Cutting a Gate
I was four years old, growing up in Gainesville, Florida when Dr. Ouida Abbott retired from teaching at the University of Florida. We were neighbors; our back yards met along a wire fence. At first we talked to each other through the blue and white morning-glories that climbed the fence. I remember how she grumbled about awful sand spurs and ant hills. “Impossible to get rid of them!” She was so proud of the fabulous nodding sunflowers clustered around the yard. Birds sang in her cherry tree. Must have been ten varieties of birds in that huge tree at any given moment.
I told her about life with three older brothers, a mother who was a writer, and a father who was so busy being a pastor to all the families in our church that he rarely saw his own family. Dr. Abbott, so small under the shade of her big straw hat, had learned how to listen well during her years of teaching at the university. I met her at a time in her life when she was free to talk and listen, face to face. No reason to hurry a conversation between us.
One morning my neighbor came to the fence with work gloves on her hands, gripping wire pliers. She cut the wire that divided our yards. She pulled away the vines and bent the wire’s sharp edges back. I watched as Dr. Abbott made a gate just for me to step through. Then we worked together, clearing a path from the new gate to her back door. We placed large smooth stones a step apart, beside the rose bed, and across the lawn. She leaned on her rake as she wiped her face with her forearm, “This is the way you will come to visit me.”
We pulled weeds on our knees. She chopped firewood and I stacked it in her shed. We sat on her red velvet couch in her library and read books to each other. We sat in the sewing room upstairs, where she taught me how to crochet. We sat side by side on the front porch swing and watched traffic sail by on University Boulevard. She made taffy and we pulled it by the wood burning stove in her kitchen. Always she listened to me and I came to believe there was value in what I had to say.
I remember the wrinkled folds of skin around her lips, the crack in her aging voice, how wisps of gray hair refused to be trapped in the bun on the back of her head. A green wicker rocker in the kitchen was filled with worn out cushions and pillows that made room for both of us when everything else had been said. We rocked without a word, creaking back and forth.
This I believe: We all need a neighbor like Dr. Abbott, somebody willing to cut a gate and make a way for us to see how valuable we are.
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