A Lesson in Kindness 22 Years in the Making with Jenna McGuiggan

Guest Post by Jenna McGuiggan for the Kind Kindred series.

A Lesson in Kindness 22 Years in the Making

It takes me a few minutes to understand that the screeching, crunching sound is coming from my backyard.

I’m standing at the kitchen window, eating a mid-afternoon snack, daydreaming. I dismiss the noise as someone doing construction until I notice a swatch of green on the tall, wooden fence at the bottom of the yard. Then I realize it’s not on the fence, but on the other side of the fence. The noise I’d been ignoring was the sound of wooden slats splintering. Through the hole I see a man closing the trunk of a white station wagon. As he opens the driver’s side door I glimpse a sign on it, the magnetic kind people use to advertise a local business. I can’t read it. He shuts the door and drives away.

The fence separates my backyard from a small strip of lawn that runs behind a row of townhouses. The garages for the townhouses are all on the front of the building. My yard abuts the back of the building, where there are no roads or driveways.

I put down my snack, grab my car keys, and go.

First I drive down to the townhouses, hoping to find the perpetrator parked out front. No luck. I walk around the building to inspect the damage. Yep, there’s a line of white paint scraped against the broken wood. A teenager on a riding mower drives by. I wave him down and ask if he saw the car.

“Yeah,” he says. “Some old guy in a white Volvo. He left that big garbage bag.” The bag is full of mulch, and a profile of the perp comes together in mind: Elderly man in a white Volvo with a sign on the door and possible traces of mulch in the trunk.

I take my suburban recon one step further and, letting my anger fuel my bravery, I knock on the front door of the townhouse that received the mulch. No answer.

And then I snap, just a little bit. I’m going to track down this sucker who thinks he can damage my property and run off. I live in a small town. How hard can it be to find a white Volvo with a sign on the door?

I start driving. I am A Woman On A Mission. Part of me knows that this mission is futile. But the hotheaded Irish part of me doesn’t care. My internal soundtrack plays the maniacal music that accompanies the bicycling-neighbor-turned-wicked-witch in “The Wizard of Oz.” As I drive, I begin to hear something else in my head, a mantra repeating itself until I start chanting it aloud:

I am my father’s daughter. I am my father’s daughter.

** ** **
I was fourteen years old, sitting in the backseat of our maroon Ford Taurus with my younger brother, my mom up front in the passenger seat, and Dad driving. As we entered a four-way intersection, a car coming from the right ran a red light. My dad braked. Jerked the steering wheel hard left. We torqued. Turned. Skidded. Stopped on the wrong side of the highway. All of us panting with adrenaline, catching our breath with relief.

And then my father, who was just a few years older than I am now, became A Man On A Mission. He set off in search of the car that had nearly broadsided us. He tailgated it down a winding country road, flashing his lights and honking his horn until the driver pulled over to the side. Even with the windows up it was easy to hear him yelling, “I have kids in the car! You could’ve killed us!”

** ** **
Nobody has nearly died, but I’m still a woman on a mission. As I drive, I call my husband to tell him what happened. He calls his friend who’s a cop to find out what we can do. The friend tells us to call the station and file a hit-and-run report. At the time, it seems like the right thing to do. I don’t want to press charges; I just want whoever broke my fence to pay to fix it.

A cop calls back to report that my neighbor’s elderly father hit the fence while dropping off some mulch. They’ve promised to pay for the damages. “If you don’t hear from them in a few days, give me a call,” he says.

A few days pass, and then a few more. I’m not as angry. I’m a little embarrassed that I called the cops. I consider going to talk to this neighbor I’ve never met. And then one morning I look out my kitchen window and see a five-foot gap in the fence. Tools and new wooden slats sit nearby. My neighbor, who is nowhere in sight, has apparently taken it upon themselves to mend the fence. And now I’m angry again. They never called, never stopped by, never checked to see if this was a good day to remove a large section of fence and replace it. What if I had dogs or small kids who played in that yard? What if I were having company over for a barbecue?

I pick up the phone and call my father. He’ll understand why I’m angry. I update him and wait for his outrage. Instead, he says, “Well, you could get on your high horse about it, and I can see why you’d want to. Or you could go down there and thank them for taking care of it. Maybe you can make a new friend.”

What?

And so I let my father’s kindness fuel my bravery, and when I spot the elderly-yet-spry man at the bottom of my yard, I walk down there. I thank him. He’s civil. When his daughter comes over, I introduce myself and say I’m sorry we’re meeting for the first time like this. She’s cold. Part of me can’t blame her. After all, I did call the cops on her and her father.

I smile and try to make amends, but it’s going nowhere. She starts to make rude comments about the original state of my fence. Finally, I simply smile and say thank you one last time, trying very hard, in this moment, to be my father’s daughter.

Jenna McGuiggan is a writer, editor, and creativity coach who lives in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and dreams about the sea. She shares what she’s learned about the art and craft of writing in her series of online writing courses called Alchemy. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and loves playing with words to create beauty, meaning, and connection. You can visit Jenna online in The Word Cellar, which she envisions as a cozy, stone-walled chamber filled with twinkle lights, shelves of stories, nooks of books, and plush armchairs that are perfect for sharing your tale.

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