I’m finally speaking to my neighbor. Many years ago, we had a sort of run-in that I chose not to overlook. And I recently passed her two times in the Whole Foods supermarket before I decided to say something.
No. That’s a lie. It didn’t exactly happen that way.
Here’s how it did.
I saw the white-haired woman twice – once in the produce section and once by meats – before I headed over to the bakery to get myself a loaf of Italian bread. I decided to try the new slicing machine and was just reaching in to retrieve my freshly cut loaf when I heard a voice say,
“Is that thing turned off? Are you sure you should stick your hand in there?”
I turned my head to see her standing next to me. My neighbor. The woman with whom I had only interacted once in all the years we’ve lived on the same block, her backyard kitty-corner to mine. She always seemed to have the same stern expression on face, as if she were assessing the world and finding it unsuitable to her taste.
It was years ago when we passed in the street while walking our dogs. She and her husband had their two Jack Russells and I had my Beagle and mutt. From the other curb she greeted me only with unsolicited advice, saying that the double harness I was using – which connected to one leash – was “a very bad idea.” “Those things are terrible,” she yelled without ever saying hello. “They never work. It’s better to walk them on two.”
We had just gotten the dogs and I would learn she was right. But I was taken aback by her comments because I was in a tender spot. Our last dog had passed very suddenly just weeks before, and I was determined to do absolutely everything in my power to be the best possible dog mom I could be to these two new rescues.
Soon enough, one of the dogs – our lemon Beagle – proved to be a real backyard nuisance, always barking at passersby, other dogs, and rogue squirrels seeking global domination. Or at the very least, to cross our yard.
And I began to feel a bit angry and ashamed. How could any neighbor not hate us for the ruckus our little girl canine makes?
I assumed the whole block was judging us.
Back at the bread slicer, I sighed to myself and quickly asked the One above for grace.
“You’re probably right,” I said to her, and pulled my hand out of the machine that might very well cut it off.
Instantly, a Whole Foods bakery worker appeared, assured me I was doing alright, and deftly slid the sliced loaf into a plastic bag. I thanked her and turned back to my neighbor, deciding in a split second to suck down what was left of my pride.
“I’m Gretchen. You don’t know me, but we’re neighbors.”
“I thought you looked familiar.”
“I’ve seen you out walking your Jacks with your husband.”
We exchanged pleasantries – about how long we’d lived in the area and how we ended up there. She’d also been a mother of three. Her husband also went to an all-boys Catholic high school and had done a long commute before he’d retired.
When we really listen to people, it’s always possible to find common ground.
A few minutes later, she said…
“We’ve had five Jacks total. Now just two. But John’s* been in a memory-care facility for two years.”
Her face softened all over and she looked away. She continued.
“They line them up 30 minutes before meals to go in to eat. Sometimes I don’t get there in time.”
Suddenly, I realized I’d read it all wrong. The face wasn’t stern; it was determined. Steadfast and purposeful in a difficult situation.
And she wasn’t the judgmental person. I was.
Then she asked, “Which ones are your dogs?”
I explained and she knew immediately, especially the Beagle.
“I’m so sorry about the barking,” I told her.
“Oh, it doesn’t bother me! I love that little dog! She runs along the fence line and talks to all the others. She wears an electric collar.”
“Yes,” I halfheartedly laughed. “She has to or she’d follow the scents right over our fence.”
“I understand! You can’t let a Jack run anywhere he’d like either. They don’t stay with you. An unleashed Jack is a dead Jack.”
We parted with ‘so glad to have met yous’ that I for one, certainly meant, because not only was she a pleasure, there was a real lesson for me in this encounter.
I am fatally flawed and need to consistently ask for the eyes to see as God does, for “man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Had I been more forgiving, had I decided to not judge this woman based on a faulty first impression or the look on her face, had I not unconsciously believed I was semi-omniscient and could read my neighbors’ minds – who knows what blessings of friendship we might have uncovered in all these years?
Grace happens when we put down our preconceived notions – when we surrender our assumptions and theories – and allow love to enter into in.
If we hold too tightly to what we think we know, we can’t see what’s still there for us to learn. And the picture is so much richer than we can imagine or see on our own.
*Not his real name.