When I was a child we had a young couple as neighbors. They lived by us in the duplex on the other side facing away from us. It was essentially a mirror image of the apartment we had and they lived there with their son who was my age.
One winter morning there was heavy coating of snow on the ground. The sun was not yet out, but when I opened the door and looked out I saw it had stopped snowing. It was actually sort of warm outside as it often is after a good snow. I believe it was a Saturday and I sat on the couch and turned it on watching some random morning cartoon. Soon after my mother and father got up and my father immediately made me turn off the TV and do something else. My mother went to my sister Erin’s bedroom to wake her up. My sister was not there. Unfortunately my sister’s wandering was something that happened on occasion. My father never really slept soundly because of it. He worried about my sister constantly and what he could do to help her find her place in the world. How she wouldn’t get lost. He had a look on his face which somehow combined shame, worry, and movement toward immediate action as only an Irish Catholic face can. My mother acted without pausing putting on her coat. There was little time to waste and failures could be dwelt upon later. Erin never dwelled on anything and you couldn’t allow yourself to do so either. Luckily the trail of her small feet were clear in the fresh snow.
The pursuit didn’t go on for long. It went straight to our neighbor’s door. It was flung open and my sister was sitting at their carport eating a bag of grapes. She had her pajamas on with her winter hat and coat. She looked up at my mother with a slight smile on her face as if to say, “I found something delicious”. The grapes were half gone and my mother looked around to make sure nothing else had been disturbed. She took Erin and the grapes outside and gently closed the door. My mother smoothed the snow over to erase our tracks as much as possible. We then retreated in the house and Erin finished eating the grapes and we started our morning as normally as possible, but in our house that was never very normal. My mother told my sister about not going anywhere without her or my father and my sister ignored her as usual determined to walk wherever her feet took her. My sister’s particular brand of autism didn’t give her the gift of speech or writing, but it never slowed the pace of her feet.
A few hours later there was a knock on the door and our female neighbor stood at the door.
“Hi Mary Lou, enjoying the snow?” she asked. She was a small blonde woman with a surprisingly loud voice.
“Oh yes isn’t it lovely!” my mother said.
“Do you think the children will be playing in the snow later?”
“I am sure there is a good chance!”
“Yes it’s a fine day for it. Well,” she said pulling small bright pink mittens out of her pocket. “Please give these mittens to Erin. They look like they would be just the type she would like and it is cold today and I am certain if she went out she would like them. We came across them and our son doesn’t care for them due to the color.”
“Why thank you! I am sure Erin will love them!” my mother said smiling and the exchange was over.
“Great,” said my neighbor smiling. She then left without a further word.
Some stories of your personal history are about what you have learned over time even if it is years later. I try to determine what values I have learned from what people and how I determine what I find admirable in others. My neighbor never had the goal of teaching me anything that day, but I learned a simple lesson. Truth at any cost is often a foolish thing and sometimes grace and respect toward another person costs you nothing at all or maybe just a bag of grapes. Many people in the world would have complained about my sister even though they gain nothing by it and the cost to us was great in both pride and fear. You might not want to think so, but I have seen my fellow humans swarm around the ill and the weak wanting to get their chance to hurt someone. She didn’t and I learned a simple fact. The things that are not said and ignored are often as important as what is said and noticed. The path to your own dignity can often come through letting someone else keep his or hers.
Gene G. McLaughlin 2005