Friday, May 6, 2011

Moms and their timeless advice

I can't say for certain if my mother has truly gotten any wiser over the years (or, rather, decades) since I've been on this earth or if I just have slowly done a better job of appreciating her sage words as I've aged myself.

But, I recall from my childhood words of wisdom she always would direct at me whenever I got on a rant about someone with whom I was having difficulty at school, or a temperamental cousin, or anyone else.

Mom would say to me, "Pray for your enemies!"

I remember thinking – at the time – now that's dumb!

At the Catholic school I attended, we did daily prayer offerings for family and friends because they were sick, had fallen on other hard times, or approaching some big opportunity: the whole premise being to pray for their recovery and/or good fortune. During Sunday Mass, the prayer offerings seemed to be conducted under the same premises – with the addition of prayers for Church leaders and our elected officials so they may bring wisdom with their actions and decisions (don't snicker at that last example… the good intentions were undeniably pure).

All in all we were encouraged during our youth – both in school and at Mass – to pray on behalf of people for whom we cared or held some perceived vested interest.

So, the notion of praying for someone I disliked seemed rather counterintuitive.

But my mother – being a tremendously more patient person than I – bided her time as she kept telling me time and again, "Pray for your enemies."

And, I say she bided her time because finally, in my mid teen years, she gave me her evidence to support this paradoxical advice. Mom finally shared the story of our old next door neighbor, Mr. Dugan.

Even at that juncture in life I had retained scant memories of Mr. Dugan. Most of what I knew about him came from the myriad of stories I'd heard from my three older brothers as well as Mom. None of these stories were good.

Mr. Dugan was a heavy drinker, a terrible husband, an abusive father, and a general misery to have right on the other side of one's property line. He also was not shy about who saw and heard how miserable he could be. On at least one occasion, his abusive tendencies motivated Mom to walk back into the house, crawl in bed, and cry herself to sleep in the middle of the day.

Living next to Mr. Dugan was bad enough to inspire her to plant a row of Russian olive trees along our chain-link fence to serve as a buffer.

Over the years Mr. Dugan lived next door to my family, Mom said, early-on she began praying for him. She never asked God for anything specific. Mom just prayed for him.

And she kept praying for Mr. Dugan. The more time that passed, the harder she prayed for him – especially as my brothers got older. Eventually as tensions between our families grew and my oldest brother, Michael, was rapidly approaching the age of 18, Mom’s anxiety grew as well. She worried over what the legal consequences would hold for my brothers should a confrontation erupt once any of them were of adult age.

Mom kept praying.

Then all of a sudden, shortly after I turned 5, Mr. Dugan landed a great new job, packed up his wife and three children, and moved away.

We never heard from him again.

Ordinarily, one would think the fable ends here and the moral would be self-evident. But, as the late-great Paul Harvey used to say, "And now, the rest of the story."

Mr. Dugan didn't move all that far away, as it turned-out. His new job was a few miles farther north from where he had been working – yet not so far where he had a real need to relocate. But, while he had no apparent shame, he was at the same time a vain individual: the higher paying, better job meant "the old neighborhood" no longer was good enough and his home no longer was big enough.

The city to our north was rapidly growing and brand new subdivisions were springing-up there left and right – with bigger and nicer houses. The allure was too great for Mr. Dugan to pass-up.

We knew that much before they left. Six years later, however, big gaps in the storyline were rapidly filled-in for us.

The school district into which the Dugans moved participated in the same vocational cooperative (in some areas known as an intermediate school district) as ours. It was called Southeast Oakland Vocational Education Center (SEOVEC).

My brother Brian signed-up for a program at SEOVEC. He happened to be the same age as the oldest Dugan child, Scott. When Brian met several students from the Dugans' new school district, he immediately developed curiosity about our old neighbors and asked these students if they had happened to know them – and Scott specifically.

Upon hearing the name, they seemingly froze in their positions, glanced at Brian in a sideways manner, and gave him "the look." After a second of awkward silence they asked my brother, "How do you know Scott Dugan?"

Brian's new SEOVEC classmates relayed harried tales of malcontent involving Mr. Dugan and Scott. It turned out as he entered his teen years Scott was becoming a chip off the old block. He had begun to grow into a burly young man much like his father. He also was adopting his father's disposition and keen sense of social skills.

Bear in mind, in the late 70s and into the early 80s, the city where they moved – even though it was only a few miles north of Detroit – still predominantly had farmland and other rural expanses and was populated principally with what you could call "northern rednecks."

In short, these were people who didn't take kindly to new inhabitants bringing with them a bad attitude combined with a sense of superiority.

The kids didn’t take kindly to Scott. Consequently, no one took kindly to Mr. Dugan when he stuck his nose into his son's business once the local youth began administering their brand of frontier justice.

Mr. Dugan practically invited the town's youngsters to torque on him, failing to anticipate the hornets nest he was stirring-up. It hadn't occurred to him the folks in the area might not share the same sense of restraint demonstrated by us in the old neighborhood.

Quite possibly the coup de gras perpetrated upon Mr. Dugan happened one summer very shortly before Brian crossed paths with these young men.

Allow me to set this up: Mr. Dugan was quite the lawn freak. Now, our two homes – when he was still next door – were situated on a bend in our street. The position of our house as a result gave our property a trapezoidal shape and, accordingly, the largest front yard on the block.

Mr. Dugan, being so vain and as much of a lawn freak as he was, made it a habit of when he mowed his lawn to mow a portion of ours so as to create the appearance the property line mysteriously angled at some point – thus making his property look bigger.

The Kissicks, being a pragmatic people, quickly determined that if he wanted to do the extra work for us, there was no point in raising any fuss. We knew the truth: it appeared Mr. Dugan needed to "compensate" for something…

So, Mr. Dugan, being so OCD over the quality of his lawn years before the term "OCD" entered the greater lexicon of our society, eventually gave the local ne'er-do-wells of his new community the perfect target for their displeasure.

That summer, Mr. Dugan evidently was so dissatisfied with the appearance of his lawn he had it ripped-up and replaced with brand new sod. Very shortly thereafter, he took the family on a nice, lengthy vacation.

The next night, a few of the youth whose displeasure had been earned by Mr. Dugan and his oldest child paid their home a visit. They pulled up all his fresh, new sod and threw it in as big of chunks as they could wield on top of his roof. The next day, the area saw the start of a classic summer-in-Michigan, multi-day deluge. It was immediately followed by several days of cloudless, hot days of intense sunshine.

The heavy rains ran long, chunky streaks of dirt and grass all along the sides of Mr. Dugan's house and the days of unabated sun exposure baked it all in there for good measure.

For some reason, Mr. Dugan didn't share the other residents' humorous outlook on the situation.

From there, the circumstances only got worse for Mr. Dugan and Scott. Although, the level of creativity demonstrated during all the subsequent activity never quite matched the episode above.

Herein lies the real moral of the story. Whenever you feel the need to subject your neighbors to your social shortcomings and even air your own family's dirty laundry for everyone else living in earshot, be sure to bear this in mind:

Just imagine my mom praying for you.

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