Flowers, food, and knowing my neighbor

by Bill Gerber '84, business administration

##

Bill Gerber graduated in 1984, majoring in business administration. He now works as the director of Camp Hope in British Columbia, Canada.

Every year in April when the daffodil fields are blooming here in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, I look forward to sharing bunches of these cheery fragrant flowers with friends, often the home-bound elderly, but also to anyone who may need a bit of cheering up. It is like giving a living announcement that spring is here; a literal handful of joy. Last year it seemed everyone needed a little extra cheer, and I as the giver, am always rewarded with great smiles, heartwarming visits, and gratitude.

In 2020, as COVID-19 was tethering our travels, the idea to give daffodil bouquets to my immediate neighbors popped into my head. Pretty radical idea, eh? It shouldn’t be, but to my shame, I did not know my neighbors very well. Since we moved to our current neighborhood in 2002, 90 percent of the homes have changed hands once, twice, or even three times. Now, all the houses surrounding us—and many more on our street—are home to families with origins in South Asia.   

Thus, I realized that short of a few brief conversations with the neighbors to my left and right, a few “hellos” and “how are yous,” I no longer knew my neighbors. Some I had never even said a word to. Gone was talkative Gayle with her two adult daughters and grandson, Austin. Gone was delivery truck-driving Calvin and wife, Mindy, and their four young kids. Gone was Robert, the Italian drywaller who fixed our water-damaged ceilings twice (for free), and gone was Cam, our backyard fence-sharing/replacing/expense-sharing neighbor. 

We weren’t unfriendly (I didn’t think), we were just busy and not paying attention to the ebb and flow of our neighborhood.

So it was with flowers in hand that I realized I didn’t even remember when the current neighbors had moved in. It was a sobering thought, but undaunted, off I went. The first five deliveries went as one might expect, with small talk and smiles. It was the last one that didn’t. 

This was a multi-generational home where the sum total prior interaction was only a few waves, with the presumed mom and grandma. I went to the door and knocked. It was just dusk, and I was not warmly received. I heard footsteps approaching and the conversation started through the door before it was opened. 

“Who is it?” 

“Your neighbor from across the street,” I answered. The door opened. A tall, turban-wearing younger man answered. I later learned his name was Gursimra, or Simran for short. As I held the flowers out to him, he looked at me, then the flowers, then at me again, and asked “What’s that?” I smiled and replied, “Some flowers for you.” He wasn’t taking them. I kept holding them out. It was getting awkward. 

“What’s that for?” he asked me. I’m not usually short on words, but his question caught me quite flat footed. I stammered as I struggled to come up with a good, unrehearsed answer. I tried to explain it was April, the beginning of a new spring season and the beautiful, bright yellow daffodils are meant to bring smiles and goodwill. I struggled to explain what I thought was a common gesture, but it felt lame. He told me to put the flowers on a chair outside the door at the top of the step. I did, and with not much left to say, we said good night and I turned, kind of embarrassed, and left with my proverbial tail between my legs.  

I stewed on it a bit, and then in a bravado-filled voice, declared I had a good mind to go back after dark, take the flowers back and give them to someone who would really appreciate them. Well, that night I forgot about my calculated, covert act of daffodil repatriation and never went back as threatened. Short memories can be a blessing at times. The next day—when I looked across the street with my “Gladys Kravitz” crime-fighting binoculars—the flowers were not on the chair.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, due to COVID-19, Simran had lost his truck-driving job. With time on his hands, he and the other menfolk from his home began working outside—jack hammering and digging up a sidewalk, and laying some drain and gravel. They were industrious, working rain or shine.

One day, I noticed they were chopping down some old cedar hedge trees using a little hatchet. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I should help them out.” I have an ax collection, so I went to my garage, selected two of my 120-plus axes and loaned them a single-edge 3.5 pound ax and a 2.5 pound ax. They willingly accepted my offering, and it dramatically quickened their hedge chopping. In fact, while I was there, I helped them topple a hatchet-chopped cedar.

A day or two later, when it was time to cut up the now felled trees to fit into the yard waste cans, I noticed they did not have a good saw for this task. I took over my cordless reciprocating saw, a very handy tool for many sawing situations. I demonstrated its use, and, realizing how much faster their project would go, they accepted the loan. Leaving an extra battery, I left, but kept an eye on their progress as they continued charging and exchanging the batteries throughout the day.

At the end of the day when they were done, Simran returned my saw and batteries. As he handed them over, he stood in my open garage door, looked at me and said, “You’re a really nice guy." 

I do not want to say there was a breakthrough moment, as I was not trying to achieve anything. But if I was trying for a breakthrough, that would have been it. Once more I was caught off guard, flat-footed with only an immemorable, mumbling response.

It was the unscripted pouring of a foundation for friendship, started through ax loaning, Sawzall sharing and battery charging. It permitted the ground-up, block-laying of the walls of trust.  Since then, I have gone over numerous times to see what project Simran and his father, Tashinder, are working on. I have also met his 1-year-old daughter, his wife, and his mother, and we have visited casually.  We now communicate regularly, with genuine greetings, waves, and smiles.

These breakthrough meetings and connecting with the other neighbors are stories in themselves. But it was somewhere during this time that I realized that the Matthew 22 admonition of “loving my neighbor as myself” could only happen if I actually knew my neighbor. A pretty simple concept, eh? So over the past several months my family has also begun sharing food. Ever notice how fresh baked goodies are understood in any language?
I started sharing “friendship food” with several different homes around us—home-grown tomatoes, extra bunches of bananas, British Columbia-grown Okanagan apples, and homemade cookies, muffins, and bread. Rewarding friendships and conversations have grown from these visits. I felt like a quarterback calling plays in a game that wasn’t a game, it was life; the neighbors were our team, and the football was food. Amidst all of this, and totally unplanned, we began getting knocks at our door and food started coming back our way.  Ecclesiastes 11:1 was coming to life. We were now on the receiving end of our neighbors bringing us incredibly tasty Indian meals. It was awesome, and my family and I were loving it. The sense of community that I would often lament as being lost was slowly returning. We use first names again when we call out greetings, when talking and texting, or wishing each other Happy Diwali or Merry Christmas. My wife, Bonnie, and neighbor, Deepa, have cooked together, and we hope to learn the secrets of creating the amazing textures and flavors in the meals she’s shared with us.

Back to Simran. 

One day as we were chatting, he said he was interviewing for a supply truck driving position with Tim Hortons. I told Simran I would pray for him, though I had never discussed religion with him before.  Later that day I let him know my whole office had prayed for him that morning. He was grateful and thanked me.

His father bought a Dodge pickup truck and Simran told me that if I ever needed to use it, I was welcome to it. That timing was perfect as 2021 has turned out to be a hedge-trimming/hedge removal year. On three occasions now I have called upon these kind neighbors for truck usage. They have come with the truck and helped me take three big loads to the green waste dump site. Each of these trips gives us an opportunity to visit and to get to know and understand each other and our cultures better. The last load was almost Tom Sawyer-esque with two other neighbor boys, Deepa’s sons, helping to load my trimmed hedge trees.

The ebb and flow of life changes daily. No longer strangers, Simran, Tashinder, Raj, Jatinder, Preet, Deepa, Pat, and their families are now friends. It is difficult to describe, but now when I step out my front door, the whole neighborhood just seems like a friendlier and more welcoming place.   

Posted in November 30, 2021

From left: Simran, Bill '84, Raj Jr., and Rishi are proud of their job well-done.
Bill and Tashinder, Simran's father.
"Loving my neighbor as myself could only happen if I actually knew my neighbor."

Event Details

Shown in {{ timezone.name }}