Claire’s Gift

 

 

The last thing Claire did before heading out the door that Friday morning was drape pearls around her neck. They were the gift Claire bought herself upon completion of her graduate studies at George Fox University.

There had been no family members at graduation to cheer her on, no one to hug her, or hand her a dozen roses. It wasn’t that Claire didn’t notice her aloneness on that day. It’s just that she’d grown used to it.“Solitude has never felt like a temporary thing to me,” Claire said. “Being alone has been the most permanent thing about my life.”

Claire walked across that graduation stage with the arrow-backed assurance derived from doing a job well. Professor Lindley, an alumnus from the University of British Columbia, was cloaked in his own academic regalia.  He stepped into Claire’s path as she reached the midway mark to the parchment. “Very proud of you, Miss Reavis,” he said, offering Claire the right-hand of fellowship and a somber smile. She shook his hand and nodded thanks without slowing her step.  

Claire’s momma taught her the efficiency of putting one foot in front of the other, not because her momma did it so well, but because she was so completely inept at it. There had only been one bit of advice Claire’s momma imparted that turned out to be the least bit useful to the girl: “Always wear pearls. No matter how bad your day gets, you’ll feel better in pearls.”

“Momma knew what she was talking about,” Claire said. It made sense, really, when considered in retrospect,  her momma’s life amounted to one bad day strung between two others. Fate had played a part in all that but it was a fate fathered by the unholy Trinity of pot, cocaine, and meth. Her children – four in all – were the sacrifices Claire’s momma laid upon that bloody altar.

Only Claire and Baby Brother had survived. Claire because of sheer stubbornness and Baby Brother because he was taken into state custody the moment he was born, and later adopted by a childless couple who adored him. The twin sisters between them had also been placed into state custody where they had been subjected to years of emotional and sexual abuse at the whims of whatever foster parent they happened to find themselves.

The state allowed Claire to remain with their mother. She’d been 13 when somebody – a neighbor, a teacher, a grocery clerk – called social services and reported possible abuse. The twins, ages 3, were severely malnourished.

Despite her best efforts to care for her baby sisters, Claire had failed them. Her momma argued the neglect was just a temporary thing, said she had fallen behind caring for the girls because of her being pregnant and all. She never considered herself a bad mother, no matter how bad things got. Excuses seemed to be the only thing Claire’s momma always had prepared.

Claire felt guilty about the state taking her siblings, but the truth is caring for her baby sisters about did Claire in. Ten-year-olds are ill-equipped to care for newborns, especially two of them. Claire did the best she knew to do but even she realized it wasn’t enough. Not when you add in the chore of cleaning up the sour vomit of her wasted mother, too.

A young Claire swore then that she would not be like her mother. She would never drink, never smoke pot, never do drugs, and she had kept that promise to herself. Claire figured she received the best education in the world via her mother’s addictions.

Claire had picked George Fox simply because it was all the way across the country from her mother, and from Nashville, North Carolina. And there were trees in Newberg. Whenever she got that panic feeling, the residue of all those years of chaotic living, a walk under the canopy of trees helped her breathe, helped calm her.

 _

“All children deserve to be adored,” Claire told Judge Dickens. She was sitting on the very edge of the witness chair.

“Judge,” the defense attorney interrupted. “Please instruct the witness to stick to the question.”

“Ms. Reavis, please answer the question,” Judge Dickens said.

“Can you restate the question?” Claire asked. She was looking directly at B.J. Ratchett, the court-appointed defense attorney.

Ratchett knew that Claire held very little regard for him. As director of Portland’s Child Abuse Advocacy Center it was her job to intercede on behalf of victimized children.

In another world, Ratchett and Claire might have been friends, might have even been more than friends, but their jobs dictated they be at perpetual odds with one another. Ratchett considered that a darn shame. Claire was a very attractive woman. Fine-boned and petite, Claire had wide green eyes. Her dark auburn hair was expertly cut in a swing-bob that framed her heart-shaped face.

“The photos, Ms. Reavis. I asked you about the photos,”Ratchett replied, allowing his tone to express his impatience.

“Oh, yes, I recall now,” Claire said.

Turning to face Judge Dickens, Claire recounted the phone call placed to the help line at the advocacy center by a Rite-Aid’s clerk. The clerk said she’d developed photos for a regular client but when she went to put the photos in the package she noticed something disturbing. They were photos of a young child being sexually abused.

“Investigators discovered that it was the child’s mother who took the photos,” Claire said. She was not one to shy away from truth, no matter how awful. She stared up at Judge Dickens, and noticed the frown crease his brow as he glanced through the fifty-plus photos recovered from the drugstore.

This was all procedural stuff. None of it really mattered. The nine-year-old girl would not testify against her mother. Despite her part in her daughter’s abuse, the mother would face no charges. The abuser – a pot dealer the girl’s momma met over the Internet – had already cut a plea deal with the court. Five years maximum.

Claire left Multnomah County Courthouse that afternoon feeling like she did the day law enforcement came and took her baby sisters away – like she had failed everyone all over again.

A deputy dressed in a heavily-starched khaki uniform held the door open for her. “Merry Christmas, Miss Claire,” he said as he removed the red-felt Santa hat he was wearing.

“Merry Christmas, Officer,” Claire said.

 _

Shoving her hands into the pockets of her red wool coat, Claire headed north on Fourth Street. It was Christmas Eve, but unlike everyone else, even the city’s homeless it seemed, Claire had nowhere to be. No reason to hurry.

The cold that had frozen the city and shallow ponds in the country the previous week had lifted. While hardly balmy, temperatures rose to a respectable 52 degrees, almost too warm for a wool coat. The mid-afternoon sky was North Carolina blue, a gentle reminder that Claire ought to give her brother a call, wish him a Merry Christmas. Rob was a police officer in Raleigh now, married to a real sweet girl, an elementary school teacher.

They didn’t share much other than a birth mother but that was enough to bind them for a lifetime. Maybe beyond. The last either of them heard the twins had joined the Army, moved off to Germany. But they’d heard that nearly seven years ago. Claire wasn’t even sure it was true. Addictions have a way of interrupting the natural order of life, making it difficult to maintain even the simplest of sibling relationships. Not that there had ever been anything simple about Claire’s growing up.

Maybe that’s why Claire wrapped the doll before heading out for court Friday morning. The doll had been the only Christmas gift Claire’s mother ever gave her.

It was the Christmas of 1988. Claire’s momma came home drunk and high on Christmas Eve, like she did most nights. Only this night she was particularly sick. Young Claire grabbed the trash can from the bathroom, put it beside her momma’s bed and held back her momma’s long dark hair as her mother wretched into it. The stench was particularly foul, a sour mix of vodka and rum.

Claire wet a washcloth, held it to her momma’s forehead, then, when her momma was done puking, Claire wiped her momma’s mouth with it.

“Sometimes,” her momma said, “I can’t tell who is the daughter and who is the mother in this relationship.”

Claire didn’t have such doubts. She knew she was the responsible party, far more grown-up at age ten than her 36-year-old mother. After her mother fell asleep, Claire put herself to bed. She recited the Our Father, the only prayer she knew verbatim. She’d memorized it from a bookmark somebody left in a library book.  Then she sang O Little Town of Bethlehem, a song she learned for the Christmas program at school.

Her mother had not shown up for that, either. Claire knew she ought to be angry about her mother’s absence, her relentless neglect, but anger took up too much energy and Claire needed all the strength she could muster to care for herself and her mother.

Claire woke Christmas morning to the smell of coffee percolating and bacon sizzling. Her momma was in the kitchen cooking. A rare but pleasing thing.

“Good morning, Momma,” Claire said, shuffling across the linoleum floor in fuzzy pink slippers.

“Good morning, Sunshine,” her momma answered. “How do you want your eggs this morning? Scrambled or Sunnyside up?”

“Sunnyside up, please ma’am,” Claire said. She wrapped her arms around her momma’s slim waist, rested her head against a rounded hip.

The two stood there together, intertwined saplings. Claire’s momma slid the fried eggs onto a plate. Without looking at Claire, she said, “I’m sorry about last night, baby girl.”

“Don’t worry about it, Momma,” Claire said. She sat at the dinette table, started eating her eggs, as her momma poured herself a second cup of black coffee.

“Did you know today is Christmas?” her momma asked.

“Yes,” Claire replied. She tore a slice of white bread in two and ran half through the runny yolk remaining on her plate.

“Did you know Santa left a present for you?”

“He did?” Claire asked. She didn’t believe in all that Santa nonsense but the idea of a present was a tempting thing.

“Yes. He dropped it off in my bedroom last night. Said you’d been such a good girl he couldn’t possibly forget you. Wait here, I’ll get it.”

Claire’s momma came back carrying a doll wearing a frilly pink dress.

“Oh, Momma! She looks just like the twins!” Claire exclaimed.

“She does, doesn’t she?” her momma replied. “Her name is Thumbelina.”

_

Claire held onto that doll all these years. She intended to give it to her own daughter one day but who knew if she would ever have a daughter? Besides, Claire was pretty certain that if any girl ever needed a trustworthy companion, it was the nine-year-old girl in those photos.

So she pulled Thumbelina off the closet shelf and wrapped her in shiny paper before heading out the door that Friday morning, her pearls dangling underneath her red wool coat.

Claire asked Judge Dickens if she could have a few moments with the girl before the court proceedings. She told the good judge why and he granted her request.

“In the spirit of the season, you can even use my chambers,” Judge Dickens said.

“Thank you, Judge,” Claire said.

The victim’s Court-Appointed-Special-Advocate escorted her into the judge’s chambers.

Claire pulled up two chairs facing each other. The girl’s brunette hair, brushed to a polish, hung to her waist. She wore a pair of jeans and high-top sneakers, a red Blazer sweatshirt, somebody’s hand-me-down no doubt.

Claire held the present out.

“Honey,” she said, “I know that these past few years have been extremely difficult for you. I can’t fix that, but I want you to know that today we are going to make sure that the man who hurt you is never going to be able to hurt anyone again.”

It wasn’t quite the truth, but for the next five years they would be able to keep that promise, Claire reasoned.

The girl picked at the sparkly fingernail polish on her thumb.

“And we are going to get your momma some help,” Claire said.

“She needs it,” the girl said matter-of-factly.

Claire’s green eyes met the child’s dark ones.

“I know she does. And we are going to get you some help, too,” Claire said. “But first of all I want you to have this gift. It’s a gift that was very special to me when I was a young girl like you.”

“You were like me?” the girl asked.

“In a way, yes,” Claire said. “I know what it is like to be a kid and be the most grown-up person in the house. I know what it’s like to have to be your mother’s caretaker. I know what it’s like to want somebody to hold onto, somebody who won’t hurt you. When I was young like you and felt like that, I grabbed hold of this.”

Claire sat the gift on the young girl’s lap.

“Merry Christmas, Macy.”

“Merry Christmas, Ms. Reavis,” Macy replied as she began tearing off the shiny paper. “This is the first Christmas gift I’ve ever received.”

“I had a feeling it would be,” Claire said.

 

About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.

  • Sharon O

    beautiful… JUST beautiful… powerful too.


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