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Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Unexpected Gift

 John Clark offering a Christmas tale with a giveaway at the end

Sylvia Dornay wasn’t looking forward to this Christmas, not that she’d mustered much excitement in previous years, but this one was different. She’d lost her only friend, Mrs. Rogers. Ever since moving to the group home after her parents abandoned her, being more interested in getting high than being responsible, she’d been gun shy about trusting and opening up to others. It didn’t help that everyone at school automatically labeled kids living at the home as losers or troublemakers. Despite having no control over her fate, the label stuck, leaving her with zero friends.

That’s why losing Mrs. Rogers to the assisted living facility across town hurt so much. The elderly lady had taken a shine to Sylvia when she returned her cat one day after finding it rummaging through a dumpster behind a fast food restaurant on her way home from school.

The woman said that Tinkerbell was an inside cat and had no experience surviving on her own, but had managed to slip out while her owner tried to discourage an overly eager pollster.

That act of kindness grew into an informal grandmother/granddaughter relationship. Sylvia might live among unruly and uncivilized kids at the group home, but she had great manners, and loved to listen when Mrs. Rogers talked about growing up during the Depression. As time went on and the older woman taught her how to bake cookies and fancy breads, Sylvia came out of her shell. She was able to talk about being abandoned by her parents and not being liked at school. Once she realized the older woman never tried to interrupt, but nodded supportively, she started to ask questions that had been building inside her for a long time.

To her credit, Mrs. Rogers didn’t dodge any of them, helping Sylvia to understand her body as well as realizing she didn’t have to be a people pleaser, the older woman’s description of how so many women sacrificed their self worth in order to attract and keep a man. Those discussions led to the her helping Sylvia with homework and even encouraging her to start thinking about going on to school after graduation.

It was right after Sylvia started her junior year when she found Mrs. Rogers lying on her kitchen floor, writing in pain. The girl wasted no time, calling 911 immediately. When she went to visit her friend and mentor at the hospital the following afternoon, she was greeted with bad news.

“Thank you for saving my life, my dear girl,” Mrs Rogers said. “I spilled some of Tinkerbell’s milk on the floor and didn’t realize I had done so until I slipped. I have a rather nasty hip fracture, as well as some cracked ribs. As much as I hate to admit defeat, it’s time for me to move to a place where I can be around folks who can take good care of me. If life were fair, I’d have you move in with me, but the rules regarding foster children, even at your age, prohibit that.”

Sylvia went numb at the thought of losing the one person in her life who mattered. After gathering herself sufficiently, she gave the older woman a gentle hug and a kiss on her cheek before excusing herself and returning to the group home.

How do I talk this one over, or more to the point, who do I talk this one over with? Sylvia wondered as she walked from the hospital. The last thing she wanted to do was make Mrs. Rogers feel guilty about not being there for her, but there was nobody else she trusted enough to vent, or help her figure things out. She went back to stuffing her feelings and put all her energy into school work.

Her saving grace came unexpectedly when she bought a working Discman at the thrift store for a couple dollars. The batteries were good and there was a classic rock CD inside. She’d had so few chances to listen to music in her life, she wasn’t sure what appealed to her, but as she walked home that afternoon, she found herself humming, and then singing along to some of the selections.

When the local librarian told her she could borrow music CDs as well as books, Sylvia went on a musical exploration, going through rock, rap, opera, movie sound tracks, country, and classical over the next couple months. The more she listened, the more she sang, realizing in the process that she not only had a very good voice, but could remember lyrics easily. However, she had no clue what to do with her newfound talent.

A week before Christmas, Sylvia gathered her courage and visited Mrs. Rogers at the assisted living residence. Guilt and loneliness made her get on the municipal bus and go across town on the Saturday before the holiday. She was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs when she stepped off the bus. What if she’s mad at me? Sylvia wondered.

She entered hesitantly, but the smiling receptionist quickly put her at ease, asking who she was visiting before walking her to a sunny room where Mrs. Rogers was reading by a flickering fireplace.

“I’ve missed you,” the older woman said, setting her book aside and hugging Sylvia. “Tell me how things are with you.”

The hug broke something hard inside her and Sylvia began crying softly.

Mrs. Rogers waited patiently until she was able to regain her composure.

“I’m so sorry to have taken such a long time to visit. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do other than avoid everyone and study like crazy,” she said, looking at her hands as if they might offer up something else to say.

“Well, part of that is good, but I think you know which one I mean. You can’t go through life expecting everyone to dislike you, or let you down. There must be something that makes your heart beat a little faster,” said Mrs Rogers.

Sylvia hesitated before taking the CD player out of her pocket. “I like to sing, but just to myself.”

“Show me.”

Sylvia looked around to make sure no one was near enough to hear her and began singing, first one of the soft rock songs from her original CD, then a show tune, and finally, a folk song by Woody Guthrie. She kept her eyes closed the entire time, imagining herself alone in the woods. She opened her eyes after the last song to find that Mrs. Rogers was tearing up, but smiling at the same time.

“That was beautiful. Would you fulfill a Christmas wish for me?”

Sylvia felt her anxiety rise, but she owed this woman for being there for her when nobody else had, so she gulped and nodded.

“We have a holiday gathering here on Christmas Eve. Almost everyone has family coming to share the joy, but I have no one, unless you come. Will you, and more importantly, will you sing for everyone on Christmas Eve? I know that probably sounds terrifying, but I believe in you.”

Sylvia nodded, still feeling very mixed. Part of what she felt was terror, but underneath that was an unidentifiable warm feeling, maybe gratitude because she would be able to give her best and only friend a meaningful gift.

#####

Sylvia prepared by borrowing a couple Christmas CDs from the library and singing all the songs softly while walking to and from school. On Christmas Eve, she put on her only good dress and got on the bus.

Mrs. Rogers was waiting inside the front door with a corsage. After hugging Sylvia, she pinned it on her dress. “Let’s go get good seats.”

The community room was filling as they entered. Sylvia looked around at the decorations, then jumped as a toddler wrapped her arms around her legs while giving her a big gummy grin. The girl’s mother came over and freed the child while wishing them a merry Christmas.

After a surprisingly good pot luck supper, the activity director gave a short speech before waving to Mrs Rogers. “I believe one of our residents has a surprise for us tonight. Emma, why don’t you tell us about her.”

Mrs. Rogers stood, placing a comforting hand on Sylvia’s shoulder. “I’ll keep this short. My cat got loose a while ago and I was sure I’d never see her again, but this young lady managed to retrieve him without concern for her safety or cleanliness. She rescued Tinkerbell from a dumpster and tracked me down. We became unofficial grandmother and granddaughter. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to live alone after a fall, and that necessitated my coming here. The move was hard for both of us, but Sylvia put all her despair and loneliness into becoming a very good student. I was amazed to discover she also acquired a new talent, but I’ll let her show you.” She hugged Sylvia and sat down.

Yes, fear was still somewhere inside her when she stood, but Sylvia decided to ignore it as she closed her eyes and started singing. By the time she’d sung the The First Noel, all her discomfort had evaporated and she felt something new, confidence. She opened her eyes so she could enjoy the way her new gift was affecting everyone in the room and sang on.

 

Want a copy of the 2 volume 2021 BOULD Awards Short Story Anthology which has three of my stories in it, comment below. US only because of postage costs, alas.

4 comments:

  1. What a lovely story! Thank you.

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  2. I love stories of unlikely friendships...perfect for Christmas!

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  3. Loved reading this, John!
    I'll even pay postage :) (109 Hartland Ave. Better yet,do drop in when you come to Pittsfield again. We're vaxed and boosted.

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  4. Thanks for a great story. Almost cried reading it right here at the library.

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