I’d seen him working in his yard or heading to his truck, almost always dressed in camo, fishing rod in hand. He never smiled and barely looked up. I saw his wife even less often. A little reclusive, these neighbors of ours. They were obviously retired. We had moved in a few months ago and I was looking for an opportunity to say “hi” and extend a neighborly hand of friendship.
One afternoon I saw him out back. They lived right next door and he was repairing his fence that stood between our two backyards. I ventured outside, my doggy Sunny following me, and walked over to where he stood with his back to me, hammering away on the old planks of the fence. I said loudly, “Hi! I hadn’t had the chance to meet you yet. My name is Mimi. We just moved here a few weeks ago.” Sunny was not really extending a neighborly paw because she was barking even though I was trying to shush her. He turned a glaring eye toward me and said in a gruff voice, “I don’t like dogs. I don’t like neighbors with dogs.” With that he turned his back on me again and returned to his work. Stunned I said, maybe naively, “I’m sorry she’s so noisy right now. Hopefully you can get to like us.” I then took Sunny inside, went to my room, sat down on the bed and cried a bit. I’m a little on the sensitive side (a little?) and was so surprised by this interaction. I pictured it quite differently in my mind, that’s for sure. I said out loud to God as I sat there, “You’re going to make me love him aren’t you? I don’t want to!”
The next day I was out front weeding when Mr. & Mrs. Johnson came outside, obviously getting ready to go somewhere. Mr. Johnson called over to me, “Hello! We got off on the wrong foot yesterday. Come over here. I want you to meet my wife.” I tried not to show the shock I felt on my face as I timidly approached them. I wasn’t sure I should even step over the invisible boundary line between our yards into his grass. Mrs. Johnson seemed a lot different from her husband. She smiled warmly and said to me in a sweet southern drawl, “Well, hi there, nice to meet you.” Mr. Johnson proceeded to tell me how they were the first ones to live on the street and had seen many families come and go. “You’ve probably heard I was mean,” he said to me, “But I just tell it like it is.” “No,” I replied, “I heard you were a nice guy from some of the other neighbors.” His wife laughed out loud and said, “Well, they was lyin!” I let out a little nervous laugh but he still never cracked a smile.
The weeks and months went by through summer into fall, peppered with not so pleasant encounters with Mr. Johnson. If the neighbor kids, which included our girls, accidentally kicked their ball into his yard and bravely went to the door to ask for it back he would stomp out to get it, all the while waving his arms and hollering about how his kids never did that to neighbors and they better be more careful. I would watch for him whenever I was outside or driving down the street, hoping to catch his eye and smile but it wasn’t meant to be.
Christmas time came and with it the Klotz family tradition of making cookie/goody trays for the neighbors. As I laid out the cookies, fudge, and sweets and assembled the trays, John came into the kitchen counting my creations. “The Frys, The Garcias, The Joneses, The Crews…who’s this one for?” he asked. “That’s for the Johnsons,” I said with a smile. He raised his eyebrows, “okay….” The girls and I donned Santa hats and trotted out the door to deliver our Christmas cheer. We saved the Johnsons for last and, I have to admit, got a little afraid as we walked up the sidewalk to their front door and rang the bell. Mr. Johnson opened the curtains a little bit in the front window, looked out, and closed them again. The girls and I looked at each other and shrugged. After a moment or two, Mrs. Johnson opened the door and graciously thanked us for the treats.
At least Mr. Johnson didn’t come storming out the door and chase us off the lawn brandishing one of the plastic reindeer from his yard!
The next day we heard a knock on the door. It was Mr. Johnson! He was holding a freshly baked cake and said kindly as he handed it to John, “I want to apologize for not opening the door yesterday when your wife and daughters came by. I thought they were selling something. When I saw that they had brought a gift, I wanted to bring you something. I was a cook down in Louisiana for many years and love to bake. This is for you.” He handed us the delicious-smelling cake, said, “Merry Christmas” and walked back home.
I grinned triumphantly at John. What do you know? Love actually works! Sometimes it takes a while but it works. The next summer when we bought our minivan He walked over to talk to me in our driveway and said “I wish I would have known you were buying a vehicle from Ford. I worked for them for many years and would have helped you with my ‘friends and family’ discount.” “We’re friends with Mr. Johnson??” I thought happily.
A few months went by when we didn’t see him out in his yard or going out anywhere. We found out later that he had a heart attack and had been having to take it much easier for a while. The next time we talked with him, he was like a different man. He WAS a different man. He told us God had met him during that time and showed him how short life is and how he needed to be kind, neighborly, and helpful to people. In fact, he launched into a rather inspiring speech about mankind, loving each other, doing what’s right and so forth. It rivaled the most passionate sermon from the most enthusiastic Black church in all of St. Louis.
From that point on, he was so warm toward us. When we were packing to move away he came over, gave us some authentic Cajun spices from Louisiana, his address so we could keep in touch and a hug! I seriously almost passed out with gladness. We exchange Christmas cards with them each year. I’m so thankful we got to be neighbors with the Johnsons and how God showed us the power of love – even little acts of love.
Jesus said (in the Mimi paraphrase), “What’s the big deal if you love those who love you? Everyone can do that. Psh. Now, loving those who are unlovable, or even those who hate you – that is something special. That’s what I want you to do. On purpose. That’s what I did for you.”
Do it today, or the next day, or every day. Try to find a way to do something loving for someone who you think doesn’t deserve it, someone who’s mean to you, someone who is grouchy, someone who is against you. We don’t love so people will love us back, we love because Jesus loved us first…even when we were unlovable.