80: The Mean Old Man Next Door

80: The Mean Old Man Next Door

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas

The Mean Old Man Next Door

Christmas is most truly Christmas when we celebrate it by giving the light of love to those who need it most.

~Ruth Carter Stapleton

When my wife, Ann, inherited her grandmother’s house we were excited to be moving into our very first home. It needed some repairs but it was spacious and comfortable. Our two girls were thrilled they would no longer have to share a room.

The couple across the street had a rambunctious freckle-faced boy the same age as Karen, our seven-year-old, and he offered to show her around when school started. Judging by how often Tommy teased Karen, I — remembering my own childhood crushes — decided that he had developed an instant crush on her. They played together every day and she soon stopped longing for the friends she left behind in our old neighborhood.

On our left side was a single mother with twin girls who were five years old. She immediately offered to trade off babysitting duty with Ann. In a few weeks she and Ann were well on their way to becoming good friends. Everyone we met seemed to be amicable and approachable. Except for the older gentleman next door on our right.

Ann and I were doing some yard work in the front of the house the first time we saw him. He came out of his house, leaning heavily on a cane, and slowly made his way to his mailbox. “Hi!” Ann called out cheerily and I raised my hand in greeting. He continued on his way to the mailbox without any sort of acknowledgment at all. Ann gave me a quizzical look and I shrugged my shoulders. Our houses were close together and I didn’t see how he could not have seen us or heard Ann’s greeting.

“Maybe he’s having a bad day,” I said lamely.

Ann’s usually smiling mouth slid down into a frown. “Or maybe he’s just a mean old man who doesn’t like kids moving in next door.”

A few days later Karen and Tommy were playing roller ball in our front yard. Just as Tommy hurled the ball toward the bat near the edge of the yard, Ann called them inside for ice cream. They didn’t see the ball roll past the bat and end up a few feet into the old man’s yard. When they went back outside they saw the old fellow slowly nudging the ball back into our yard with his cane.

“Thanks for returning our ball,” Karen said politely, running to snatch it up, as the old man seemed to be having difficulty pushing it back into our yard.

Without looking up, the old man replied. “Make sure it stays over there. I can’t have a bunch of toys cluttering up my yard.”

When the kids related the incident to Ann she was outraged. “Why make such a fuss over one little ball?. My first impression was right. He’s just a mean old man.”

After that we always referred to him as “the mean old man next door.” We warned the kids to stay clear of his yard and we made no more friendly overtures toward him. When the kids went trick-or-treating on Halloween we skipped his house, taking note of the one dim light that shone from the rear of the house. No lights on was the universal hint to kids that no candy would be offered at this house.

From time to time we would see the old man as he made his way to his mailbox or sat on his back porch in nice weather. We never saw visitors and figured that was due to his sour disposition. Ann noticed that when he was outside he often appeared to be watching the kids at play. “Probably making sure that no toys or kids end up in his yard,” Ann said, frowning.

Shortly before Christmas I got laid off from my job. How do you tell small children that Christmas will be scant? But what good are new toys under the Christmas tree if the colored lights won’t glow because the electric bill wasn’t paid? “We’ll just have to do the best we can and hope they don’t notice,” I said.

Ann scowled. “They’ll notice that the other kids got far more than they did and they’ll think that they must have been naughty.”

My heart sank. I couldn’t bear the thought of my sweet girls thinking that they had been bad.

I was in the yard raking up the very last of the fall leaves, mainly to keep busy so I wouldn’t dwell on how fast Christmas was approaching. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the old man standing in his yard. I tried to ignore him but when he continued to stand in the same spot I lifted my head and made eye contact with him. To my surprise he motioned for me to come over. Feeling more curious than friendly, I put down my rake and approached him.

“I have something to show you,” he said, his eyes twinkling with excitement.

I followed him inside as he led me to a large closet at the end of the hallway. He smiled at me and opened the door. “I think it’s about time I let this stuff go. I want you to have it for your little girls.”

I stared in disbelief. The shelves were laden with beautiful dolls of all sorts, games, puzzles, and a huge array of toys in mint condition. I looked over at the old man and his eyes were misty. “They all belonged to my little girl before I lost her and her mother in an automobile accident when she was only six years old. I heard about you losing your job and it seemed wrong for me to hold onto these things when you have two little girls who could be enjoying them.”

He sighed. “I love to watch your girls play. I hope I didn’t upset them when I asked them to keep their toys out of my yard. I can’t see or hear very well anymore or pick up my feet like I once could. It’s easy for me to trip and once I’m down I can’t get up without help.”

“How can I possibly thank you?” I said in a thick voice. My girls would have a nice Christmas after all, thanks to the mean old man next door.

“Let me help wrap them,” he said, looking at me hopefully.

“I’d like that.”

The mean old man next door is now our favorite neighbor. Because of his generosity, our girls had a wonderful Christmas and we have a frequent guest for Friday night dinner.

~Joe Atwater

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