Pearl lives on the south edge of town in a sprawling two-room bungalow. Well, it seems sprawling to me because it’s more than what I have which is whatever open bed I can find at one of the downtown shelters. But this story isn’t about me.
Pearl and I became friends back in High School. We were never lovers or anything like that, just friends. Through war, college, weddings, careers, and failures we managed to keep track of each other. Now we’re old and alone.
The one thing you need to know about Pearl is she is steady, her life is ordered and as predictable as she can make it. I’m part of that order I suppose although I share none of her desire to keep certain ducks in their place. On Thursdays, never on any other day, Pearl picks me up in her old Buick. I do whatever handyman kind of work she needs, she makes me a home cooked supper and drops me off again at the shelter later that evening.
One day, after picking me up Pearl took a different route home. I noticed because it was a chink in her routine, a left-hand turn at the Kroger’s instead of a right-hand one. “Pearl, you made a wrong turn,” I pointed out.
“No, she moved,” was her terse reply.
Shannon is Pearl’s only child. It was a rocky marriage that only managed to stay together with liberal quantities of Duck Tape and SuperGlue. And Shannon knew how to exploit each crack. In my day she would have been called a wild child, now they just called them troubled. As far as I know, Pearl and Shannon haven’t spoken in years. Their separation is not over one large thing but is more like a mountain of pebbles, a multitude of small offenses piled on top of each other to the point they can no longer see each other.
“And how did you find out that she moved?” I asked.
“She wrote me a note” That’s a first I thought.
“Did she say anything else in the note?”
I could see Pearl struggling to process her answer has she turned from Fourth to Belaire Drive. “There it is, her new place, the one with the candle in the window.”
It was a simple tract home that looked like all the others around it. “Nice place,” I said. “Why don’t we stop and say hello?”
“No!” Pearl responded. I could tell that there was an earthquake in her soul. Her eyes were teary but her mouth was hard, and her knuckles were white. “I don’t want to talk about it. I need you to fix the sink again.”
So I fixed the sink, nothing much more than a plugged trap. I fiddled with a few other things but mostly we just talked like we always did with safe words and phrases we’d developed over time. We each knew what doors we could open and which ones we couldn’t. For instance, I never ask about her husband that died unexpectedly or the failed pension that was supposed to keep her comfortable. And Pearl knew to never, ever, talk about Vietnam and my time there.
“I need you to do one more thing,” Pearl began. “There’s a box in the attic with Christmas decorations, could you get it down?” Okay, that was another change in Pearl’s world, she hadn’t put up Christmas decorations since Frank died. It wasn’t hard to find, the attic wasn’t that big. And it wasn’t difficult to bring it down, it wasn’t a very large box. After brushing off the dust and cutting through the yellowed packing tape we opened the box to find a couple of old garlands, a string of lights, a few of boxes of Christmas ornaments, and an old electric candle. “Can you make sure the lights work?” Pearl asked once the box had been explored.
I tinkered with the lights until supper. Chasing down burnt out bulbs on a string of Christmas lights is right up there with a root canal in my book, but it beats dumpster diving for pop cans. I even got that old plastic candle to work again after a bit of rewiring which seemed to make Pearl happy and sad at the same time.
After a home cooked meal of sliced ham, baked sweet potato, and green beans I began to get ready for the trip back to the shelter. “Here,” Pearl said and thrust a piece of paper into my hand. “It’s the note from Shannon.” I looked carefully at Pearl, this was opening one of those forbidden doors.
“You sure you want me to read it?” I asked.
“No, but I need someone to tell me what to do.”
Merry Christmas Mom,
I know it’s been a long time and some things have changed in me. I kind of feel like Scrooge on Christmas morning. I was wondering if I could drop by on Christmas Eve. There’s some things I need to say. But I don’t want to just barge in. Put a candle in the window Christmas Eve if you’re ok with it.
“I don’t know why you need my say so, put the candle in the window and have a sit down with Shannon,” I suggested.
“I’m scared, I don’t want it to end badly again. I don’t think I could take it if it did,” Pearl admitted.
I’ve never seen Pearl this way, she’s always been a rock that nothing could touch. “Listen,” I begin. “My social calendar isn’t exactly full, so if you want me to be here, I can be. I know that Christmas Eve doesn’t fall on a Thursday, but I can be here to help keep things from becoming a volcano. If you want me to that is.”
Pearl nodded, “I don’t know. Let’s get you home.”
I’d like to report that Chrismas Eve was like a picture postcard with just enough fluffy white snow to make everything look bright and clean. Instead, Pearl plowed through heavy, dirty slush as we headed towards her home. I was kind of surprised when she came around after lunch on a Tuesday, but I guess that she wanted someone there after all if Shannon came over. Call me Switzerland! Oh well.
As we pulled into Pearl’s drive, I noticed the electric candle glowing in the window. Its little light wasn’t much, but it seemed to express an extreme hope. Or is that me just reading into the situation. Pearl set me to work decorating a sad little tree she had picked up at the Dollar Store while she began to work on supper.
Night seemed to come early and the little candle in the window glowed even brighter. Shannon’s note didn’t say when she would drop by so every noise and passing car got Pearl’s attention and made her just a bit more nervous. It wasn’t long before a car did stop. A car door was slammed shut. Footsteps discerned has they broke through the ice-crusted slush. A knock on the door. But Pearl didn’t get up, she seemed frozen in place. Switzerland to the rescue.
I answered the knock and helped Shannon take off her coat like a proper butler would.
“You must be Shannon,” I said. “My name is Buck, I help Pearl out every now and again.”
“Nice to meet you,” Shannon spoke with a little quiver. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hi Shannon,” Pearl said quietly.
“Is it ok if I sit?” Shannon asked pointing at a kitchen chair. “I was really glad when I saw the candle in the window.”
“I wasn’t sure when… your note didn’t say what time,” Pearl began. “Or we would have had supper or something for you.” The truth was that Pearl had made enough just in case but had already put the leftovers away.
“That’s ok. I ate before. I didn’t want to put you out or anything.”
I could see that Pearl wanted to spit something back, but she held her tongue for once.
“Listen. Mom, I didn’t want to cause you any trouble,” Shannon began again. Oops, another landmine time for Switzerland to step in.
“It’s no trouble at all, in fact, Pearl’s been looking forward to you coming over all day. Isn’t that right Pearl?”
“It is nice to see you, Shannon,” Pearl agreed.
“Well, better get to it,” Shannon whispered to herself. “Mom, I’m sorry for all the trouble I caused. Things have changed in my life, in me, and now. Well, now I know what hell I put you through. I just wanted to say I’m sorry, please forgive me. I, I really do miss you.”
The moments between Shannon’s plea and Pearl’s response seemed to last forever. Like time itself was waiting for Pearl’s words.
“It’s not that easy,” Pearl began with tight lips that bit her words. “You can’t just show up out of the blue, say a few words, and brush everything away.”
Words escalated pretty quickly as accusations and past wrongs were hastily unpacked and lobbed at the other. Soon they were both talking past each other with ever increasing volume. Landmine, explosion, things weren’t looking good. Perhaps we needed some UN Peacekeepers instead of Switzerland.
“SHUT UP,” I bellow with the authority of a Drill Instructor. “Shut up, sit down, and cool down for a moment.” Both women slowly sat. “Listen, you both have plenty of grievances to hurl at each other. But you have to find a way around them.”
“That’s well and good Buck, but…” Pearl began, but I cut her off.
“No! Don’t start again.” A vision flashed, maybe stirred by the fireworks between Pearl and Shannon. “Back in Nam there was this guy, just a jarhead like me, called Whitey, I think his real name was Blake Whitcomb or something like that. Anyway, he was a tunnel rat. The Vietcong had built this vast tunnel system to move men and supplies under our noses. Whitey’s job was to dive into those dark booby-trapped tunnels and clean them out. One day Whitey dove into another tunnel. In the darkness, he heard the quiet footfall of someone moving around. He silently navigated the tunnel until he saw a shadow heading his way. Well, not really a shadow but a darker dark. He raised his Colt 45 and was just about to pull the trigger when he heard “UuRah.” He instinctively called back “Semper Fi.” The shadow was another tunnel rat, another Marine that had entered from the other side. In the darkness, fearing an enemy, they almost shot one another.”
“What’s that got…” Shannon started.
“I’m not finished yet. At one level you two are at war, always have been, and its hard to put all of that aside. So, what you have to do is dig under the mountain of offenses you both built so that you can see each other again. It’s unrealistic to think that you can magically and truly forgive in a moment all that has gone on. But you can push that aside for now, not ignoring it but choosing to slowly work through it as you can and to make friends with each other. Now, Shannon, I have a question.”
“Ok, Buck, what is it?” Shannon replied.
“You said in your note and alluded to it a moment ago that something changed in you that caused you to want to connect again with Pearl, what was it?”
Shannon took a deep breath, “I’ve found God. Tony and I have been going to church, learning about forgiveness and love. And while I’ve found happiness I’ve also found a deep sadness about how I treated you, mom.”
Pearl didn’t say anything but slowly nodded as a tear ran down her cheek.
“I have an idea, at least for starters,” I said. “How about if Shannon comes over for supper every Thursday? You can get to know one another again, tell each other about your week and stuff like that.”
“As long as I can bring supper every now and again I think that would be great,” Shannon added.
“Ok,” Pearl agreed and in the spirit of the moment added, “Tell me about your church.”
I can’t report that everything was happily ever after. There were plenty of times when Switzerland stepped in to keep the peace. They did manage to whittle on the mountain some but never did get through all of it. Within that first year, I got to know Shannon, her family, and her church. I even started going there myself, but that’s another story.