Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Unlikely Gift Part II

The schedule was full today: three cuts and a color before lunch, and two more colors followed by a slew of cuts in the afternoon. She didn’t mind being busy though, it made the day go by quickly, and Mary Ellen was coming in today. Hanna smiled at the thought of her. Mary Ellen was a one of a kind and didn’t really fit into the demographic of the salon’s clientele, or any salon for that matter. Her clothes reminded Hanna of the girls growing up who had attended that funny Baptist church where you couldn’t wear pants, except that Mary Ellen didn’t stick to drab colors; she threw in every pattern of lace or flowery sweater she could find to make her dresses as romantic and whimsical as possible.
The funny part of it all, was that as much as she tried, Hanna couldn’t even do much with the sole reason Mary Ellen had come to her in the first place, and that was to work on her hair. It was hopelessly outdated, but in spite of all her subtle and sometimes outright attempts to get Mary Ellen to change it, the woman was just too desperately attached to the look she had worn for almost thirty-five years now. It sort of befuddled Hanna what led Mary Ellen to come to this salon in the first place, since it was a little more upscale and known for being cutting edge. But come she did, and she was a loyal client, and more than that, a good friend.
The thing about Mary Ellen was that she didn’t seem like she was trying to prove anything. Sure, she dressed like a woman who been through a time warp, but she did it purely because that was exactly what she liked. And it was the same reason she wouldn’t change her hair in spite of all Hanna’s reasoned attempts to get her to do so. Mary Ellen was of sound mind, she just had a mind of her own. Plus, her heart was so full of goodness and giving that Hanna couldn’t help but be drawn to her.
One of the first things Hanna had learned as a hair stylist was that you had to listen to people. They come in and somehow the chair they are sitting in seems to magically transform into a therapists couch, and all their secrets, woes, and every private thought or problem comes flowing out like spilled wine. Usually, you just try to dab the spots, and pick up the glass to send it back on its way. But with Mary Ellen, it had always been different. She didn’t talk too much, except to ask questions, and somehow she turned the tables on Hanna and got her to share the parts of her life that mostly remained hidden in a place like this. Hanna had learned over the years though, that her spilling onto Mary Ellen was not just a mess to be blotted, but was somehow soaked in and accepted. And if Mary Ellen felt stained with what her friend shared, she never showed it. She seemed to cherish whatever Hanna had to offer.
Today Mary Ellen settled right into her chair like she always did, but her face looked a little more pinched than normal. Hanna started running her fingers over the mass of dark but graying curls, fluffing and massaging as she always did while her client warmed up and let her know what she had in mind for that day’s appointment. “How are you today Mary Ellen?” she smiled into the mirrored reflection of her friend. “Are you flying around in your usual holiday whirlwind?” Mary Ellen’s smile looked tired and she closed her eyes a moment, letting the calming effect of the head massage soothe her tenseness.
   “I’m doing okay, but to be real honest I’m feeling a bit frustrated right now. Just too many things flying at me, and not really any of them working out. Bruce is working so much with his classes and finals and everything that he can’t be much help. Yesterday we got a call from his sister, who said his mom is not doing well at all and wants us to seriously think about coming up in a few days for the week. She sounded really concerned. Christmas is four days away and I have so many commitments. But she’s mom, you know. And then we have Terry. What am I going to do with Terry? No one will be able to take him over the holiday, and he can’t come up there with us because of his physical therapy appointments. Plus it just stresses him out to be out of routine. But ah, you know, I’m sure something will work out. The Lord knows all this.”
Mary Ellen smiled, but it seemed faint and a little less hopeful than she was trying to sound.
Hanna knew about Terry, but had only met him a couple of times, when she had dropped by Mary Ellen’s house to return a book or drop her off after they met up for coffee on a day Mary Ellen had been without a car. Terry was in his mid-thirties, and mentally handicapped to such a degree that his mind was like that of an 8 year old. Mary Ellen and Bruce had taken him in after his mother, a close friend at their church, had passed away, leaving no plans or money for her handicapped and care-needy son. It had not been an easy decision to take him in, and Hanna knew it hindered Mary Ellen and Bruce quite often in their ability to do some of the things they wanted to. Terry needed daily care and supervision, and it was hard to find willing hands to take him when they needed time off. Usually, Mary Ellen and Bruce just ended up just sending one and leaving the other to stay at home, which meant more often than not, they were separated these days.
Hanna listened as Mary Ellen talked a little of Bruce’s mother and the way she was heading downhill rather quickly. She could tell it was weighing on M, who dearly loved her mother-in-law and had always been close to her. But Hanna couldn’t help her mind wandering to Terry, and the predicament her friend was in. She and Warren still had a full house these days, even though most parents her age were finding their nests empty and sending kids off to college. Maggie had shown waning interest in school much like her mother had and after graduation had struggled to find a job or any motivation for keeping one. Hanna was fed up with it, but she felt responsible in some way too. She wasn’t sure what to do about the girl. And Bud was so quiet, but out of the two of them Hanna sensed there were deep waters that ran under that still and gentle exterior. It didn’t seem to make a difference when it came to school though, and so he too was living at home, working regular shifts at Al’s Garage down in the center of town and hoping to get an apprenticeship.
Hanna wondered how her two kids would handle someone like Terry in their midst. Cora at least, was not going to be home. She was in Minneapolis with her mother for a few weeks. Hanna wondered what Warren would think of her idea, or what any of them would think for that matter. She wasn’t even sure she liked that she was thinking it either.
Christmas, as it was, was always hard on Hanna, with too many bad memories and not enough good ones to release any sort of nostalgic repertoire of good cheer. She wanted it to be nice for her family, but any more they were a sad lot on what was supposed to be such a grand occasion according to the commercials and December movie specials. More often than not, she decorated the tree by herself and was lucky to squeeze in a few batches of gingerbread cookies as means of “holiday preparations.” This year she had hung a wreath on their door, one that had caught her eye at Wal Mart as she hurried through her shopping one night. It wasn’t too bad for a fake wreath, and she liked the red berries that reminded her of what an old farm door in New Hampshire would have on them, or something picturesque like that.
More than anything, Hanna felt confused and disappointed by the whole idea. She had been to enough church programs to know that according to history, Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but the Nativity Plays and carol sings she had been to all seemed so starchy and removed from reality, especially the ones that proclaimed they were throwing a birthday party for Jesus. Why are we throwing a birthday party for God? If he was God, wasn’t he eternal? And did he really see coming to earth as something he wanted to celebrate with a birthday party every year? It just seemed, somehow trite, compared to all the issues of life and death and salvation stuff that church was supposed to be about. And then there was the simple fact that the whole story seemed so distant from her. Bethlehem and mangers and especially angels visiting people was all so very far away and foreign, and like nothing that had every happened in her life. It was just plain hard and uninspiring to sing Joy to the World when she had struggled so hard to attain the little bit of happiness she had, and even that was often clouded by some issue or another.
She had sort of let all that go though, or at least didn’t think about it as hard as she used to.  Yet even with church issues aside, the scurrying around and all the Christmas hype made her feel lonely in a strange sort of way. She wished she could feel as happy and excited about holiday activities as everyone around her seemed to be. Instead, she felt like it was just another reminder of a way of life she couldn’t create and had never really experienced.
So why not have Terry stay with them? It wasn’t like they had some wonderful big tradition he would be imposing on, or a houseful of relatives that would be put out. They could easily keep him in his routine, and he probably wouldn’t feel much of a change outside of the bed he was sleeping in. It would be hard to deal with the drooling, and he talked quite loud because of his hearing aids, and she knew from the things Mary Ellen said that though he was pretty independent for all his disabilities, he was lacking in social boundaries or sensibilities, and sometimes that was a challenge to know how to work with. But her friend was in a bind, and all the times that Mary Ellen had brought her meals, or been a listening, loving shoulder full of good counsel came to her mind and Hanna felt she had no other choice but to offer.


It was her year for a miracle. Mary Ellen could feel it, or she just knew how badly she wanted one, and needed one. It was time for God to come through for her, not that he wasn’t always there for her, she would never have thought or said that, but she just needed something miraculous, something extravagant from his hand to encourage her a little. It had been so many long years of trusting, of waiting, of bearing up when things were hard and believing that He was in control, and always looking to find his grace in the small things. Now she wanted something big and demonstrative, something obvious to everyone. This was her year, she almost felt him whispering it to her.
Bruce almost had the car packed, and Mary Ellen finished wiping up the counter, sweeping her eyes over the kitchen to make sure everything was put away and in place before they left for their week trip up to see Bruce’s mother. It was strange to think of not being here for Christmas. Mary Ellen loved Christmas, and she hated being away from home for it. In fact, in all her years with the children and even those following when they had moved away to other parts of the country, she had been able to avoid spending Christmas away from home. Let them come here, she had always said, and when they couldn’t, let them fill the table with those who needed a place to be. It had become their tradition, albeit a rather risky and uncertain one—never knowing who or what was going to show up to grace their Christmas table. But she and Bruce had grown used to it, and Mary Ellen liked the feeling of food between her hands, full of something tangible to give out and nourish the people around her, knowing they had so much need.
A small part of her was grateful for the break. It had almost shocked her when Hanna had called late that evening after seeing her at the salon, saying the family would love to have Terry stay with them over Christmas. In the few hours of phone calls she had made, Mary Ellen had received so many “we just can’t” and “we’ll be out of town” responses from the friends and neighbors she had asked, that she had resigned herself to the fact that it would be her and Terry home alone, while Bruce went on to be with his mom. It hadn’t even crossed her mind to ask Hanna, who always seemed to struggle so around the holidays, and her family didn’t exactly seem the kind to be up for caring for a middle aged handicapped man for a week. But she had sounded so genuine, and willing to help, and Mary Ellen felt that this was in fact, like all things, “provision.”
Terry was moving himself slowly down the stairs, chattering all the way about things they needed to remember, certain clothes of his and particular toiletries and pills. And of course his activity books and puzzles. Mary Ellen, nodded, giving him vocal affirmations as he listed his concerns and reassured him they had everything ready and that he would be fine. Would he be fine? And would she be fine? Leaving home to see a woman who had been the closest thing to a real mother she had ever experienced, and who could at any moment be reaching the end of her life here on earth? Could she handle another loss? Could she walk through another Christmas with so little wonder to sustain her, with nothing but what felt like wasted bones, wasted from service and weariness in trusting. Yes, she needed a miracle this year. Surely He would give her one, or she’d have to resort to performing them herself.

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