Christmas Eve, 1942
Mary looked around at tired shelves that sagged happily under the weight of books of every shape and size. She sighed. At thirty-five and almost dowdy, the only children she would ever nurture would be the children who loved to read. She guided their adventures and led their way through strange worlds and colorful gardens. The semi-circle of small chairs sat facing a larger, well-worn easy chair where she would revel them with tales of knights and damsels and dragons. Little ones would sit in rapt attention as she sang to them or play her oboe. She loved those times, but they had become less satisfying when the little ones had grown older and few had taken their place. And nothing could ever remove the ache in her heart.
“Good night, my sweet children,” she said as she turned out the light. Stepping outside, she locked the front door and looked up at the sign.
‘Pottersville Public Library’
She sighed again as she pulled the lapels of her coat around her neck in an attempt to thwart the frigid wind. She walked quickly, feeling more alone than cold. The night held nothing new other than a warm fire and a book. Steinbeck? Buck? No. She felt the tattered lapels of her coat again as she thought of the books that awaited her arrival home.
The Robe? Douglas wanted to write about how things weren’t really faithful and was pulled strongly against his will into a joy for which he found few words to explain but on the pages of a well-loved story. She laughed at the irony; both the garment and the faith seemed to tease her and she shook her head.
A moment later she stood on the porch of the old house she had inherited from her mother. She hadn’t need for such a big place, and soon decided to rent out rooms to folks in town, but could only find one soul who needed a home. She tried the door and found it locked; a good sign, since she had struggled to get her roomer to lock the door. She turned the key and entered. A fire had already been started in the hearth and a familiar if disconcerting visage greeted her.
“Hi,” the woman said, hardly stirring from her place on the large sofa that sat in front of the fireplace.
“Hello,” Mary said uncomfortably. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the girl, but that she felt very awkward around someone so well….traveled. The woman noted her half-frown and shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m sorry if I …..You don’t really like me, do you?” It was almost a daily routine; albeit with different phrases each time. “You hate me?” Or “You’ve never liked me?” Or even “You blame me, don’t you?”
Mary returned the shrug with a shake of the head. She didn’t dislike the woman as much as she hated what the woman represented. And Mary hated herself for that. Who was she to judge? The woman had it very bad growing up; some would say horrible in the truest, saddest sense. But that was then. Why she continued to act this way. Dress that way?
“I’m sorry,” the woman threw her unfinished cigarette into the fire, blowing out smoke that was quickly lost in the haze coming from the fireplace. Mary shook her head again as she stared at the glass tumbler in the woman’s hand. The bottle on the table by the sofa was almost empty, but the her words were clear. Not just tonight, but she must have been working on the Scotch all day. It was only six-twenty-one, so the woman wasn’t yet ready to go to work.
“Mary?” Her voice seemed to plead. Mary tried to turn away, but something inside her kept her gaze on the woman.
“I really….I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She shook her head. Mary noticed the girl had been crying. It had to be from the smoke, hadn’t it? She found herself walking slowly toward the sofa. As she neared the girl, she could smell the aroma of perfume; the bouquet was pleasant and perhaps even soothing.
“I’m..I’ve tried…. Mary? Why can’t you forgive me?” She put her head down. Tears fell from her face into darkening spots on the ecru dress she wore.
“You….” Mary wanted desperately to forgive her But it was her fault. That day would never have come to pass if the girl had just left things alone. Mary loved the boy from the time she could remember meeting him.
“I’ll love you ‘til the day I die,’ she had said to him, but instead that love was cut short when he died. She was thirty-five, but she lived in her heart like she was still twelve. She stared blankly at the woman and then closed her eyes, remembering that day….
“Oh, Harry, let’s go over to my house.” Mary said. She smiled politely at the boy. Just as Harry was about to answer, a couple of boys walked into the drug store.
“Hey, Harry? Wanna go sleddin’?” The boys all laughed as one of them held up two wide shovels. Harry turned to Mary and tilted his head. The girl’s smile seemed to draw him away from the fun that tempted him, but another voice interrupted.
“Oh, Harry, go ahead.” She smiled coyly at the boy and he smiled back.
“Violet Bick….you mind your own business,” Mary snapped at the girl sitting on the stool on the other side of the boy. Even at twelve, the girl had become very familiar and pushy, and a rival at that.
“Come on, Harry….you want everybody thinking you’re a sissy?”
That did it. Harry hopped off the stool and walked over to the boys. He stood tall. At twelve years of age, the attraction to girls couldn’t quite counteract the teasing of his peers, and he walked out the door of the drug store into the lightly falling snow. A few hours later the sounds of yelling came from outside the drug store. Three boys walked up to Mary and Violet. The tallest of the three had been crying.
“I’m sorry…..Harry…. he went under the ice…” was all he could manage before he leaned against the fountain bar and began to sob. And life for Mary Hatch ended and began at the same moment that sad afternoon….
“I….” Violet shook her head even as her face remained cast down. A moment of teasing had brought both girls from childhood innocence into a life time of pain and regret. Both made choices that took them into circuitous routes that seemed to parallel until they arrived at that moment. Mary cared too much to live and Violet didn’t care enough at all.
Violet felt the sofa sag as Mary sat down next to her.
“I’m sorry…..” She reached over and touched Violet’s arm. The woman pulled back with a start, but the large wing on the end of the sofa prevented her retreat.
“No….” A few moments before, Violet had begged for forgiveness, but now she was pleading against it. Mary touched her arm once again. Violet’s sleeve was sheer and shiny, and the odd sensation seemed to plead to Mary as well. She rubbed Violet’s arm softly.
“I know it wasn’t your fault.” It was no one’s fault. Not Violet’s for an ill-timed suggestion. Not Mary’s for not objecting. The boy was just a boy playing with friends in a place that had never really threatened before, and it was something that just ‘happened.’
“It was. I told him to go. He went. It’s all my fault.” Violet gasped. Mary realized in that moment that nothing she had ever thought about Violet Bick could be as bad as what Violet believed about herself. Her heart began to throb harder as she felt more compassion than she had ever known. She leaned closer and pulled Violet upright, facing her at arms’ length.
“No, Vi…no….my fault….our fault….Nobody….not me….and not you.”
She pulled Violet close to her. Violet was weeping hard and fell into Mary’s arms. By then, Mary had also begun to weep. For the loss of the young boy who never got a chance to live, and for the two women who had chosen not to live. She hugged Violet and kissed her cheek. Violet pulled away and looked at Mary in horror; not at the affection, but at the guilt that still inserted itself between forgiveness and her. She tried to pull away, but Mary held fast.
“No….for both of us, Vi….no….” Mary pulled the girl close again and kissed her on the lips. Whatever repulsion might have existed in that time and place would not have its way. No matter what anyone else might think, it wasn’t about anyone else. And what did it matter what anyone thought; they were different outcasts unwelcome in their own town.
“No….the woman protested between gasps and sobs, but soon she fell into the love that Mary had extended. The spinster kissed the whore and finally the whore kissed the spinster back. Healing and wholeness after two life-times of needless shame. No one had ever come alongside them, but in that moment, they came alongside each other in a way neither could have dreamt.
In time, things would be the same even as they changed. As much as she had sung brightly before, Mary Hatch the spinster would glow as she sang to the children or when she read about adventures where damsels are rescued and where a princess finds true love. And Violet Bick, the new library assistant, found joy in seeing others find adventures in books that took them far from where they lived while she finally found a place to call home.
And somewhere an angel got her wings…..
Characters inspired by
Based on The Greatest Gift
by Philip Van Doren Stern
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