Monday, December 21, 2009

Eleanor's Reluctant Gift

A lovely day for shopping. Here in Harold’s up-scale department store at least the décor had not slummed into that tacky Christmas look. The staff always wore a professional black and the only nod to the season were the thousands of tiny silver tinsels draped over bare manzanita branches in huge, stark white pots. Classical music was not intrusive; the aisles were not cluttered with harried shoppers. It suited Eleanor just right.

“Mrs. Brill, oh Mrs. Brill,” the lilting voice behind the Mistique makeup counter caught her attention.

“Constance?” the matron turned from the new display of flavored lip gloss. Reading the expression of the girl, she instantly softened. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Brill, begging your pardon, but we’ve all been looking for you. That is, we’ve been expecting to hear from you.” Words tumbled out with sweet concern.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, dear. The card we sent, the phone call to your answering machine, it all must have—” A wee bit flustered, she offered a chair.

The department executive, Miss Vanna, a strong-jawed blonde, now briskly approached. “Good morning, Mrs. Brill. And may I be the first to offer congratulations to you on winning the Day of Beauty.”

Pleasantly surprised, Eleanor Brill learned the store’s side of the story.

The other side of the story was quickly surmised, the card no doubt torn in two, discarded with a day’s pile of obnoxious, ordinary Christmas cards sent to her by relatives, the phone call obviously deleted by her careless husband. But now, the winner of a very expensive package of indulgences from her favorite store. Well!

The two beauty consultants were beaming as they related the marvelous choices available to one of their frequent shoppers. A full day of pampering, brunch, soaking and wraps, massage, facial, manicure, pedicure, a complete hair restyling. Lunch catered from Durant’s next door. A limousine to fetch her and then return her home.

Suddenly a definitely lack-luster day of December had brightened considerably. Finally, something she hadn’t even asked for had come her way. Details soon taken care of and dutifully noted by the Mistique staff, Eleanor strolled towards the elevator with an air of grandeur.

A perfect time to relax, a lovely acknowledgement that she deserved something better than . . . oh well, this is not the time to dwell on a lengthy recital of how Eleanor Brill had arrived at the turning point of her life. Suffice it to say, three days later as she eased into a plush pink robe all thoughts of anything else were swept aside. “A day for me. A day for beauty,” she exclaimed under her breath as she walked along the thickly carpeted corridor of the spa.

“Juice, a lovely decoction of tropical fruits,” announced the first attendant.

Was it the drink, the excitement, the anticipation, or something else that brought a strange sensation as Mrs. Brill submitted to the warmth of the first herbal soak. Lying there, it was like her mind was unshackled, free to roam, free to soar.

“Mrs. Brill, you have a perfect baby girl,” the voice sounded like old Dr. Barnes. A new-born’s cry was heard.

“Mrs. Brill, your daughter has won the district’s essay contest.”

“Mrs. Brill, your daughter has won the all-state speech contest.”

“Mrs. Brill, your daughter has been in an accident, but miraculously she’s fine.”

With voices echoing in her head Eleanor felt herself weakening. It felt like surrender. What was happening?

Now an angry exchange of words assaulted her, like a pent-up flood of disbelief she heard herself and her daughter just before the door slammed. Her Jewel walked out of her life.

Breathing so slowly now, she faced the ugly scene. Jewel came back five years later to apologize. How dare she? No way under God’s Heaven could Eleanor expunge the horrible things that her daughter had said or done.

Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning Eleanor was struck by the strange events of her perfect day, the Day of Beauty. She, the winner of a coveted prize, not relaxed and happy, at all. What was happening?

She tried to call out to the attendant who had to have been nearby, but no sound came from her throat. She gasped for air, but felt like she was being gently strangled.

“God!” What else could she consciously cry. Like any other of the human race who faces a dreadful, unknown future all that was left was to exclaim His name. How many years had it been since she mouthed that word with utter dependency.

Marriage to Clinton Brill had been a victory. Quiet, strong, older, handsome, and with potential for money and position he was the target of affection by every girl at WSU. Eleanor carried it off proudly. And ever so gradually Clinton drifted off into a world of work and economics and business deals abroad. But his success meant the ties grew tighter, what she was allowed to do, with whom she was allowed to associate. The biggest irritation of her life was when her husband agreed to attend some Christmas program with a business associate and came home, “saved!”

No, actually, the biggest irritation was when he nearly demanded that she forgive Jewel. Eleanor raised her voice, and he turned on his heel and walked out. A business trip to Great Britain was the official “reason,” but his bedroom was strangely empty for nearly a month.

The lawyer she secretly conferred with examined the papers and told her that divorce was out of the question for her. When the little spot of skin cancer appeared on her cheek only her doctor and the expert makeup girl at Harold’s gave her any sympathy.

From then on Eleanor created her own reality and filled her days with shopping, spending, trips to New York, television, and movies.

Life, whatever it had been, now seemed to be parading by in the candle-lit spa room, a strange gesture of hatred mixed with hope. “God!” she mouthed. Her arms and legs felt paralyzed. She was alone, utterly alone.

Without warning came the voice she never could erase, “Mother, please! Do you not know what the word ‘forgive’ means to me?”

Forgive. That long-neglected word echoed in her mind. She heard it in her daughter’s voice, and again in her husband’s voice. Eventually, a favorite cousin confronted her with that same word. What audacity. What business was it of hers.

After that, an amazing memory came to hold her captive. She must have been twelve years old. In church a robed pastor spoke the word, “Forgive.” She winced as he went on to solemnly intone the rest of the sentence, “Forgive us, oh God, as we forgive the others. . .”

“No!” she argued with the scene. “I cannot. I will not.”

“Then, my dear Eleanor, I cannot forgive you.” Another voice, one so unusual, powerful yet tender seemed to reply.

“God? God! Oh, save me!” From deep within her response came quickly and fervently.

“I cannot give you the gift that you are reluctant to give yourself.”

A tiny sob welled up in Eleanor’s throat. “Give, give myself?”

“You deny forgiveness to others, and so doing you deny forgiving yourself. You failed to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife, even the perfect cousin.”

Intrusive music barged in. The soothing tones of classical harp and violin had ceased and a wavering, old organ now played a long-forgotten hymn, “Just As I Am.”

Sleepily, she found herself remembering and repeating the words from years ago. “Just as I am, I come to Thee.”

The spa attendant found Eleanor softly snoring in that bed of aromatic kelp. Her eyes were still covered with slices of cucumber held in place with a pink silk scarf, but her lips framed a peaceful smile. She had given a reluctant gift and had received an eternal gift.

by Elaine Hardt ©2006