A continuation of Theresa's Gift from Christmas Hopes Holiday Sampler
by Andrea Lena DiMaggio
“Terry?” The figure’s voice was vaguely familiar, owing more to the distance between them than her own memory. The woman, for that was who the figure was, repeated her name, but added an endearment that left Theresa feeling mostly unworthy even to have her name mentioned.
“Terry? Hun?” The words sent a shudder up Theresa’s back as the voice became completely clear and welcoming, even if Theresa felt unwelcomed. She fought off whatever fear remained and resumed moving toward the woman, closing the distance, she drew close enough to notice the woman wore a veil, covering her face. In fact, the woman was garbed in an antique white wedding gown. The bodice was lacey with a bit of décolleté. The rest of the dress was satin and floor-- length and the woman’s arms were clad in elbow length finger-less lace gloves. She held a small bible in her right hand and a single red rose in the left hand.
“Here we are,” the woman stated the obvious. What was not immediately obvious but became entirely clear was that Terry was clad in near-identical fashion save for the wedding white of her own gown. The woman raised her veil, revealing her face, a gesture that warmed and frightened Theresa at the same time as she found herself staring into the very green, very bright, and extremely loving eyes of Liz Pellegrino….
They say happiness
Is a thing you can't see
A thing you can't touch
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future Jeremiah 29-11.
Light streamed through the small gap in the gold brocade drapes that adorned the large window across from the recliner; almost a spotlight that illumed Theresa’s face. She sat up and looked around, disoriented. Realizing she was in the recliner instead of her bed, she stumbled out and down the hall. As she reached the bedroom door, she was overcome with yet another wave of confused guilt. Try as she might, the faces of Andy and Dave had become increasingly harder to recall. However, as she reached the safety of her bed, the now completely clear face of Liz came into view.
“I’m so sorry,” she said to the precious spirits of the past as she settled into the rest of her night feeling lost and alone. She felt overcome with guilt, since her weeping seemed to be so much more intense for the fear of the blessings before her than for the grief that lay only a few years behind her.
The two ghosts of Andy and Dave seemed to have formed a nice if puzzling alliance until she recalled that Andy had urged her to find someone as did Dave the night before he passed. And they appeared to be smiling down from some level of heaven that permitted them to still be a part of her life. But that part was quickly drawing to a close, sadly perhaps, but with the intent of the universe to bless Theresa once again.
She sighed as they waved, a pairing that would last until one day in forever they’d be reunited. The thought of losing them both drove her to as much grief in that one moment as in the entire time she had spent losing each of them
She heard a voice – two voices, in fact as a pair of young ladies spoke from somewhere only a bit far off in time and space. Alto and soprano merged gladly in a pleasant endearment Theresa believed she would never hear. And yet another voice speaking sweetly came from just behind the pair.
“Honey? Terry? Hon?”
The voice was no more distant than any voice she had ever heard, in her dreams but she shuddered with confusion and the same tenacious guilt that wrongly apprehended her attention the past year or so. Because long before she had ever talked with Liz Pellegrino, she had seen her in church just as Dave was reaching the last days of his life.
Sure, Dave had hinted at her moving on, but that was still before he had spoken. And longing to be held and comforted and even loved in a way in the face of such loss, however understandable, left her driven to sleepless nights of prayer; seeking a reprieve for Dave’s illness even as she sought forgiveness for being human.
“God, help me?”
She cried every night before and months after Dave’s passing. And once Lina again approached her for help, the years of denial gave way to new guilt and shame. She had never considered loving a woman, but it was just because of what she was used to. She had been a support to others in their own journeys that certainly banged hard into what she knew was expected of her, but life was always like that for her since she transitioned.
To be transgender and to fall for a very nice woman was never anything she would deny, but for the guilt she felt, believing that would betray Andy’s and Dave’s memories. But now it seemed… it was almost certain that they were urging her to get on with her love life. She sighed, fearing she was doing something wrong for everyone else’s reasons.
To make it simple, the Scripture she treasured in her desire to encourage others was just not for her. That the plans for her were not at all for a hope and a future. Life had brought her to believe she did not merit God’s favor. But that’s what Grace is - not merited, since grace is bestowed and not issued for works accomplished or deeds done. Theresa was on the verge of finally learning that she was worthy, not because of what she did, but instead because of who she had been created to be. And a nice lady who had relocated from Peoria to Niles was to be the instrument of her realization.
Theresa sat at her desk and stared at the calendar on the wall by the door. Five days before Christmas, and she was feeling less capable and even unworthy. Forgetting the blessing she had always been to her flock, she had become fearful over what the future would hold. Perhaps the church could fare well with an interim pastor? But as much as she felt more and more incapable, her love for the flock pushed her gently into a tenuous peace; at least until after the holidays. She sighed and wiped tears from her face as she heard a knock at the door.
“Please come in?” she remarked. A moment later the door opened, revealing two young ladies; both of whom wore hopeful looks on their faces.
“Pastor Terry? You got a few minutes?” Bella Pellegrino stepped into the office with her cousin Lina trailing closely behind. Bella must be on winter break from college, she thought. She had exchanged pleasantries with Bella when her mother was helping Theresa in the weeks after Pastor Dave’s passing. She smiled and motioned the two toward the couch.
“Sure, what can I do for you two?”
“Um…well?” Lina half-smiled.
“Things better at home?” Theresa recalled the recent conversation with the girl, wondering how to approach Liz regarding Lina’s gender issues given Theresa’s own history. Bella’s smile was a bit broader if a tad enigmatic.
“Mom’s been afraid,” Bella said, but her words seemed to belie any pressing concern. She smiled once again and tapped Lina on the arm in prompt.
“Aunt Liz explained that she was sorry that she had done such a bad job after Daddy died.” She gasped, but quickly collected herself.
“Dr. Cammie and Bella and I got to talk with Liz. She did …she’s doing a great job, and I think she’s finally figured out that Daddy’s death and her …help isn’t why I’m Lina instead of Tyler.”
“Mom was so upset – I haven’t seen her cry like that like since forever. I don’t think she realized how hurt and sad she was when Lina’s das died. Her ‘baby brother,’ she called him. She was so…” Bella interjected.
“Dr. Cammie said Aunt Liz has been feeling guilty. For what? Daddy died and she’s been like a mom. She cried when she thought I was a boy she messed up, but she started crying harder when she realized that I was a girl. Like my Mom. Like Bella. Like her.”
Lina was thrilled at the acceptance, but even the realization of long-awaited happiness can overwhelm, and she began to sob, her own grief over her mother and father finally easing its way through past the defenses the girl had built.
“That’s wonderful,” Theresa said, ironically remarking in the midst of the sound of happy, relieved sobbing by Lina and Bella. After a few minutes, Bella collected herself.
“It sounds like things are really looking up. I guess I’m confused. What is it I can do for you?”
“Mom is still stuck on guilty, Pastor Terry. Even after talking with Dr.Cammie. Even after being happy for Lina. She’s been crying nearly every night, and I think she’s having nightmares. She keeps waking up and talking loudly, like she’s still dreaming.”
“Wow,” Theresa muttered as Lina and Bella turned to exchange glances. It was like her own week was playing out at the Pellegrino home. She could only hope that dreams were a part of everyone’s week in the congregation in anticipation of Christmas, since to think in more specific regard gave her a start. Her fears were both realized and oddly dispelled to a small degree when Bella spoke up.
“Funny thing? She isn’t angry or even scared when she wakes up. All she says… even to the point of whispering it like when we’re driving to the bank or when she’s doing laundry? Just ‘Here we are,” and the word “honey.” Bella turned to Lina, who nodded eagerly.
“Yeah. Like she’s talking to someone she actually knows, but I don’t remember her even calling Bella that.”
“Do you think you could talk to her?” Bella asked.
Theresa had been understandably distracted by her own confusion and had not heard the last word. She picked up a mug of now-cold tea from the desk and was about to take a sip when she came back to the moment, so to speak and spoke,
“I’m sorry. I don’t know where I just went,” she laughed nervously and continued.
“What did you just say?”
“Do you think you could talk to her?” Bella repeated.
“No... Before that. What did you say she said?”
“’Here we are’, and ‘honey.’” Bella repeated, leaving Theresa to react in the only way the moment demanded. She gasped, which she quickly followed with absentmindedly spilling the thankfully now-cool tea in her lap…..
Three days before Christmas….at Theresa’s townhouse …
Theresa sat in the darkened kitchen. After the whirlwind of details following Dave’s passing died down, the church board had convinced Theresa to take some time for herself. Dave had no family to speak of when they met, and her own parents and Andy’s parents had passed in the interim, leaving friends and flock her only family. She moved into a smaller place a year after Dave’s death and only weeks after her very short sabbatical. Subsequently, her home routine had changed in the past few years. She sighed and looked down.
“Well, aren’t we the consummate professional?” She laughed with an almost sad-looking grin at herself.
“And I’m sure that flannel shirts and gym shorts will be all the rage at this year’s pastoral conference?” The shorts were hers. The shirt might have reminded her of Dave but for the fact that it was just a Target irregular she discovered on the sale rack that past Saturday. She poured the rest of her now tepid coffee in the sink and grabbed the glass pot to make more. The doorbell rang.
“Oh jeez,” she muttered.
“Just a second?” She shouted through the front door. She scurried into the living room and grabbed a pair of Chicago Blackhawk sweat pants. Forgetting her shorts, she pulled on the sweats, leaving the shorts bunched up underneath and leaving her even more self-conscious..
“Oh….poo,” she muttered again, feeling immediately and entirely condemned for thinking about the word her mild expletive had replaced.
“Coming…” she gasped. A second later, she opened the door, revealing a once-again familiar figure.
“Oh hi, Pastor Terry. I’m glad I caught you at home.” Liz Pellegrino smiled broadly and stepped inside. She walked into the kitchen and opened the freezer, putting several packets on the lower tray before sliding the door closed.
“Just some meals Bella picked up that she thought you might enjoy. And here.” She handed Theresa an envelope. Theresa just stared at it in puzzlement.
“Some gift certificates from La Scala and August Moon so you can get out and away…..” She sighed as she looked around.
“Just something to help?” She touched Theresa’s arm and rubbed it almost briskly in a manner that was innocent on her part and uncomfortable for Theresa.
“I know it’s been a while, and I certainly know it’s not the same, but when Bella’s father left I just hated being alone.” She quickly added,
“In the house. Anyway, I was on my way to work, and I thought of you so here we are.” She laughed softly and abruptly hugged Theresa, kissing her on the cheek before walking toward the front door.
“Maybe we can get together for lunch sometime? Gotta run, honey!” Liz practically bounded down the steps and away. Theresa tried not to, but inhaled deeply, much like a jogger after a steep run up an incline. She breathed in much more than she expected and her whole being drank in the fading essence of the woman who had just invaded her day.
As she exhaled, she absentmindedly closed her eyes, practically shutting them tight against any vision that remained. But a daydream, or rather, an actual almost asleep dream pushed its way into her thoughts, and she recalled the woman’s face. She tried thinking hard about Dave’s face instead as a distraction, but the soft features of Liz Pellegrino apprehended all of her attention…
Green cheerful eyes…. Nose not too small… long thin fading scar on left cheek… fair-sized lips with an almost permanent pout... darker than pale, lighter than tan complexion…dark red soft wavy hair…. Eyebrows in perpetual welcoming surprise…
Theresa’s dreamy musing was interrupted by the sound of music coming from her clock radio/CD player. Preset for eleven-thirty, it warmed her and saddened her at the same time. First, she was immediately overwhelmed by the music – the ending of the score to Fahrenheit 351 by Bernard Herrmann – hopeful yet sadly a grieving lament.
And second, the dream of the woman made her feel like she was already betraying Dave, as if he had never gave her the permission he knew she never needed to continue to live. Both reasons slammed hard against her heart. She vowed to dismiss any thought of Elizabeth Salvatricia Pellegrino –how did she know the woman’s middle name to begin with? And with that she fell back into the sofa and wept until she returned to her depressed routine of a fitful sleep…
Two days before Christmas, at church….
Theresa sat on the platform, a familiar place of study. As much as she wanted to, every nativity narrative seemed to almost refuse inclusion. Jeremiah didn’t fit, but it was always something she used to encourage others, and had been on her mind even after Bella and Lina explained that Liz had not only accepted Lina’s place in the family, but had rejoiced over her nephew’s ‘been there as a girl all along’ identity.
So why was the scripture still stuck in her psyche? Who then needed encouragement? As much as she wanted to help, any contact with Liz was bound to be disastrous, since it brought up feelings Theresa felt were best left buried. But didn’t the nativity foreshadow death but also resurrection? Why do you seek the dead among the living…. No…. that wasn’t what HE said….
“Pastor Terry?” Theresa turned to find Liz standing a few yards off to her side. She wore a magenta doctor’s coat over an ecru blouse and dark grey slacks. As she approached, Theresa noticed a white nametag with a small picture on it.
“Oh….hi…” Theresa said nervously as Liz drew close. She noticed the picture on the tag was a silhouette of a dog, and the name read, Elizabeth Pellegrino, DVM, leaving Theresa almost hating her in a way. There literally was nothing unattractive about Liz, which made Theresa’s attraction to her all the more guilt worthy. Liz did not help that at all.
“Thanks…for the meals. That was very sweet…” Theresa stammered.
“Oh, yes.” Liz stepped back, looking nervous and even scared.
“I wanted to apologize. Since… when I came by the other day I… I shouldn’t have been so…. Forward.” She bowed slightly. Theresa felt even more guilty, since she obviously must have encouraged Liz without realizing it. And so she had, but not in any way Theresa had imagined.
“I.. you…You’ve been so kind with Lina… I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing and it just was so easy for you… just what she needed to hear. Theresa swallowed hard. Liz had no idea how close to the truth she had come, yes? She breathed out and spoke, haltingly at first.”
It…it comes…..easy, yes. Be…because…” She looked away,biting her tongue ever so slightly in an attempt to maintain some modicum of composure.
“I’m….” She hadn’t meant to, but for the first time other than in grief, Theresa started to cry softly. She spoke slowly, her stammer replace by only a few small sobs.
“I’m just like Lina because I’ve lived that life. You know that Dave was my second husband….” Liz waved to interrupt.
“No, please? Let me finish. My first husband Andy died; Dave and I met in seminary while he was recovering from losing his first wife… we just…loved…. When I met your brother and Lina’s mom…” Theresa let out a sob. Liz once again went to speak but Theresa put her hand up before placing her palm over her heart. She shook her head; the plans He made were never meant to give her a hope and a future, were they?
“I’m….I was born what they now….they call it assigned male… why I understand what Lina… your niece is going through….I’m sorry,” she said as she once again placed her palm over her heart. She hopped off the platform and tried to walk past Liz toward the exit, but Liz gently grabbed her by the hand.
“Well, here we are.” Her smile was immediately, intensely disarming.
“I’d say, ‘silly,’ but how could you know? Bella and Lina told me all about you months ago.”
“But…but I thought you just said…”
“I said that you told Lina ‘just what she needed to hear.’ Not only that you understood, but that you spoke to her heart as her pastor My baby brother’s little lamb was scared and confused and you helped her see….that even after her mommy and daddy died, she still had… still has a hope and a future?”
Theresa should have felt encouraged, which would be fairly obvious to anyone on the outside looking in. But Theresa, for all her faith and hope and love of god, was still on the inside looking out. She viewed all of the things she learned as helpful tools and ideas meant for everybody else. But thankfully, someone had been divinely appointed on her behalf.
“Theresa? Terry? It’s funny… you know…odd? Ironic?” Theresa winced at her name, leaving Liz to redouble her efforts.
“It’s taken your love for my family… my girls… for me? To realize I have a hope... That my future didn’t just go away when Bella’s dad abandoned us. And it’s taken all this time since we’ve been here to know that my dreams are real… that my future has always been here….with this community…with this church….here we are, hun.” Tears spilled from Liz’ face as she pulled Theresa….Terry closer.
“Plans to prosper me and Bella and Lina. A hope and a future for us… for my children and me….” She literally paused for effect, enjoying the transformation before her as Terry’s weeping ebbed, replaced by soft brief sobs of relief, forgiveness, hope and peace.
“For you and me, Pastor Terry. For you and me.” In that one moment, every bit of loss both women had endured was replaced by a dream. THE Dream. They finally allowed themselves the gift of love for each other as the Dreamer for us all looked down and beamed with pride and joy, knowing exactly what the bright future held for Her children.
The following year, the Lighthouse Fellowship, Niles, Illinois…
“I guess this is okay?” Lina giggled as she pointed to the nice lady standing on the platform with open arms, exhorting the congregation to rise. Bella nodded, adding her own subdued version of a giggle as both girls turned their attention to the back of the church. The two women forwent the expected slow walk, preferring instead a brisk pace. Lina looked at the woman in front of them and grinned. After all, one can hardly officiate at their own wedding.
Terry smiled as she and Liz faced each other. Liz beamed proudly before mouthing “Love you. Hun,” before they both faced the minister
“Who gives these two in holy matrimony?” She asked. With that the entire congregation spoke as one, saying.
“We do. And Merry Christmas!”
Happiness is standing beside
I can see her
She can see me
Happiness is whatever
You want it to be
from the Motion Picture Scrooge
Words and Music by Leslie Bricusse
from the Motion Picture Fahrenheit 451
Music by Bernard Herrmann
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