The Unlikely Gift
Copyright © Christine Keegan 2011
Hanna was sure that the snow would not make it in time for Christmas this year. It rarely did, and it was just another, though perhaps petty, reason why she felt like the whole season was usually such a let-down. The streets of the Midwest suburban town just a few miles outside the City were gray and cold, and seemed barren with an almost hopeless look about them, as though they knew they would have to look this way well into the New Year. Hanna didn’t mind the cold, as long as there was snow to go along with it. But these endless stretches of weeks with the thermometer dipping below forty and no snow in sight almost irritated her, in a way she knew that the weather ought to be entirely unable to do.
Oh well, another Gray Christmas, she smiled to herself in a sort of half amused way, thinking how awful a holiday tune that would make sung over and over on the radio stations that existed solely to belt cheer and good wishes to a land that seemed anything but. Well, at least the sky was clear. And this morning it played faintly with soft swishes of pale gold and pink as she turned the car down the main highway, heading to the large shopping center where the salon was waiting to be opened. A clear sky always brightened things up a bit, even if the sidewalks and store fronts were a little drab looking these days.
Hanna locked up the car, glancing past the metal rooftop to take a last glimpse of watercolor masterpiece strewn above her. Sometimes the beauty of a simple sunrise made her want to keep her gaze straight heavenward. Instead, she headed into the back entrance of the small salon where she had worked for almost 8 years now, switching her attention to more earthly matters, like her reflection staring back through the windows lining the walls where black leather chairs stood cockeyed and facing all directions, vacant and waiting patiently for the stream of dedicated women and occasional men who would come marching in to claim them.
She eyed the deepening lines above her auburn colored eyebrows. They had settled in with permanence, and certainly gave a more aged look to her face, especially with the crow’s feet creeping in at the corners of her eyes, and the skin that was starting to sag a little on her neck. No amount of firming cream would really help, and Hanna remained highly principled in her unwillingness to alter the course of events taking place with her physical appearance through artificial means. But she eyed it all just the same, trying to forget the fact that ninety nine percent of the girls who worked the floor here were in their early twenties and may as well have been light years from worrying about gravity working its wonders on their firm, tight little bodies. Her own middle had thickened a little in recent years, though she still held her shape and worked hard to walk regularly and even fit in a few sets of lunges when she could. But the fact was, everything just hung a little lower than it used to, and there wasn’t a whole lot she could do to hide it.
These small signs of aging didn’t bother her to the extent that they did some people though, and that fact didn’t really fit with her line of work, which was entirely about creating an attractive and age-defying outer image. Maybe it was because there were other things that bothered her more, inner things that stuck to you no matter how few or many wrinkles you had. They were the kind of age lines that a life sometimes wrote on your soul, and more than anything, they were the ones she longed to be rid of.
Being the first one in this morning, Hanna started up the coffee, dumping yesterday’s grounds in the bin and cursing as a few clumps flew out and splattered her shoes and pant leg. It was something Warren always did at home, failing to stoop low enough to bang the grounds out, and it irritated her to no end. She would pull the garbage can out to empty it, or clean behind it with the mop and inevitably find a smattering of grounds and dark brown drips littering the floor and can and sometimes even the wall. Just hold it further down in the can when you empty it, she would rant, sometimes inside her head and sometimes letting it burst out loud at him before she could stop herself. She knew she picked on him a lot. And he tried hard, she knew he did, to do the things the way she liked them done.
Warren was steady though, and not easily rocked by her little unreasonable outbursts. It was probably some arrangement on the behalf of Almighty God, though Hanna wasn’t always sure anymore how mightily involved in her life God was, that she had ended up with Warren. He had been married before, and had a daughter about Maggie’s age. He hadn’t seemed daunted, as so many countless men understandably were, by the fact that she had two kids, by two different men, and none of them in the picture. It was true that by the time he met her, she had been a little more stable than those early years right out of high school, when she had seemed to ricochet from one rocky, immature relationship to the next, each leaving it’s mark with another baby on her hands.
Those years seemed far away now. But at times, like with the dreams she’d been having lately, or when she looked at her daughter and saw herself staring right back, they still closed in on her, like a grime she couldn’t quite wipe off. In high school, Hanna had practically lived at the neighbor’s house while her father ranted at her mother next door, and her mother fought back with plates and words and whatever else she could hurl at him. Her younger brother had grown sullen and withdrawn, but with a fire burning deep inside him that burned especially against his father. Her older sister, Rachel, had always been the favored one who could do no wrong, with her long black curls and dimpled, chatty charm, and Hanna had grown up knowing she could not compete and she never really did try.
Escape was mostly what she wanted, and when the first boy came along who showed her some interest, and proved to be a way out for the moment, Hanna grabbed at the chance. A few years later, out of school without a diploma, a toddler and a baby in the backseat, and no place to call home, she began to feel that her way of escaping had trapped her in some other awful nightmare.
Warren knew about all that. He had met her when Maggie and Bud (who had gotten his name from Maggie when he was born—she just barely 17 months old and calling him Buddy, which then shortened to Bud as he got a older) were twelve and ten, and Hanna had just finished up with cosmetology school. She was going to church at that time, at the small Church of the Nazarene just off Elm Street, which was directly across from the third apartment she and the kids had lived in at that time. They had started attending the little church not long after moving into the apartment, when Maggie as an independent little seven year old, had wandered over there one day, playing with a friend from school and wanting to use the small play ground that lined the edge of the simple red brick building. A woman and her children had stopped the girls on their way to the car, asking Maggie where they lived and such and inviting them to an AWANA program they held at the Church on Wednesday evenings. Maggie had lit up at the idea of being out on a school night, and ran home to tell her mother about it and to ask permission to please, please go. Before she knew it, Hanna was roped in to Parent Night and a small Bible Study for young moms and Sunday After Church Potlucks.
Overall, she had really liked those church ladies, and all the people that had come along with them. Pastor Gordon had helped her immensely over the few years she had attended; paying bills when the gas was shut off, giving her counsel about how to deal with the fathers of her children, who crept around now and then looking for something from her or the kids but were never keen on sticking around to be a part of daily life or finances. Pastor had taught her a lot about what it meant to be a Christian and how you should live and what would happen when the world came to an end and all that.
At times she had found the words she soaked in there fascinating. And at other times she had felt so weighed down with it all that her life almost seemed heavier than it was before, as though now the sins of her past were able to be lifted, but with so much effort on her part that she felt as if she might drown in the trying. In the end, she just felt too different, and like she had too far to go to become like any of those women with their nice families and husbands who came home every night. It just wasn’t in her blood, she decided. But she would take from it the good that she could.
After those three or so years with the Nazarene folks, things had settled down for her a bit. She felt she had a better handle on the kind of parent she needed and wanted to be. She knew the things she needed to stay away from to make that happen and she felt ready to be responsible and motivated. She read books on changing your life and finding your worth and determining your goals. She went back to school and made sure Maggie and Bud did their homework and ate something at least slightly more decent than Spaghettios and Mac N’ Cheese. It felt good to grow stronger, and to sense a little more control over the course of her life.
And she had met Warren. He was full of his own scars, and lived a couple towns away with his daughter, Cora who was just a year younger than Maggie. It had not been easy, bringing their two lives together with all the background and mess of three children who had grown up on the whole with only one parent. The first years had been rough between Cora and Hanna, though Maggie and Bud had warmed to Warren almost immediately. He was easy to love and accept: quiet, unassuming, trying to make ends meet working shifts at the Fire station and running a lawn care business during the summer. He demanded little of her kids, and they seemed to sense he was good for her. Cora, however was a tougher nut to crack. She had a lot of fire in her, the anger just simmering below the surface. It was all Hanna could do to grit her teeth and bear the girl’s obvious suffering.
The pot hissed and popped, signaling the coffee was ready, and Hanna held a mug between both hands, waiting for it to warm her fingers that seemed endlessly cold, something her kids had complained about when they were small and she would pull their shirts over their heads as she helped them dress in the morning. It had bothered her for some reason, feeling like if anything, a mother should have warm, comforting hands to hold and pull around you. But hers never were. Poor circulation, she guessed. Or maybe they were just too thin and bony to hold much, including a wedding ring. It was forever falling off and she had already lost a couple. The one she had now was part of a cheap, fake set from Marshall’s. Maybe some people just weren’t made in a way that let them hold on to what was good.
Some things, like cold hands or big mistakes, you just couldn’t shake or change, no matter how many improvements you made or how many books you read. It was like those ladies who came into the salon almost weekly. You could spot their kind from a mile away and smell them as soon as the door opened, in spite of all the shampoos and coloring chemicals that permeated the air. They were usually dressed in trendy clothes, pants and tops that were too tight fitting or low cut for their age. They wanted their hair blonder, or with more highlights, and they were forever heading in from the gym or some class designed to tone and firm and strengthen and help you lose weight all in one shot. The fact was, they may have looked a step up from some of the other middle aged women with kids off to college and too much time on their hands, but they still couldn’t hide the marks that time was making on them. And they almost looked the worse for trying. Some things you just couldn’t shake, and Hanna felt like even with all the goodness of her life with Warren, and the fact that she was not stuck in a bar somewhere drinking away her sorrows each night, she couldn’t rub some of the dirt off her life.