First Words

Consequences of a prank

When the vandals took Art’s gnome, they took his joy.

Four words comprise the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal”—brevity that disguises the breadth of expectation. Our minds think first of stolen physical property. But in a virtual world laden with opportunities for stealing identities and intellectual property, we’re aware of thieves who steal those distinctive facets of our lives. There’s yet another cruel form of stealing. It robs innocent people of their joy, deprives them of their happiness, all for the sake of a laugh.

Take the case of Art Grabeklis, born in Daugavpils, Latvia, 100 years ago this spring. Art escaped Soviet oppression in 1950 and immigrated to America, eventually becoming a proud United States citizen. He married, raised three children, and made a modest living as a laborer in a wire factory outside Sterling, Illinois. Art’s frugality helped him stretch every dollar. When a burglar slashed his front door screen, Art mended the screen with blue acrylic yarn. To make the birds of the neighborhood happy, he glued a carpet patch to the roof of a weather-beaten birdhouse. Such was his resourcefulness in life, living one Social Security check to the next in his later years.

Art’s backyard rock garden was his sanctuary. That’s where he sat and prayed for hours on end after the kids had left home and his wife had been moved to a nursing home. He painted the names of departed friends on smooth stones and sat on a bench in their midst to pray. Prayer was his salve for loneliness. Cheap yard statuettes kept him company. A stone rabbit. Plastic geese. A 15-inch-high concrete gnome. The gnome was his best friend. He’d put a knit cap on it when the weather turned cold. He’d check on it when going out to pick up the mail.