by Sandra Dorr
(Poet Sandra Dorr read selected works last month at Telluride's Wilkinson Public Library. One of them was this Christmas narrative about "Oranges," from her book, "At Susan's Table," published by Two Rivers, Portland, 1998.)
On the great Christian holidays my family always drove Mrs. Swenson, the widow, to church.
"Now, quiet!" my mother hissed when our car stopped before her tiny blue bungalow. We all snickered at Mrs. Swenson, mad that we had to pile up in twos and threes so she could fit into the back seat. She plumped down, reeking of cloves and rose water, the circle of rouge wobbling on her cheek like Jell-o when she pinched my brother's cheek and cooed, "He's so lit-tle!" He hung his head, and she fell on Pat and me. "Well, girls. How's school?" She talked until the car stopped, and like a whirling of leaves we sprang out, breathed deeply, and arranged our wrinkled wool skirts and coats for the hour of mass.
"Why do have to take Mrs. Swenson to church?" I asked my mother.
"Because!" she shouted at me over the vacuum cleaner, her hair bound in a kerchief and her pink checkered blouse rolled up to her elbows as she crawled under the bureau to dig up sticky bits of old suckers. My mother had grown up on a farm that failed during the Depression, and knew the terrible struggle for food and shelter. Her father, a fiddler, had left her, her mother and her nine brothers and sisters for a passionate love affair with a woman in the same county. They managed to keep their land, but there was never enough food. Christmas to her had meant oranges, a mythical fruit that appeared once a year, which she ate very slowly, saving the seeds.
My mother was certain that all of us lived on the edge of a great precipice. At any moment we could lose our car or our tall stucco house and everything in it. We had to take care of the people closest to the edge, for if they fell in, what would happen to us?
This was a logic we inherited, because any child in my family could eyeball one bottle of root beer and pour exactly two inches of it into each of seven waiting plastic glasses. And Mrs. Swenson rode with us during Advent and Lent, when the temptations of worldly goods were at their highest and when man sunk to his lowest, and the precipice widened and people clutched at the rim. When we were finally home from school for the holidays, there were moments when my mother was seized by conscience, and I saw her looking out the kitchen windows at the snow filling the gutters. "Imagine," she said, and flew around the kitchen, packing up chicken gizzards and leftovers for me to take across the alley to the Lindholm's house.
I knocked on their saggy back door, and an old woman in an apron appeared. She thanked me and put a sugar cookie on a plate. Then the gravelly voice came from the back room: "Whoisit?" and her eyes begged me to come with her. It was always the same. The sick man would raise his head over the blankets to peer at me. His cold purplish hand fumbled out, reaching for mine. I held it until his eyes closed, and he dropped back to sleep. Then I ran all the way home.
Inevitably at Christmas, I buy bags of oranges and give my children more than they can eat. As we pack up boxes of food and clothes for the homeless, I tell my son and daughter stories of the people who have mysteriously reappeared in new bodies in our neighborhood. Mr. Lindholm, now, he limps down the block with a cane. Mrs. Swenson has bought a new pillbox hat. And I see the curves of my mother's soft brown hair on the head of every woman who walks ahead of me.
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