HUMAN KINDNESS AND A SECRET PLACE
It just looked like a water fight as Daddy chased Mamma around the yard that day. Vangie wasn’t sure if they were angry or not, but the creepy crawlies in her stomach told her this was not funny; so she was not running around laughing like the other girls were. She could see just fine from her secret place.
Mamma should’ve just left Daddy alone about not going to church that Sunday. But they were all ready to go except Daddy; and Mamma didn’t know how to drive. Mamma was like that, though. She didn’t leave you alone when you were trying to sleep. If you couldn’t wake up because it was just so warm and cozy, she’d fix that by pulling the covers off. It was funny for a while, watching Mamma try to shake Daddy awake. Vangie and her sisters played along by calling out to him and pushing on him with their little hands; but he just smiled and rolled over. He wasn’t budging.
Pretty soon, Mamma started getting mad. That was usually when things stopped being funny; because when Mamma got mad, she wouldn’t quit until Daddy got mad. When hollering, pulling his hair, and even pinching him didn’t work, Mamma left the room and came back carrying a cup of water. She was gonna throw it on Daddy if he didn’t wake up. Daddy said that was it. He was NOT getting up, and he was NOT driving them to church. He said if Mamma poured that water on him, he was gonna get out of bed and throw a whole bucket of water on Mamma. He meant it too. Daddy always meant what he said. Mamma STILL didn’t seem to realize that.
Well, she poured that cup of water on him anyway, of course. Now, from her secret place, Vangie watched Daddy drop the empty bucket to the ground and stomp back into the house. Mamma just sat there in the grass soaked from head to toe crying and screaming at Daddy’s back.
Eva Ross had never been a cussing woman, but the strain of the past year had her wound so tightly that four letter words seemed to pass much too readily through her mind, if not over her lips. Plus, the crowded stores and holiday traffic were getting worse every year. It took her way too long to pick up just a few groceries, because people seemed to not be aware that anyone else existed. Eva knew it was pretty much the opposite of “Christmas spirit,” but she couldn’t help fantasizing about ramming carts and verbally chastising thoughtless people for not having the courtesy to let others get past them. Now she had sat at this same intersection through three light changes.
Maybe if she and John were not in such bad financial shape this year, she might be a bit more “jolly.” As it was, the winter bills weren’t all getting paid, and the credit cards balances were overwhelmingly high; so Eva was very aware that every dime she spent—even on necessities—was digging the hole deeper. There was no way that she was going to add to the strain by wasting money (or energy for that matter) on decorations, gifts, and dinners with “all the trimmings”.
Eva was beginning to resent the whole thing really. As far as most people seemed to be concerned, Christmas had almost nothing to do with the birth of Jesus anymore. It now seemed to be all about spending money. To Eva, it seemed pointless to spend a few weeks pretending that life was grand and money was in abundance when the following January would bring reality crashing in. She and John would celebrate the birth of Christ by participating in the church musical, sending a few greeting cards, and by bringing a covered dish to the family dinners. This year, if they couldn’t make it or bake it, they weren’t giving it.
Eva backed the Ford Explorer into the lower level of their latest remodeling project and pulled the bay door down, closing out the hustle and bustle of the small southern Ohio town. The high pitched squeak of the door catch sliding to was like fingernails on a chalkboard and should have been extremely irritating; but instead, it brought a satisfying sigh from Eva. She was home.
As she was accustomed to doing before climbing the stairs to the second floor apartment, Eva stood--plastic grocery bags dangling from her fingers--and let her gaze travel around the large unfinished garage level. She loved this old building. It had been a tremendous amount of work, and a lot of women would balk about living in an unfinished commercial building; but Eva and John preferred the historical and the “different.”
Now Eva didn’t know how long they could hold onto it. The tear-out took much longer than anticipated, it just being the two of them; and they tore out a lot more than they originally planned, making the cost factor considerably higher. If they didn’t find a bank willing to give them a mortgage soon, they would have no choice but to sell their project prematurely and—no doubt—at a loss. She and John invested everything into this place hoping to turn their financial situation around. Now it looked as if that was the very thing that was going to finish them off.
Vangie loved playing pretend grocery store in her kindergarten classroom. There was a little push cart and shelves with cans and boxes of food. There was even a pretend cash register. It was a little scary being away from Mamma and the girls, but Miss Roser was nice. The other kids didn’t seem too friendly, but that was alright. Vangie didn’t mind playing by herself.
Vangie’s favorite thing of all about school was when they brought in the trampoline. She loved jumping high and landing on her bottom and then back up on her feet. She was pretty good at it too; Miss Roser said so. Vangie liked hearing nice things said about her. Like when Miss Roser told her how pretty she was in the snowflake costume for the school play last week. It was a beautiful white dress with silver trim. Vangie felt like a princess that night because Mamma washed and brushed her hair, and she had on as nice a dress as any of the other girls. Oh how Vangie wanted to keep that dress, but whoever made it took it back right after the play.
There was a knock on the classroom door, but Vangie didn’t pay much attention until she heard her name called. When she looked up, she saw the school principal, Mrs. Back, standing at the door motioning to her. Vangie hadn’t been in school very long, but she knew that when the principal wanted to talk to you, it meant you were in trouble. She felt the creepy crawlies in her stomach as she slowly followed Mrs. Back into the hallway.
Standing there waiting for her with smiles on their faces were Vangie’s two older sisters, Margaret and Jean.
“Guess what?” Margaret said to Vangie. “Mrs. Back’s taking us to buy us new shoes.”
“Just us?” Vangie whispered as they climbed into the back seat of Mrs. Back’s car.
“I guess so.” Margaret answered.
“Why?” Vangie asked.
“I don’t know." Margaret said. "I guess they know we need them; and they just want to be nice."
“What about Sara?” Vangie asked of her youngest sister.
“I don’t know. I guess she’s not big enough yet to need good shoes.
“Do Mamma and Daddy know?” Vangie asked. She wondered if her parents would be mad or embarrassed about somebody else buying their kids shoes.
“I guess so. Anyway, don’t say anything about it or Mrs. Back might change her mind. Just don’t say anything but ‘thank you’.”
When Eva entered the cafeteria, she saw her mother smile and felt a satisfied warmth. Her mother seemed to be coming back. She was walking a little each day and was having less trouble feeding herself. Eva felt responsible for the four months her mother, Linda, had lost. It was Linda’s irrational fears of other residents and strange observations to staff that resulted in her being put on what Eva thought was an anti-depressant. But Eva and her sisters put too much of the responsibility for their mother’s care into the hands of others; so none of them paid close enough attention to what that medicine was and what it was supposed to accomplish.
At first, when Linda became very weak and dazed, Eva and her sisters believed it was the natural course of life; and they began preparing themselves for their mother’s inevitable passing. Linda’s extremely sleepy behavior continued to nag at Eva, though, until she did an internet search on the new medicine. What she read convinced her that it was the drug—actually an anti-psychotic—that was causing the deterioration. Over the next few months, at Eva’s repeated requests, Linda was weaned off the medicine. With each reduction, Linda’s alertness and motor skills improved; but Eva feared that her mother would never fully recover the muscle strength she lost in those months of limited mobility.
Eva’s frequent visits to the rest home originated from a desire to show Linda that she would not be abandoned as many other residents seem to be; but Eva came to enjoy the time out of her stressful life. Whenever she passed through those doors, Eva could turn off her cell phone and forget about her financial woes, because it was a different world inside those walls. The residents didn’t need to look into worried eyes. What they needed were smiles and attention. When she was young, Eva often wanted to be a teacher, or entertainer, or even a mother; but she didn’t accomplish any of those things. She was pleasantly surprised to find that the sparkling eyes and happy smiles of the residents who responded to her satisfactorily tickled her nurturing and entertaining fancy.
“Hello, Ladies” Eva called to each table as she passed.
“There she is!” called Leah who, except for her crippled state, would no doubt still be living on her own.
“Boogieman!” called Alice for some as yet unknown reason as she held out her hand for Eva to “high five on the side”.
Margene or “Marge” just giggled a ‘hello’ and continued to make the constant false teeth clicking sound that the staff probably heard in their sleep.
“I love you.” Linda said as Eva kissed her mother on the cheek.
Vangie looked in disbelief at the strangers in her living room. “Santa Claus isn’t real.” she told them. Other kids believed in Santa Claus because their parents pretended that was who gave them Christmas presents if they were good. Vangie knew that wasn’t true, though, because Mamma and Daddy said so. Vangie and her sisters were good little girls. They just didn’t get presents because Mamma and Daddy couldn’t afford them. Vangie never did understand the whole “Santa Claus” thing anyway. Getting presents from anybody would be nice, so why did people have to go making up some pretend guy?
Now here these people were telling her that Santa Claus was gonna buy her anything she picked out of this magazine; and there Mamma was NOT telling them they were crazy. Vangie tried a few more times telling them they could stop pretending; but they weren’t gonna leave her alone until she played along.
“Well, I don’t believe you” she said “but I guess if I was gonna pick ‘anything’ it would be this.” She pointed to a stand-up chalkboard that came with chalk and magnetic letters and numbers. It was really big, and Vangie thought it looked like a lot of fun; but she knew they wouldn’t buy her something that expensive. They were just teasing.
As she left the room, she said once more for her six-year-old pride’s sake. “But I don’t believe you.”
Eva recognized the two suitcases sitting outside the front entrance of the library. That old guy must be in there somewhere. Eva and John had seen him several times since moving to Jonesboro, and they expressed to each other surprise that there was a homeless person so small of a town. Each time she saw the old guy, Eva felt a tug of compassion and guilt; but her nervousness at approaching a stranger always stopped her.
After parking, Eva rounded the corner of the library and stopped short. The old guy was out there going through one of his suitcases. He hadn’t seen her yet, and she thought about going to another entrance. Then, remembering the residents at her mother’s rest home, she quelled her discomfort with the realization that he was still a person entitled to the same courtesies as anyone else--including the benefit of the doubt.
“Hello” Eva offered pleasantly.
“Good evening” he answered in a strong confident tone.
At that, Eva was even more curious about the man, but she lacked the courage to get personal; so she went on in and set about her library business. When a familiar librarian passed by, Eva stopped her.
“Excuse me. I was wondering if you know anything about that older gentleman who was just in here. He kind of looks homeless. Do you know if he is?”
“Oh, George? Yes he considers himself homeless.”
That was an odd response, but Eva didn’t ask for elaboration.
“It’s pretty cold out there. Do you know if he has some place to go at night? I mean surely there is a homeless shelter or something in town. I’ve been thinking I should offer to fill out some paperwork or something if he needs help.”
“He has family; and there is a homeless shelter here in town, but he doesn’t spend any more time at either place than he absolutely has to; because they have rules that he doesn’t care to follow.”
The librarian seemed to know more than she was comfortable talking about. Eva had expected to receive a pleasant smile and a compliment for her concern. Instead, the librarian seemed to be warning her to keep her distance.
“I can tell you for sure that he would not welcome any attention. He has good days when he’ll talk, but on other days, he can be pretty belligerent.”
“Okay.” Eva said. “Thanks for the advice.”
As Eva drove home, she wondered why George would CHOOSE to pull a suitcase around all day and sleep on the bench in front of the courthouse when there was someplace he could go.
Vangie sat nervously on the man’s knee as he asked whether or not she was a good girl. How was she supposed to answer a question like that? If she said “yes” that would be bragging. But if she said “no” the man might not let her have one of the Christmas presents that his helper was passing out to all the kids who had been brought to this party.
“I guess so”, she answered cautiously; and then she was on her feet moving toward the biggest gift on the stage. When Vangie tore back the paper, she found the very chalkboard that she picked out of the magazine that day in her living room. So those people weren’t just teasing her. She looked back at the man in the Santa Claus costume. She knew he wasn’t real; but in a way, Santa Claus DID give her what she asked for, just like they promised.
It was the coldest night so far that year. The wind was blustery, and a freezing rain fell on the windshield as they drove through town. Still, Eva was elated.
She and John decided weeks earlier that it made more sense for him get another job instead of Eva getting one. Their real estate appraisal business was slow, but it was still enough to justify her staying with it. John had been applying for jobs for several weeks with no results. That evening, during the church service, Eva said a fervent prayer that God would show his will to John and give him the wisdom and courage to follow it. Immediately after the service, one of the men asked to speak with John and offered him a very good job, which John accepted. It wouldn’t mean an immediate financial turn-around, but it was a very good start.
Eva was still smiling about the new possibilities when she saw George standing in an outdoor bank alcove, one hand pulling his jacket collar tight around his throat and the other hand resting on his suitcase. She leaned her head on the frosty window and sighed sadly.
Vangie lay on her back in the soft grass enjoying the beautiful sky. The brilliant clouds were so well defined, they seemed solid enough to sit on if one could get up there. The air temperature was perfect with a slight breeze every few minutes. Vangie had enjoyed roaming the fields and woods on her grandmother’s farm for nearly half of her sixteen years; but this was her favorite spot. Below ground level, lying on a grassy ledge available only when the creek was down for a while, Vangie marveled at the thought that at that precise moment, nobody in the entire world knew where she was except for herself and God.
She ran her fingers gently through the cool stream. This was so much more peaceful than listening to Mamma and Daddy fighting. Sometimes she thought those two were actually TRYING to drive her crazy.
Eva knocked on the old wooden door and smiled at the familiar curls and scrollwork. The latest owners had stripped the old paint and recoated it with polyurethane; but she could tell it was the same door. Eva had been called upon to provide a value estimate on the old house that had been HER home many years earlier. She often thought that she and John might be the ones to buy and renovate that old house; but someone else beat them to it. The wood floors and the doors and trim had all been stripped and refinished. The old wallpaper—no doubt littered with her very own pencil drawings—had been removed and the walls painted. Modern kitchen cabinetry had been installed along with an actual indoor bathroom. There were new windows, a furnace, vinyl siding, and a new roof. Virtually every surface had been given a “face life,” but it was still the house that Eva remembered. It was Vangie’s first home.
After nearly 30 years, almost every corner still unfolded a memory for Evangeline Ross. As she toured her childhood home with its new owners, she alternated professional questions with comments like “This is where I learned to tie my shoes” and “This is where we bathed in a metal tub with water heated on the stove.”
“I’m sorry to go on and on.” Eva offered near the end. “This place just brings back so many memories for me.
“Don’t be sorry. We’re enjoying it.” the young couple assured. “What do you remember about this room?”
Eva’s eyes panned the living room. Many good memories had come back to her that day, but the one most special to her happened in that room.
“Here,” she told her new friends “is where, one Christmas, some strangers showed me a magazine full of toys and promised me that Santa Claus would buy me whatever I pointed to. I didn’t believe them; but I played along anyway. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus and I, certainly, didn’t believe that people would buy presents for some children that they didn’t even know. They did, though. They bought me exactly what I picked out.”
“Well, how nice!” The young couple said.
“Yes, it was.” Evangeline said as she smiled thoughtfully. “I can’t say that it made me believe in Santa Claus; but it did make me believe in human kindness.”
Before she left that day, Evangeline stood in the back yard of her childhood home and took it all in. Some of the old outbuildings were gone, but a grass-forsaken patch of oily earth clearly marked where Daddy’s garage had been. At its southwest corner was an overgrown spot beneath two mature trees. Eva had almost forgotten her first “secret place”. In the summertimes of her childhood, the coal pile was reduced to small pebbles, but it was enough to stop the growth of any tall grass. The resulting cubby was the first of many “secret places” that had provided sanctuary in the unsettling times of her life--places of her own choosing where she could be alone and in control of her emotions and her destiny.
Suddenly, Eva thought of her mother in a crowded rest home and felt a pang of remorse. Next, she thought of an old homeless guy named George and believed that she understood him a bit more. Finally—and for some time—she thought about human kindness.
Eva looked out the window at the falling snow. The blinking Christmas lights lining the window made it hard to see out; so she returned to the carol singing with her residents. She had been through almost three years of research, paperwork, and sleepless nights—not to mention soul searching and administrative training; but it had paid off. With the help of a government grant, the first level of her and John’s building had been transformed into a small assisted-living home. There weren’t a lot of residents, but each one had a private room and bath. Eva had been able to hire a few staff members to help with the cooking, cleaning, and other care; but the entertainment was all Eva.
The party was going well. Margaret, Jean, and Sara had all come with their families to visit with Mamma, who had—of course—been Eva’s first official resident. Eva's dad was even there to see them all; and he and Mamma still called each other "Honey" even though they'd been divorced for years. Everyone had already eaten a traditional Christmas meal with “all the trimmings;” and after the caroling, Eva had gifts for them all.
Glancing out the window once more, Eva wondered if George was okay out there. She had designed a small room at the back of the building with a private entrance; and she had extended numerous invitations to George; but as yet, he had not taken her up on it. But maybe someday.
Eva pondered for a moment the numerous snowflakes, each with their own unique design. Then she turned and glanced around the room at the smiling faces of her residents and family. She and hers had been blessed in so many ways. Reaching down, she picked up one of Sara’s beautiful daughters. As the tiny arms wrapped around her neck, Eva closed her eyes and breathed the child in.