Finding Joy in the Middle
All kinds of people find their way to Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse on the hill above the little town of Hilltop. If the day is fine, she sits in her green wicker rocking chair on the big wraparound porch with the pine floor painted grass-green, and Mr. Truman LaFollette, who’s seven feet tall if he’s an inch, serves real lemonade, fresh-squeezed and cooked with beet sugar, then mixed with the purest, coldest well water on Planet Earth. Something about the hill and the house and the porch and the lemonade and Sister Alma Rose, who is serenity itself, draws people who need to tell their stories, and if there’s anything Sister Alma Rose knows how to do, it’s listen to people’s stories.
So she listens. Maybe she asks a few questions. Usually she doesn’t have to. She crochets, or she sews tiny hem stitches on one of the long, silky dresses she makes, and if the needle stops moving, it’s like a question, and then the person goes on talking and the needle starts moving again.
Sister Alma Rose has been around for a long, long time, and there isn’t much that she hasn’t heard. But it’s always a mistake, she says, to jump to conclusions. No two people are alike, she says, and you can’t put them into clumps. Betty’s story might be like Ellen’s story except for one tiny detail, and it’s the tiny detail that makes all the difference.
“Heaven ain’t a factory,” she says. “Human beings don’t have interchangeable parts.”
I guess that’s why people come to Sister Alma Rose. She knows who they are, how they’re different, where they fit in the universe. She hardly ever gives advice. Usually, when they’re done telling their stories, she’ll tell a story back, and it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything, but everybody who finds his way to Sister Alma Rose’s wraparound porch comes away a little wiser, a little more sure where he’s headed and how to read the signs.
One warm July afternoon, when I was 12 years old and needing some of Mr. Truman LaFollette’s lemonade and the coolness of Sister Alma Rose’s front porch, I sat down on the top step with my frosty glass and watched Sister Alma Rose crochet for a while, and then I looked up into the big old cottonwood tree that shaded the porch, and marveled, as I always do, at the way even a small breeze makes the leaves quiver and show their silver sides. Green, yellow, silver, shimmering in the sun and a breath of wind, and whispering—that’s what cottonwoods do.
I don’t know how long we sat there, comfortable and content, before Sister Alma Rose said, “Miss Fanny, we need to pray for Ben.”
You know Mr. Clean, the big muscular bald guy on the bottle of yellow goop you wash your kitchen with? Ben looks like Mr. Clean, except Ben is dark brown. And much better-looking. I was there, on Sister Alma Rose’s porch, when Ben showed up the first time.
If I’m sitting with Sister Alma Rose when someone appears, desperate to tell his story, she always lets me stay and listen. Whoever it is doesn’t seem to notice me anyway—I used to think Sister Alma Rose made me invisible—and he just talks away, and Sister Alma Rose knows I won’t tell anybody.
So when Ben walked up the long gravel drive that first time—it was early November, just cool enough so you needed a sweater and jeans instead of a T-shirt and shorts, and the cottonwood leaves were turning bright yellow and crisp—I just stayed put on the porch step while Sister Alma Rose smiled at Ben, that smile that makes the rain stop and the sun come out, and he sat down in a green wicker chair at the green wicker table, and Mr. Truman LaFollette appeared out of nowhere with a pitcher of lemonade.
Ben and Sister Alma Rose started out talking about what a fine day it was for November and how long the late-summer roses were lasting and filling the air with their sweetness, and somehow, without seeming to change the subject, Ben was telling Sister Alma Rose about how he’d just been passing through LaMesa, which is a bigger town than Hilltop and several miles down the road—it takes me half an hour to get there on my bicycle—and he’d fallen in love with a crazy woman there in LaMesa, and he’d stayed on, and now the crazy woman was pregnant, and Ben thought he was going crazy himself.
During this conversation, and several others, I learned that Ben had grown up in Philadelphia; that his father was a dark-brown man and his mama was a white woman; that his mama’s family was ashamed of having a dark-brown grandbaby and had made her ashamed too, and so she had up and left her husband and her baby and had gone back to her family in Texas.
Ben told Sister Alma Rose how his daddy, who is dead, had been a good man, a recovering alcoholic, while Ben was growing up. Ben had a bunch of older brothers and sisters who had a different mama, and the brothers and sisters were all “crackheads.” Sister Alma Rose told me later what that meant (I was only 8 then, and the only drug I knew about was penicillin).
Ben didn’t take drugs and he wasn’t supposed to drink liquor because he lost part of his stomach in a drive-by shooting that was meant for somebody else, but sometimes he drank anyway, for days at a time, and at first when he was drinking he’d get crazy mean and then he’d just get sick. And he’d been drinking a lot lately, he said, because of his crazy girlfriend, who either clung to him like he was the only lifeboat in a big scary ocean or else screamed at him and told him if he didn’t go away and leave her alone she’d call the cops and he’d go to jail. And she would have, and he would have, because she’d already told the cops that he was abusive, and as a result of her lies, he was on probation.
Here’s the thing about Ben: He’s big and handsome and has a beautiful smile and a beautiful heart, and God talks to him, direct, in dreams. I told Sister Alma Rose I’d do anything to have God talk to me in dreams, and Sister Alma Rose only smiled and said God talks to me other ways. She said God talks to people in their own language, and Ben is a dreamer so God talks to him in dreams.
Ben told Sister Alma Rose that he wanted to go home to his people in Philadelphia—I didn’t understand that, either, but Sister Alma Rose did—but he was afraid for the baby. He was afraid to leave the baby with a crazy mama.
Sister Alma Rose stopped crocheting and looked at him, and he looked back at her, and what those looks said was that God looks after his own and hadn’t Ben been left with no mama and a bunch of crackheads and come out of it sweet and strong and innocent?
Well, so Ben went back to Philadelphia and stayed with one of his crackhead sisters until he got a job and saved a little money and moved into his own place. Every so often he came back to LaMesa to see his beautiful little boy, who has skin like honey and soft hair in silky black curls, and he brought the child to visit us.
In Philadelphia he went through several jobs and girlfriends and apartments, restless, looking for something, not sure what it was. Sister Alma Rose said he was “struggling with his roots,” resisting the pull of his family and his old friends and their way of life. She was very proud of him, and when he came to visit she would tell him some story or another that helped him see a destination, I think.
He was becoming wise. He once said to me, “Fanny, life is simple mathematics. It’s as simple as one plus one equals two. If something is positive—if it makes you feel strong and healthy and good about yourself—then you follow that thing. If something is negative—if it makes you feel weak or sick, if it’s hurtful to you or somebody else—then you stay away from that thing.”
Just the week before, I had sat silently in the shadow of the cottonwood and listened to a little girl not much older than I was tell Sister Alma Rose how her stepfather beat on her and her baby brother and her mama, and her mama wouldn’t leave him or call the police, even when the little boy had to be taken to the hospital, and then the children’s real daddy came to the house with a gun, and when the man came at him with a knife, he shot the man dead. Sister Alma Rose’s eyes gleamed—sadness and anger mixed with satisfaction, I think, that the stepfather wouldn’t hurt any more women or children. Usually Sister Alma Rose just listens, but she put the little girl to bed in her cozy pink attic bedroom and called Cousin Dulcie, who came to “see to” the family, and magical things happened, as they always seem to do whenever Cousin Dulcie is involved.
Anyway, I could understand what Ben was talking about because I knew that some people can’t pull themselves away from the “negatives.” Sister Alma Rose says that a lot of folks can’t accept the good in life because they feel like they don’t deserve it. They don’t understand, Sister Alma Rose says, about Grace.
“We always pray for Ben,” I said to Sister Alma Rose on that warm July afternoon. And, I thought, God had answered our prayers. Ben had found a good job and a steady girlfriend who helped him stay grounded, he had told us. “Do we need to pray extra hard today?”
“Close your eyes, Fanny McElroy, and think of Jesus,” Sister Alma Rose said, and then she prayed out loud for a long time. “God in Heaven, you’ve watched over that boy and lifted him time and time again as he was falling, and kept his heart pure and his spirit strong. Now he’s going to be a daddy again, and that’s scarier and more wonderful than anything that’s ever happened in his life.” She prayed for Ben to be a father like her own Daddy Pete—firm and gentle, wise and humble and willing to learn, and always watching for God to show him the way, “with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And grant him peace, and rest for his spirit, and a light heart. Amen.”
We sat quiet for a while, and then I asked Sister Alma Rose if we’d always have to pray for Ben, or would there be a time when we would know he’d be okay. “Do stories ever have happy endings?” I asked.
Sister Alma Rose chuckled. “Honey, real-life stories don’t have endings, so we have to learn to find joy in the middle. Look there,” she said, pointing to the oak grassland that stretches from her garden to the road. “There’s poppies bloomin’ in the woods.”
Sure enough, a bright red-orange patch had erupted in the shade of the oaks, where poppies have no business growing. I had seen them there before, twice, and I knew them for what they were—a badge of love… a promise of Grace….
And I took a deep breath and drank in the bliss of thick summer air heavy with the smell of roses, and of cold lemonade and clear well water and whispering cottonwood leaves, and it filled me completely, and I thought that if life never got any better than right here, right now, it would be okay with me….