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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bittersweet Sunday

Peeking in on the sleeping girls, my breath caught in my throat. Only four-year-old Deni* lay in the double bed. Where could Jamie* have gone? My heart raced. I held my breath, trying to slow both my pulse and respiration rate.  Mental pictures of the two-year-old African American child lost and roaming the strange neighborhood fed my anxiety. I had to find her before she got hurt.

Suddenly, a picture of mornings at home popped into my mind. I tip-toe-ed over to the side of the bed, forcing myself not to lean on the mattress as I dropped to my knees. Deni had not yet awaken, and I wanted to keep it that way.

Unable to get a good look twisting and tipping my head, I stretched out on the carpeted floor. Boy was it dark under there!

I scanned the surface beneath the bed until my own deep, dark brown eyes locked with two shiny black spheres. “Mornin’, Princess,” I said as softly as possible. “Done sleeping?” The spheres bobbed up and down.

Reaching my right arm out, I felt a tiny hand clutch mine. Ever so gently I pulled back. The youngster left her hiding place and snuggled against me, safe inside the cradle my crossed legs had made.

I slowly rocked Jamie, praying silently. Please, Father God. Please help Jamie feel safe here.  When little girl hands pulled my head down, my silent prayers stopped. I let Jamie turn my head, so my ear touched her soft lips.

“Mama Da, Jamie hunggy.” Feeling my head nod, Jamie leapt from my lap and pulled me to my feet. She dropped my left but gripped my right hand.

Glancing over at the bed, I smiled back at the beautiful little red-headed Deni. “I hungry, too,” she whispered.

“Good morning, my precious,” I said, holding my free hand out to her. “Let’s go see what Grandma has in her kitchen for breakfast, shall we?”

After a delicious Sunday breakfast my parents prepared for us all, Mom surprised us with beautiful dresses she’d made for the three girls. The children tugged and pulled at their pajamas, trying to make way for the new dress as quickly as possible. Each one fit perfectly—a relief for grandma who thought she’d need to alter them before church.

We had time enough for my father’s favorite hobby, photography. He positioned the four of us in the backyard—me in a long navy-blue peasant dress, surrounded by the kids in their lovely new, colorful Sunday dresses. Naturally, Mom had also purchased lacey anklets and shiny patent leather Sunday shoes for Deni and Jamie and new baby booties for Susie.

Finally, we piled into Dad’s car and headed for church. So much laughter and joy. I had no idea that the festive mood was about to be trampled under a cloak of terror for Jamie.

The sanctuary in my parents’ church didn’t much resemble the little rural version the girls knew. Our country church held three or four wooden pews on each side of a narrow aisle. The elderly pastor’s wife accompanied the hymns with an upright piano.

The kids wondered what played the unfamiliar music they heard entering the large room. “It’s kind of like a piano because it has the same keyboard as the piano in our living room at home,” I tried to explain. “Can you see the lady over there?” The carefully combed little heads nodded as they stared in the direction I’d indicated. “She’s playing an organ. That’s what makes the music.”

Before the kids resumed their questions, Mom’s friends began to engulf us with hugs and greetings. I found it a bit overwhelming, but the girls did fine with all the attention.

“Can me ‘n’ Jamie go watch the play when the old man up there calls for the kids?”

Mom understood my upraised eyebrows and filled me in. “Cara told me that a drama group will present a skit at the beginning of the service. I guess Deni heard her.” Turning to Deni, Mom said, “The man in the front is the pastor.”

Tugging on my hand, the eldest of the three little ones waited for an answer. “You may go if you’d like. Jamie can go if she wants to, but it’s fine if she wants to just sit on Grandma’s lap.”

At last, the organ music stopped and the smiling, white-haired pastor stood. The sleeves of his long, black clerical robe swayed with each motion of his arms. Opening prayer, hymn and announcements dispensed with, the pastor called the children forward.

Deni took Jamie’s hand and pulled her out to the carpeted aisle. Since Jamie had a big smile, I didn’t interrupt the duo. I kept my eyes on them as they picked out a spot on the floor and sat with the other children.

Mom gave me the aisle seat in case I needed to leave the service to tend to a crying Susie. The crowd of smartly dressed adults fascinated the baby. She continued turning her tiny head all around the room, bouncing up and down on my thighs. I wondered how long the pink bow adorning the light-brown sausage-curl Grandma combed atop the swiveling head would remain in place.

I tensed as the volume and aggression of the actors at the front of the sanctuary increased. Leaning over the armrest, I spotted Deni. Since her attention appeared to be riveted on the scene being enacted, I tried to relax. Jamie’s body didn’t move; her head appeared to be looking at the floor.

The actor standing immediately in front of Jamie screamed at the young woman facing him. Her retort gained both volume and vitriol. Leaning to my right, I whispered, “Mom, I don’t think Jamie—“

A loud cry, followed by gut-wrenching sobs rang out from the seated throng of children. “Mom! That’s Jamie. Here, please hold onto Susie, will you?” Thrusting the baby into my mother’s arms, I slid out of the pew.

Choking back my own tears, I hurried to the front of the church. Jamie had already bolted from her position on the carpeted floor and ran as fast as her knock-kneed little legs would carry her. Meeting the crying child about halfway down the aisle, I swept her up in my arms.

Nestling her close, I turned and retreated to the back of the sanctuary. Once through the swinging doors, I held Jamie and rocked from side to side. “Shhh. It’s okay, Jamie. Shhh. I’m here. No one’s going to hurt you. It’s just a skit. The people aren’t really mad at each other.”

My explanation made no sense at all to the young child whose two years of life had been filled with violence and pain. In her world, the adults turned on her; she needed to escape before the angry people saw her.

I stood behind the swinging doors because I didn’t know what else to do. If I left with Jamie, Deni might try to find us, or maybe Mom would need to bring Susie out. I didn’t move; I just held Jamie. Soon her sobs ceased, and Jamie turned to look through the glass squares in the swinging doors.

“See Princess? No one is mad at anyone. All of the actors are smiling. The people on the seats are clapping for them. Can you see Deni?” The head pressed against my shoulder nodded. “She’s going back to sit on our bench. Would you like to go back now, or do you want us to stay out here?”

“Jamie go.”

I put the child down and took her hand. Truthfully, I didn’t know whether she wanted to go home or back in the sanctuary. I figured she’d head in the direction of her choice. She did, and we returned to our places on the pew. Crisis over—for now. I had no doubt at all that I’d find Jamie underneath the double bed tomorrow morning.

*Name changed.

The story line originated with: With Just One Phone Call

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Trip Home

Laying little piles of clothing into the suitcase, I mentally replayed the phone call of the previous evening. The cheers and laughter of my parents replaced the uncertain thoughts of unemployment.

“Don’t even ask if it’s a good time for a visit,” Mom had said, “any time is a good time. Bring those little angels over as soon as you can!”

I knew the moment I hung up, my parents would dive into planning menus, figuring out where they could borrow a crib, high chair and booster seat, as well as all those other details grandparents enjoy preparing for that first visit.

Fortunately, the baby wanted a nap right after her early-morning bottle. Her sisters had yet to awake, allowing me uninterrupted time to pack and load the car. I soon discovered that taking three small children the 192 miles to Mom and Dad’s house required a lot more stuff than when I made the trip alone.

At last, with all kids properly secured and occupied with toys and books, I pulled the red and white Chrysler Cordoba onto the highway. I’d reviewed what I needed to take with us so many times. I resigned that whatever I’d forgotten, I’d just buy there.

For the first fifty or so miles, silence reigned as the movement of the car lulled all three girls to sleep. Thoughts of my germinating plan to resolve my sudden unemployment filled my mind.

Four-year-old Deni* woke up before her sisters. As she resumed reading the book in her lap, I whispered my request. “Honey, would you please read to yourself? Susie* and Jamie* are still asleep.”

Deni leaned towards me. “Okay,” she said in a loud whisper.

Straightening back in the bucket seat, Deni turned the page and continued reading—aloud.

“Deni, please read to yourself.”

“Okay.” The story continued in a softer voice.

“Honey, can you, please, read that story to yourself?” The preschooler had never ignored any request; I just didn’t understand what was happening.

“I am reading it to myself. I can’t help it if you’re listening.”

Patting her arm, I laughed as softly as I could. “You are sooo right, Sweetie. I’m sorry for interrupting you. Go ahead and read softly so the girls don’t wake up.”

Boy, did I have a lot to learn about little kids. How in the world does one explain to a preschooler how to read to herself?

Hours later, I made the turn onto W. Maryland Lane. The girls gawked out the windows, bouncing on the seats as I announced this was Grandma and Grandpa’s street. “Dat’s Gramma-Gramma’s twuck!” Two-year-old Jamie blurted out.

We’d long given up asking Jamie to repeat the two different names for the grandparents. She got it that they had different names for Grandpa and Grandma, but spared herself the semantic struggle by calling my mother Gramma and my father Gramma-Gramma. Worked for them.

The remainder of the afternoon and all evening reverberated with lively chatter and all sorts of kid-activities. Mom and Dad had really gone overboard; I’d never seen them laugh so much for so long.

Finally, the time had come for the children to head for bed. They gave no argument, so I knew they didn’t mind. However, while Deni had changed and waited for me to come tuck her in, Jamie walked all over the house. She’d changed into her pajamas but, tennis shoes in hand, scurried from one room to the other.

“Jamie? Your room is this one. See? Deni’s already in bed,” I said, pointing out the open door near me.

Jamie nodded her head but reversed direction. I raised my index finger, signaling Mom to hold her story for a minute.

“Honey, it’s bedtime. You need to go to bed now. Do you understand?”

Jamie nodded and turned around again. She took a few quick steps before my command. .“Halt little Princess!”

Leaving the rocker, I took hold of Jamie’s shoulders and turned her to face me. I knelt on the carpet before the beautiful African-American two-year-old.
Tiny eyebrows raised, Jamie tilted her head to the right and waited for me to speak.

“Sweetheart, what did I ask you to do? Do you remember?”

Nodding her head, Jamie said, “Jamie go bed.”

I smiled. “And, where’s Jamie’s bed in Grandma’s house?” The little arm raised, her index finger pointed to the bedroom. “Yes! That’s exactly right. So, if you know what Mama Dar wants you to do, and you know where your bed is, then why aren’t you going to bed, Jamie?”

With a deep sigh, the little girl looked at me and held up her shoes. “Jamie can’t find duh piano.”

I grabbed on to the precious little girl and gave her a hug. We cuddled for a few minutes before I could speak. “Mama Dar’s so sorry, Jamie. Grandma doesn’t have a piano. You are such a smart girl. You tried hard to obey but couldn’t do it here. You’re a good girl and Mama Dar loves you so much Jamie.”

Jamie pressed into me and waited for a resolution to her problem. “What Jamie do now?”

“How about you put your shoes under the television over there. I think there’s just enough room for your shoes and Deni’s, too.”

The child obeyed and ran to the bedroom to retrieve her sister’s shoes. “Jamie put Deni’s shoes.”

As soon as I returned from the bedtime prayer and kisses, Mom burst with the question. “What in the world was that all about, Dar? Why couldn’t she go to bed until she found the piano?”

“I wanted to be sure the kids could always find their shoes, in case of emergency. At our house, there’s an old, upright piano in the living room. The kids know that anytime they take their shoes off—whether to take a nap, go to bed at night, or just because, their shoes go under the piano bench. We never have lost shoes in our house.”

“Seems to me that Jamie learned that lesson better than her Mama Dar, huh?” Daddy laughed, but he was right.

Indeed, I had so much to learn about little kids. How could I even consider my plan to resolve my sudden loss of income?

The events of the following day spotlighted the real truth: there are more important factors to caring for kids than explaining how to read to yourself, or remembering your own house rules.

*Name changed.

Story-line began with the following link: With Just One Phone Call

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A New Friend

While clearing Saturday’s breakfast dishes, I noticed Deni* and Jamie* staring out the window. Kneeling with their tummies pressed against the back of the sofa, the two little girls clung to the window seal. “Whatcha lookin’ at girls?”

Nothin’,” said the cute red-headed four-year-old, without turning towards me.

“We’s waitin’ for sumptin’ to look at, Mama Dar.” The explanation made perfect sense to the two-year-old African-American.

“Would you like to go outside to do your waiting? I could put Susie* in the playpen out under the tree.

Their squeals said it all as the duo sprang from the sofa and rushed over to the piano bench. Dropping to the floor, each youngster pulled on her tennis shoes.

I lifted Susie out of the playpen. “Let’s give you a clean diaper, little Princess, so you don’t draw any flies to the playpen.” I nestled her tiny head against my cheek and chuckled. Seven-month-old Susie’s giggles echoed mine.

Re-entering the living room, a wide grin spread across my face. Susie’s sisters struggled to squeeze the baby’s playpen through the kitchen door.

Jamie heard Susie’s baby babble and said, “We’s heppppin’, Susie. You’s gonna be outside like me ‘n’ Deni.”

Deni looked up with a frown. Moving to take hold of one corner, I lifted and twisted the flexible rod. The playpen popped free.  “You girls are doing a great job. Thanks for the help.”

I made my way back to the house once the trio had been settled. Nahum, my long-legged, white-haired Griffin-Husky mix galloped passed me on his way down the steps I’d just ascended. Oh no, I thought, I should have told the kids not to throw the stick for Nahum with the baby outside.

Seeing Nahum plop down right next to the playpen, my fears evaporated. The dog had found his place, guarding the baby. Nahum refused to move—even after he glimpsed Deni with his stick.

Pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator and pantry, I started making cookies for the children’s snack. I heard a knock on the screen door about the time I had everything assembled. Wiping my moist hands on my apron, I moved to the back door.

“Hello,” I said to the handsome little towheaded boy. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Danny* and your dog won’t let me see your baby.”

I looked over the small shoulder. Sure enough, Nahum stood silent guard in front of the playpen. “His name is Nahum, Danny. He doesn’t know you, so he’s protecting Susie from a stranger.”

“Can’t you get him to let me look at your baby, Lady? I won’t hurt her; I just wanta look.”

“How old are you, Danny?”

Thwee,” the boy said as he pressed his thumb and little finger down, leaving three fingers pointing at me.

“Well, you’re a big boy. I think Nahum will let you see Susie if I go with you the first time.”

Danny waited for me at the bottom of the steps. I called Nahum over to us and put Danny’s hand out for Nahum to smell. About two seconds later, Nahum bumped his head against the palm of Danny’s hand. The little boy understood and began stroking. 

Walking over to the playpen, I introduced Deni and Jamie to our young visitor. I lifted Susie out and squatted next to Danny.

“She’s weally little,” said the three-year-old as he ever-so-gently lifted up the hand she waved at him.

“Her’s just a baby,” Deni said. “Her’s too small to play with you. Wanna play with Jamie ‘n’ me?”

Nahum resumed his position, lying next to the playpen. Moving to the side of the house, the trio threw a beach ball to one another. This activity lasted about half an hour.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of kid-size feet pounding up the back steps. I relaxed as I realized the aroma of the baked goods on the cooling racks wafted through the side window. “Hungry?”

Three heads bobbed up and down. “Dat boy humgy, too,” Jamie said pointing to her new friend.

“Jamie, his name’s Danny.” I waited while she repeated his name before adding, “Do you live near here, Danny?”

“No, but my Gramma does. My mom had to go to work, so she took me to her house.” The boy pointed to a house across the street.

“Deni? Will you and Jamie go with Danny to ask his Gramma if he can have some cookies and milk with you?” I followed the chattering trio out the door to bring Susie back in the house.

I plowed through some of my backlog of office work while the three played in our yard all morning. Fortunately, the fresh air had provoked an early nap for Susie, so I had a chunk of uninterrupted time.

As the weeks passed, I found it a greater challenge to secure babysitting for the kids. John and Jeanette’s life became more hectic with fewer free days to spend with the children. The result led to a meeting one evening in my home.

For three nights, Susie’s troubled sleep dragged me in and out of my bed. Having been assured the virus would run its course, I struggled to wait it out. Into this sorry scenario entered the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the hospital board.

The men waved me back into the rocker; the sleeping infant cradled in my arms. The reason for this home visit had not been announced, but I’d been expecting the confrontation.

At the conclusion of a very brief meeting, tears filled my eyes at the final pronouncement. “The fact is that you cannot be in two places at the same time. The children need you here at home on the days you don’t have childcare. The hospital needs you in your office during the week. We’re sorry, but…,” the official said as they stood.

After the men left, I gently laid Susie in her crib, praying she’d not wake up screaming. Tip-toeing back to the rocker, I clutched my Bible to my chest. I rocked, tears streaming down my cheeks until the rivers began to drench my blouse. Feeling the warm moisture on my fingers, I rubbed my Bible on my jeans and reached for a Kleenex.

When I could finally speak, I prayed. “Oh, Father God, I need You right now! What am I going to do to take care of these kids? I just lost my job. Those guys are my friends. It must have been so hard for them to come here tonight. I know they’re right. But now, what? Where do I get money to feed the children and pay the bills?”

As I rocked and read my Bible, a calm blanketed me. After an hour, the memory of the tow-headed boy popped into my mind. The germ of an idea began to sprout.

*Name changed.

The thread of this story began with: With Just one Phone Call

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Meeting Grandma and Grandpa

Returning the receiver to the wall phone for the second time, I breathed a sigh of relief. Jeanette regretted they couldn’t babysit for the girls that day. Fortunately, Lillian assured me that I had no appointments or pressing hospital business; she’d phone if something came up.

According to the wall clock, I had about five minutes before the kids woke and came running to find out if Grandma and Grandpa had arrived yet. Susie* dropped back to sleep right after I fed her, so the six-month-old should be out until the girls finished breakfast. Thank you, Lord, Mom’s bringing lunch today.

Throughout breakfast, the youngsters chattered on and on about meeting their new foster grandparents. Jamie* had lifted her ban on speaking only three days earlier. Silently, I prayed God would help the two-year-old African-American cutie feel comfortable with my parents. I didn’t want her to clam up when they’d traveled 192 miles just to have lunch with us.

At last, the familiar hum of Dad’s pick-up turned into our drive. I knew the second the girls heard it. All jumping and clapping ceased, replaced by a profound silence. Jamie ran for the bedroom.

“Deni*, let’s go help Grandma bring things in,” I said, glancing through the window. “Jamie’ll be okay; she just needs a couple of minutes.” I hoped this was true, as the four-year-old took my hand.

At the sight of the pretty little red-head, Mom passed her sacks to Dad, squatted down and opened her arms wide.  “Oh, Deni, Grandma’s so happy to meet you.”

To my relief, Deni dropped my hand, running full-throttle into Mom’s arms.

“If Grandma will take her bags back, I’ll give you a hug, too, Deni. Is that okay with you?” Dad smiled, turning to hand Mom the plastic sacks.

I laughed; my heart filled with love as I watched Dad drop to his one knee up, one knee down squat. Deni hesitated only a moment. With a giggle, the preschooler wrapped her freckled arms around Dad’s neck and returned his squeeze.

“Susie’s sleeping,” I said as Mom and I made our way to the back porch. Glancing over my shoulder, I chuckled to see Deni holding one side of the cooler while Dad tilted to keep the cooler level.

Once inside the house, Grandpa and his new best friend moved to the sofa. When Deni picked one of the children’s books out of the stack, Dad turned towards me, eyebrows raised

. “Honey, let’s let Grandpa meet Jamie before you two start the story.”

“Yes, where’s our little Jamie?” Mom said, setting the plates on the table behind me.

The ever-helpful Deni shot off the couch and ran to the bedroom. Dad stood and joined Mom and me at the table.

“I’m going to bring in the blue youth chair. Maybe that’ll break the ice.”

“Thanks, Daddy. Jamie’s been talking about meeting you two all morning. She wants to believe you’ll like her, but—“

“It’s okay, Dar. I understand. Let’s give her some space.”

As Daddy made his way to the screen door, my mother moved back to the kitchen. I heard the whoosh of Tupperware lids leaving Mom’s food-filled containers as I went in search of the frightened Jamie.

The young duo met me at the door to their bedroom. Deni stood with one arm around her sister; tears streamed down Jamie’s cheeks. I slipped to the floor, crossed my legs, and pulled Jamie onto my lap.

Holding the trembling little frame, I hummed and rocked from side to side. After a couple of minutes, I heard the back door close. “Jamie, do you know what that sound is?”

Jamie nodded her head. “It duh d-d-door,” the quivering lips said.

“Yes, that’s right. And, do you know who just came through that door?” I felt her head shake from side to side. “It’s your Grandpa. Do you want to know what Grandpa’s brought for you?”

Deni didn’t wait for Jamie’s answer. She bolted.

“C’mon, Sweet Princess, let’s go see.” Cautiously the little body slid off my lap, never lifting her head.

Dad sat the youth chair down and had just begun pushing it to the table when we rounded the corner. “For Jamie? For Jamie!” said the no longer frightened princess, rushing to try it out.

“It just fits,” I said as Dad moved Jamie and the chair to the table. “Thanks, Mom and Dad. This is going to be a huge help.”

Mom left the rocking chair and handed Susie to me. Bending to lift up two colorful shopping bags, Mom said, “Who wants to see what Grandma and Grandpa brought for three granddaughters?”

Jamie leapt from the chair so fast I had no chance to help her. “Jamie want to know Grandma!”

“I bet Deni does, too, don’t you Sweetie?” The radiant smile added life to her gentle nod. “Well, better take that sack Grandma’s holding out for you before her arm gets tired.”

After the kid-friendly lunch—all finger foods—Jamie pulled Dad to the backyard. “Dog want stick,” she explained.

“She wants you to play fetch with Nahum, Daddy. Jamie likes to watch him but isn’t really able to toss the stick yet.”

To my surprise, Deni stayed, seated on the floor next to Mom’s chair. Across from them, I stretched Susie out on the sofa and began changing her diapers.

I cooed, gurgled, and did the baby talk thing to make Susie laugh through the procedure. The infant responded with her own sounds, kicking and flailing, of course. The two of us behaved like some comedy act.

“Susie likes to have her diapers changed, doesn’t she?” Mom said to Deni, interrupting their laughter.

“I didn’t know Susie could laugh before we came to live here,” Deni said. “I thought babies didn’t learn until they gets big like me ‘n’ Jamie.”

Overhearing her comment gripped my heart. Tears began to fill my eyes, but I forced myself to giggle with the baby, keeping at my task.

“Do you like living here, Deni?”

I froze, diaper pin in hand, at Mom’s question. Smiling at Susie, I slowly pushed the pin through the cotton diaper, listening for Deni’s reply.

“Oh, Grandma, I do. Before, I worried all the time.”

“You did?”

Mom’s question echoed my thought, as I fought to keep smiling at the baby and cooing. Susie probably thought it was the slowest diaper-change in history.

“Before, I had a lotta worry. I worried we gonna eat that day. Maybe somebody bringed us to a house where we gets hurt. We tries not to sleep, but sometimes I hears Jamie cries so I wake up. Then, I cries, too.”

“But you’re safe in mama Dar’s house, aren’t you, Sweetheart?”

“Yeah! Here we eats every day. More’ n once, too. Everybody gotsa bed, even Susie. I don’t never worries for nothin’ now.”

As I lifted Susie, putting her back in Grandma’s waiting arms, we locked eyes. In them, I saw my own pain reflected. How could a four-year-old have such adult-sized burdens for her younger siblings?

Waving at the departing pick-up long after Mom and Dad could have seen us, I thanked the Lord that they’d come. Through Mom’s conversation with Deni, I’d learned that God had been busy meeting needs I had no idea Deni had. I worked hard to do what I could, and as always, God did the rest.

Unbeknownst to me, the Lord had been working on yet another significant change in my life. Sometimes the thing I want most seems out of my reach. When the rug got pulled out from under me, I discovered I could reach it just fine.

*Name changed.

Thread of this story begins with With Just One Phone Call.