Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
ON MRS. BROWN
Mrs. Brown was, I’d guess, in her seventies or eighties back then, during the five years my family lived across the street and down the block from her in the south end of Escanaba, Michigan.
She was also the richest lady in town, or so we heard.
I remember once getting up the gumption to peek into her garage windows where I saw gleaming wood flooring beneath her great, big, shiny Cadillac. Just then her grounds-keeper came around the corner of the house and I high-tailed it out of there.
Why she stayed in the same brick mansion, or so it seemed to us kids, that took up the entire corner of the block facing Lake Michigan, the expansive grounds impeccably kept, I don’t know. She probably grew up there in the former “best neighborhood in town.”
Though we lived in the same neighborhood in one of the turn-of-the-century homes once standing elegantly in their Victorian-era respectability, those homes were now more shabby than chic, dwellings of a less prosperous citizenry. And they were now bursting at the seams accommodating the fast-growing population of Baby Boomers, most of whom were just then entering, or in, elementary school. My mother and father, alone, contributed several more to that demographic during those years.
Mrs. Brown also went to our church. If you were lucky enough to sit near her (or not, if you were allergic to her very expensive perfume that seemed to me to have come from some distant, beautiful shore) it was an experience.
Her diamond, ruby, and emerald rings and brooches flashed and twinkled as she “blessed herself” at the appropriate time during Mass, stood or knelt down according to protocol. Her hats sported exotic feathers, her mink stoles, never a spot of “mange” as some of the old ladies’ wraps seemed to have, shimmered in the soft church lighting (although as a kid, I was both unnerved and fascinated by the little, leathery heads, tails, and claws hanging fore and aft).
In short, the woman had about everything small town America dreamed about, though she lived alone.
But it wasn’t what money could buy that attracted my little brother Doug and his buddy Jimmy to her grounds. It was a very healthy patch of rhubarb growing out back in her little garden that piqued their interest and their taste buds…great, big, juicy, stalks of the stuff that, sprinkled with a little stolen sugar from Mom’s kitchen, were about the best snacks they could think of when the harvest was ripe—and the old lady or her grounds- and house-keepers were not looking.
Or the boys hoped they weren’t looking…
ON RHUBARB PIE
And they did hope, because stealing some of that juicy treat seemed wholly in the realm of their conquests, that summer. The fence surrounding Mrs. Brown’s garden was short enough for a pair of five year-old miscreants to easily climb over to get at the sweet stuff and scramble back over before anyone could catch them as they ran off to sit down and enjoy the taste of their loot—and their victory—on their favorite curb.
Or so they hoped…
But hoping is not always having.
And thus the stage was set for their final garden heist.
The last time the daring duo pilfered from the rhubarb patch, says my brother, what they feared the most, happened.
Just as they grasped the garden booty, their taste buds tingling at attention, the old lady, herself, came to the back door.
The boys froze, stalks in hands.
What was she going to do to them?
Worse, yet, what were THE MOMS going to do to them, later?!
But, lo, to their complete surprise and little kid befuddlement, Mrs. Brown brought to them not a switch with which to whack their behinds on their way out of the back yard, but a great big steaming fresh-from-the-oven rhubarb pie.
“Would you boys like a slice of pie?” asked Mrs. Brown, smiling sweetly, paper plates and plastic forks tucked under her arm.
Both boys nodded, slooooowly, unable to speak.
She cut them each a big slice and let them out of the yard, this time through the gate.
Back on their rhubarb-munching curb, the boys ate the delicious pie in silence, working their five-year-old brains to a lather to figure this whole thing out while at the same time enjoying the Best. Rhubarb. Pie. Ever.
They thought it over then talked it over, to the last bite, to no avail, although Doug can’t recall verbatim what was said.
However, one thing was sure: they never again stole rhubarb from Mrs. Brown’s backyard garden.
Their life of crime was over.
And to their knowledge, and gratitude, Mrs. Brown never told the moms…
When Doug told me this story yesterday, I knew it had something to do with my Christmas blog, the topic as of yet unknown. Because when he finished the tale of long-ago kid crime and “unusual punishment,” sin and “just desserts,” well, I knew this was the anecdote around which a focal point would gel, something about grace where there should be a sound switching, about mercy where there should be sacrifice, about Jesus–whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas–taking the punishment for our sin on the cross and offering us grace…
So this bubbled up:
Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? … Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (Romans 2:4 NLT).
Yes, I said, to no one in particular, it’s coming clearer…
Mrs. Brown was on to some Solomonesque wisdom, there, in the way she dealt with those two pint-sized garden-robbers, both my brother and I agreed, as we smiled and shook our heads, eyes misty with that brief trek down memory lane.
Maybe the old gal was really just smart, taking the kids by surprise like that, showing them in that unexpected way that she KNEW who had depleted her prized rhubarb patch.
Maybe she was a bit lonely or simply very understanding about little boys and the smell of ripe, fresh, juicy rhubarb.
Maybe she knew a family as big and bustling as was ours could use a little help in the parenting department for our often overwhelmed set of real parents. So maybe she decided our mom didn’t really have to know about one more of the kind of mischief those two little guys were wont to get into and that usually won the prize for upsetting mothers. Like the time, for example, a year prior, when at age four, the two climbed atop the fire escape on the fancy hotel across the alley all the way to the topmost floor as Mom tried to quell panic when she found out, yelling at the boys to come CAREFULLY DOWN ALL THOSE STAIRS, onlookers watching, mouths agape…
Or maybe Mrs. Brown just loved to bake and share her incredible rhubarb pie…
But I think it was more.
At least it’s more for me, Mrs. Brown, may you continue to rest in peace.
In the way that gifts of unexpected mercy touch and transform hearts, that anecdote from long ago prompts me today to remember to render mercy, not sacrifice, though sacrifice is deserved. It prompts me to offer grace, not grief, though grief is deserved.
And it prompts me to consider, again and anew, the same grace made available by Jesus’ death on the cross, offered me and all who so will, by the Original Gift-giver through the riches of His love.
A gift still awaiting those who’ve yet to unwrap it.
Thank you, Mrs. Brown, for reminding me.
Thank you, Doug, for the memory.
And a very merry Christmas to all.