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.