Bob Updyke was buried on a Thursday morning. His funeral was the day before, and there was a nice little turnout of folks that came to pay their respects. But there were just four of us that followed the SUV carrying his remains into the cemetary that morning. The SUV is better in snow than a hearse the men from the funeral home explained. As if it really mattered. It was terribly cold, and I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for the two young men in work clothes standing a short distance from the fresh grave, occasionally stomping their feet and hitting their gloved hands against their arms. Waiting. Larry made sure the service was short: some scripture, a few personal thoughts and then a prayer. We didn't linger when it was over.
It's funny how one thing leads to another, how a simple comment can change the course of a day. Our original plan was to take Ellie right back home. She had some errands to run that afternoon, one being to pick up her paycheck. But the subject of donuts had come up, and because Ellie works in a supermarket, we offered to take her by to get her check and yes, to buy some donuts. There were just four of us, but Ellie works in the bakery and insisted we buy the full dozen because it's cheaper. Larry and I looked at each other. What were we going to do with a dozen donuts? "I know," I said. "We'll give some to John." John's our retired neighbor and is always teasing me for homemade cookies. We invited the ladies back to our place with the promise of coffee, and they accepted.
Ellie is a natural storyteller. It didn't matter that we'd left her husband's grave barely an hour earlier. Once the coffee was brewed, she started talking about her growing up years in Elkland, Pennsylvania, a little town just over the state line. Her mom died the day she was born, and her grandparents took to raising her. Many of the stories revolved around her grandfather who was also the deputy sheriff. He was an intimidating man who ruled his home and community with an iron fist and a shotgun, and that included chasing off her suiters using whichever of the two was necessary. For an hour she regaled us with stories of people and events that had us with mouths wide open one moment and laughing the next.
Then I noticed John going to his mail box. I usually have the blinds closed at the window facing his home, but on this particular day a neighbor boy had watched for the school bus from there. His mother had gone into work early that morning and asked if he could wait at our house. I'd never thought to close the blinds after he left. I went to the door and hollered, "John, come on over! We bought you a donut!" John has a nice garage attached to his house with an old antique gas pump outside the double doors. He's one of those guys that's got to be busy all the time, always in motion it seems. If he's not helping a neighbor, he's working on a vehicle. He'd been painting a car that particular morning and was giving it a bit of drying time when he'd decided to check his mailbox. That's when I spied him through the slats.
I set a glass of milk and a cream-filled donut in front of our neighbor while introducing him to the two ladies at the table and added that Ellie had just lost her husband that very week. He graciously offered his condolences and asked where she was from. "Well, I live right down here on Richard Street" she told him. You can see Richard Street from the parsonage. It's just a block away. "But I grew up in Elkland," she continued. His eyes suddenly brightened. "You come from Elkland? That's where I grew up!"
For the next several minutes there was a volley of names going back and forth between the two of them with hardly a break. I sat between the two, my head moving back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match. And though I can't remember all the names and wouldn't dare repeat them if I did, I decided that there couldn't possibly be a more unusual group of characters than what lived in Elkland. There was perfect rhythm as the volley continued between them, the list of names growing and the stories connected with them bringing such delight to Ellie, in both the telling and the hearing.
But John had an appointment, and the storytelling finally came to an end. He said his goodbyes, and the four of us sat there with our empty cups knowing we had things to do. But there was one more story to tell, and there was no laughter this time. She told of flying for the first time to see her brother and his family, and she was scared. A gentleman in the terminal began talking to her, and possibly sensing her nervousness, assured her that he would take care of her until she was with her family in Detroit. And that's exactly what he did. He stayed with her the entire time, even making sure that she was deposited safely into their care before he left her. But the extraordinary part of the story was that when he saw her brother, the two men immediately knew each other. They had been classmates. "Can you imagine," she said. "Of all the people in Detroit, and he knew my brother." She continued, her eyes glistening. "God took care of me that day. I knew he sent that man to me." And then she paused. "'And today I feel like I'm in Detroit all over again."
A dozen donuts, open blinds and a mailbox. Just a coincidence some might say. Perhaps. All I know is that two neighbors who had lived barely a block apart for 26 years came together at what I believe was a preordained moment, planned by a loving God to remind a woman who had just buried her husband that she was not forgotten. Who better than her Creator would know exactly who or what she needed? So the storyteller that she is, I can see Ellie someday sitting at her little kitchen table with a friend. "Let me tell you about the day we buried Bob, " she'll say. "It was bitter cold, and we ended up at the pastor's house for coffee and donuts afterwards." Then she'll pause for just a moment, her eyes will brighten, and suddenly she'll burst out laughing. "And then God sent me somebody from Elkland, right when I needed it the most. And I felt like I was in Detroit all over again."