Of Many Things

Something important happened a few weeks ago, though you didn’t read about it in any newspaper, see it on television or hear about it on the radio. In fact, you didn’t hear about this at all: a small brass key was handed over to my mother by her neighbor across the street. But it was big news nonetheless. My family has lived in the same house in a suburb just outside Philadelphia since shortly after I was born. My parents moved in the same week that John Glenn circled the earth. Already living across the street were Mr. and Mrs. Ash and their children, two boys and a girl my age named Carol.

Carol has known me, I always like to say, since I was zero years old. We colored together, went trick-or-treating together, rode our bikes to school together when the weather allowed (when not, either my mother in her Ford Falcon, or Mrs. Ash in her Dodge Dart, would drive us) and, believe it or not, staged an elaborate “wedding” when we were nine. For the ceremony I dressed up in my father’s suit, Carol put on a cast-off dress of her mother’s, and we processed three times around my house. When Mrs. Ash learned I was entering the Jesuits, she asked, “Do they know you’re married?”

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The Ashes were a kind of foundation for my family. Always attentive, always generous, always helpful. Always working, too. My mother’s favorite ploy to get us to start our chores on Saturdays (my dad doing stuff around the house, me mowing the lawn, my sister tidying up her room) was to open the curtain and point across the street.

“Look at Mr. Ash,” she’d say, pointing to the inveterate handyman. “It’s 8 o’clock and he’s already at work!”

Like the best of neighbors, the Ashes, devout Presbyterians, pitched in whenever needed. Once, when my mother was staying overnight in the hospital, Mr. and Mrs. Ash hosted my sister and me for dinner, and we all laughed so hard that milk came out of my nose. When I was 15, I came home late one night after a typically miserable summer job, with the rest of my family at the Jersey shore, and found the door to our house ajar. I knew better than to be scared, but also knew that if I didn’t ask Mr. Ash to check things out I would never get to sleep. This he did, generously, with his trusty flashlight, and never mentioned it again.

Years later, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, it was often Mr. Ash who helped him into the car for visits to the hospital, Mrs. Ash who cheered up my mother and the Ashes who seemed saddest at his funeral.

Which brings me to that brass key. The Ashes always kept one of our house keys, and we kept one of theirs. This was useful when anyone got locked out of the house, when a repairman was scheduled to visit or when mail needed to be picked up and carried inside during a vacation. Always stored in a particular drawer in our china closet, the key was a visible sign of a lasting friendship.

Recently, Mr. and Mrs. Ash decided that it was time, after over 40 years, to move into an assisted-living community. My mother was sad, as were my sister and I, and so was my friend Carol. And it seemed especially momentous when my mother told me that Mrs. Ash came over the other day to give my mother her old key, and my mother gave over hers. Happily, the Ashes are not too far away, and there are still other friendly neighbors living next to my mother.

All the same, their moving was a loss for our entire family. A few days after Christmas this year, while I was home on a visit, my 6-year-old nephew looked across the street and said, quite spontaneously, “We should go see the Ashes!” When we told him they had moved, he looked suddenly sad and asked quietly, “Oh, can we visit them?”

How does God love us? God loves us in a thousand little ways, and many of them are through other people and the little things they do--like cooking a meal for another family’s children, scouting around an empty house late at night, and helping an old man into a car. These actions do not make the news, but that doesn’t mean they are not important to notice, to remember and, most of all, to celebrate.

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11 years 8 months ago
Thanks for the Of Many Things column by James Martin, S.J. (1/17). The ritual-like exchange of the small brass keys as his former neighbors left for their new residence in an assisted-living community reminds us of the value of marking important occasions with symbolic gestures. Mrs. Ash and Mrs. Martin clearly understood that such significant moments in life cry out for celebration, not only in symbolic action but, as Father Martin shows us by his example, in published words.

11 years 8 months ago
As a “baby priest,” age 58 and three-and-a-half years ordained, I am constantly on the lookout for homiletic material. Frequently a Faith in Focus or Of Many Things column fits the bill. As a case in point, the neighborly exchange of keys related by James Martin, S.J., in the latter on Jan. 17 struck a familiar chord. Last summer, after locking myself out of the old family house, I was rescued by such a key, which my mother, deceased over six years, had entrusted many, many years ago to a neighbor. After Mom’s death, I had thought about retrieving the key but never followed through. Good thing I didn’t! Of course, much more than keys are involved. I sense a future Christmas homily in the works here. Perhaps theosis in the exchange of house keys between neighbors?

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