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?”
“Yes.”
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. 

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