…not every hero knows his/her story. One of my heroes was a very ordinary neighbor on a street called Harlem Road in a small town in Galena, Ohio. I knew these neighbors as the Joneses and that’s all I know about them. I don’t know if they were rich or poor, if they had children of their own or if they rented their house like we did. I can, however, guarantee that the Joneses never knew what their simple gift at Christmas a week before I turned eight meant to me.
First a little background. I was born into the middle of a family with eight kids who arrived in the space of nine years to one mother and one father. No twins. Middle kids in a large family with children so close in age usually feel like we get swept along with the crowd and perhaps a bit deprived of personal attention – a blessing at times and a curse at others. Understandably, it’s the oldest and youngest who get the most attention from the parents, first because each moment is new and last because they are the end of an era. In our family, that left four middle kids striving to stand out or blend in according to the bent of their temperaments.
Besides being one drop in the large bucket of the Burkitt Family, I also recall that much of what we kids had at our disposal for entertainment was communal property. There were plenty of books, crayons, construction paper, tinker toys, modeling clay, games, etc. but they belonged to all of us. We shared beds, baths and many of the toys we played with.
One year at Christmas for a reason I do not know, the Jones gave me and each of my seven siblings a book of his/her own carefully wrapped and taped. Though we made weekly trips to the library and it was my job to read to my younger siblings while my mom got dinner ready, it was the first time I had a book to call my own. The books were inexpensive and plain without illustrations. When I opened that book and started reading, at the age of eight, I fell in love with the story of Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. I wanted to meet Peter, the goat-herder and slip my hand into Grandfather’s. I wanted to taste goat cheese between thick slices of fresh-baked bread and experience all the sensory beauty of the Alps – hear the wind in the pines, smell the fresh mountain air, see the clear night sky, feel the warm sunshine on my shoulders and run up and down the steep mountain trails until I was breathless, then flop down in the field of flowers and laugh for pure joy.
As a little girl growing up in Ohio, the vivid description of Heidi’s life in the Alps and her longing to return there was beyond my experience but not my imagination. I wanted to stand on top of a mountain and touch the sky. It set my heart to dreaming that one day, I too would go to the Alps and live in the mountains.
The twisting road of life often takes us places we never thought we’d go, and I did wind up living in this high-mountain desert land in Central AZ and I touch the sky every single day. I even visited the Alps one summer week while living in Germany. It’s not that I strove to fulfill a childhood dream, but my adult experience was made richer and fuller because of the dream started in my eight-year-old heart. Because I had previously imagined the moments, while camping in the Alps I listened more closely to the wind in the pines, breathed more deeply of the scented mountain air and marveled more at the clear night sky. It was all Heidi had promised it would be and more. I thrilled to thunder rolling around the mountain basin one night and hiked a mountain gorge with my own family, pausing to catch my breath and feel the joy of living in a world where childhood dreams do become reality.
Not all heroes rush into a burning building, protect a person from harm, or rescue someone from the jaws of death. Some heroes simply plant seeds into hearts or open doors in the minds of others through simple acts or gifts without fully realizing what they’ve done. I don’t know if our neighbors, the Joneses, put much thought into the titles they chose to give to each of us or if they just did their best to distribute what they had according to our ages. I only know that an ordinary act from ordinary neighbors (with a very ordinary name) set my imagination to dreaming of possibilities that seemed extraordinary at the time and serve to remind me that any one of us could be a hero to someone somewhere… sometime.