Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
Mrs. Brown, one of the richest people in town, lived across the street from my family in Escanaba, Michigan, in the 1950s.
I remember once getting up the gumption to peek into her garage windows where I glimpsed a gleaming wood floor beneath her big, black shiny car. Just then her grounds-keeper came around the corner of the house and I high-tailed it out of there.
Although we lived in the same neighborhood as Mrs. Brown in one of the late nineteenth-century homes that once stood in Victorian-era elegance, most, including ours, were now more shabby than chic, dwellings of a less prosperous citizenry. And just then they were bursting at the seams accommodating the fast-growing Baby Boom demographic.
Mrs. Brown also went to our church, and if you sat near her, it was an experience.
Her diamond, emerald, and ruby rings and brooches flashed and twinkled as she sat and stood during services. Her mink stoles shimmered in the soft church lighting (although as a kid, I was both unnerved and fascinated by the little, leathery heads, claws, and tails hanging fore and aft). The exotic feathers on her hats enticed the imagination to distant shores.
In short, Mrs. Brown had about everything small town America dreamed of.
But it wasn’t what money could buy that attracted my little brother Doug and his buddy Jimmy to her grounds the summer of 1959. It was a healthy patch of rhubarb growing in her back yard that piqued their interest and their appetites and tempted them over the fence–at least when the old lady and her grounds-keeper were not looking.
Or the boys hoped they weren’t looking…
But hoping is not always having, and the summer of ’59 was the last time the pint-sized duo pilfered from the rhubarb patch, says my brother, because what they feared the most, happened.
Just as they yanked the garden booty free, their taste buds tingling in anticipation, the old lady, herself, stepped out of 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 little-kid befuddlement, Mrs. Brown brought out not a switch to whack their behinds on their way out of the back yard, but a plate of rhubarb pie.
“Would you boys like a slice?” she asked, smiling.
Both boys nodded slowly, unable to speak.
She handed them each a big piece and let them out of the yard, this time through the gate.
As they munched on the Best. Rhubarb. Pie. Ever. Doug and Jimmy worked their five-year-old brains to a lather to figure this whole thing out but to no avail. However, one thing was sure: they never again stole rhubarb from Mrs. Brown’s garden.
Their life of crime was over.
And to their knowledge, and relief, Mrs. Brown never told the moms…
When Doug shared this memory, recently, Mrs. Brown’s Solomonesque wisdom dealing with those two little garden robbers prompted me to think of other kinds of gifts at this holiday season: the gift of grace although grief is warranted and the gift of mercy although punishment is due.
But mostly, in the way that such unexpected offerings may touch and transform lives, her response to Doug and Jimmy reminds me of another story about a long-ago gift chronicled in the Gospel According to St. Luke that starts like this, And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night and ends like this, For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
The unmerited favor Mrs. Brown bestowed on my little brother and his buddy back in the day reminds me of the babe in the original Christmas creche, wrapped in swaddling clothes, heralded then and since by both shepherds and kings as grace revealed, mercy personified —the “reason for the season,” as they say–his life and his death, a testament.
So, thank you, Mrs. Brown, for the prompt–whatever your real reason was for releasing those two little guys from, well, their just desserts.
Thank you, Doug, for the memory.
And a merry gift-giving season to all.
A much longer version of this post appeared at Christmastime, 2015.