It used to be the best sledding hill in town. The valley that cuts through the middle of this beautiful little community boasts a wonderful creek, with fountains and natural stone retaining walls, that flows in one direction to the downtown area and then doubles back the other way as it passes through the once bustling town center. The drawback of the beautiful valley is that, of necessity, the access to and from it will always be either down or up a hill. Most of the year it is, at worst, a nuisance when afoot or on a human powered vehicle. After a snowfall, however, the roads tend to get a little treacherous even in a motor vehicle, causing more than a few fender-benders and visits to the nearest ditch. Way back then, the city’s road-preparation crew consisted of two men and a pickup truck. One man drove, the other stood in the bed of the truck and tossed shovels-full of sand onto the pavement below, giving the illusion of aiding traffic, but you were well advised just to stay out of the valley in that kind of weather.
The best sledding hill in town was simply one of those roadways…the steepest of them, which was impossible to traverse when icy. The city fathers wisely closed off this section of road with barriers at both the bottom and top of the hill when it iced up. Thus, the hill was left to the youngsters (and the young at heart) in town to slide down and trudge up as many times as they could manage, without fear of any cars to interrupt their fun. It was a heart-stopping experience, riding down that hill…either on a sled or an inner tube (and sometimes a tray “borrowed” from the cafeteria of the local university). At the top, you stood and considered the steep drop, assuming from that vantage point that the ride down would be a piece of cake. Onto the sled you would drop, after pushing it several running steps while leaning over and holding on securely. The first thing you felt was a rapid acceleration, cresting the top onto the sharply angled face of the hill. For the rookies, the sensation of “losing your stomach” was common, leading to a little panic, then the realization that there was no time for that. You see, the road led down the hill, but it also sagged a bit toward both sides, along each of which runs a ditch, cut deep by the copious amounts of water that run off down the hillside during the warmer months of the year. Disaster awaits there! The slightly sickening sensation in the tummy ignored, extreme care must be taken to steer a course down the center of the roadway. Then, for a moment, you feel free as a bird, flying down the hill, controlling the direction while enjoying the amazing sensation. But, as one nears the lower end of the incline, suddenly you realize that the barrier at the bottom is approaching at a rapid speed. It is not advisable to pass the barrier, since it borders the busy road along which all the frustrated motorists, who have been diverted away from the sledding surface, are driving. This time, the ditch seems the better option than hoping to avoid the wheels of moving cars, and the sled is stopped short of the traffic. Immediately, the fear and knot in the stomach are forgotten and the cry of “Let’s do it again!” fills the air, as the erstwhile flyers trudge back up the snowy slope to repeat the scary performance.
As with most outdoor winter activities, the exposure to the elements takes a toll. Snow in the tops of boots soon turns to cold dampness on the feet, the hands, likewise are wet and freezing, and it seems like the fun is over. Somehow, Mrs. Simpson knows when the time is right and comes out of her doorway. Mrs. Simpson? Oh, she is a nice lady who lives in one of the houses along the road, a little frame bungalow with 2 or 3 tiny bedrooms and a nice warm kitchen. She has lived there with Mr. Simpson for years, never unhappy to live in the tiny tract house. She has made it a very comfortable home for them both. On these cold evenings, though, she is not content to just sit and listen to the kid’s excited shouts, nor has she been sitting idle. “You look cold, kids! Come on inside for some hot chocolate!” No one has to be asked twice and the kids (and a grownup or two) are soon inside enjoying a mug of the steaming comfort. The puddles on the linoleum floor will have to be mopped up, but Mrs. Simpson is in her element, handing out the hot, sweet nectar. Soon, the group is ready to tackle the hill again, with more warmth inside them than just what can be attributed to the hot drink and heated house. What a great memory of exciting winter activities and neighborly hospitality!
Sadly, Mrs. Simpson passed away, leaving Mr. Simpson lonely. After a period of time, he finds that an old flame of his from school days has also lost her spouse. They spend time together, eventually deciding to marry. The new Mrs. Simpson isn’t quite the same personality as the old one, though. The little frame bungalow, comfortable for two before, isn’t nearly large enough, nor impressive enough. A new house must be built. The impressive brick edifice is built on the property next door. Local lore tells of contractor after contractor who walks off the job. Mr. Simpson is not the reason for them quitting. One sub-contractor speaks of arriving on the job as it neared completion and being told proudly that an ignorant previous contractor wanted to short them on insulation in the attic, but that she had insisted that he double the amount of insulation, winning the argument before he too, walked off the job. During the course of the sub-contractor’s duties, he was in the attic, where he could attest to the fact that she had indeed received double the amount of insulation…all piled up in one corner of the attic!
I won’t bore you with the litany of stories from various sources. I will tell you this – there was never again hot chocolate and a warm kitchen awaiting any sledder at the bottom of that hill. Instead, I observed a head poking out the front door, not with a kind invitation on the lips, but with threats and orders to vacate being shouted at the kids. I even noticed the arrival of the city police on one occasion, called because she was tired of the incessant noise from the revelry. Eventually, she got her wish of ridding the hill of sledders altogether when the city acquired new equipment which actually cleared the pavement for continuous traffic up and down the best sledding hill in the city, no matter the weather. Her palatial home was safe from the troublesome urchins and eventually, the lowlifes on the corner moved out too, certainly increasing property values when they left.
I cannot help but compare the two Mrs. Simpsons, wondering which of them had the better life. The kind, old Mrs. Simpson lived in a tiny home, unimpressive and cramped, but warm and inviting. She was happy. The kids loved her. I’m convinced that memories of her will remain warm and gentle. Hers was a wealth that could never be taken from her. The new Mrs. Simpson, also gone now, stands in memory as a sad, unhappy woman. Her beautiful, expansive home was a cold unwelcoming place, in spite of the extra insulation. No amount of luxury could overcome the miserly mindset, denying joy and comfort to those outside. Because she would not share her blessings, poverty held tightly to its place in her spirit also. Need I go on?
The moral is clear (to me, anyway). Wealth and creature comforts will never make a building a home; nor do lighted driveways and impressive doorways offer a welcome, unless the inhabitants thereof have warm hearts and open arms. Impromptu gatherings in warm kitchens filled with joy and laughter (and wet floors) seem to me to be infinitely better than a cold, forbidding edifice where no uninvited guest is allowed entrance.
Perhaps the instructions of the Word aren’t so silly after all. “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers. Some, by doing this, have entertained angels without knowing it.” Oh! And, one more. “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me.”
Words to live by, especially as we approach this season that marks the greatest act of hospitality known, the opening of the halls of Heaven itself!
“It is better to live in the corner of a roof, than in a house with a contentious woman.”
“Christmas! ‘Tis the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial fire of charity in the heart.”
(Washington Irving~American author~1783-1859)