Dogs, Pumpkin Bread, and Reindeer
When I was 7 or 8 years old, I lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a small town in Tennessee. I have the fondest memories of living there. I remember our huge garden with lots of corn. I remember our compost pile. I remember the huuuuuuuge hill that went from my house to my friend Jennifer’s house. I remember the tulips and dogwood tree in our yard. I remember being yanked off the phone and dragged into a bathroom during a thunderstorm, and going outside in the morning and seeing our neighbor’s trampoline in our yard, courtesy of the tornado that had passed by the night before.
But my most vivid childhood memory involves the first pet I remember, Heidi. Heidi was our red short-hair dachshund. She was beautiful. She was my playmate and my friend. She followed us virtually everywhere.
Heidi also had a thing for chasing cars. She would fly down the road on her short, stubby legs and nip at the tires of passing cars. I have several memories of us yelling and chasing after Heidi because we were sure that she would get hit. But she always seemed to stay just far away enough to avoid disaster.
One day, our next-door neighbors were leaving in their maroon truck. My dad and I were both out in the front yard, and the neighbors waved as they took off down the cul-de-sac. And suddenly, Heidi bolted after their truck, just as she had done so many times before.
Normally, the neighbors would stop their car and let us come grab the dog before they went on their way. I don’t know why, but this time they didn’t stop. They kept driving, although slowly, while Heidi nipped at their tires.
I stood at the edge of my front yard and screamed. I remember feeling so panicked. I screamed and screamed for Heidi to come back. When I realized that was futile, I started screaming at my neighbors to stop. “STOP! YOU’RE GOING TO HIT MY DOG!! STOP!! PLEASE, PLEASE STOP!!!!!
Heidi just laid in the street in a heap. My dad ran as fast as he could into the road to get her. My neighbor finally stopped and poked his head out of the truck. “Oh no, is she…?”
“Yeah,” my dad said. “She’s dead.”
I remember it like it was yesterday. My world collapsed entirely around my seven year-old self. I started heaving with these deep, gut-wrenching sobs. They had killed my dog. Why didn’t they stop!? They knew that she liked to chase their truck. Why couldn’t they have stopped?! Was it really such a hard thing to wait 90 seconds so we could get our dog out of the way?? How could they be so cruel and heartless?? Who was going to play with me in the yard now?!
I ran into the house, sobbing, and straight to my room. Then my dad came inside, holding our sweet dead dog. He called my mom (who was on vacation at the time) and told her what happened. Then I remember him walking back to his room, throwing himself on his bed, and sobbing. It was the first time I remember seeing him cry.
We buried Heidi next to the compost pile in our yard. I remained angry at my neighbors for years. I even tried to run over their dog with my bike (unsuccessfully, I might add, and I ended up flying down the aforementioned monstrous hill and crashing my bike at the bottom). I hated them. They were dog-killers.
This whole thing drove a wedge between our family and theirs. We didn’t wave at each other, let alone speak to each other, for several months afterwards. We had always been friends before, and they had apologized, but this death (“murder,” I hear my young self saying) really soured our relationship.
That Christmas, several months after our dog had been killed, my mother made several mini-loaves of pumpkin bread to take to our neighbors. She debated whether to take one to them – after all, we hadn’t been speaking, and surely a small loaf of pumpkin bread wouldn’t solve this enormous rift. But she packaged up a loaf and had us kids take it over to them and wish them a Merry Christmas.
Our neighbor was a carpenter. He and his wife had been making wares to sell for the holiday season, and later that day after receiving the bread, he knocked at our door. We opened the door to find him with arms full of beautifully hand-crafted wooden reindeer. He had made a family of five, just like our family, and gave them to us. And slowly but surely, our relationship healed. My parents still have the reindeer today; they make an appearance next to the tree during every Christmas season.
As I think back on this event, I’m so touched by my mother’s gesture. It would have been so easy to not have given them the bread – we didn’t kill their dog (despite my best attempts). But that small act of reconciliation healed something, because my mother was willing to put down her grudge and reach out in kindness and fellowship.
What grudges do we hold, big or small, that could be bridged by a small act of kindness? What resentments do we harbor that could be mended by extending a hand of service, gratitude, or kind of words? These may seem like small things – a family dog, a loaf of bread, a family of reindeer – but this story has always illustrated to me the profound spirit of reconciliation that can come when we lay down our anger, our pride, and our weapons and simply reach across to another person in a gesture of friendship and compassion.