Most of the time, Mom approved of my assortment of childhood “pets.” As an only child with few neighborhood friends to play with, I filled my time by chasing butterflies and seeking birds’ nests. I was a tomboy, sort of. I had a cat named Rudy, a hamster named Hamlet, several nameless chameleons, a horned-toad named Fred and a fly named James. A fly! Yes, a fly. Oh, how I hate to admit some of these things.
I had an odd pastime on hot summer days. We lived in an old, Victorian-style house, the kind with cellar doors. My grandmother, who lived with us, kept the trashcans next to those doors, and in the summer heat the cans were a magnet for flies. It wasn’t enough for them to buzz around the cans and land on the lids. They waited their turns to fly through the savory aroma of the remnants of Dad’s Limburger cheese sandwiches while resting on the cellar doors. Sometimes, a hundred or more of them settled there, and I found that very interesting.
A nature-loving kid like me was never without a giant mayonnaise jar. A hammer and a nail from Dad’s tool bench were the only things I needed to poke some holes in the lid. Voila! I had an instant bug trap. I took it with me to the cellar doors, and I played a game to see how many flies I could trap in the jar. I was very good at it. I realized early on that I had to walk slowly toward the doors and approach them from a direction so my shadow didn’t fall across the flies. Flies are very smart when it comes to shadows. I also learned that instead of thumping the jar down over a group of unsuspecting ones, it was better to catch one fly at a time. There was a method to it. When the jar was uncapped and turned over, the trapped flies flew upward toward its bottom. That allowed me to catch another fly before slamming on the lid. Ah-ha! I got ya! On a good day, I could catch 20 or 30 that way without even one of them escaping.
“What are you doing?” Mom’s voice was more inquisitive than reprimanding.
“Catching flies,” I answered. I proudly showed her my personal best which, when flying frantically around trying to get out of the jar, somewhat resembled a tornado.
“Flies are dirty,” Mom protested. She had a disgusted look on her face. “They live in filthy places, and they eat people’s garbage. Let them go,” she insisted. “Then come inside and wash your hands, and get rid of the jar, too.”
The look on her face was enough to convince me that she meant business. Reluctantly, I opened the jar and let the flies out — all but one. In the scuttle, it had lost a wing. I knew that, ultimately, this was my fault, and I was ashamed of myself. I put the lid back on the jar and left the fly inside. Somehow, I managed to sneak it into my bedroom without Mom seeing. I hid the jar behind some books near an electric air purifier on the nightstand. Then I turned the purifier on. This wasn’t because James smelled bad (as things living near garbage often do), but rather that the sound of the purifier was similar to his buzzing. Mom would never know.
If you looked beyond his filthy habits, James was a handsome fly. He had an iridescent green body that shimmered in sunlight and long, black, sinewy legs. Even without one wing, he was strong. He paraded around the jar eager to find a way out, never relenting in his pursuit of freedom. I didn’t think of James as a dirty, old bug that existed on garbage. Instead, he was someone (okay, something!) that needed my help. I brought him encouragement and bits of food (Limburger cheese and any other stinky stuff that I could find). This went on for several days. Then, to my dismay, one morning I looked into the jar and James was dead. There was no advance notice that he was about to pass. He just out and out died. I buried James in the backyard with mixed feelings: regret for having caused him to lose his wing and reconciliation for having (at least in my little mind) helped him. Rest in peace, James. (Mom never knew.)
The story of James presents an object lesson, odd as it might be. Last week, I saw a photograph of a man I went to high school with. It showed him wearing filthy clothing and sitting next to a shopping cart filled with his possessions. His name, ironically, was James. I couldn’t help making a comparison between him and James the Fly. Both were dirty, insignificant and ate other people’s garbage. Both were in dire need of kindness and compassion in spite of the filth in which they lived.
Jesus said: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'” Matthew 15:19-21.
How often we pass by the filthy among us and say, Eeew, look at that bum! Look at the bag lady! Stay away from them, they’re dirty! — On the surface, their clothing and bodies might be dirty, but underneath, like James, they’re missing a wing and in need of some loving care.
The next time you see one of these, remember James the Fly. Will you stand there with a look of disgust, or will you help someone in need?
Dear God. So many are homeless during these hard economic times. Help us, please, to look beyond the outward appearance of some and, whenever we can, to help meet their needs.