by Christina Carson
When can never truly know the power our smallest gestures of kindness or goodwill have on the lives of others…
|Adrienne Wall Photography|
Mrs. Gerhardt squatted down in front of her five year old daughter and worked feverishly to roll up the waistband of her child’s ruffled pantaloons so the pants no longer dragged on the floor. She hadn't had time to try the new outfit on her daughter earlier due to the seeming never ending list of must-do’s that defined her life since her recent divorce. He just walked out, she thought. Shacked up with that woman from work and walked out. Realizing where her mind was heading, she pulled her thoughts back to her present task before her anger reached another boiling point. The dress that was part of the ensemble fit fine, but Gracie was not a tall child and the hem of the pants covered her shoes and then some. Her mom struggled to get it all hiked up evenly. But every few seconds, her hand would come out from under the dress, and she’d push the heel of it into her forehead and rub hard and slow. Haggard was the word that best described Tricia Jo Gerhardt and late was the second best; today would make it three times this week in fact. She was struggling up the corporate ladder now; she needed the money. But tardiness was not well tolerated.
“Hold still.” It was a command, not a request. Gracie had been unaware she was in motion of any sort, so she just kept standing there as she had been. “I spent a great deal of money to get this dress for you, so you could look pretty on picture day.” The dress she was referring to was la haute couture for the preschool set. Peasant dresses were what they were called, the material hosting multicolored patchwork with ruffles at the wrists. The bloomer-like pants worn underneath the dress had ruffles at the ankles. Gracie would have preferred being outside playing with her dog, Billie, rather than getting all gussied up. This foray into preschool had not been her choice. She smiled over top of her mom’s bent head at her golden retriever, who watched this early morning fiasco yet thumped his tail expectantly, like they’d go play when this was over.
Once Mrs. Gerhardt had finally reached a length with the bloomers that allowed Gracie’s little satin ballet slippers to show, she pinned the fabric to the waistband and sighed. Still squatting, she gave her daughter a final once over starting with her ringlets, which she bounced a few times with the palm of her hand then shook her head and breathed out through her teeth. She hated that wildly curly hair her daughter had inherited from her father. She felt it made her look a bit too ethnic, is how she put it. Next, she licked her index finger and cleaned off the corners of Gracie’s mouth where some toothpaste had gathered. With that accomplished, she pushed herself up to standing, the silk in her slacks having suffered some heavy creases from that crouch. As she walked off to grab her purse and keys, she attempted to smooth them out, but in a fit of impatience she shook her hands like she was removing water from them, only the gesture depicted a woman on the edge. She left Gracie standing there, the child unsure if the inspection was over or not.
“Gracie what are you dawdling over. Come on. We’re late.” Gracie trailed after her kicking her heels up in a little gallop, stopping to hug her dog, then just outside the kitchen door she stopped again to pet her stick horse. Her mom stood by the car door, her fingers drumming out what sounded like a horse galloping, waiting.
As they drove to the school, Gracie’s mother lectured. “Now listen, I can’t be at the picture taking today, so here’s what you must do to look pretty for the photographer. Plump your skirt out and do not, under any circumstances, pull at your bloomers. Do you hear me?” Gracie nodded, never taking her eyes off her mother as she doled out her instructions. “You usually make that silly looking grin. Don’t so that this time. Smile pretty. And don’t let the camera lady take your shoes off because I paid a bundle for those slippers, they are real ballet slippers, you know. So leave them on.”
Gracie was trying desperately to remember each item of behavior that was now her responsibility. But all that she managed to remember was the comment about her smile being somehow wanting. That worried her most for she didn't know what a nice smile looked like or how to make one. The parting shot as her mother opened the car door, undid her seat belt and tugged her out was when she said in an edgy voice, “ I love pretty girls and smart girls, so don’t disappoint me.”
In the time Mrs. Gerhardt had dropped Gracie off at her classroom and then disappeared down the street with the speed of a small caliber bullet, Gracie drooped like a four-day-old cut flower and walked to a quiet part of her classroom hoping to hideout. She was usually a buoyant little girl; quiet yet sweet, but this morning she felt frightened. She knew words to describe what she sensed in her mother— angry and sad. But she had no awareness of states of mind like driven or frustrated or abandoned, the state her father had left them in. What made sense to her was that she was somehow responsible for her mother being upset. And that made her feel like she was bad. She just didn't know why.
Gracie stayed over in the corner hugging her bunny which she managed to sneak into the car with her. She hid it in the folds of her skirt so that he, Mr. Welty, would be there if she needed him. She sat rocking on a little wooden chair, trying smiles on her face, hoping to do one that felt right. She thought she had a good one and held Mr. Welty out in front of her to give her feedback. But before he got a word out, the teacher was there asking her if everything was okay. It so startled her that she leapt up from the chair, feeling her bloomers slide down as she rose.
She hadn't noticed the ruffles had gotten under her feet, and her sudden jump up pulled them down to mid-thigh. Gracie had been so wrapped up in her smile practice that she couldn't focus on the teacher’s question. Instead, she worked to get her bloomers back up to her waist.
“Is your pretty new dress for picture day?” the teacher asked.
Gracie nodded her head several times.
“Well you look lovely today. Your mother will be really happy to have pictures of you looking so pretty.”
That eased Gracie a bit, because she remembered her mommy saying she loved pretty girls. She looked up at her teacher and asked, “Do daddies love pretty girls too?”
The teacher winced knowing the situation at home. “Oh yes, Gracie, daddies especially love pretty daughters.”
She wanted to talk with Gracie more, but some minor outbreak across the room forced her to leave Gracie without further comment. The little girl turned back to practicing smiles, but the teacher was now calling the class together. Gracie didn't know when their pictures would be taken, but every time she thought of it she felt frightened in a strange way. She didn't know the word dread either, or she would have understood what was happening to her.
On the other side of the school, Mattie Bolton, who had been taking pictures of preschoolers all morning at Haines Elementary, was returning from her fourth bathroom break of the day wondering if people would begin to think she had a medical condition of some sort she’d spent so much time in the washroom. Had they investigated, they would have found her leaning against the wall trying to regroup. It had been a long day so far and now the afternoon stretched before her. She’d been involved with this photography gig for years, but it seemed of late the kids had become more ill-mannered and uncooperative than prior times, often almost impossible to work with. They either cried and whined or behaved like over-wound wind-up toys careening around the set with no concern for her equipment or props. And their mothers, when present, merely sat watching, making no effort to rein them in.
It seems every generation complains about kids relative to their own past, and Mattie was at that age where there were more years behind her than out front. But she was beginning to sense a growing agreement among adults of all ages that kids today were more akin to those in Lord of the Flies than Anne of Green Gables. And if you want to see this in all its glory, try to take their pictures.
She took a deep breath, rallied her last bit of patience and walked slowly back to the room where her set was located, hoping she’d not find one of the little imps hanging from the backdrop or swinging round the light stands....
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