Saturday, December 31, 2016

Wayfaring Stranger - Chapter 10

Chapter 10

“Do you think there will be a present waiting?” asked Cooper.
Their mom shrugged, “Yesterday might have been it. I would like to know who did it so I can say thank you. I guess we’ll just have to go see.”
They were quiet on the ride home. Good quiet. Cooper fidgeted in his seat with Christmas excitement and the lingering effects of caffeine. When the little Ford pulled into the parking lot, before their mom had turned the car off, Cooper was out and bolting up the stairs. Mara and her mom hurried after to him just as eager to see if there was anything. Cooper was standing at the door holding a piece of paper looking puzzled. 
“What does it say?” Mara asked. Cooper handed it to her. Their mom and she crowded around the paper. It said:
Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

Thank you for coming tonight to celebrate the birth of Christ. Please come tomorrow to the community room at 12:00PM. All will be revealed! Come hungry because there will be food.
Merry Christmas!
Your Secret Friend (or is there more than one?)

Cooper exploded, “I want to know now. I don’t want to wait anymore.”  
Their mom worked the key into the door and said, “Me, too. But it looks like we’re going to have to wait.”  
“Awww,” Cooper replied. Then he perked up, “Can I have hot chocolate?”
“No,” their mom and Mara said together. “After your stomach upset let’s stick with water for now,” their mom continued.
“Cereal?” bargained Cooper.
“Okay, cereal.”  They all bumped around the kitchen together getting the necessities for cereal. Each had their preferred bowl and spoon. Choosing the right cereal. Crispy rice?  Frosted wheat squares?  Bran with raisins?  Fruity O’s. They settled at the table and debriefed about the church service. They laughed about the wise man with the squeaky voice. Marveled at Esther being an angel. It was so suitable to her. All the people that they had met that were there. 
“I think everyone in Texas goes to church,” commented Mara.
“Not everyone,” said their mom as she drank the last of the her sugary milk from her bowl. It gave her a slight milk mustache and made her look younger than she had in a while. Then she told them stories of some of the rough people who came into the diner late at night:  bikers, cops, students studying late, soldiers from the airbase trying to sober up for work later in the morning. 
Cooper cradled his head on his arm as he listened. Mara could tell he was fighting to stay awake. As their mom talked his eyes would close, pop open, close again, open again, until finally they closed and he was asleep. 
Their mom looked over at him and smiled. The smile said I love you, crazy boy. Their mom rubbed his hair and kissed his ear. “Time for bed, Cooper,” she whispered.
He sat straight up and said, “I get to choose the next song.”  Then he looked around dazed. “Oh, were not in the car.”
Their mom and Mara laughed. “Go brush your teeth,” said their mom as she cleared away the bowls and boxes. “You too, Mara. You both need to get to sleep so Santa can come and before I have to leave for work.”  Her mom was working the midnight to 8:00AM shift. 
“We’re a little old for Santa, Mom,” Mara retorted.
“You’re never too old for Santa!” their mom replied.
Some how that rankled Mara. I’m not a baby who believes in fairy tales or who needs coerced to do things with an imaginary all seeing gift-giver, she thought as she brushed her teeth and washed her face. Looking up from the sink, her dripping face reminded her of a picture of herself when she was about Cooper’s age. She is sitting on the floor by the Christmas tree absorbed in a gift she had just opened. Her face is surprised and vulnerable. Her mouth is half open and her eyes startled. She looked that way to herself in the mirror. The peace from being at church with people who listened was gone and the sour taste of anger was at the back of her throat again. She needed to go to bed before she discharged it. Before she ruined it for Cooper and her mom.
The pillow felt cool and soothing. She curled into a fetal ball with her eyes squeezed shut. She made herself breathe slowly in for 4 beats and then slowly out for 8 beats and she imagined her body laying on a warm beach. She strained to hear the waves and feel the warm heavy sand under her. And then she was awake. Her phone was ringing. It was the tone for her dad. She reached down into her purse beside the bed. She found it by touch--feeling for the buzzing angry insect.
“Hello?” She squinted at the phone: 2:03AM. “Dad? Are you okay?”  She could hear a thumping bass, raucous laughter, and tinkling sounds. Like ice in a glass.
“Mara. This is your dad. How’s my baby girl?”  Only he said it more like “Howsh my beby gurl?  Yeah. Drunk dialed by her dad. On Christmas.
“Hey, Dad,” she replied “Where are you?”  
“I’m just spending some time with my buddies, my good buddies and then some one said ‘It’s Christmas.’ and I knew I wanted to be the first to wish you merry Christmas. So, merry Christmas, baby girl. Your daddy loves you. Daddy loves you so much. And he’s so sorry. I’m so really sorry.”
“It’s okay, dad,”  Mara’s eyes burned. She rubbed them with the back of her hand. Rubbed them hard. So hard they teared up and rolled down her face. “It’s okay, daddy.”
“I miss you and Cooper so much. I love you both. You’re everything to me. I’d take a bullet for you.”
“I know, dad.”
“I wish I could be there in . . . where are you? Where are you now?”
“We’re in Texas, dad.”
“Texas! Texas is great,” he shouted, “I’m in Kentucky, well, right now I’m in Nashville.”
“Nashville!” someone roared in the background.
“It’s a little loud here. I’m at a . . . party. But I miss you. And your brother. And your mom. Is your mom there?  Can I talk to her?”  He tone had gone from happy to despondent in a short paragraph. Her dad wasn’t one of those happy drunks for long. There was a brief spike when he was hilarious to be around and then he crashed into despair and despondency. He was almost there now.
“She’s at work. She works nights at a diner.”
“What?  Can’t hear you.”
“She’s at work,” Mara said slowly, loudly and distinctly.
“But it’s Christmas,” her dad said. He was confused.
“People still need to eat on Christmas. Truckers, soldiers.”
“I miss her. She was a good woman. I let her down. I let you all down. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. So sorry.”
His voice trailed off. 
“It’s okay, Dad,” Mara tried to bolster him, “We’re okay. We miss you too.”
There conversation continued for almost 15 minutes. He was sorry for not sending Christmas gifts. He was going to send some money and gifts soon. He was sorry. He loved them so much. Tell Cooper he loved him. Tell him he was sorry. Finally, Mara had to say good-bye. They couldn’t hear each other. The party on his end was ramping up. 
Mara lay back on the cheap, lumpy mattress. She stared up into the blackness. Well, Merry Christmas to me. Her eyes narrowed against the tears that crowded into them. They slipped out of her eyes and into her ears. How very country of me. Her stomach lurched. She ran to the bathroom and threw up all the Christmas cookies and fruit loops. Several times. She stood up shakily and rinsed her mouth. Her body had a weird sweaty feeling even though she was freezing. She got back in bed. It was still warm. Once again she curled in to a tense, closed circle. She wrapped her slender arms around her knees and hugged hard. In her head she tried to get back to the beach. It wasn’t possible. The sun was gone.
Finally she turned on the light and started reading Frankenstein. It was on her winter break reading list. The language was difficult and the story moved slowly. She had to concentrate to understand what was going on. When her teacher introduced the book she said to ask who was the real monster?  After forty-five minutes of reading Mara couldn’t keep her eyes open. With her last bit of conscience she turned out the light.
Cooper’s was pounding on the door and saying, “Time for presents. Time for presents.”  The clock said 5:45AM.
“Cooper,” Mara yelled, “The rule is 7:00. Not before 7:00.”
“That was dad’s rule,” he replied opening the door, “and dad’s not here, so we can do what we want.”
There was something wrong in that thinking, but Mara couldn’t figure it out. “Wait, mom’s not home yet. We have to wait for mom.”
“Awww, Mara,” he wailed, “I can’t wait anymore. I’ve waited so long.”
“Go get my present to you,” she said, “bring it here.”
In less than a minute Cooper was in the bed putting his cold toes on her legs.
“You’re a popsicle,” Mara exclaimed, “How long have you been up?”  
Cooper shrugged, “4 something. Can I open this now?”  shaking the little box.
“Yes, but just that. The rest will have to wait till mom gets home. Promise?”
“Yes, I promise.”  His knuckles were white from his tight grip on the present. 
He’s going to explode and have a giant melt down, thought Mara, if he doesn’t chill out.
“Okay, open it, but stay here with me in bed till seven. Then we’ll eat some breakfast and hang out till mom comes.”
“Deal.” He ripped open the wrapping. Little pieces fluttered around Mara. “What is it?”
“It’s an electronic game. For when you can’t go to a friend’s house to play. You can play this one.”
“Oh. Thanks.”
Mara could tell he was disappointed.
“Try it. You might like it.”
He wrestled the package open and the game was soon beeping away. Mara drifted back into sleep. 
“Mara?”  Her eyes shot open. Cooper was inches from her face. 
“What, Cooper?”  Mara’s eyes felt like sandpaper. “It’s almost 7. Did you want to make me breakfast?”
Mara looked at the clock. 6:45. “Cooper, I’m going to lay here for at least 15 more minutes. Then, I might think about breakfast, maybe.”
“I do like the game, Mara. It old school. You have to take this frog across the highway with out it getting smashed. Do you want a turn?”
“No. I want to sleep some more. Let me sleep for bit more so I won’t be so grumpy.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. You’re pretty grumpy now. You should sleep some more. I’ll just play the game though I already got all the way through it once. I’ll start again. It will be fine. You do look awful. There are black smudges under your eyes. And your breath is extra stinky,  Did you brush your teeth?”  Mara turned toward him her tired eyes narrowing together with anger. Cooper tried to soothe her,  “I could sing you a little song to help you sleep.”  He started singing an Elton John song “I can’t light no more of your darkness,”  in his shrill 10 year old voice. 
Mara pulled the pillow over her head and tried not to be mad at his Christmas excitement and his efforts to help her sleep, but anger was the stronger voice.
“Cooper! Stop!”  shrieked, “Go back to your bed until 7. Then come get me. I. am. trying. to. sleep.”
Cooper practically fell out of bed in his haste to get away from her fierce onslaught. He put his hand on the door knob and said, “Dad, used to get up with me. We would wait together.”
“Dad’s not here, Cooper!  Face it!”  She threw her mother’s pillow at the closing door. Could she be a worse person? Yes, she could have told him he was being a manipulative little ass-hole. Merry Christmas. Her stomach knotted and her insides started twisting like awakening snakes. Her mind pictured at least three of them intertwined and encased in ice. The water dripped off as they defrosted by the heat of her anger. The grey snakes started to squirm and wriggle. She put her hand on her stomach. It gurgled uneasily. 
Mara got up and brushed her teeth careful not to gag herself. Cooper had wrapped himself in a quilt in the living room. He was staring at the little tree with it’s pile of pathetic presents. What a sucky Christmas already and it wasn’t even 7AM. 
“Do you want me to make pancakes?” she asked.
“With chocolate chips?”
“Do we have any?”
Cooper thought. “No. Mom said they cost too much.”
“Pancakes are good even without them.”
“Yeah. Okay.”
Mara made pancakes in the shape of teddy bears. The time dragged by as they waited for their mom to come home. They sat on the couch and watched a Christmas parade. They shared a quilt eventually snuggling together and falling asleep. That’s how Their mom found them when she came home from her waitressing shift. 

Mara lay in bed Christmas night. So tired. What a long, weird day. This was the worst Christmas and the best Christmas ever and at the same time. She missed her dad. He was so far away—geographically, emotionally. She wanted her dad to be a good part of her Christmas, not the drunk dial that it was. But he tried right?  Maybe one day he’d get it. 
They went to the community room at 12 and saw all the people who had made their Christmas sweet:  Mrs. Anders and her son, the Brantleys, and Boaz and his dad.
Esther’s face shone with joy as she yelled, “Surprise!”  
Micah jumped up down asking, “Did we fool you?  Did you know it was us? Did you?”
Boaz held his hands up in surrender, “They didn’t me tell till yesterday. I really didn’t know. I’m not a liar. Truly.”  His sister Ruthie was there with her dad. They sat in a corner quietly holding hands. 
Before they ate they all joined hands and Mr. Anders prayed. He thanked God for the food and for all those gathered together there. He prayed for loved ones who weren’t there. He prayed God would bless them. Mara thought of her dad hungover somewhere in Nashville. God be with him, Mara prayed. Then she added God, be with us all. 
The story of choosing them was told as they ate turkey with the works. It was Mrs. Anders. She recruited Christina to help her. Mr. Brantley was the one who would put the gifts on the door because he was so fast. Mrs. Anders wrote the notes and bought the gifts. Christina made the cookies. It was obvious that it gave them all so much joy. Their mom kept saying thank you and wiping away tears. All Cooper could say was, “Best Christmas ever!”
She was starting to sink into the blackness of sleep. Was it the best Christmas ever?  Yes. Because it should have been her worst Christmas, but the people gathered in that room made it into something different. When Mara asked them why Mrs. Anders said, “I’ll tell you, Mara. I don’t know that you’ll believe me, but here it is. Jesus came to give us new life. He came to save us and free us from sin because he loved us. What we did for you and your family was because of his love for us. We wanted to love someone who needed it. We prayed and God showed us your family.”
“You did this because of God’s love for you?” Mara was skeptical.
“And because of God’s love for you,” Mrs. Anders replied softly. “At first we did it because we wanted to help someone, but as we got to know you and Cooper we did it because we liked you. You became our friends. We did it because of who you are.”
Mara shook her head, “I’m not a nice person.” She thought of how mean she had been to Cooper because she was mad at her dad and how mad she still was at her parents for divorcing. “I don’t really deserve all you’ve done.”
Mrs. Anders face crinkled into a smile. “Yes, you don’t deserve it. It’s a gift not a reward. 
Mara shook her head, “You’re right I don’t think I understand, but I am glad that you did.” She looked at the people in the room and how happy they were and thought how happy they had made her mom, Cooper, and her. She smiled a crooked smile at Mrs. Anders. “Thank you.”

As she lay in bed sleep starting to close in Mara couldn’t help thinking about God choosing her family. It made her feel . . . comforted. It made her feel not forgotten. It made her feel God had not forgotten her and her wandering family. So, yes. Best Christmas ever.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wayfaring Stranger - Chapter 9

Chapter 9

Christmas Eve day was a day that couldn’t go by fast enough. It seemed to take forever. Mara wrapped her presents to Cooper and her mom. 
Mara was looking forward to going to church that night even though she would never admit it. It felt like a very Christmassy thing to do. Like she was part of a larger group not just a member of her fractured family. Thoughts of her dad kept spiking into her brain. She didn’t want to think of him. How she hadn’t heard from him in almost a month. She wondered if he had deployed already. Would he be all right?  Would he be careful?  Did he ever think of her?  She realized she hadn’t done anything for her dad. Did they even have an address for him? She took a moment and texted him:  Hope you have a great Christmas. Love you. 
Tears started to gather in her eyes and she rub them away. She didn’t want to think about these things. She wanted to anticipate Christmas. 
Finally it was time to get ready for church. She put on her black pants, black sweater, black shoes, black eye liner. 
“You know we’re going to Christmas Eve service not a funeral, right?” her mother mocked.
“Merry fricking Christmas,” Mara replied. 
Her mom rolled her eyes and gave a deep sigh, “Well, maybe keep that sentiment to yourself. Church people often lack a sense of humor when it comes to cussing. Help me tidy up the kitchen.”
Mara put the condiments from their hot dog Christmas Eve dinner in the fridge and thoughts of her dad’s parents and her mom coalesced into question, “Did Grandma and Grandpa Munroe like you?”
Her mom shrugged, “They never liked that I wasn’t a church person. They thought I was the one who led their son into he wild ways. He was that way before he and I got together. I refused to fake being churchy when they were in town. I wasn’t good enough for their son. I don’t think they appreciate my awesome mothering skills.”  Her mom gave Mara a crooked smile. “I think the word to describe our relationship would be disappointment that goes both ways. My mom was glad to see me go. She had her own things she wanted to do. I was hoping I would get a ‘new mother’ in Therese. I think she wanted to do that, but I didn’t meet her expectations and she had to choose whose side to be on: me or her son. Her son came first. I get that.”
Their mom gave a sigh. She looked at Mara. Searching her eyes for . . . understanding, acceptance. “I’m not the mother I want to be, Mara. I may not be the mother you need, but I will do my best to be the mother who’s here. Who doesn’t quit on you.”
Mara wasn’t sure how to reply, “Okay, Mom. Thanks.”  She gave her mother a hug. It had been a long time. Her mom’s back felt gaunt and fragile under Mara’s hands. The skin was stretched thin over her bones.
Cooper emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of steam. 
“Ready,” he exclaimed. A few seconds later the smoke detector went off. 
“Shut the door,” her mom laughed. Mara grabbed a towel to flap at it till it went silent. 
In the car on the way to church their mom gave them instructions on how to behave:  no running around, no cussing, no snarky remarks, be polite.
Mara interrupted, “Mom, we’ve been to church before. We’ll be fine. They’re gonna love us. California liberals in church. They been praying for this for awhile. We are totally making their Christmas. 
“Yes, don’t say things like that,”  their mom replied. The parking lot was mostly full even though it was early. They walked in and found seats towards the back. Mara sat looking at the bulletin when she sensed someone behind her. She whirled around. It was Esther in a white dress looking intensely at Mara. 
“Did you come to watch me?”  
Mara hesitated. “Watch you what?”
“In the Christmas program.”
“Yes,” Mara replied, “I’m here to watch you . . . sing?”
“I talk to.”
“That sounds really fun. I’ll be watching.”
“I’m not supposed to wave, but I can look at people.”  Esther’s glasses were a smudgy mess. 
“Do you want me to clean your glasses for you?”
Esther clumsily took off her glasses and Mara quickly cleaned them off. She gently replaced them on Esther’s face. “Ok. Break a leg.”
Esther looked horrified, “No!”
“It means good luck, Esther. It’s a way of saying I hope you do well.”
Esther gave Mara a doubtful look.
“I promise.”
“Esther,” Christina called, “Come on. Time to get in place.”
“I hope you break a leg, too.”
“Thank you Esther,” Mara replied.
“Who was that?” their mom asked.
“That’s Esther. She’s Cooper’s friend little sister. I babysit her sometimes.”
“She has . . . Down’s Syndrome?” 
“She does,” Mara replied.
The service was longer than they expected. There was a children’s program. Esther was an angel. Her line was, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!”  She shouted it at the top of her lungs. They had probably told her to speak loudly. Mission accomplished. She looked over at Mara after her big moment. Mara could tell she wanted to wave but was holding back. Mara gave her a quick wave. Cooper saw his friend Micah dressed as a shepherd with a towel around his head and flip-flops. He tugged at  his mom, “That’s Micah. He’s my friend.”  
In the middle of the program the pastor preached a sermon. He talked about how Jesus come because he loved us. Whatever we think about God and his love for us we know that he does care. He came and lived the life of poverty, under the shadow of questionable parentage, in a country occupied by ruthless conquerors because he loved us. Eventually he was crucified by his enemies, but he was stronger than death and rose again. Then the pastor invited everyone who wanted to know more to talk to him after the service. The program finished with the choir singing a song about following Jesus. Then ushers passed out small white candles in paper circles. The lights were lowered. The pastor lit his candle from a tall white candle at the front and then lit the candles of those in the front pew. A man with a guitar started singing “Silent Night.”  People shared their light with those around them. It spread over the whole congregation. Her mom lit her candle from Cooper’s and then lit Mara’s. In the candle light,  their mom’s face looked gentle and not as tired. Mara thought she saw tears. Mara turned to light the candle of the person next to her and was surprised to Boaz several rows away. He was holding his candle and singing. Next to him was a dark haired woman. Probably his mother. Mara wondered where his dad was. At home watching Johnny Cash videos?  Another broken family.
At the end of the service the pastor invited everyone to the fellowship hall for cookies. Boaz came over with his mother, Irene, and introduced Mara. Mara, in turn, introduced  their mom. A young girl in a sheep costume came up and hugged Irene.
“This,” said Boaz, “is my little sister, Ruthie.”
“Hi,” Ruthie said from her mother side. she was feeling shy.
“You were a really good sheep. Very convincing,” Mara told her.
Ruthie blushed and whispered, “Thank you.”
Micah came running up minus his towel, but still in his flip-flops. “Cooper, come get cookies. There are some chocolate ones my mom made.”  They ran off. Irene and  their mom had started talking. Ruthie was tugging on her mom and whispering about cookies. Irene looked at Boaz, “Can you go with her to get some cookies, please?”
“Yeah, sure. Come on, Bo-Peep. Mara you want to come too?”
Mara glanced at  their mom; she nodded her ascent.
“Okay, great.”
Boaz lead the way down some stairs and into a basement. There were tables and with lots cookies. Then went and stood in line. Ruthie turned to Mara and asked, “Are you Boaz’s girlfriend?”
Mara looked at Boaz. He was blushing to where the tips of his ears were bright red. They matched nicely with his red sweater. “Uhmm, no,” Mara replied, “We’re friends. Just friends.”
“I think he likes you. He was asking mom about how to know if a girl likes you.”
“Ruthie,” Boaz diverted, “Look your favorite cookie, coconut macaroon.”
“Ew, no. I like chocolate. Mom made chocolate dipped cookies. I want those.”
“We have some of those at home,” Boaz reasoned, “You could try something different.”
“Maybe, but I want mom’s too.”  Ruthie moved down the table now intent on finding her mother’s cookies.
“Nice job distracting her,” Mara whispered to Boaz. “If she’d kept going I thought you were going to burst into flames.”
“You are so cruel. I pity the man that ends up with you. You will make him suffer.”
“Probably,” Mara replied, “I’ll do it without even trying.”
“Hello, Boaz,” said a familiar voice behind them. Mara turned around. It was the man from Walmart, Mr Anders. With him was Mrs. Anders from the Koberlyns. Her twisted hand was resting in the crook of his arm.  He was holding two plates. Probably one for him and one for his mother. “Whose your friend?”
“This is Mara. She lives in our apartment building. I’m not sure why she’s here,” Boaz turned to her. “Why are you here?  I thought you would burst into flames if you crossed the thresh hold of a church.”
Now it was Mara’s turn to blush. “I was invited,” she answered defensively. 
Mrs. Anders rescued her, “I am glad you came. You are always welcome here.”
“Thank you ma’am,” Mara answered. They moved along the line getting cookies. Mara wasn’t sure what to say. She didn’t want Boaz or Mrs. Anders to know about the Walmart incident. Cooper came running up with a plate piled high with cookies. “Mara, you have to try this chocolate cookie. It’s made from chocolate cake and mixed with chocolate frosting then covered in chocolate. They’re great I’ve had three already,” he said excitedly. Then he saw Mr. Anders. He froze so suddenly the cookies on his plate slid off onto the floor. “Oh, Jesus,” fell out of his mouth. His eyes grew wide. “Oh-oh. Mom said I wasn’t supposed to say that in church.”
Mrs. Anders gave a smile, “Actually, we say Jesus all the time here. Brad, help pick up the cookies.”  Mara, Boaz, Cooper and Mr. Anders, or Brad to his mother, all rounded up Cooper’s cookies. 
“I think they’re still good,” Cooper said. 
“You have to eat a pound of dirt before you die,” Mrs. Anders said. 
Mara was unsure what this meant but didn’t question it. They were by an empty table.
“Why don’t we sit down,”  Mrs. Anders suggested and they did.
Cooper looked at Mr. Anders and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I go to church here,” he replied.
“Our Secret Santa invited us,” Cooper squirmed in his seat,  “The Secret Santa has brought us presents for 11 days. Today is day 12. I wonder who it is. I think they’re here, but we’re not supposed to guess. They gave us a Walmart gift card for $100. So I know they’re rich. We went to Walmart yesterday. I didn’t take anything into the bathroom. I was really careful.”
Mara wanted to step in and make him stop talking. How many of those cookies had he had?
“Cooper,” Mara asked, “Where’s Micah? I thought you two were hanging out.”
“His family had to leave. Do you think we’ll leave soon? Where’s mom?  It feels like we should be going soon.”  Cooper was visible vibrating.
“Did you have anything besides cookies?” asked Mara.
“I had some coffee. Just two cups. I put some chocolate stuff in it. Micah says coffee keeps you awake and I was feeling sleepy after the service. I feel really awake now,” he paused, “And a little bit like I want to throw up. Where’s the bathroom?”
Boaz said, “Here, Cooper come with me. Ruthie, you stay with Mara. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Ruthie nodded. “It’s ok to stay with her because she’s your girlfriend.”
Boaz flinched, “No . . . she’s . . . Just stay here.”  He hustled Cooper off. Mara was unsure what to do. She looked at Ruthie who smiled at her. Then at Mr. Anders and his mom. They both gave her an interrogative look. 
“He’s . . . not really my boyfriend. He just a friend. Who’s a boy. But were not . . .”
Mr. Anders smiled and nodded sagely. “It’s complicated,” he offered.
“No,” Mara replied, “No complications. Friends. Just . . . I’m mean he’s nice and all.”
“And cute,” piped Ruthie.
“And cute,” echoed Mara, “What? No. I mean, yes. I mean . . . “  she gave a sigh, “It’s complicated.”  She was sounding like her over caffeinated brother.
Mr. Anders laughed. Not in a mocking way. In a way that made Mara feel understood and liked. 
“Boaz is a very nice boy,”  Mrs. Anders stated, “You could do worse. Though you are both very young. So be careful.”  She gingerly picked up a cookie with her gnarled hands. 
Mara was unsure how to reply; she settled for, “Yes, ma’am.”
Her mom came walking up with Boaz’s mother, Irene. “Where’s Cooper?” she asked.
“He was feeling sleepy so he had two cups of coffee,” answered Mara, “and now he’s being sick in the bathroom. Boaz is with him.”
“Oooh,” the mothers said in unison. 
Irene and  her mom exchanged mother looks. Irene said, “We should go check on them.”
“That’s a good idea,”  her mom agreed.
“Would it be okay if Ruthie stayed with you, Mara?” asked Irene.
“Sure, no problem.”  They scampered away. Moms on a mission. Mara turned to Ruthie, “Your family seems concerned that you be with someone all the time. Are you going to do something weird?”
Ruthie was inspecting a moon shaped cookie. “It’s because of my dad. He wants me to come live with him, but he’s schizophrenic so I can’t.”
It was strange to hear such a sophisticated word come out of an 8 year olds mouth.
“Sometimes he just comes to get me.”  She sat up suddenly, “I’m supposed to say, ‘No, Dad’ and stay put.”  She sniffed the cookie and made a face. She slumped back down into kid posture and sighed, “Boaz gets to stay with him though.”  She started jabbing the moon cookie at a smiling Santa sugar cookie smearing his frosting face. 
Mr. Anders said, “That doesn’t seem fair.”
“It’s not,” Ruthie burst out. “I want to stay with Dad too. He and I watch Johnny Cash shows. Nothing bad would happen. My dad loves me.”
Mr. Anders nodded, “I think he does love you, Ruthie. You have a lot of things about you that are lovable. Sometimes what dads want to do and what they can do don’t match up. Your dad wants you to be with him, but his schizophrenia prevents it.”
Tears popped out of Ruthie’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks. “But it’s Christmas. Everything is supposed to be great at Christmas.”
Mara found that tears were rolling down her face as well. She gently rubbed circles on Ruthie’s back as she swiped her own face. She looked up at Mr. Anders for an answer. Everything is supposed to be great at Christmas. Everyone said so. Every song. Every television show. Every ad. Families reunited. Dreams realized. Hadn’t they just been singing about peace on earth and good will toward men?
Mrs. Anders had tears  too. Her son covered her twisted fingers with his large hand. “And why are you crying?” he asked Mara, 
“My dad,”  Mara whispered, “ He’s not around. I haven’t heard from him.”
He looked at his mother, “Mom?”
“Your father. I miss him. He was so grumpy at Christmas. I would work so hard to make him enjoy it. Plan and scheme. Now he’s gone and Christmas feels . . . a bit empty.”  She reached into her purse and took out small packet of tissues and handed them each some. Nose blowing ensued.
Mara turned fierce. “You’re not saying it’s all going to be okay?  That Jesus makes everything all right?” Tears were rolling again and she felt like she was being choked from the inside. 
Mr. Anders looked down at the table. Mara could tell he was crafting a response. 
“What would okay look like?”  he asked her.
“My dad . . .” she started, then stopped. What would okay be?  Her dad here?  Her family back together in California?  Were things really okay there?  “My dad,” she began again, “My dad . . . knowing my dad cares about me. Maybe him being here. Coming to see us or even sending a letter or something.”
“You want him to show you he cares?”
“Yes,” Mara nodded, “I want to know he cares.”
“And you want to know that Jesus cares?”
Mara hesitated. This felt like a trap. “Yes,” she said reluctantly. 
He laid his free hand on a black leather book beside him. His Bible. “Jesus says that he has come to ‘bind up the broken hearted.’  When I look at the three of you at this table I see broken hearts.”
The three of them glanced at one another and gave small nods of acknowledgement. 
“Here at this table are two other people who know what it is to be broken hearted. Perhaps, Jesus has brought you together so you could know that on this exciting Christmas Eve there are others that have sorrow for what is missing. You are not alone. There are others who hurt. That can be a comfort.”
Ruthie leaned into Mara’s shoulder. Mara gave her a squeeze. Mrs. Anders reached out to lay her tortured fingers on Mara’s hand. Her hand was warm and soft. “Mara, you’re dad may never realized the treasure that he’s wasting by not being with you. I think it’s possible that God can put other people in your life to help with that. It will probably never take the place of your dad. Dads are special. I’m sorry he’s not showing you the love you deserve.”
Cooper came bouncing up, “Mara, I threw up so much. It came out my nose!  You should have seen it.”
There was a pause then the table erupted into laughter. Boaz and the mothers came up to the table of slightly hysterical laughter. 
“There is certainly a lot of Christmas spirit at this table,” commented Irene which made them laugh even harder. 
“Yeah,” Mara gasped out, “Tons.”
“Lots and lots,” piped Ruthie.
“Exceeding amounts,” tittered Mrs. Anders. 

“Christmas crazy,” summed up Mr. Anders as he stood up. This action got them all started on the homeward track. Goodbyes and Merry Christmas’ were said on the way to their respective cars. 

Mara had a softness in her middle that hadn’t been there in a long time. It was like the feeling she got after eating a bowl of creamy chocolate ice cream--full and satisfied. It was nice. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Wayfaring Stranger - Chapter 8

Chapter 8

The march toward Christmas continued as did the presents from the Secret Santa. One day it was Christmas cookies. They were sugar cookies, fragile  coconut meringue, and chocolate cookies with a Hershey kiss melted in the middle with more red and green wrapped Hershey kisses thrown in. The next day it was pairs of warm socks for everyone with peppermint chap stick. It was so funny. They kept asking themselves who is doing this?  What do they want?  Mara and Cooper wondered if it was their dad. Had he somehow gotten someone here to make it happen?  He wouldn’t put notes with Bible verses on them in the presents. Unless he was trying to keep them from realizing it was him. Or maybe it was his parents, but they hadn’t really been that interested in them before and mostly they asked if they went to church or read the Bible they had given them for Christmas one year. Best gift ever--not. 
Though they tried not to get excited or hopeful for Christmas it was hard not too. Their mom managed to pay off the repair bill and they got their crappy car back. It made them so happy. It felt like being set free. Their mom drove them to MacDonald’s and let them each get something off the dollar menu to celebrate. 
Miss Christina asked Mara if she would babysit her children the Saturday before Christmas so she and her husband could finish their Christmas shopping. It was okay for Cooper to come too as long as they boys didn’t give her a hard time. She had Mara come over after school on Wednesday so she could explain how she did everything. Mara was nervous about feeding them lunch because she didn’t know how to pray, but she wasn’t sure how to bring this up to Miss Christina. She wanted to do a good job and have Miss Christina like her so thought she’d better find out what to do.
Miss Christina didn’t seem to understand. “You don’t want to pray before lunch?” she asked.
“I don’t really know how to pray and I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to say the wrong things.”
Miss Christina looked at her intently. “You don’t want to say the wrong thing to God?”
“No, I mean yes. I don’t want to say the wrong thing to . . . God, but also to Esther and Micah. I don’t want to disturb their . . . your family’s . . . beliefs,” Mara didn’t really have the vocabulary to talk about praying and God. 
Miss Christina put her hand gently on Mara’s arm. “I’m asking you to babysit because I think you will take good care of my little ones and will enjoy them. You don’t need to worry about praying well or doing it right. When I pray at lunch I usually thank God for the food and for the children. Let me show you.”
She took Mara’s hands, bowed her head and, there in the little kitchen, she prayed for God to be with Mara as she watched over her children. She thanked God for Mara and asked Him to be with her. In her prayer she also asked that Mara would know God’s love for her. Then she was quiet for a bit. Mara wondered if she was supposed to pray. She peeked through her eyelashes. Miss Christina eyes were closed and she looked like she was listening. Then she gently squeezed Mara’s hands and said, “Amen.”  
“Okay?” Miss Christina asked with a smile.
“Yes,” Mara replied, “I think I can do that.”  
The next day she talked with Boaz about what praying with Miss Christina. 
“Do you think God hears your prayers?  Like really hears them?”
Boaz nodded his cowboy head. “I do.”
“Do you think he does anything about them?” Mara persisted. 
Boaz was looking out the window of the bus. “I heard a pastor say once that one of the purposes of prayer is to change us. Praying, talking to God, changes how we look at things. Changes our heart. It can help us see things differently.” He looked at Mara. “I’ve prayed a lot for my dad to be. . . better or different, but he isn’t really. Sometimes, not all the time, I can understand God using my broken dad to make me a different person. Less selfish, less judgy, less arrogant.”
Mara nodded. His words weren’t the fake “It’s all going to be okay” she heard from her mother. They were real. 
“My grandparents tell me that if I became a Christian everything would be great,” Mara ventured, “It doesn’t seem that way. Do you know the Munroes?  They have a little girl with Downs Syndrome.” Boaz nodded, “Their belief in God seems to be more than doing good things to deserve good things. The way they love Esther makes me think they really like her as she is.”
“I like the Munroes. Mrs. Munroe makes the best cookies. She’s awesome. She brings dinner over sometimes just because. I’ve seen her yelling at her kids though too. She’s not perfect, but she’s got something going on.”
“She prayed with me the other day,” Mara said with embarrassment. 
Boaz started laughing, “Look at you praying. I thought I heard thunder the other day. It was probably the angels falling over in surprise.”
“Yeah. I was pretty surprised myself.”
“So, how’d it feel? Praying,” Boaz asked.
“It felt . . . weird, but natural. Miss Christina just does it. She doesn’t get all preachy or strange. It’s like she’s talking to a real person. At the end, before the amen, she was really quiet. I think she listen to what God was saying. That was a little freaky.”
“You know,” Boaz was about to say something supremely sarcastic because of his sideways look from under his hat, “Some people think God is a person. They call him Jesus. You might have heard of him. His has a birthday coming up.”
“Yes, I am aware,” she retorted. At that moment the bus jerked to a stop at the school. They gathered their back packs and started walking to the school. “Boaz are you . . . giving gifts to our family?”
“Not sure what you mean.”
“Since December 12th some anonymous person has been leaving a gift at our door everyday. There are notes with Bible verses with them. I thought it might be you or the Munroes, but I don’t think either one of you has the money.”
“It’s, for sure, not me,” Boaz replied as he held the school door for her, “Is that where the wreath on your door came from?  I was surprised to see it.”
“Yeah. We don’t have money for that. You promise it’s not you?”
He held up his right hand, “I do solemnly swear before God and all these witnesses,” he nodded to students rushing to and from lockers, “that I have not given you a single gift except for my sweatshirt which you gave back.”

The babysitting went well. Before going over Cooper and Mara talked about not being too bossy and not being too bratty. Mara quizzed Cooper about how to take care of Esther. He was puzzled.
“Her mom just reads to her and does crafts with her. She really likes to play dress-up. Princesses are her favorite.”
So Mara and Esther made princess crowns and then pretended to be princesses. Mara’s worries about not taking the right care of Esther evaporated. Mara had fun doing goofy kid things. The boys were fine playing video games. She was surprised at how quickly the time went by. Miss Christina paid her $25. Mara and Cooper hung out for a bit. Mara helped get dinner ready while Esther took a nap. Christina told Mara that she could call her Christina. She asked her about California and her life there. Mara talked. It was tentative at first. Could she trust Christina with her unchristian ugliness, but Christina didn’t seem put off by her words. Mara found herself telling her more and more. Christina listened, nodded, and asked questions. Mara asked Christina about Esther. Christina talked matter-of-fact way about Esther’s health problems and mental difficulties. Mara asked her about why did God give her a child with Down’s Syndrome. They were sitting at the kitchen table. Christina looked over Mara’s shoulder at Esther watching a princess movie. Mara could tell she was thinking hard about her answer.
“When we first found out Steve and I thought this was a punishment from God for something we’d done or didn’t do. I spent a lot of time crying. I didn’t think I was equal to having a severely disabled child. The doctors were urging me to abort Esther. Because I’m a Christian I didn’t feel that I could, but there were somedays I prayed that Esther wouldn’t survive. Then she was born. Seeing her little face, recognizing her fighting spirit--I fell in love. Esther isn’t easy and I worry about her future, but I don’t regret having her. I thought God was giving me a burden, but she’s a blessing and burden too. She’s brought good things to my life.”  At that moment Esther started calling from the living room.
“Mommy, I’m ready to come play with you now.”
Christina smiled at Esther’s voice, “She’s pretty irresistible.”

On the 23rd of December the gift was an envelope. In it was a $100 gift card to Walmart. Their mom started crying. Cooper and Mara exchanged worried looks. Walmart. Would they be allowed back in Walmart?  The note had an invitation to the San Angelo Bible Church Christmas Eve service the next night. 
Their mom grimaced as she read it, “We should go as a way to say thank you for all they’ve done.”
“Can I sit with Micah?” asked Cooper, “That’s where his family goes.”
“I don’t think I want to go to church,” Mara said.
“We will go as a family and sit together. I’m not big on church, but I think it would be respectful to those who have been helping us out.”
“I’m not dressing up,” Mara cautioned.
“Yes, you are,”   their mom replied, “You will dress up and you will smile and you will say thank you. That goes for both of you. End of story.”  She gave them both the pointy end of her index finger. Her dad used to call it her stern librarian look. “Are we clear?”
“Yes,” they mumbled. 
“Now, we need to go to Walmart and spend this money. How are we going to divide it up?”
They debate raged right until they arrived at that parking lot. They were going use $20 for Christmas dinner. Mara and Cooper were in charge of getting the ingredients for that: roast chicken, mashed potatoes and fresh broccoli with brownies and peppermint ice cream for dessert. Nothing from a can. Their mom was going to take the rest of the money and get “things.”  She gave them a $20 for the food.
“Remember to figure in tax. I think it’s eight and a quarter percent,” she gave her children an appraising look. “Can I trust you to do that?”
“Yes,” Cooper was excited to get started, “Yes. We will work together so well people will think we are not related.”
Their mom tried to hide a smile, “That would be great. Here is $5 for a sundae at the McDonalds when you’re done. Or fries or whatever. Wait for me there. No peeking.”

They were all giddy at the idea of getting to celebrate. There was no denying that they all were excited for Christmas something Mara didn’t really think would have been possible two weeks ago.