I traveled up North River Road for a dozen years on my way to work. And more than a couple dozen years ago as a freshman, I rode the bus on the same route between a downtown dormitory and a campus five miles north. The road is lined with a collection of homes, but one in particular has stood out over the years.
The house is not much to speak of, a small white New Englander probably built around the turn of the last century. It’s got to be less than a thousand square feet and has a one car driveway that ends where a garage should be. The white clapboard house was well maintained and in a way reminded me of my grandparent’s modest home. Perhaps the familiarity was what caused me to first notice it.
As a freshman, I would watch as the gray haired couple who lived there rake the leaves, sweep the driveway, wash the new Pontiac, or take care of routine lawn maintenance. When winter came, they wrapped the shrubs in front of the house and hung a wreath on the door. They seemed to always be outside as the bus went by and I looked to see what they were up to almost every time I passed.
My sophomore year, I moved to campus and no longer made the daily commute up North River Road. I had long forgotten about the couple and that little white house until I moved back to New Hampshire and resumed a commute along that very familiar route. One day I noticed a now white haired elderly woman trimming the much larger shrubs in front of the same white house with a fading Pontiac parked in the driveway.
I wondered if her husband was still living and on one warm and sunny day saw the two of them sitting at the end of the driveway in the shadows cast by the familiar little white house. I was pleased to see them sharing what was a beautiful late fall afternoon. As fall faded to winter, I rarely would see the couple, but found a strange comfort in the stability and order that modest, tidy home and their presence represented.
That spring I began to wonder when I would see the couple out taking care of their house and yard. One morning on my way to work, I noticed an ambulance in the driveway and wondered what had happened. I prayed for the man and woman. While I didn’t have names to pray for, I asked God for his comfort, healing and peace on the couple who had become a fixture of comfort on my commute.
I never did see the elderly man again but prayed for the couple. After a while, I dubbed the woman “Rita” so I wasn’t praying for “that elderly woman,” even though I knew that God knew who she was. After that first year, “River Road Rita” was a more important fixture in my commute as she puttered around the yard, or sat in her lawn chair. As I didn’t know what her situation was, I prayed for her comfort and asked God for whatever her needs might be… healing, loneliness or grief.
Over the years I saw Rita less and less. She was noticeably slower and able to do less and less. The house never fell into disrepair and it looked like the next door neighbor mowed the lawn and I saw kids out shoveling her driveway and walk. Occasionally I would see her in her housecoat trimming the grass along the front beds, or walk on nice days. It warmed my heart to see and reflect on the care and stewardship I had observed from a passed car window all those years.
One fall, I noticed that Rita had not been out and about for a few weeks and began to worry when I noticed the lawn grow long. On my evening commute, I looked to see if there were lights on and the house began to look more and more deserted. I prayed for Rita, her family and neighbors. A few weeks later, I was relieved when the lawn had been mowed and there were lights on when I drove by on my way home.
Several days later it was a pick up truck and work trailer filled with ladders and equipment that caused me to pause. The now busy house was undergoing some remodeling work and I wondered if Rita was still living in the house, had moved to assisted living, or perhaps had passed away. I guessed that she was in her late eighties or nineties and said another prayer, my last on behalf of Rita.
The following Monday was a bright and crisp winter day. The early morning sun was heartening but offered little warmth as I turned onto North River Road. I thought about Rita and as I approached her house thought about what to pray for. As I passed the Youth Development Center the sun was casting interesting shadows and when I looked at up the road to Rita’s house, saw something truly remarkable. There on the bright white clapboards was a two story shadow of the telephone pole that sat in front of the house.
The dark shadow cast a perfect cross that Monday morning. In seeing that sign I didn’t offer a prayer of intercession for Rita but offered a prayer of thanks and praise. Thanksgiving for the long life of a woman I never met and praises for the Cross of Salvation. The house was soon put on the market and while there was no longer any physical activity at Rita’s house on River Road, it became a simple reminder + spiritual sign on my daily journey.
May the New Year be filled with God’s blessings, may you be reminded of God’s abundant Grace + may you see + encounter our Living Lord in the Signs Along the Way. <><