At Christmas, I always miss my father. But though he died many years ago, our family has a comforting story about that loss, that sad time. I have ghost-written the story, as if my mother were telling it to you.
I took the children to the park that bright summer morning. As John, six, reluctantly held three-year-old Beth’s hand, I pushed the stroller, eager to lose myself in the beauty of the shade trees that lined our street. I had to escape the basket of soiled diapers and piles of regular laundry. I wanted to forget the ever-present box of thank you notes that I owed those who attended the wake, the funeral or brought food or watched my kids during those dark days.
Had only a month gone by since Al’s death? All the sleep-deprived nights with my baby, Bill, and the days of trying to explain death to my other two, made the time feel like years. I was free-falling, grasping for a sense of order and purpose after Al’s sudden heart attack. Yet even though I knew I should focus on the positives of my situation, I felt abandoned and lost.
Yes, I had two wonderful sisters and my mother living near by. And I had a friend in our parish priest. But Al left me with three small children to raise, a house we only rented, and a life insurance policy. Because he was a dentist and it was 1950, I couldn’t get social security, and I knew the insurance money wouldn’t last forever
I would get a job, of course. I had to. But who would hire a widow without a college degree, no particular skills, and three kids? At the wake, a woman had whispered in my ear that she could find a family to adopt Bill if I was interested. I suppressed her words, wiping tears away and struggling to remember the names of Al’s patients who kept coming through the line.
One night, weeks later, I picked Bill up to feed him. He smiled at me and gurgled as if to say: Let’s have a conversation, Mom. I felt peaceful just holding him and yet in that moment the words of the woman from the wake came back to me. I looked over at our empty bed, the sheets rumpled on only my side. No, I said aloud, no. She had proposed an unspeakable idea. I held my baby close to me, praying intensely for God’s help.
“John hold Beth’s hand,” I said now as we reached the crossing to the park. We made our way into Little Ridge where Beth liked to play in the sand and John would usually find some friend he knew from the first grade. I pushed Bill’s stroller over to a park bench and gratefully sat down to watch them. The sun felt warm on my face. I needed this.
But moments later when I turned my gaze from the sandbox, I was startled by a woman standing just on the other side of the stroller. She was looking down at Bill. I had never seen her before and an unexpected shiver flowed through me.
“Nice day,” I said, my voice cracking.
“He’s beautiful,” she said, looking down at Bill. “Two boys and a girl, perfect.”
I nodded, my hand reaching for the handle of the stroller and my eyes darting back to the sandbox where John and Beth still played.
“You are so fortunate. Even though your husband died, he left you three million dollars. ”
I wanted to protest—who was this woman who was so ignorant of my financial situation? How did she know about Al’s death? What right had she to say such a thing to me? But I said nothing. I stared at her. What did she really want?
Slowly she reached into the stroller and lightly cupped Bill’s downy head with her hand. I didn’t move, watching her hand, listening to her coo to my child. Bill stirred slightly, his eyes in a dream behind long blonde lashes. Silence. When she withdrew her hand she smiled at me. I will never forget that smile—it transformed her plain, ageless face. Then she turned and looked at Beth and John who were piling sticks and rocks in the sand.
I finally released my breath, my chest shuddering. The warmth of the sun was intense. I stood up. “Yes,” I said, my voice clearer now. “Yes. My husband did leave me with three million dollars.” And I looked over to meet her eyes again, to say something else, maybe even ask her if we had met before. But she was already half-way up the path that led out of the park, her body in dappled light from the overhanging trees.
I lifted Bill from the stroller and held him tightly against my chest. I walked over to the sandbox praising John and Beth for the fortress they were building.
I never saw the woman again. But all my life I have never forgotten her. The gifts of my three children have been and still are the greatest gifts of my life.