(Portrait by Jolie Leeds)

Author Rick D. Niece

A young trick-or-treater brings
the Side-Yard Superhero to life.

Rag Rug
Aug 4, 2015

Summertime Memories
Jun 22, 2013

Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month
Mar 4, 2013

A Teacher's Creed
Oct 3, 2012

Music: An Essential In My Life
Jun 1, 2012

Righteousness Has Roots
May 4, 2012

The Essence of My Writing
Feb 15, 2012

Side-Yard Superhero and Why I Wrote It
Jan 27, 2012

Rag Rug
Excerpt from Award-Winning Side-Yard Superhero
Posted Aug 4, 2015 14:02

My entire life, wherever I have lived and worked, I have looked for a sense of community. For me an ideal community is where people feel safe, secure, and respected. Community is the place that is home away from home. I think that we create a sense of community by being tolerant and by showing sincere respect. We engage in it through generous acts of kindness, encouragement, and service to others. We enhance it by personifying Christian values and not merely pontificating about them. We sustain a sense of community by celebrating what we share in common and by not criticizing our differences.
I learned my love for community many years ago. I was raised in a small town in Ohio, a town with 900 citizens. When I remember my years in DeGraff, I remember a caring community of people who insulated me from the dangers of an “outside” world. Small towns and their protective citizens go hand in hand. In that small community, I found the first true love of my life: a paper route. That paper route taught me the values of responsibility, dependability, and fiscal soundness I continue to retain half a century later.
When I was nine years old, I took over Billy Neal’s paper route. I’d been a substitute paperboy for him for six months, filling in when he had a late football practice or an early date. Billy lived down the street from us, and he was one of the big guys I admired. He never cared much for me. I was dependable and eager to start a career, while Billy was semi-dependable and eager to get out of his.
I kept the paper route for nine years and did not give it up until I began college. My parents made me save four dollars a week toward college each and every week of my paper-delivering life. By the time I entered Ohio State University, I had saved a nice, tidy sum of tuition designated dollars.
I learned a great deal about dealing with all types of people as a paperboy, and I think that was the foundation for my future in education. Over the nine years, I grew to truly care about my 72 customers, and they, in return, cared about me. So much so that the last Saturday morning I collected the weekly payment from my customers was a difficult one for me and for them. I was leaving for college the following Monday, and I knew this was the time for me to say and to hear difficult goodbyes.
I collected a lot of gifts and encouragement that last Saturday of my paper route. Fortunately, I had a wide-wire basket on the front of my bike and a wide-open mind grateful for small-town advice. Jake Long gave me a thesaurus from his days as a student at Ohio State. Mrs. Franz collected a small bag of good luck buckeyes, and Mrs. Keenan put together a cardboard box of first aid materials, “Since your mom won’t be around to take care of you.” Bill Shoemaker handed me a pocket compass because “Ohio State is so doggone big.” My basket was over flowing.
But of all the gifts I received on my day of goodbyes and good wishes, none equaled the heartfelt practicality of what Mrs. Harshbarger gave me. The Harshbargers lived atop Harshbarger Hill, the steepest incline in DeGraff. Six days a week standing upright and pumping my legs hard, I pedaled up the hill to deliver their paper. Mr. and Mrs. Harshbarger were my only customers out that direction from town, over half a mile from the rest of my route, but because they were such a sweet elderly couple, I didn’t mind. I made only one thin dime each week for my efforts, but the pay didn’t matter. Because I was lucky to have a paper route, I thought of it as my pro bono contribution to them.
On that last Saturday, Mr. Harshbarger was stooped outside a storage shed sharpening the blades on his lawnmower, the old-fashioned push kind with an oblong set of rotating circular blades. Since he was a man well into his seventies who cut an acre of grass weekly by pushing his truly self-propelled lawnmower, I never complained about my bike rides up his hill. His generation already thought my generation was soft, and I didn’t want to give him any further proof.
“Your lawn looks great, Mr. Harshbarger. This summer’s rains have kept you busy, but you always seem to be a step ahead of the grass.” He was a tall, lanky man who had mastered the art of looking over his glasses at you while continuing to do whatever he was doing. “Yep, I’ve got to keep ahead of it. Grass never sleeps, you know, except for the big winter nap. If this yard ever gets ahead of me, I’m a dead man. Mrs. Harshbarger would kill me.”
I laughed, “But if she killed you, Mr. Harshbarger, she’d have to mow this all by herself!”
He chuckled back. “Please tell her that for me. I’m not certain she’s considered the consequences.”
Digging into his front pocket for change and then counting it out to me coin by coin, he again peered over his glasses. “Go into the kitchen through the side porch door. The missus has something for you.” When I reached the porch and opened the door, he shouted over to me, “And good luck in college.”
Mrs. Harshbarger was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of tea in front of her. The tea bag on the saucer looked almost dried out, and I had the feeling she’d been sitting for some time waiting for me. She probably had. The Harshbarger house was toward the end of my route, and I was running late. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Harshbarger. How are you today?”
She smiled the kind of soft smile grandmothers worldwide have perfected and patented. “I’m just fine today, Rickie, just fine today. You’re late.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I apologized, even though I knew I’d done nothing wrong, “Yes, ma’am, I am late today. This is my last day, you know.”
Her soft eyes continued to look at me like she was seeing me for the first time. Or maybe she knew this might be the last time.
“I have watched you mature over these past years. I remember the day you started your route. You were such a little guy, and Mr. Harshbarger was sure you wouldn’t last, thought maybe the hill would make you quit delivering our paper.” Softly, she continued to look at me. “But I told Mr. Harshbarger you’d make it, that you wouldn’t quit on us. And I was right. Even now you aren’t really quitting. You are simply setting this hill aside for bigger ones to climb.”
I wanted to say something back to her, something meaningful. But I could tell she had more to say, more she’d been thinking about while waiting. “When Mr. Harshbarger and I were married, Mother wanted to give me a special gift, a useful gift just for me. Daddy gave us a pregnant sow. He knew the sow would be useful, and she was. You know we had offspring of that sow every Easter and Christmas family dinner for almost fifty years. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Mother wanted me to have something useful as well, something I’d appreciate every day. I think she also wanted me to have something to remind me of her every day.” She paused, soft eyes still holding me. “You know what she gave me?”
I shook my head.
“Mother told me that when she was a little girl, she disliked getting out of bed early in the morning. She didn’t like the early morning because the first thing she felt was the cold floor on her bare feet. ‘Terrible way to start a day,’ she’d always say. So her mother, my grandmother, taught her how to make a rug from rags. Mother made herself a small rug out of rags and laid the rug on the hardwood floor beside her bed. Every morning for the rest of her life, the rag rug was the first thing to touch her feet.”
Mrs. Harshbarger paused and softly nibbled her lower lip. “When Mr. Harshbarger and I married, Mother gave me a rag rug she’d made herself. And for every day of my married life, when I get out of bed, the first thing I feel is her rug against my feet.”
I wanted to say something but remained silent.
“I’ve made you something for you,” she continued. “Wherever you go, wherever your life takes you, I want your feet to touch the warmth of a new morning, like my feet have for so many years. I’m giving you the beginning of a warm day.” She placed a sack on the table and slid it toward me.
I reached across the table and touched her soft, wrinkled cheek. It was warm. “Thank you, Mrs. Harshbarger,” was all I could manage.
The rag rug Mrs. Harshbarger made for me was the first thing I unpacked at Ohio State. I unfurled it beside my bed on the dormitory’s sterile and cold linoleum-covered floor. And every day of my undergraduate life, no matter how cold it was, that rug was my warmth of a new morning.
Life’s complexities would be so much simpler to deal with if we each shared a sense of community and had a homemade rag rug to ease us into day. Those are the times I want to live. And those are the times I wish to remember.