By JIM NICHOLS
There is much to be said for simply paying attention. This may be short- or long-term. Since we seem to be unable to control (or even influence) much of what occurs in our lives, we must move on to trying to decipher the meaning of what does occur. For those of us trying to follow God, this means paying attention to patterns and incidents that seem to have God’s aroma for better or worse. Someone smarter than I am suggested our theology starts first as personal experience.
Sometimes God puts people in our lives at an obvious time and it is difficult for us to miss the message. Other times, however, the people are already there, and we just need to learn from them. Perhaps these are not people of particular importance in our lives, almost incidental. However, in retrospect, we now realize God was using them to teach us. One such example is to consider our neighbors when we were children. Do you remember your neighbors when you were ten years old? I do.
To the left of our house lived Elmer and Esther. Besides having enjoyable names, they were adults with no children (unusual for our block), but they seemed to like us. They took annual summer trips to Colorado (although they pronounced “Colorado” with a long “a” in the middle). Elmer was a linotype operator in a nearby printing company, and he helped me get my first adolescent jobs there. I started just doing lawn work and painting, but eventually got to move inside and work in the printing area. Soon the editor had me write a weekly column of high school news for their paper. Every evening either Elmer or Esther spent an extended time in their yard watering their Kentucky blue grass with their water hose. The result was the most lush and green lawn I have ever seen.
All the households were single-car homes in those days. We knew the neighbors partly because of what car they drove. The cars even sounded different with mostly clanky sedans plus a hot-rod or two. This latter category included the two young brothers (and their mother) to the right of our house.
These two young men were a decade older than I and spent most of their days in their front yard with a couple of partly assembled/dissembled cars. My mother did not like these never- ending mechanical projects next door, although she did like the two young men. They had grease on their hands, arms, and face and were a bit rougher than my usual acquaintances. I would go over to visit them occasionally and they were somewhat of my introduction to late adolescent male rebellion. They talked about girls a lot with a fair amount of braggadocio in their words. (My first draft of this included a quote from one of them, but I decided it was not appropriate for this column.)
Directly across the street lived Mrs. Wasser. To my young mind, she was rather old. When I had the task of selling something door-to-door for some fund-raiser, she was a good customer, but, otherwise, she seemed to stay by herself. I never saw a husband or other relatives.
Mrs. Wasser had a gray Plymouth sedan and she parked it in the garage with the door always down. One Sunday morning there were several cars across the street; one was a station wagon inscribed “Newcomer’s Funeral Home.” The garage door was raised, and her car was still inside. In what must have been an awkward conversation for my parents, they told me that Mrs. Wasser had purposefully started her car and rolled down the windows. Sitting in the car with the garage door down, she had died. It was my first taste of death of someone I knew.
Elmer and Esther, the guys next door, and Mrs. Wasser were, in many ways, bit players in my life. They could be easily forgotten; many other bit players have been. Yet they stand out still as people who God used to inform me about deeply green grass, how to and how not to be a male, and some introductory aspects of sadness, sorrow, and death.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain