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My Year with Zelda

Little did I know how much helping my neighbor would help me.

Zelda was the first customer I ever turned down—or at least tried to. Years ago I owned a little typing business, and because my husband, Brian, and I lived near a college campus, I never wanted for customers.

Zelda was our neighbor, a squat and jolly middle-aged woman with short graying curls and eyes that almost squinted shut when she smiled. She lived next door for months, but we didn't meet until a friend recommended my services to her. I cheerily agreed to type her master's thesis.

One autumn day, Zelda dropped off her first draft and left me to get started. But when I sat down at my computer and looked at her paper, my heart sank. I scanned page after page until I had to admit I couldn't read a word of it. Her handwriting was completely, amazingly indecipherable.

Thanks to Zelda, I learned to be more welcoming to strangers, despite my first impulse not to do so.

I knocked on Zelda's door, and she invited me in. Before I could hit her with the news, she pointed out objects of interest in her home—pieces of carved Haitian art, woven wall hangings, pictures of glowing black faces with huge smiles—as if she were a museum tour guide. I learned Zelda was a 25-year veteran of the Haitian mission field and was on leave in the U.S. to pursue her master's thesis in nursing.

After a few minutes in Zelda's home, I began to suspect this new neighbor was a pretty special person. So when she got teary-eyed as I explained why I couldn't type the work she'd slaved over, my heart went out to her.

We continued to talk, and she confessed she was quite homesick for Port-au-Prince. "Americans don't know what it means to be neighbors. In Haiti, we're in and out of each other's house all day long," she told me. "We're one big family. But since I've come here, not one neighbor has even said hello to me. I've never been so lonesome."

Being one of these backward neighbors, I felt a twinge of guilt. Then Zelda's eyes lit up. She had a plan! And because of my guilt, I found myself agreeing to it. Through numerous drafts, Zelda was going to read her entire thesis to me—all 70 pages of it—word for word.

It didn't take long to discover that 25 years away from English grammar hadn't done Zelda any favors. My editing skills were called upon as much as my typing skills. It was the most complicated project I'd ever worked on, full of graphs, tables, and unfamiliar medical terms.

Zelda's adviser kept sending her back to the drawing board, so we ended up spending months working together. But something interesting happened in the process. We did a surprising amount of laughing, especially when neither of us could read some of Zelda's written words. And during work breaks, we eventually shared our life stories with each other. Throughout these countless hours, I developed a strong respect for Zelda, as well as a different outlook on life.

For starters, meeting Zelda birthed in me a desire to reach out to my neighbors. We never know how a kind word might make—or save—someone's day.

I developed a new appreciation for missionary life. I marveled at Zelda's sacrifice and commitment. Her flock was her family, and it hurt to be away from them. Health concerns threatened her approval to re-enter Haiti and continue her nursing work. Having to stay in America was her worst fear; she might never see her "family" again.

However, her concerns didn't stop her from helping me see life's positive side. When she discovered I was expecting our first child, Zelda provided a wealth of information. Though she was single and had no children of her own (other than her "babies" in Haiti), she had assisted in hundreds of births.

She said that "American women are pampered" by being told to lie down during labor, and that walking made things go more quickly. She described the conditions under which most deliveries took place in Haiti: dirt floors, no water, no electricity, no doctor. In many cases, a rope harness hung from the ceiling for the purpose of leaning on while squatting.

Mostly, Zelda put this nervous, first-time mother at ease. I had someone to talk to about my hopes and fears.

At Christmastime, my husband and I were guests at her white elephant party, the only truly successful one of its sort I've ever attended (people actually brought junk gifts instead of scented candles or chocolates). Her guests were an anomalous assortment of people we never would have met any other way: nursing students, instructors, and other missionaries who provided a sumptuous international menu. Zelda knew how to throw a party. "This is the best American fun I've ever had!" she gushed to me that night. I'm glad I was part of that.

Zelda made one surprising contribution to our family that meant more than all the others: She helped reunite my husband with his mother.

Several weeks into our project, I discovered Zelda supported herself by working as a home healthcare aide. Coincidentally, one patient whose home she frequented happened to be my husband's mother, Judy, who lived in a nearby city.

Brian and I hadn't seen Judy for years. She'd been ill most of Brian's life, and had relinquished her parental rights to Brian's grandparents when he was ten. It was hard for Brian to explain to people why he refused to visit his mother when she was so very sick. "How do you make people understand that being seriously ill doesn't turn you into a saint?" he once said. "She has a lot more wrong with her than her physical symptoms. She was never much of a mother to me to begin with."

But to hear Zelda talk, Judy was a saint. "She suffers so much and never complains," she told Brian. Zelda said Judy's smile always encouraged her, and that her eyes showed a courageous spirit. Zelda reminded us that living with pain changes a person. "Suffering has a way of bringing people face to face with God," she said, assuring my dubious husband that his mother was now a Christian.

Zelda continued to nurse Judy, and she continued to encourage Brian to visit her. She brought us updates, whether we wanted them or not. Her tireless optimism and inspiration eventually won Brian over. When our baby girl arrived, we finally met with Brian's mother.

There was an exceptionally sweet spirit in the room that day as a pale, emaciated woman stared adoringly into the round blue eyes of our daughter. Judy was obviously proud. I saw a look of contentment on my husband's face, and was relieved to learn he'd made his peace with her.

Judy died in the hospital a few weeks later. Her insides had been eaten away by a lifetime of anorexia and bulimia. She was beyond any more surgeries.

But thanks to Zelda, we were able to say good-bye. Brian had been able to see his mother differently and show her forgiveness, freeing him from a lifetime of self-reproach.

And thanks to Zelda, I learned to be more welcoming to strangers, despite my first impulse not to do so. The biggest lesson our friendship taught me? To open my life to people in need (even if it's just a typing need), to strangers (no matter how little I think we have in common), and to those who need forgiveness (perhaps the tallest order).

In may of 1992, my time with Zelda came to an end. Her completed nursing thesis was a success, but my family and I moved out of state before learning whether or not she was allowed to return to Haiti. When I think of her, I picture her there.

Even though 13 years have passed and we haven't stayed in touch, I entertain the thought that maybe someday she'll run across the words I've written here. And then she'll know one of the highlights of my life was typing for Zelda.

Brenda Sprayue, a freelance writer, lives in Indiana.

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

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