Love Thy Neighbor
“It’s your fault I have to go next door to eat some weird concoction the Muslim is cooking. He’ll probably poison me.” I put the phone to my other ear while I adjusted my belt buckle.
“No, it’s your fault your granddaughter is so cute she attracts the attention of all your neighbors.” Shelly was laughing. “The man was totally besotted with her, so I had to take her over to say hi.”
“Did you have to get into a discussion about where he’s from, or worse yet, tell him your mom used to live there?” I could hear pots and pans clanging. My daughter must have been cooking dinner. Maybe she was making fried chicken, greens cooked with salt pork, baked macaroni and cheese, and tomato salad, all her mom’s specialties. My mouth started watering. I hadn’t eaten too many home cooked meals since Jill died a year and a half ago.
“Dad, I’ve got to hang up. You go be neighborly. Bring him some of the peaches you bought yesterday.” Shelly sounded more like her mother the older she got. Thirty now, wasn’t she? “Be nice.”
“I’m always nice.” I sat on the bed, trying to keep the phone between my shoulder and cheek while using both hands to pull on my socks. “Good-bye, honey. Give Maddie a kiss from her Paw-Paw and tell Scott hi.” I sure wished Shelly lived closer, and not just for her cooking.
I finished putting on my shoes, grabbed the bag of peaches from the Farmer’s Market, and walked across my yard. While I knocked on my new neighbor’s door, I tried to remember his name, Mohammed something. Weren’t they all named Mohammed?
“Padi, kushay-o! ” My neighbor opened his door dressed in a floor length white shirt with a slit at the neck. A couple of children could have hidden underneath it, as wide as it was. He had a small round cap perched on the back of his head and sandals on his feet. He wore the same thing when I’d seen him praying to Mecca on his patio.
“Brought you some peaches.” I handed him the bag and stood in the doorway feeling real out of place.
“Thank you. Come in, please.” Mohammed took the peaches and shut the door behind me. “Sit here in my kitchen. I’ve prepared groundnut stew for us.” Mohammed waved his hand toward a small table sitting in the same little corner of the kitchen I had mine in.
I could smell chicken, cooked onions, some unidentifiable seasoning, and what I thought might be peanuts. It actually didn’t smell bad. I took a seat at the table, relieved to see a fork on the placemat. Years ago, Jill had told me how people in the villages ate with their right hand out of a communal bowl.
Mohammed handed me a cold beverage and I thanked him, and then carefully took a sip. It was only sweet tea.
“I was excited to hear that your wife once lived in my country.” Mohammed sat down next to me with his own tea. “Not many people know Sierra Leone.”
“Jill was in the Peace Corps before we met.” I wasn’t going to admit that she often spoke fondly about a country full of Muslims.
“Do you have any children besides your beautiful daughter?”
“I have a son, Dan, who is a surgical nurse in Columbia. He has a wife and a little boy.” My throat tightened up and my hands ball up into fists on the table. “My youngest son, Robbie, was killed in Iraq three years ago.”
Mohammed rested his forehead in his hands. “I know your pain, Mr. Mills.”
Before I could say the mean thought in my head, Mohammed continued. “I too lost my wife, my son, and both my daughters during our civil war. There are no words for this type of heartache.”
I hadn’t cried in over a year, but I found myself fighting back tears. Mohammed stood up, walked to the stove, served up my dinner, and then placed a large plateful in front of me. When he had served himself, he sat back down and bowed his head. “Let us thank our God for the loved ones we have known and the food we can now share.”
As I tasted the spicy groundnut stew, I realized I had just prayed to God for the first time in three years.
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