I made a needed trip to the grocers yesterday and like a lot of times ran into people I knew or who knew me. I was looking at a particularly nice standing rib roast when I heard a young voice say “Someone’s looking at you.”
I glanced up to see if I was being spoken to, but saw a teenage girl looking at my walking stick, which rested in the buggy. She was looking at the face of the Old North Wind which had been lovingly carved into the hickory wood that formed the cane.
She was talking to her mother. “Isn’t that beautiful, though?” her mother said.
I explained that the stick had been a gift from me to my mother on Christmas 1999 and that a friend, Pete Barfield, had hand-carved it for me. She looked at me and asked, “Was your mother’s name Grace? I mean, you look so much like a lady I loved named Grace that you just have to be related.”
The woman in front of me was about 10 years younger than I and I wondered if I should know her. “Why yes, her name was Grace. Do we know each other?”
She told me her name and how much she had loved Mama and it all came back to me in one fell swoop. I could feel Mama standing there, nodding and shining as the story unfolded once more in my mind.
I was just 15 when my dad was offered the Ruby Clinic. He and my mother had made a decision to leave Washington, D.C. and start up a private practice in her home county.
Big hospitals and big cities had been our lives for so long, but we children had spent most summers with our grandparents, so we were not strangers to small-town life in any way.
We looked forward to being with family year-round and excitement filled the house. The feat was accomplished, and we moved into a big old barn of a house that was next door to the school we younger girls would attend.
Mama and Daddy worked at getting the clinic furnished with needed supplies and furniture, too. There was an X-ray machine to be had, a surgical suite to be taken care of and three hospital beds for the overnight visits of new mothers and babies.
Daddy, being a general practitioner, did it all. This was in the day when bills were sometimes paid by the bushel or the brace, not always money. Anyone who thought we were rich couldn’t have been more wrong.
I would sometimes be allowed to help out in the clinic after school. I often met the patients and knew most of them by name. There was one particularly sweet lady with a little 3-year-old I’ll call Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith and her husband had been married for 10 years when little Giselle was born. She always called her the Miracle Baby.
One day in our first summer of living in Ruby, Mama had come home from the clinic very distressed.
I remember she went to her room and stayed for awhile. When she came out, her eyes were red and swollen. The housekeeper asked Mama if everything was all right. She shook her head and said no, that one of the patients had cancer and that the news had been so overwhelming to them all that she just had to come home for a bit.
Daddy came in for lunch a bit after that. We could tell that he had been crying, too.
For the longest time, we had no idea that Mrs. Smith was the patient. Even in those days, privacy was uppermost in their minds. It was early in December and I had stopped in at the clinic before going home to do homework.
Mrs. Smith was in the lobby and had baby Giselle with her. I noticed that Mrs. Smith had a toboggan pulled down over her head where once long, thick dark-blonde hair had shone. Giselle was dancing around, laughing and playing.
Mrs. Smith, her face looking tired and drawn, asked me if I minded watching her while she went in to see Daddy. I assured her I would watch over her and told her not to worry. She petted my hand, smiled and went back to the exam room with my mother.
That night I went into Mama’s room to ask her a question. She was in the closet, pulling down the wig box that rested on the top shelf. I have no idea why Mama had wanted that wig when she bought it in the early ’60s. It was human hair and styled in a pageboy. It had cost the earth and Daddy complained bitterly when he had discovered the purchase.
Eventually he forgave her the purchase indiscretion and the matter was never brought up again. But Mama loved that wig and looked beautiful wearing it, though she didn’t wear it that often. Now, the box sat on her bed, she held the wig in her hands and she was calling her beautician.
“Bernice, I need a big favor of you. I need my wig washed and styled tomorrow if you can fit it in. I need it by 3 o’clock.”
Bernice assured her that she could do it and the matter settled, she hung up and turned to me. Her face glowed. For some reason I felt like crying. I knew that Mama was not getting that wig washed and styled for a party. But whatever she was having it done for, it had made her look happier than I remember seeing her in years.
The next afternoon, just before 3, I went by the clinic and there was Mrs. Smith and baby Giselle and so was Ms. Bernice. I spoke to them, Mama told me to watch the baby and Mrs. Smith and Bernice went to the back with Mama.
Mrs. Smith came down the hall, walked into the lobby and looked as near like any treetop angel as I have ever seen. She had makeup on and a pale lipstick and if I hadn’t known it was Mama’s wig on her head, I would have thought it was her own hair. The smile on her face lit the room.
The door opened, and Mr. Smith came in. Mama had called him to tell him to come drive Mrs. Smith home, because her ride had to leave suddenly. When he saw his beloved wife, the look on his face was beyond description.
They left, he carrying little Giselle and holding Mrs. Smith’s hand tightly in his. Mama later told me that after the chemo, Mrs. Smith lost her hair and had not been to church since. She was ashamed at how she looked and frankly didn’t want to answer a lot questions.
Mama said that she felt her church family was going to be very important to her in the coming months and she didn’t want her to have an excuse not to lean on them.
Mama wasn’t perfect, and I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I thought she was. We had arguments that could have started off any world war, we had periods of separation when pride on both sides would not give in to forgiveness.
But she had a way with people, of reading them and knowing what they needed. If it was in her power to provide that need, she’d move heaven and earth to do it. If at times her own family suffered from her generosity, well, she’d make it up to us some other way, some other time.
Mrs. Smith died in early spring. But her last months were not lonely ones, I’m told. No one ever let on that they knew she was wearing a wig. It was the most special Christmas gift that Mama had ever given anyone.
It wasn’t because of the cost of the wig, but the value of it to the giver. I don’t think a recipient of a gift was ever as grateful or expressive as Mrs Smith was, either.
I know that at this time of year, I miss Mama most. She loved Christmas. And Mrs. Smith’s little Giselle misses her Mama this time of year, too. She told me so yesterday, standing in front of the rib roasts.
Sandi McBride is a resident of Jefferson who blogs regularly and enjoys her garden and her furry and feathered friends. She is a wife and mother of two sons.