Two Girls with Their Shelties - Victorian Images

Victorian art showing two little girls with their best friends

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The Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends

So, Henry has been to see me. Henry from the past, Henry from the Ancients, Henry from Richmond, Henry the Hiker, Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., who vanished ten years ago. And being with Henry is the biggest and best thing in my life, and I can’t talk about it.

Girl with art project

Marianna in fourth grade

Oh, I can talk to Mama and Daddy, and Sister Alma Rose, but then I have to go to school and act like I’m interested that Kevin Olander has been walking Marianna Dempsey home after cheerleading. Well, that’s actually not a very good example of trivial junior-high gossip, because I AM sort of interested, because Kevin Olander is very cute and very shy, and Marianna is a real sweetheart and we were inseparable in fourth grade, when we had the same teacher, and she is that rare specimen of junior-high girl who is truly kind and neither knows nor cares what people, in general, think of her.

Sister Alma Rose gives me assignments, and the one I’m working on right now is what she calls the Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends. “It takes a little bit of effort to keep up y’all’s friendships with youngsters* y’all don’t run into regularly,” she said, “not counting Pablo, who’s always around. But keep a-hold of those who love and don’t compete with y’all, and the other way ’round, by which I mean y’all want them to be happy and don’t begrudge them their successes. Those friendships are rare, and they’re sacred.”

Sometimes it’s just a real treat to listen to Sister Alma Rose talk.

Peter the Creep

Marianna is the friend I cherish most when I’m feeling… I don’t know the right word— not “excluded,” because I’m the one who’s avoiding people— “separate,” maybe, like I’m 12 going on 57, when I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about spiritual stuff, and meditating especially intensely, and none of this is of interest to my other school friends, not even Pablo.

Marianna is a Christian Scientist and totally into spirituality. She sees everyone as a perfect child of a perfect God who does not create imperfection. But she doesn’t take herself too seriously. I mean, she takes Christian Science seriously, because she’s seen and experienced all these amazing healings, but she says, very dryly, “Fanny, you might find this hard to believe, but I don’t always manifest perfect love.”

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

Then she giggles. “I really have to work at seeing Peter Gaines as a perfect child of God.” She doesn’t say “Peter the Creep,” which everyone calls him because he’s just creepy. Whenever there’s a fire drill, he makes sure he’s one of the first kids out so he can stand under the iron-bar steps that are the fire escapes and look up girls’ skirts until one of the teachers makes him go stand across the street in the practice field, which is where we’re supposed to go. And he’s been seen a bunch of times standing outside girls’ houses at night, being a peeping Tom with these high-dollar binoculars he has, including Marianna’s house.

The rest of the time he’s just there, not talking to anyone, sort of shuffling to his classes, and, in each of them, effortlessly committing every spoken and written word to memory and always getting straight A’s. Marianna tried to talk to him once, asking him a question about the subjunctive mood or something, which they were studying in their English class, and he just stared at  her with distaste, “like I was a particularly loathsome beetle,” she said.

Something so heinous

Sunny Victorian parlor

She and I talked to Sister Alma Rose about him one day when we went to her house after school seeking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incredible limeade.

“How can someone that intelligent be that clueless?” I asked.

“There has to be a reason for a boy to be so warped at such a young age,” she said, “but this is how sex offenders start out. They don’t just change from healthy into sick human beings when they’re 30.”

Sister Alma Rose made us pray for him — I mean, we wanted to, and we did, silently, for quite a while. It was hard at first, because he was, after all, Peter the Creep, and I couldn’t get past that until I thought of him as a newborn, a gurgling infant, a toddler, taking those first, unsteady steps, all bright eyes and wondering at the big, wide world, and reminded myself that his true self was still that fresh and innocent.

I was sure that Sister Alma Rose would go and talk to his parents, and, of course, she did, and they are just regular nice people— they own the sheet-music and musical-instrument store in Hillside— and they were “concerned” about both Peter and his older sister, Alice, who, it turns out, was bulimic, though her parents didn’t know that until after. I can only imagine what family dinners were like at their house. But Peter and Alice were getting good grades and their parents convinced themselves that the kids were just “going through a phase.”

WAKE UP, MOMS AND DADS! Your 12-year-old son has no friends and has no interests and he is a zombie most of the time. Your teenage daughter is five-foot-five and weighs 87 pounds. IS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION HERE?

Well, after a lot of gentle but persistent pressure on Sister Alma Rose’s part, a lot of patient conversations with Peter and Alice, and a lot of just plain snooping, Sister Alma Rose uncovered something so heinous I don’t even know how to put it into words… so disturbing that she would tell Marianna and me about it only with our parents’ permission and with our parents actually with us, gathered in our cheerful, sunny living room.

Okay, here goes

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Peter and Alice have an aunt and uncle — their mom’s brother and his wife — who are called Hector and Carol Mote and who owned the music store in La Mesa. When the music store in Hilltop came available, the Motes urged the Gaineses to buy it and move from Chicago to Hilltop— which, they assured Mr. and Mrs. Gaines, was such a picturesque small town… so wholesome, so much safer than Chicago.

The Motes’ store was much bigger and busier than the Gaineses’ in Hilltop, because of there being a music college in La Mesa, so the Motes “hired” Peter and Alice, and paid them well, to “help in the stock room” on Saturdays, starting when Peter was 9 and Alice was 10.

But they didn’t work in the stock room. They “worked” in the plush master bedroom of the Motes’ house behind the store, where they not only were sexually abused(1) by the Motes but also were forced to do things with each other, which kindly Uncle Hector recorded on video,(2) and he sold the videos to people all over the world, which made it an FBI matter (also a matter for the U.S. Customs Service and possibly Interpol!) when Sister Alma Rose blew the whistle.

Pretty little red-haired girl with freckles

Me, Fanny

“How could they force them?” Marianna asked, and her voice sounded so strange that my eyes, which had been glued to Sister Alma Rose, slid over to Marianna, looking like a wounded bird between her mom and dad, and her mom had her arm around Marianna’s shoulders and was stroking her hair, and her dad looked dangerous, like an angry wolf might look protecting its cub. Or do wolves have pups? Anyway, Marianna was holding tight to her dad’s hand and very quietly sobbing her heart out.

“With threats,” Sister Alma Rose said gently, “to tell the children’s folks all sorts of lies— that they had caught the children together in bed, or that Alice had seduced her uncle— that kind of thing. And y’all need to understand that the abuse had been going on, during family visits, since before Peter and Alice were even in kindergarten.”

I made it to the bathroom just in time to lose the lunch I was wishing I hadn’t eaten. When I was done retching, Mama cleaned my sweaty face with a warm washcloth and got the mouthwash out of the cabinet. She looked a question at me, and I said, “No, I want to hear the rest.” I rinsed the bad taste out of my mouth as well as I could and went into the living room and sat down on the love seat next to Mama. Daddy, on the other side of me in “Only His” Chair, gave my shoulders a squeeze and handed me a peppermint. What a dad!

Then Marianna and I both started laughing. It wasn’t hysteria, it was our mutual realization— through some kind of cosmic connection, I guess, but it was as clear as a fingersnap— that we’d both been expelling toxins, Marianna washing them away with tears and I upchucking them out. Sorry, but that’s what it was.

Why friendships are sacred

Okay, so now, as I write this, the Motes are in prison, “but folks like them ain’t safe in or out of the penitentiary,” Sister Alma Rose said. She rarely says ain’t any more unless she’s “in a state,” and I was pretty sure she wasn’t losing any sleep over whatever peril the Motes might be facing.

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Peter and Alice were long gone, even before our family conclave. Mama told me that the Gaineses’ house had been sold, as had both of the music stores, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaines were moving to Lexington, Kentucky, where Mr. Gaines’s parents and brothers lived with their families.

“But where are the kids?” I asked, wondering what kind of counseling could erase all those years of abuse and shame and secrecy.

“They’re in the best place they could possibly be,” Mama said with a wistful smile, “the most beautiful place in the world, a place where you take in healing and kindness and wholesomeness with every breath. They’re in Daylight.”

I knew where she meant, the place where the Ancients live when they’re not Out in the World, but I’d never heard it given a name (Henry just says, “up the mountain”), and I’d also never heard of anyone going there who wasn’t from the Ancients, and I told Mama that, and she smiled that wistful smile again.

“I was there,” she said simply. “After my father died, and Mama drank herself to death in front of my eyes and I went to pieces, Daddy Pete took me up. You’ll go yourself, of course, probably sooner rather than later, and you’ll never want to leave, but you’ll know you can go up there whenever you need to, and you’ll be full of zeal to come back and help mend the broken world.”

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

A week or so after our gathering, Sister Alma Rose gave a little party in honor of Marianna and me. It was just the three of us and Mr. Truman LaFollette, but we devoured baked salmon and tender asparagus spears and Sister Alma Rose’s famous fruit salad that’s like dessert, and warm, dark homemade bread, and then we had dessert, chocolate mousse so rich that the small piece was almost more than I could handle, although I can pretty much always find room for more chocolate.

Then Sister Alma Rose explained how Marianna’s and my friendship had started something that would bless the world for a very long time. I thought that was giving it more than its due, and started to say so, but Sister Alma Rose shushed me.

“The two of y’all was thrown together in fourth grade,” she said, “but you’ve gone out of your way to keep on being friends. Now, if y’all weren’t who you are, y’all would have paid no attention to Peter Gaines. He was easy to ignore, like everybody else did. Marianna, y’all made an effort to see him for what he is, a perfect child of God. Even so, if y’all hadn’t talked about him with each other, and then come to me, Peter Gaines and his sister probably would have fallen through the cracks. The parents are in denial, nobody else notices or cares, and those youngsters grow up and they’re just full of poison.

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

“Now, think not only of them and the hell their lives would have been,” she went on, “but think of the people who might have been harmed by them but who won’t be, now, because of y’all. Think of Peter and Alice’s parents, who will recover because their children got help before someone else was hurt. Think of them two in prison, who won’t be brutalizing any more innocents. And think of all the circles of lives around these, like ripples. Poison travels fast and far.”

“But it’s not like we did something hard or made any sacrifices,” Marianna protested.

“Y’all made a choice,” said Sister Alma Rose, taking Marianna’s hand, and, Lord, I hoped she wouldn’t squeeze it and turn those delicate bones into little bitty Chiclets. “Instead of taking the path of least resistance, y’all chose to notice, to pray, and to act. Poison travels fast,” she repeated, “but love travels faster.”

I decided to wait for another time, when we weren’t celebrating, to ask Marianna and Sister Alma Rose if they were able to see the Motes as God’s perfect, innocent children. It’s still hard for me to use the words love and Peter Gaines in the same sentence. But I guess we did what Marianna calls “the loving thing,” and that, it seems, can change more than just our little corner of the world….

*The first time Sister Alma Rose referred to my friends and me as youngsters, I tried to explain that the only adults who use words like youngster are those who have little or no rapport with kids, which is definitely not the case with Sister Alma Rose. She laughed and said we’re lucky she doesn’t call us younglings, which was au courant before the seventeenth century, when youngster came into general use.

(1) Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as ‘friends’ of the family, babysitters, or neighbors…. Wikipedia

(2) Children of all ages, including infants, are abused in the production of pornography internationally. The United States Department of Justice estimates that pornographers have recorded the abuse of more than one million children in the United States alone. —Wikipedia

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Sister Alma Rose Prays for Ben

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….