It was the end of a beautiful, crisp fall day — probably one of the last warmish days of fall. It was 5:00, and the sun was a pink and purple glow in the west. I should have been drinking in these last few minutes of the day, enjoying the bright reds and yellows of the maple trees in our neighborhood.
I wasn’t though. I was feeling rushed and cranky. Liam, 7, had been home sick all day. He seemed to lack the hand-nose coordination necessary to use a tissue properly, and I found his constant drippiness tiresome. Meanwhile, I had 12 guests coming for dinner the next night—friends from our old neighborhood who had never seen our new house, and I felt compelled to scrub, clean and polish my way into what I hoped was a presentable home. Jamilet, 2, did not appreciate the day’s lack of attention as I cleaned, and was responding by clinging to my leg as I feverishly mopped and dusted. The few times during the day she did play independently, she chose use her time to undo my work. Two baskets of neatly folded laundry were now strewn around the family room. The newspapers I put in a bag for recycling were dumped on the floor next to the laundry. I was also on deadline for two articles and the school committee I was in charge of was meeting that night.
So, at 5:00, low on energy, out of patience, and with no ideas for that night’s dinner, I went to the front porch to get the day’s mail. As I looked at the mix of bills and junk mail, I glanced across the street. There, our elderly neighbor, Mr. Pitt, was painstakingly raking the leaves off his driveway, inch by inch, while sitting in a chair. Mr. Pitt is the kindliest man in the world, and also has horrible knee problems. I stood frozen with my mail. I didn’t want to help him. I didn’t have time to help him. I wasn’t even a big believer in weekly raking, preferring to wait until all the leaves were down for the season, and doing one big job. Mr. Pitt moved his chair up a foot and pushed a small pile of leaves forward towards the street.
Sighing, I grabbed Jamilet, wiped Liam’s nose, and told Jacob, 10, to come help me.
“We’re going to rake your driveway,” I announced to Mr. Pitt as I crossed the street. I set Jamilet down on his grass, and handed Jacob a rake.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” Mr. Pitt said.
“We want to,” I lied. “It will be fun. It’s a beautiful evening to be outside.”
Jacob and I started raking the leaves toward the street, and Jamilet, using her little rake, immediately started to rake the leaves from the street back to the house.
Mr. Pitt thought this was adorable.
Jacob and I raked faster, so she couldn’t keep up.
As Jacob and I raked, Mr. Pitt kept up a running commentary about how fast and amazing we were.
“Look at you go!” Mr. Pitt called from his chair, as we raked in a very mediocre style. “Now don’t work yourself too hard. Take a break.”
When he wasn’t congratulating our zealous raking, Mr. Pitt was busy being enchanted with Jamilet, who was simply wandering about the yard, moving leaves randomly.
“She’s beautiful. And so smart. Look how she moves those leaves just like her mommy and her brother,” he said.
After 45 minutes of raking (“That’s wonderful; look at the size of that pile,”) a break for Oreos and photos (Jamilet in the leaves; Jamilet with the rake; Jacob and Jamilet; Jamilet and I; Jacob and I holding Jamilet) my crankiness started to wear off a bit, and I saw our family through Mr. Pitt’s eyes.
We were all (even me) incredibly young and vital. We were strong and fast and talented with our rakes. Jacob’s smooth skin and quick smile seemed perfect to me as I looked at him as Mr. Pitt did. Looking at myself from the outside (without hearing my grouchy thoughts or worries about dinner or my meeting later), I looked like a helpful and friendly mother of young children. And Jamilet was indeed a wonder. Freely jumping in the leaves, romping across the grass and smiling in the autumn sunset, I saw her as Mr. Pitt did — an amazing tiny person alive with curiosity. I understood why he needed to take 7 pictures of her in less than an hour.
For a fleeting instant, I became 75 or 80 or whatever Mr. Pitt is, and I looked at my 30-something self and my children, and I saw what he saw. I appreciated our energy and our health. For a moment, I appreciated my over-busy life. It seemed charged with excitement and drama. The solitude and quiet I so often longed for didn’t seem quite as appealing, when it became the norm for the day, as it was for Mr. Pitt.
As I said goodbye to our neighbor that evening, and as he thanked me for the seventeenth time, I mentally thanked him back—for reminding me that I had nothing to be cranky about after all.