Though I met Katja more than twenty years ago, our brief friendship in a season of my life taught me a profound lesson which has stayed with me all these years.
I was the pastor’s wife. Katja was my neighbor. From all outward appearances there was nothing distinct or unique about her. Her short grey permed hair, slender physique and sensible clothing could best be described as ordinary. Her eyes, however, were remarkable and reflected a deep well of sadness coupled with an utter sense of resignation.
When I knocked on her door Katja responded very positively to my invitation to come to my home every Wednesday morning for a neighborhood coffee time – a time we would make new friends and study the Bible together, one book at a time. We were on a journey. How, we asked, was the Bible relevant to the issues we faced as women? What did it have to say about the purpose of our lives in the struggles, fears, joys and sorrows we faced each day?
Most of the women around my dining table, including Katja, had never read the Bible. She had grown up going to church all her life. Still, at the age of seventy, she rose to the challenge to study the Bible for the answers to the pressing need of her life.
That, it turned out, was a fifty-year marriage that was devoid of love. The tidy little bungalow with the well-manicured lawn she and her husband Ivan shared, reflected the pleasant exterior we all knew as their neighbors. But underneath gaped a chasm in their marriage so wide, Katja wondered if it could ever be bridged. This was not the love she and Ivan had dreamed of so many years ago when they had stood at the altar of marriage and vowed to love and cherish each other. Day after day, year after year, through the disappointment of childlessness and growing frailty, small hidden resentments continued to fester. They began to lead lives that intersected only occasionally to eat a meal together in total silence, each at a loss for what to say.
“What”, Katja asked with a quivering voice, “can God do about this troubling situation?” Her eyes were downcast and she hurriedly brushed away a tear before looking around the table at her newfound friends. We sat in stunned silence. This was a deep and painful cry from the heart of our hurting friend who had dared to bare her soul with us. What did the God of all creation, the Creator of love and marriage, have to offer Katja? We bowed our heads and humbly asked God to help, to give her hope for the miracle to change this seemingly hopeless situation.
Weeks passed and we continued to pray with no apparent change. The icy finger of winter was beginning to release its grip and the joyful songs of the killdeer and robin welcomed spring.
One Wednesday morning Katja opened my front door and greeted me with a twinkle in her eye and a brightness in her entire demeanor. As we ladies sipped out coffee she suddenly burst out. . . “I think God has been speaking to me, except its not at all like I expected Him to!”
As her story unfolded, all their married lives Ivan had always thrown his clothes inside out into the laundry hamper. Gentle reminders had come first. Later harsh accusations and angry words. Then years of silence as each help to their positions. Ivan would not turn his clothes right side out. No way. He was a hard-working man and did not have time for small, insignificant stuff like that. Katja, however, was not going to be outsmarted by him. She was determined to get a step ahead in this unfriendly game. If a shirt was inside out, that’s the way it would be washed, dried and hung back in the closet. There! That would show him a thing or two.
One day Katja was on her knees in her garden. Her hands were wrestling with a crop of persistent weeds but her heart was far away in prayer. Suddenly the thought came to her, “Turn Ivan’s clothes right side out and, with a kind heart, hang them in his closet.” “Could this be God?” she wondered.
Instantly she was on her feet. Telling no one, she proceeded to do just that. Such an overflow of joy had come as she worked that before the day ended she had set the entire closet straight. Taking pains to do it just right, she redid every shirt and pair of trousers. Not one was left inside out. Soon, the clothes in the dresser were taken out and put back in place as they had not been for nearly fifty years. The simple, kind act had brought such delight to her heart it didn’t matter there had been no apparent response from Ivan. A great burden of long-held resentment in her heart was gone! A fresh breeze of kindness was flowing through her soul.
One day while Katja was preparing dinner she opened the door to her refrigerator. Where once an assortment of Ivan’s favorite cheeses were stored, stood an entire row of her favourites! Her hand began to tremble as she counted out each package one by one. Ten different kinds! Her heart burst with thanksgiving for this small but lavish act of kindness. She alone understood its significance. Years ago, an act of bitterness had ended with each buying their own cheese, a silent weekly testimony to the coldness that marked every part of their marriage.
When she saw him later that evening Ivan said nothing about the cheese but she noted a tender smile and a softness in his expression that erased the pained and anxious look he had worn for more years than she could remember.
Years passed, bringing more changes quietly and naturally into their lives.
On a wintry day Ivan awoke to an indescribable feeling of weakness. The once-robust man now needed Katja to steady him as he stood to his feet. The family doctor delivered the devastating news that Ivan was incurably ill. It was a long journey, filled with sweetness and sorrow for both of them. For, she later told me, what began as a simple turning right-side-out of Ivan’s shirts and a row of Katja’s favourite cheese in the refrigerator, turned into the five sweetest years of their married life.
Carie den Hartog-Terry