By John Gray
It was his mom’s favorite candy dish that started this. Peter was screwing around with a football in the house when it got away from him, hit the dish and shattered it. He didn’t have time to come clean. She’d heard it from the other room and pounced.
“How many times, Peter? NOT in the house.” The 13-year-old could only hang his head and await the sentence. His mother was an expert at doling out the harshest punishments—raking dog poop, cleaning out gutters. It had snowed all night, a rare Valentine’s week storm, so he wasn’t surprised when she said, “Go get the shovel and (then she shocked him) shovel out Mrs. Milch’s house across the street.”
Abigail Milch was about the meanest, ice in her veins, rust bucket of a person who Peter and his friends had ever encountered. If you set foot in her yard, she yelled. If you waved, she snarled. She even turned the porch light off on Halloween; as if anyone would knock on her door.
“You’ve got to be kidding”, he said to his mother. “NOW,” she barked back. Peter grabbed the shovel and marched across the street to certain doom. What happened next would change him forever or at least how he viewed the world.
He started shoveling as quietly as possible, hoping the old bitty wouldn’t hear him. With each toss of the snow, he’d spy those shut blinds, praying for no sign of life. He was about to finish when he heard the snap of a lock and the front door creaked open a few inches. Peter was ready to bolt when a gentle voice came from within, “It’s all right child. I have something for you.”
As Peter stepped into the house, the warmth of a fire and smell of hot cocoa embraced him. The old lady handed him the cup and returned to her chair by the fireplace. “Thank you for shoveling me out, Peter; very kind of you.” He answered honestly saying, “Actually you should thank my mom; she’s the one who… (pausing). Wait, how did you know my name?”
Instead of answering, she motioned toward an antique hutch in the corner. Peter sipped the cocoa, walked over and noticed an array of framed photos neatly arranged on two shelves. The pictures in the top row were of a little boy he didn’t recognize but could tell from the yellowing of the print and clothing that they were old. They showed the boy from birth, to toddler, to elementary school, and then nothing. The next shelf looked much more familiar. It was Peter. One from about four years ago and another the year after that. Then two more that were taken recently; candid shots of him waiting for the school bus or playing in the front yard with his friends.
The old lady explained as best she could. “The boy on the top shelf is my son Jeremiah. He was my only child. Perfect and so loved.” Peter interrupted, “Why do the pictures stop?” Abigail gazed at the fire and continued painfully, “Because he died. One day he got a fever and it turned into an infection and we just lost him. He was only seven. It destroyed my husband. He started drinking. He blamed me. Two years later he left.”
She told Peter that eventually she had packed away the memories like a bad dream and moved to this town, this street and shut herself in. “I just stopped. Stopped talking, loving, living. Then one day I saw you, Peter. You looked just like my Jeremiah. I know it was probably wrong to take your photo without permission but it always broke my heart not seeing my son get older and have friends. Looking at them, the ones of you, made me happy. Made me think of what could have been. I’m sorry.”
Peter left shortly after and returned home, not sure what to think. His mother could swear he aged a year or two in that short visit with Mrs. Milch. After a long silence he finally asked, “Mom. Why’d you send me over there?” His mother put her hands on his shoulders and said, “She seems so lonely. I don’t know, hon; I thought someone doing something nice for her would help.”
The next day Peter slipped a Valentine’s card under his elderly neighbor’s door. Abigail Milch sat by the hutch in front of her pictures and read aloud, “Dear Mrs. Milch, I wanted to thank you for the hot cocoa and telling me about your son. I’m not mad about the pictures but I got an idea. Maybe I could come by and help with chores sometimes. If you had me around that might be better than a photo. Your friend, Peter.”
For the first time in years Abigail opened the blinds and let the sun shine in. The light hit the hutch where she had carefully placed the nicest Valentine’s card anyone had ever given her. John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at [email protected]