Our childhood home was on S. Claremont in Beverly on the far south side of Chicago. Our next door neighbor to the north was Mr. West and his wife, Esther. Mr. West was retired and we rarely, if ever, saw his wife. However, Mr. West was always in the yard doing something. He had a small shed on his lot that was made of wood and was located on the side of his property adjacent to our yard. In fact, Dad let me use the land next to the shed to plant my first vegetable garden. I remember it vividly.
This morning, I was out in our back yard working on our fountain, cleaning it and putting in fresh water for the birds. I am constantly amazed by how many birds we attract with the gurgling water. And in the midst of my work, I was reminded of Mr. West and his weekly ritual of cleaning the bird bath in his back yard. I don’t even know how this obscure memory came to mind but I was transported across time and space to his yard. We weren’t particularly close to the West’s. In fact, Doug and I were kind of afraid of him when we were very little. But there he was, every week during the spring, summer and fall, cleaning that birdbath.
Mr. West’s birdbath wasn’t fancy, but it was important to him that it stayed clean. It was one of those old school ones – the kind where a large, painted pottery saucer sits on a matching stand – and if you are in your sixties, you know exactly the kind of birdbath I am talking about. He would scrub it, wash it, rinse it and fill it – ready for his feathered friends who would visit the next week. We would watch him from the dining room window or across the yard if we happened to be outside. After several years of watching him do this weekly ritual, Doug and I were out in the yard one day as he finished his chores and Mr. West approached us. As I said, he was a little scary when we were small, and we wondered what he wanted.
We said our polite, “Hi, Mr. West”, and he stunned both of us by responding, “Call me, Vic…” That was it… no more, no less. We protested, to no avail. To say we were shocked was an understatement. Mom and Dad had taught us our manners and it would never occur to either Doug or me to ever refer to an adult by their first name. NEVER… But you know what? It was kind of cool… and it instantly dissolved the gap that had separated us the whole time we had lived next door. No longer was he scary – in fact, we couldn’t wait to go outside and talk to him whenever we saw him in the yard. I wonder if he ever regretted giving us that kind of access – but then again, he and his wife didn’t have any children of their own.
Anyway, Doug and I went in our house and Mom asked what we were up to. We let her know that we had been with “Vic” and Mom was horrified that we called him that! We were kind of proud of ourselves – after all, it was the truth. Mom wasn’t so sure that we had understood Mr. West correctly… So, she marched outside, approached Mr. West and asked him what had happened. Mr. West confirmed that he wanted us to call him, “Vic” – he was just more comfortable with that… Mom was surprised, to say the least, but she wanted to honor what Mr. West wanted. From that day on, he was our friend, Vic.
To be sure, it was highly unusual in those days for a child to call an adult by their first name. And there was a little bit of glee when Doug or I were with our friends and happened to see Mr. West in the yard. We would shout, “Hi, Vic” and he would wave back! It was fun to hear our friends to tell us how much trouble we were going to be in when we got home. Of course, they didn’t know that we had a special relationship with Vic… he was now our friend – not the scary retired guy next door.
I never knew if Vic was a religious man or not. I have no idea what faith he was, or whether he practiced any religion at all – I know they didn’t go to church but there are plenty of God fearing people who don’t regularly worship in a physical church structure. But I will say that he knew how to bridge the gap that Doug and I had experienced for years. It was one of the kindest things that happened to us as kids.
The Bible speaks to these kinds of situations and that brings us to our verse for tonight. The Old Testament prophet Hosea tells us, in Hosea 11:4, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.” I can’t help but think that Vic had sensed our uneasiness around him and he made the decision to draw us closer to himself. My encouragement this evening is that everyone needs a dose of kindness, especially in this world of isolation and separation. My prayer is that you will be a “Vic West” to someone in your own life – he’s had a lasting impact on my life for more than 60 years. Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…