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That Woman Next Door

I thought she was a danger to my family . . . how could I love her?
That Woman Next Door

"Not her again," I sighed, quickly stepping from our window. I was alone in the suburban home into which we'd just moved, and our next-door neighbor, Nora, was traipsing up our driveway, her long black coat flailing wildly in the blustery wind. Tentacles of black hair flew loosely from the unbelievably high arrangement coiled on her head. She resembled a menacing sea creature on the attack.

When the doorbell rang, I couldn't think of a good reason to answer the door. I didn't want to give this woman another chance to cause trouble.

My heart thumped as I suddenly heard the outside screen door slowly creak open. Fear flashed through my limbs as I detected a rustling sound, followed by a tiny clink. Nora was messing with my doorknob!

I wondered if I should call the police. But then the screen door creaked shut, and my neighbor retreated down the driveway. I waited a bit, then cautiously opened the door to discover a white plastic bag looped over the handle. Inside was a bag of multicolored taffy and an index card. Scrawled in thin, pointy letters were the words "Happy Halloween."

Probably poisoned, I thought wryly, then tossed the candy onto my closet shelf in case I ever needed evidence. I was convinced my new neighbor lady was a threat to my family.

We'd lived in the Chicago area for only two weeks, and already we pined for our peaceful little Indiana town. When my husband and I had debated this move, we'd considered the host of big-city threats: crime, outrageous traffic, lunatic neighbors. We didn't have to deal with those things in rural Indiana, unless we counted Uncle Morris (no relation), who often drove his riding mower to the Handy Andy and who was once accused of pilfering a pumpkin.

The conviction that God's hand was in this move caused us to accept it despite our fears. I prayed a prayer of surrender, telling God I'd go wherever he wanted me to go.

Somehow I forgot about that prayer once I met Nora. My introduction to her was on my kids' first day of school. My four-year-old son, Wesley, was enrolled in a preschool for developmental delays. Because we lived on a busy road with no sidewalks, I was disappointed to learn the bus would stop for him a block away.

On that first day, I gripped his small hand and walked him along the edge of our new neighbor's lawn. I didn't feel at all safe with the speeding traffic, but I was reluctant to walk any farther onto my neighbor's yard.

Our morning walk was uneventful, but after school, she was waiting. The minute we stepped onto her lawn, this bulky, 60-something lady with a dark tower of hair flew out of her front door. She stomped toward us, yelling unintelligibly. I thought in dismay, There's something really wrong with her.

As I led my son quickly away, I caught a few words and realized what made her so angry: We were in her yard.

I stopped, looking in amazement at the barreling traffic and my sweet little boy, then at this stranger throwing a tantrum. I hid my outrage under a civil tone. "My son has to walk home from the bus stop. Where would you like us to walk, ma'am?"

Her reply was incoherent. She howled out words like "wall" and "beer cans" and "my property."

That's when I decided she was definitely crazy. "It's okay," I said, unable to leash my sarcasm. "My little boy and I will just walk in the street, where it's safe. Thanks so much! It was a pleasure meeting you."

At home, I shut my bedroom door and ranted to myself through angry tears. What kind of monster wants little kids in the street? Why did we have to move next door to a witch?!

A call to the school secretary calmed me. "You know," she said, "I think there's a law about the first few yards of property belonging to the county. I don't think she has a right to stop you from using that. But we'll have the bus stop at your house from now on."

I was grateful, and I tried to put the incident behind me.

Nora struck again three days later. My family and I were getting into our car when we heard hysterical shrieking. We turned to see our neighbor, again dressed in black from head to toe, storming up our driveway. She had a camera and was rapidly taking pictures. Of my family.

When she reached my husband, Brian, she got right in his face and snapped a picture.

With amazing restraint, Brian strode to the end of the driveway. Nora had no choice but to follow. "Excuse me," he interrupted. "I don't even know you. Why are you doing this?"

After a few minutes, the photo session—and her shouting—had stopped. When Brian came back to the car, he shut the door and quietly said to me, "That woman is nuts. She thinks we've been doing all these weird things to her. I told her we just moved in. She doesn't believe me!"

"Why is she doing this?" came the sudden cry of my eight-year-old daughter, Kayla.

"Some people just have problems, honey," I answered lamely.

The next day, Brian discussed the incidents with a police officer he knew. "You could report her," the man said, "but I don't recommend it. You'd probably start a war, and that can get nasty. Especially if she's really unstable."

Those words were less than reassuring to me, a woman with a pessimistic nature and a vivid imagination. I couldn't help asking myself that Dumb Question: What's the worst thing that could possibly happen? When I pondered Nora's bizarre behavior, I imagined a chain of events so hideous they had Dateline Exclusive written all over them. I found myself envisioning her maniacally destroying my family . . . setting the house on fire . . . framing us for drug possession . . . calling in a false tip to the Department of Child and Family Services. I could see her holding up the pictures she took in our driveway, displaying our bewildered faces to TV cameras and declaring, "They seemed like normal folks to me." It's not that I was trying to think these thoughts; it's just that I didn't have a strategy in place to combat them.

Such was my state of mind when I met Sandy, our neighbor across the street. She told me she'd seen Nora's attack from her living room. "We called Nora to ask what happened," she said.

"Is there something wrong with her?" I asked.

Sandy smiled. "Nora's really not that bad. We've known her for nine years, and we've never seen her like this. She lost her mother last month, and has had a lot to deal with. But I think things will be okay now. The people who lived in your house before you caused her a lot of stress. She actually thought you were that family."

"And she couldn't tell by looking at us that we weren't the same people?" I asked skeptically. "Didn't she notice any big moving trucks?"

"I guess not," said Sandy. "The last family had kids about the ages of yours. When we finally convinced Nora you'd just moved in, she started crying. She was so embarrassed. She wants to apologize."

With everything in me, I hoped Nora would just stay away from us.

It was about a week after talking with my neighbor across the street that I suspiciously watched Nora leave the taffy at my door. After I threw the colorful candy into the closet, I called Sandy. She explained, "Nora doesn't like to hand out treats on Halloween night, but every year she gives the neighbor kids a bag of candy. Isn't that sweet?"

"Sure," I said, unconvinced.

I wasn't yet ready to release my paranoia. When I'd think of Nora, my stomach would tighten. I had trouble sleeping. Whenever we stepped outdoors, I warned the kids not to put one foot in Nora's yard.

"I don't even want to look at that mean old lady's house!" Kayla said one day as we waited for her bus. Sadly I realized Kayla had caught my attitude.

It wasn't good for her, and it wasn't good for me.

It suddenly occurred to me that I'd been praying only simple, shrug-it-off prayers such as "Help me get over this feeling," or "Help me forget about this woman." I hadn't let the Holy Spirit get close to the turbulent bitterness I felt, or the worry that plagued my nights.

With both kids off to school, I decided to get out my Bible and a journal, and deal with this before God. "Okay, Lord," I prayed. "How should I respond to this?"

The first verse that came to mind was obvious: "Love your neighbor as yourself." I was familiar with how that verse is used in Matthew 19:19, but the original use of it in Leviticus 19:18 contained a few more words that really applied to my situation. The first part of the verse cautions us to not "bear a grudge." Yes, my issues had definitely taken on the form of a grudge.

As I dwelt on this verse further, I asked myself how I could possibly love Nora as I love myself. While I might not always like myself, I certainly always want the best for me. And I don't hold grudges against myself. In fact, most of the time, I'm downright lenient with my shortcomings. Maybe I'd never scream at a stranger, but I've been known to yell at my husband or kids on occasion. Though I'm obviously not proud of myself when I behave badly, I'm always pretty quick to make excuses … a bad hair day, PMS, a loud upbringing. All in all, if I were to love Nora as I love myself, I'd bend over backwards to overlook her failures. Wow, did this open my eyes!

I decided to put myself in Nora's black boots. She was a widow living alone in Chicago who recently lost her mother. Nora evidently had had some bad neighbors. Perhaps all these things caused her to react from fear and stress. I could relate to that. Wasn't I acting a little crazy myself this week, hiding behind the door instead of answering it, obsessing about things that would never happen? Maybe we had more in common than I thought!

I knew I had to ask God to forgive me for my attitude, and then I needed to forgive Nora, but I wasn't sure how. After spending the morning with God, I decided the first step would be to accept Nora's gift of candy. I looked it over really well (just in case), then ate one and offered some to the kids after school.

"Maybe that lady isn't so bad after all," I said, relating Sandy's words. "She just took her stress out on us. But I think she's sorry now, and that's why she brought this candy."

My children have always been quick to forgive, so they eagerly signed a thank-you card I produced. Kayla signed it and decorated it with flowers and clouds. Wesley drew a spiky-looking sun and some letters that had nothing to do with his name.

Then the card sat on the counter for a week. Maybe it's enough the kids forgave her and went through the motions of showing appreciation. Do I really have to go over there and give it to her? I agonized. I was tempted not to.

But my desire to please God won out. When I finally stepped out the door with card in hand, whom should I meet coming up the driveway but my infamous next-door neighbor!

We greeted each other with smiles that surprisingly didn't feel at all fake. "I wanted to talk to you," Nora said. "I made a big mistake, thinking you were these other people. They always left trash in my yard and wrecked my garden wall. The kids used to ring my doorbell and run. It was stressful. I've always lived in small towns, and I'm paranoid about living alone in this city. So, I'm sorry," she concluded.

"I understand," I told her. "This is my first time living in a big city, too."

We chatted for a while about small-town life. Soon we were discussing all the great things about Chicago. We actually did have something in common!

Then I remembered the card. "Oh, thank you," she said, looking pleased as she accepted it.

We said good-bye. As I watched Nora head home, I was so thankful I'd worked through my feelings before she came to apologize. Otherwise, I probably would have been much less gracious. Allowing God time to speak to me about my attitude—and my responsibility to others as his servant—made all the difference in the relationship between Nora and my family.

Though Nora and I didn't suddenly become best friends, there was never a hint of a problem between us again. We became true neighbors, chatting at the mailboxes, waving to each other as we worked in our yards, and keeping an eye on each other's house when one of us was out of town. And as is usually the case, the kids took their cues from me. They always had a polite word and a smile for the woman next door. There was peace, there was respect, and there was a very noticeable absence of worry from that day on. And, of course, a bag of rainbow taffy every Halloween.

Brenda Sprayue, a freelance writer, now lives with her family in Arizona.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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