The Sweat-Grimed Poppies I Hold in my Hands

January 19, 2015

Why a Mennonite Housewife Cares about the King of Saudi Arabia

February 2, 2015

The Things That Woman Gave Me

January 26, 2015

I have a picture of the two of us on my bookshelf. She is wearing her shiny blue windbreaker with the Wakarusa logo, her short hair mostly black, ruffled across her forehead, a little spiky.

Me beside her, arm around her, grinning: deep-set eyes, hair parted flat against my head. I don’t pay attention to this half of the photo much, don’t like the too-big grin, the white skin.

Instead, I look at her face, every loved line of it. Trace the side of her cheek through the cool glass. Almost I could feel warmth, almost could reach through it to her.

Her nose is straight, sensible, mouth turned down even when she is smiling. I touch the hair, trace the shoulder of the shiny blue windbreaker, notice the gauze patch that surrounds her catheter port peeking out above the neck of her t-shirt.

I thought I had forgotten her, mostly; that I didn’t miss her anymore.

But tonight I am lonely, and so I remember.

No one ever looked at me with such love as she did. When she looked at me that way, beloved, I felt I was queen, most beautiful of the earth.

It wasn’t all good. She was nasty sometimes, and yelled at me and talked bad about me behind my back.

But she needed me.

Our friendship might have been a tenuous thing, tottering on short acquaintance and mammoth difference–but it wasn’t. Forged in hot disunity, commitment, pain, it was a thing of steel.

I used to resent all the time I spent with her, wonder why she couldn’t at least pay me for some of my precious hours and all the help I gave her.

Now I admit to myself that she tried, and I turned her down–perverse creature that I am.

I think it was a sort of pride thing with me, to give without taking. So selfish, because everybody loves to give.

Char managed it, though. She gave to me in small ways when I wasn’t noticing, and now, looking around the room, I am surprised by the abundance.

An old wooden bookshelf with glass doors that lift. “Please let me give it to you,” she said, when I demurred, and her eyes were pleading. “Please.”

She gave me bronze bookends: that famous Indian, head bowed, at the end of the trail.

An elegant afghan, white with pink roses, she found at a garage sale. “I don’t know why it made me think of you,” she said. “But then, I’m always thinking of you.”

A small dish of yellow vaseline glass, rectangular, on a pedestal like a miniature cake plate. “Clark’s Teaberry Gum” is written in raised letters across the bottom; it was used as a gum display in grocery and drug stores in the 1920’s and 30’s.

She gave me the wall hanging I keep above my bookshelf, across from the foot of my bed.  It is a poem on large tan paper, rippled and ancient-looking, framed in thin brown wood. The first line is my favorite: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

A tarnished pewter bowl with curved handles. I rescued it from the box of things Char was sending out to the curb.

An Indian doll, straight, smooth-haired porcelain. Char gave it to me for my birthday the first year we were friends. For some reason I have never liked that doll. It is too perfect, I think, its buckskins too clean-cut, its moccasins too delicately beaded, its tan cheeks without expression. But I keep it under my bed. It will be many moons before I can bring myself to abandon anything Char gave me.

Downstairs, her obituary still hangs on our refrigerator, curling at the corners, half its words covered by a photo of someone else.

A few of her possessions filtered down to me after she died.

A plain wooden box with a hinged lid. She told me it was a graduation gift from her Dutch grandparents.

And her Bible. I told Char’s sister she could have it. “No, she said, “why don’t you keep it? You gave it to her.”

At first it smelled like smoke, and I would smell it and smell it, remembering. Now the smoke smell is very faint, only discernible with a good bit of imagination to boost the scent. The gold-rimmed pages are more worn than they were, the covers more flexible, and the gold paint that says Holy Bible is scratched.

Inside I still have the notes she scribbled in her scratchy cursive, and I read the words carefully, wondering what thoughts went through her head when she wrote them, why she chose these above all others to record.

In Joshua, on a torn page of pale green notepaper:

And the Lord delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God. Deuteronomy 9 v. 10.

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it.

And on the other side of the paper: A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. John 13, ver. 34

She was fixated by the ten commandments, which she had memorized in her childhood. She insisted that there were only nine in Deuteronomy, not ten, but, “here,” she told me about the verse in John, “I’ve found the tenth commandment.”

Further on, in Psalms, is another torn page, this one tan with the shape of a dream catcher in the background:

Job 12 v. 10 – In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind.

We had a conversation about that verse once. She believed the trees had spirits, and told me, triumphantly, that Job proved it. “Trees are living things, aren’t they?”

Below, there is a reference for Deuteronomy 10:4–another verse about the writing of the ten commandments.

And below that, a reference that says Romans 15 v. 4 and the cryptic words old & new testament.

I turn to Romans to read the verse. For whatsoever things were written afore time were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.

There is something about the writings of a dead woman–a false significance in every stroke, a reaching for a spirit in shrouds, a pondering of thought processes that in life might have been given little more notice than laundry or taking out the trash.

I read meaning into these scrawled verses of hers. To me, they symbolize a greater gift, more difficult to name than glass or porcelain or wood.

See, she wasn’t a Bible-reading woman when I first knew her. It was only after I gave her that Bible that she began, but once she had started, she read with an intentionality familiar to me as flesh.

She wanted to know the God behind the Bible. I could see that, could understand the pungency of her desire,  like a drop of raw honey on the tongue.

She desired Him, and so she chose Him. She chose Him, and so she accepted, to the best of her limited understanding, what He had to say.

She was not a child, or simple-minded. Her belief was not blind. I saw her struggle with anger, struggle with questions. But below her was a well of something so deep and pure she could not turn away. Above her, God.

She took Him at His word and walked forward.

And down the length of my life, when I come to the doubts and fall into them, she is the one who will come to my mind. I know, because it has already happened.

I want to have faith like Char, I think, at these times. If she can have something as real and simple and chosen as that, I can, too.

It is her gift to me.


  1. Well said.

    I’ve been thinking about giving and receiving a lot lately. It’s more nebulous than you might first suppose. In the dance of generosity and neediness, of humility and compassion–who gives and who receives? Sometimes it’s impossible to tell.

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