My first stop on this evening’s brief walk was to a house I’ve gone past many times since taking a picture of it last winter. It’s a beautiful old place. Christmas lights lining the edges of its front porch windows put a nice sharp border on them. A sodium-vapor street lamp suffused the fresh snow with an amber glow. Blue-gray clouds hung low in the night sky behind it all, lit up by stadium lights at the school nearby.
I’d been wanting to give whoever lives there a print of that picture, and tonight I did. The homeowner was quite happy to get it, thanking me several times and saying how nice it looked. I thought so too, I said, and we wished each other a good night. Then I continued my walk, toward another house in the neighborhood.
This was the home of a good Samaritan who had found something of ours with enough identification on it to give us a call. I rang the doorbell and a woman about my age answered, holding a baby. He was a cute little guy, at that perfect age where they are light and round and eager to smile about nothing. After identifying myself, I surprised the woman and me both by asking if I could hold him for a minute.
“It’s been a while since I’ve held one this small,” I said. She thought about it for a second and then handed him over. I stood there for a while, bouncing a stranger’s baby in my arms, looking in at the warmth of her home and hearing the racket of little voices in the background. I said, “Would you like to guess how many I have?”
There were other young faces appearing now, along with her husband who had called me about my missing stuff. Somebody guessed, “Seven?”
“Nope,” I said. “Go higher.” I handed the baby back.
The woman was surprised and pleased at this development. She had thirteen, she said, and it was nice to meet somebody who had a big family, too. Finally, after a couple more guesses, edging upward and then overshooting the mark, my own statistic was revealed: eleven kids.
We talked for a while, the bunch of us standing at their threshold with the pleasant air of an Indian summer evening leaving everybody indifferent about the door hanging open. There was a blur of little bodies whizzing back and forth pushing toy trucks on the wood floor. Smiling faces everywhere. It’s a beautiful family, I told them, and meant it. We compared notes, touching on highlights of experiences that the other would understand.
I told them about when I’d seen a red-headed guy with his line of red-headed offspring following behind in the aisle of a Wal-Mart. A bunch of stuff was stacked on pallets in between us, so he didn’t notice me and my own crew of little followers as he made his way toward the auto parts and sporting goods. I looked over and said, in that loud rude voice I’d heard many times myself, “Look at all those kids! And they’re all so young!” He turned to glare at me, and then saw me smiling with all my kids standing right there, and he laughed.
These neighbors of mine did, too, and then they shared a story of their own, as Jesus looked at us all from a painting hanging on the wall behind them. I gave them my phone number—again, as they hadn’t kept it once they got hold of me—along with my address down the street, and invited them to call.
I think they just might. Who knows; perhaps we will get together sometime and enact one of those chaotic Sunday afternoon scenes that were so familiar in my life. Two big piles of kids merge at the front door in a cloud of chaos and then pairs of them go off to play or swap stories in the barracks downstairs. Meanwhile, the four parents try to sit and talk.
Our home doesn’t have any crosses or religious pictures on the walls. No Bibles sit on our shelves anymore, stuffed with Sunday School homework papers that will remain untouched until the drive to church next week. I hope that absence wouldn’t trouble them, any more than their Jesus portrait bothered me. Whether they believe like I did for many years or like I do now, people are valued here just the same.