a message with Dad.”
I left Sister Willingham in her front yard with her coin purse clutched in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. When I returned home Dad was just cleaning up after having changed the oil in the car. He saw me approach but didn’t speak. I leaned against the fender of the car and looked down at the engine.
“Did you finish?” he asked.
I swallowed and nodded. “Did she pay you?”
“No,” I whispered, “but I got paid.”
We started for the house, not saying anything but communicating so much in our silence. When we reached the front door, he asked, “Did you miss your ball practice?”
I thought for a moment. “No, not really,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t think I missed it at all.”