A friend of mine has a bunch of college degrees. I was really impressed until he told me he was going to another city to deliver a paper. Heck, I was delivering papers in the fourth grade. One of my customers was a Quaker widow named Mrs. Harvey. When weather permitted, she'd sit on her front porch swing, waiting for the paper and a conversation. I'd pull up a rocking chair, and we'd sit and visit underneath the shade of the maple tree which stood guard over the porch.

One day she asked me if I would work as her yard boy. She had a big yard, almost two acres, which she wanted mowed with a push mower since riding mowers didn't do a very good job. She was emphatic about that and, since I didn't have a riding mower, I agreed with her.

I'd stop by every afternoon when I was done delivering papers and mow a section. Every afternoon but Sunday since Mrs. Harvey said that was the Sabbath, and if the Lord needed to rest on the seventh day, who was I to work?

It was in the fourth year of my mowing that I noticed the front porch maple tree was dying. It had some years on it. Mr. and Mrs. Harvey had moved there the first year of their marriage, forty years before. Mr. Harvey had planted it then. "Twenty years from now, we'll appreciate this," he'd said at the time. And twenty years later they did appreciate it, on a summer evening when the heat would loosen its grip.

"Twenty years from now, we'll appreciate this." ... But after forty years, Mr. Harvey was dead, and so was the tree. And when I told Mrs. Harvey she stared at the tree the longest time and told how she still remembered what her husband was wearing when he planted that tree. Then she went in her house and called Kenny. He was the man in our town who cut trees.

He rolled up the next day in his truck and got right down to business — another day, another tree. Mrs. Harvey was watching from her front porch swing, along with her neighbor, who had made her way over to offer comfort. So when the chain saw bit into the tree and Mrs. Harvey flinched, her neighbor took her hand and listened while Mrs. Harvey talked about summer evenings that were supposed to be but never were.

Once spent a whole semester studying the book of Job. Never did understand it until I read it in light of Mrs. Harvey.

Job had it all; then Job lost it all. Servants: murdered. Wealth: stolen. Health: gone. Sons and daughters and bounce-on-your-knee grandchildren: dead. Job sat on a pile of ashes, lamenting over a life that was supposed to be, but never was. God made his way over to Job and sat with him amidst the charred remains of his life. A tender thing, given the immensity of the universe and the smallness of Job. But then God knows our secret pain.

When I was in college, my philosophy professor spent an entire week talking about love. But for me it was never clearer than the day the tree went crashing.

Her neighbor took her hand and listened.

When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow. (Romans 12:15)

From the book Front Porch Tales, by Philip Gulley. © 1997 by Multnomah Pub., used by permission.