Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Helen’s Angel

She said –

This morning, while I was walking here to the church, I heard the pretty birds just a’singing in the trees up over my head. And the sun, why the sun was just beaming down, the rays of it streaming through the clouds like a big yellow waterfall. Last night’s rain cleared the air, left it all nice and sweet and it smelled so good to me. Even the grass looked greener this morning. Somebody had trimmed it, I guess, ‘cause it looked so pretty lined up straight against the edge of the sidewalk like it was.

Well, here I was walking to church and I was all sour inside. I’ve been sour inside for so many years that I don’t want to remember. Every Sunday, rain or shine, I have walked on this sidewalk down here to church. I’ve sat right there, always on the left, third row from the back, third chair from the end.  And I have listened to the preaching and I have listened to the singing and I have never uttered a word to anybody here. When preaching was done and the last prayer was prayed, I was out the door and heading home.

Lots of times, back at first, folks smiled at me and spoke nice words and tried to share a bit of Christian fellowship but I just stood there, dumb as a post. Oh, I wanted to be pleasant, I wanted to say something; I wanted to say how much I had enjoyed the special singing, how Pastor seemed to have outdone himself on that sermon. It just ain't like me to be rude. But I couldn’t force my mouth to smile and I couldn't dig deep enough to get the words out and so, after a few Sundays of that, I reckon folks just got tired of trying and gave up. I can’t blame them, I gave up, too. I gave up praying aloud and then I gave up praying at all.

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to another human being. Funny thing, I guess people just thought I was not capable of speaking. It’s entirely possible that, had I tried, I might have proved them all right.

It got to be hard getting up Sunday morning, the Lord’s Day, and dressing up my broken heart in a pretty dress and matching shoes. I had never in my life put makeup on my face, but now I did on Sundays. I covered the tiny scar over my eye with pink powder and brushed my hair just so and then I walked out my door.

My soul made the journey quietly, held captive, forced to go along but determined not to participate in the day. I was bitter inside, but my legs still carried me to church. I ached and I cried, but my hands still clutched my Bible and my eyes watched for the turn at the end of my street. 

I’d rather have stayed home. I was alone and I liked it that way. Neighbors had moved in, moved out and I never bothered to notice. There was no joy in my life, no meaning, no purpose. I had cut myself off from God. I didn’t pray, I didn’t sing and I only carried my Bible to church for show. He and I had nothing to talk about. I doubted He even remembered me anymore, it’d been so long. Still, every Sunday, I trudged to church.

Until this morning. This morning the sun, the grass, the birds … it seemed as if everything was praising God. The grass was as green as it could be. The birds sang as sweetly as they could. The sun beamed so brightly. They must have been praising God! And here I was, walking in it all. Maybe it was the clean, clear air – it smelled so nice, so fresh and I thought maybe today will be the day. Maybe the time has come for old things to pass and new things to come. I slowed my steps and I looked past that bright sun and I said ‘Lord, I’m tired of being sour. I want to be alive like this grass, I want to sing like these birds, I want to be warm and clean inside like this sun and air. Lord, please Lord, today? Show me Your presence today? It’s been so long and I really need You to heal me, to show me that You love me.’

I haven’t run in a long time, but I nearly broke a heel coming around the corner and up the sidewalk here. I felt all tingly inside, like something was working in me. So when I got inside, I sailed right past Pastor, dodged the deacons lined up in the hall,  slipped through a gang of little ones marching to Children’s Church and headed straight to the ladies room. If God was gonna speak to me, I wanted a quiet place to listen.

I stood there, looking around, trying to figure out what to do besides the obvious, which I didn’t need to do to start with. I didn’t need to wash my hands but I didn’t want to leave either. God could start talking at any minute. I couldn’t just stand there, right in the middle of the ladies room, but my legs wouldn’t take me out. So I simply stood there, waiting.  Right in the middle of the ladies room.

And then an angel walked in. 

She said ‘excuse me but if I don’t get these panty hose down, I’m gonna ruin these new shoes!’ and into the stall she went. I could hear her humming. “It doesn’t matter who lives around me, just so my mansion sits near God’s throne.”

So I’m waiting to hear what God’s gonna tell me and here’s a woman in the stall, humming away. Maybe she’ll leave real quick, I thought. I couldn’t think of anything to do and I  wasn’t about to leave, so I washed my clean hands. Twice. The first time, I got caught up in the tune; the second time, as I was rinsing the soap away, the words came to me and I hummed along. I caught my reflection in the mirror and I was smiling. Quietly, I added my voice to hers and my smile got bigger, my eyes were bright with tears. My chest felt full, my legs were weak and, though I was beginning to catch on, I stood still lest my movement disturb the familiar feeling flooding into my soul.

As the angel stepped out of the stall, she sighed and said ‘You know, it never fails. If I drink my coffee on the way over, I end up in here every time.’ And she looked right at me and said ‘Dontcha just hate that?’ And before I had a chance to say nothing, she kept right on. She said ‘I was busy listening to a Dotty cd and got behind schedule. Don took a shortcut or we’d’ve been late. And I drank my wake-up cup on the way, so, now here I am in the bathroom.’

As she washed her hands, she went on “I think her best song, the one I liked best anyway, was the one about her mansion. She wasn’t worried about how big it was or what might be in it. She just wanted to live next door to Jesus. Have you ever heard that song?’ And she turned and looked at me, real close up, expecting me to say something.

And my mouth opened! And words came out! I told her about how that was my Mama’s favorite song. How she did so love to sing about living next door to Jesus and how, that last long week before she went Home, the three of us – Mama, Hal and I - had sung that song every evening after our prayer time and before we tucked her in for the night.

I told her about how I knew, as Hal and I sang at her service, that Mama had indeed gotten her mansion near Jesus, how the words had comforted me as we sang and how I still believe that Jesus Himself came to walk Mama up the Glory Road to her new home.

That angel nodded, kept smiling and I kept talking. I told her that just the instant before that semi crossed the yellow line and took my Hal away, we had been talking about what we wanted in our own mansion, what we might need to have in Heaven. Hal had joked that maybe I’d use the vacuum up there, since I never used it down here.

That angel chuckled and she put her hand on my shoulder and said, "Yeah, I have one but I hid it from myself and I can’t seem to find it."

But it’s been fourteen years, I said to her, and I can’t forgive. I can’t forgive God for taking my Hal. It came right out. No tears, no pain;  just a rush of words riding out on a wave of that sweet-smelling air that I breathed in as I prayed on the sidewalk, giving God one more chance to speak to me, begging Him to say He loved me.

That angel? She said to me, "Now Honey, you know God loves you. He knew you were hurt, He knew you were angry. And He didn’t need to prove that He was there. Of course you believe in Him; you can’t be angry at something that you don’t believe in. You’re angry at God because you know He’s there to be angry at.

And Sweetie, God didn’t take Hal from you, an accident did that. Seems to me you‘ve been hiding from God, denying Him His place in your life. It’s okay to be angry with our good Lord; He’s a big God and He can handle your anger. He can heal your hurt. But there comes a time that you have to let go, step back and let God work in your heart. Fourteen years is an awful long time to carry a grudge but He’s been by your side each and every minute of every day of those years, waiting for you to turn your face to Him, to see Him. Maybe today’s your day to stop being mad at the Lord and, instead, get glad in the Lord!"

I looked at that angel and I said to her that I believed she was right. I said I really needed to pray and that angel? She took her sweater from off her own shoulders and spread it on the floor of that bathroom and we knelt. She said with a smile, ‘This floor’s chilly and we might be here a while.’

And while Faith Church filed into their seats and that angel’s husband sat, wondering where she had got off to, she and I prayed through my trial, seeking the pure sweet face of Jesus, listening for his forgiveness and praising Him when He came through.

I told my Old Friend that I was sorry that I had been mad at Him for those fourteen years. I told Him that I was tired of being sour, tired of being hurt and I asked Him to heal my broken heart and please to accept my apology. Then, because I know Hal would want me to, I asked Him to move up front and be first in my life again.

My angel and I cried together, rejoiced a bit more and then we said ‘Amen’ and stood. I hugged that angel real tight and we decided we would both be just fine today. She left to sit with her husband and I came up here to tell you all about what happened.

Now, I’m finished with my testimony and, if y'all would stop staring at me, I’d like to sit on the front row today so when Pastor asks who’s expecting a miracle, well, I want to look right at him and smile cause I’ve done got mine.

Ain’t God good?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In progress -

As a little girl, Ruth Ann had begged Father to plant some ‘grape flowers’ like the ones they had seen along the roadside when they visited relatives in the foothills in late summer.

The following spring, he went out one Saturday morning and returned with a sturdy vine in a large plastic bucket. Ruthie sat in the swing, watching carefully, first as he dug a huge hole and second, as he plopped the plant in it and, with his hands, carefully mounded the soil up and around it, patting it firmly when he was done.  He stretched a length of twine from the vine to the wooden crossbeam of the swing and set a tiny tendril against it and then he stood, clapped the dirt from his hands, and sent Ruth Ann for the hose.  Together, they would water the vine slowly and with much pomp and ceremony.

Father was a quiet man, folks thought him solemn and respectful; but with his daughter, the light of his life, he was happily guilty of a silly streak a mile wide.  When he danced a jig by her bedside when she was sick with flu, Ruth Ann opened wide for the nasty medicine that would bring down her fever. When he wore his Sunday suit and sang a sweet song at her goldfish’s funeral in the garden, she cried and clung to his arm. And one night, when Mother had sent her to her room for being sassy to Father at dinner, he cocked his head and crossed his eyes at her as she left the kitchen, causing her to giggle, and later, when he knocked softly on her door, she was not at all surprised that he had her favorite book under his arm and a glass of warm milk in his hand when he walked in.

As a young girl, there was much that Ruth Ann did not know. But she knew that her father loved her without measure and that, in turn, she adored him beyond words. Everything else didn’t matter much after that.

So now, as he stood over the little plant, a smudge of dirt on his chin and a twinkle in his eye, he raised his right hand above the wisteria and, in a thundering shout, pronounced the vine ‘baptized in the name of summer’ and Ruth Ann un-kinked the hose and the cool water fell over the plant.

The next day, and every day for weeks, she ran outside hoping to see the grape flowers. Each day, the vine marched further up the twine, looping and curling, but no purple flowers; no flowers at all.

Then, one morning she woke to a sweet perfumed breeze blowing through her window. The swing was in riotous, glorious bloom! Clusters of grape-colored wisteria flowers covered it, making a sweet-smelling purple canopy just the right size and place for a little girl and her dolls. Tea parties under the purple chandeliers. Dress up, coloring books, Kool-aid and cookies. Chocolate Easter bunnies and brand new kittens.

And then in the late, late fall, a trim and mulch for warmth under the snow until the spring sun coaxed the tiny green tendrils out again to climb and twist and turn and build a new canopy for the little girl who slept with her window open.

How many summers had it been? How much of Ruth Ann’s life ran through the wisteria vines still now sheltering her from the hot summer sun? Each year, they had met here, grown together through the months and then gone their separate ways; her to have another birthday, the vine to have its annual trim and both to weather the winter months waiting for the bright spring sun to call them up and outside, to bring them together again.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Ed and Hazel

Ed and Hazel were two months shy of their 44th anniversary. Their bedtime routine was so set as to be carved in stone: she bathed in the tub in the master bath, spit-curled her hair, brushed her teeth and emerged to pull down the spread just as Ed walked in to drop his dirty clothes into the basket by the door. Since the children had been gone, he had taken the guest bath as his own and in the time it took Hazel to bathe and do her hair, he had soaked his dentures, used the pumice stone on his feet, spent a few minutes on the throne and showered. When he was done, he rinsed his teeth and slipped them back into his mouth, ran a comb through his hair, gathered his clothes and headed back down the hall for bed.

Every night, as Hazel stepped into the bedroom, she all but bumped into Ed. This was their nightly symphony for the past … oh, who knows how many years. They bathed separately, each in their own manner, coming together at just the precise moment to start the second half of the movement. Ed dropped his clothes in the basket, took two more steps and picked up his corner of the spread and, together, in step, they pulled down the spread and laid it on the chest at the foot of the bed. On top of that went the pretty throw pillows and then, lastly, Hazel’s ratty ole robe. She would take off her slippers and, with a soft thud, they would land right where they had landed for years.

But this evening, all that would change. This evening, when Hazel strode out of the master bath in her cotton gown and matching robe, skirt-skirting across the carpet in her slippers, she made it all the way to her side of the bed and had her hand on the spread before she realized she was alone. Ed was nowhere to be seen. She stood for a moment, looking around to see if he was in the door way and, when he wasn’t there, she walked back around the bed and turned into the hallway.

Before she reached the guest bath, she could smell it; one of the boys had given him a nice toilet set for Fathers Day a few years back – cologne, soap, deodorant, all matching scents – a real high-end gift, she had thought at the time and a very nice scent, too. And here it was wafting out from under the door, smelling ever so nice.

Even more, Ed was humming. She knew that song – it was their song!

Hazel crept forward, quietly turned the handle and, holding her breath to ward off any possible squeak, eased the door open just the tiniest bit. There stood Ed, back turned to the shower, his head thrown back, eyes closed, vigorously shampooing his hair. When he snatched up the back scrubber and began to sing into it, Hazel nearly fell over backwards!

Eyes still closed, he belted out “Goin’ outta my head ... over youuuu!” Hazel could hardly stifle a giggle when he shuffled his feet and wriggled his hips, crooning “day and night! night and day! wrong or right!” His shoulders swayed and he began to hum again, turning his head to rinse.

Hazel shamelessly and wantonly lurked at the door, watching her husband shower. How long had it been since she had seen him the way she once did? Before the children, the grandchildren. The second mortgage, second cars. Plant closings, bills and tuition overdue. Working part time jobs til full time opened up again. A million small cuts that can bleed a marriage dry, the one thousand and one nights that saw them too tired for intimacy. Hard times of grits and gravy when a cold beer split between them was a high time.

Like many couples of their generation, they had not complained. They had stubbornly faced their storms head on, trudged through long nights to emerge, bruised and sore, into an uncertain morning. At times, the sun had greeted them through the kitchen’s cheery lace curtains as Hazel poured their coffee. As often as not, dawn broke amid dark, ponderous clouds, the weight of a thousand worries acknowledged only by a morning kiss just that much deeper, a hug just that much stronger before he stepped into his workday and she set about her morning chores.

They had weathered it all, faced every storm and come through to see another morning.

The last payment was made a few years back, the house was theirs free and clear. They had traded in two old cars for one nice one. Along with his pension, Ed got a few shares of company stock when he retired. Hard times had long since been over. They had settled into their comfortable chairs, turned on Wheel and life went on around them.

Until now, when Ed turned, reached for a towel and took Hazel’s breath clear away. While he dried his hair, her eyes moved down the arms that had carried her across the threshold of their first home, moved lovingly to his chest where she had laid head til the sun woke her the following morning.

That second time, in the early light, she had blushed to see him naked under the sheets of their honeymoon bed. Now, 44 years disappeared and she felt the heat rise to her face again. Hazel slowly closed the bathroom door, leaned against it on shaky legs, blinked her eyes once or twice and felt the blush on her cheeks deepen and head south.

She might’ve run back or, oh hell, she could’ve floated on gossamer wings but the next thing she knew, Hazel found herself back in the master bath, waist deep in warm, sweet- scented water, lathering her shoulders with the lavender soap that she had kept for a special occasion.

Between Ed’s humming and her blushing, and if their toiletries didn’t overcome them, this evening would, indeed, be that special occasion.

Hazel stepped out, wrapped a towel around herself and padded over to the vanity, taking the bobby pins from her hair as she sat down and peered into the mirror. She decided on a pretty ribbon, reached up and gently pulled her hair back from her face and tied it, letting the ribbon fall behind her. Ed had always liked her hair down but, for this evening, she wanted it out of the way.

She dusted some of the lavender-scented powder across her shoulders, leaning down to dust a bit on her ankles, behind her knees and, oh why not, inside her thighs. She stood and reached for her cotton gown, her arm stopping in mid-air as she thought, no not tonight and reached instead up to the very top shelf of the closet and brought down a box, dusty and somewhat squished.

She put it on the vanity, lifted the top and peeled back the layers of pink tissue paper til her fingers touched satin. One of the daughters-in-law had slipped it in amongst the other gifts at Christmas too many years ago. Hazel had been stunned by the loveliness of it - the robe in pearl white with long flowing sleeves, the matching gown, sleeveless and nearly sheer with an empire waist trimmed with tiny pink roses and seed pearls. There were even matching panties and slippers tucked in the box and a perfumed padded hanger.

For a brief moment, Hazel considered re-folding the pink paper and returning the box to her closet but her hands just wouldn’t move to do it. Sighing with the anticipation of the satin against her skin, she gently lifted the robe and gown from the box, placed it onto the hanger and hung it on the back of the bathroom door. She shook a bit more powder onto her hands and rubbed her legs, up her thighs and over her hips before sliding on the satiny panties.

She reached for the gown and pulled it over her head, felt it cascade across her breasts and down her hips, stopping just short of her toes. She slipped her arms into the robe, tied the sash just so and turned back to the vanity to see that years had melted away. She was older, that was true. She had birthed children, had earned the marks and scars of motherhood that had kept her undressing in the dark for years. Long gone was svelte and luscious; solid and practical was her new black. But the satin, the fall of the gown, the roses and pearls, the sweet-scented powder, the blushing cheeks, bright eyes and red lips– the woman that looked back at her was sensual, vibrant - ready, not to recapture the lost years, but to leave them behind and go forward in a new light, a new path.

Hazel slipped her feet into the sassy lil slippers, tappedtapped over to the door. She thought for a moment and then, with a smile, reached up and pulled the ribbon from her hair. Ed liked it down, so down it would be.