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Lynn Hummel: How to use your friends and neighbors

I keep remembering my elderly neighbor “Odie” from years ago. He was retired, healthy, sociable, talented, organized, ambitious and eager to give and to help. His only problem was he didn’t have enough to do. In his spotless garage he had a pegboard on one wall where he kept his tools. I think he had every tool ever made. Behind each tool, he had painted the silhouette of that tool. When you looked up at that wall and saw the shape of a hammer, but no hammer, you knew a hammer was either missing or in use. If I needed a tool I didn’t have, Odie was only too happy to lend it to me. And I was always eager to get it back as fast as possible because that pegboard practically flashed the message that it was gone.

We lived directly across the street from one another. In the evenings, Odie would come over to chat. There never was a friendlier neighbor. He’d say something like, “Do you like birds?” Well, of course, everybody likes birds. Odie had a half dozen birdhouses he’d made himself in his yard. We had none. About three days later, there was a birdhouse and feeder Odie had made, planted on a pole in our backyard. It was squirrel-proof.

One summer day, Odie and I were on his side of the street and he looked across at our plain, brown, two-story house and said, “Your house would look good with shutters.” I agreed and said we had talked about that, but never got around to doing anything about it.

One year later, Odie and I were again on his side of the street, and again he looked across at our plain, brown, two-story house and said, “Your house would look good with shutters.” I gave him the same answer I’d given the year before, but it didn’t seem to satisfy Odie.

After all, he wanted to improve the view from his side of the street. Showing some impatience with my lack of action or ambition, he said, “Look, if you pay for the materials, I’ll make some shutters for your house.”

How could I argue with that?

Two weeks later, we not only had shutters, but they were painted and in place. The cost? Materials only. The place looked much better, especially from across the street. We were pleased, of course, and thankful to our kind, generous and ambitious neighbor. But we couldn’t have been happier then he was.

We were raising three kids at the time, running in all directions to school and church events, and should have been embarrassed at what our place looked like compared to Odie’s tip-top, manicured perfection across the street. But our list of priorities never seemed to cover all the bases and we needed all the help we could get.

Odie was always volunteering to do more and more for us. But I was reluctant to take advantage of this generous senior citizen who always gave and asked for nothing in return. So I rebuffed some of his offers and suggestions.

After he was gone, I realized too late that I was wrong. Anne Murray before she retired, sang a great song about friendship, “You Needed Me.” The singer sings, “I needed you and you were there.” And the message is that you were there by needing me. And by needing me you were my friend and lifted me up and gave me dignity.

Sometimes neighbors insist on blowing the snow off your sidewalk or driveway. Sometimes they mow their lawn and yours at the same time. Sometimes they paint the fence between your yard and theirs even though it’s your fence. Don’t fight it.

I could have made Odie’s life fuller and happier if I had been sensitive enough to allow him to be friendly by doing the favors he wanted to do and did so well. He needed that.

Sometimes, the best friend is the one who recognizes the need of the other guy to give and gracefully permits the usual roles of give and take to be reversed. So be kind to a friend who wants to help you. Let him do it.