Softly and Tenderly

Fay Loomis

We didn’t knock. Just walked in, as Mary couldn’t come to the door. Though it was dark, Janet knew the way to Mary’s bedroom at the back of the house.
Janet was expected to take her turn helping Sister Mary, a cripple, get ready for church. My mother and Janet’s parents, Reverend Mack and Edith Safford, had asked me several times to go with her. I didn’t want to but finally gave in, because I wanted Janet to be my friend. I also wanted to please the adults—and God.

Shortly after the war ended, our father had bought a chicken hatchery on the outskirts of Coldwater, Michigan, when I was about 10. Janet’s father was the minister of a new sort of holy-roller church that was near our end of town. Janet seemed to be the only girl to play with, and, I loved her blond hair.

I felt funny about dressing my Sunday school teacher, Mary Lehman. By the time we got to her house, I had a stomach ache. I felt better when she smiled and thanked us for coming.

Mary was matter of fact about what she needed us to do. We would start with the most unpleasant part: roll her over to expose her behind. I had never seen a grown up’s butt, especially such a flat one, and turned away. She called me back with her request for four squares of toilet paper. After folding them, she wiped herself and dropped the tissue into the bedpan.

I got the job of carrying the heavy white enamel pan into the bathroom. I placed it carefully on the counter, gagging at the tiny dark streak, lying in a small pool of yellow liquid. I lifted the toilet lid, dumped the contents, and shoved the pan into a corner by the toilet. By the time I got back to the bedroom, Janet had lowered the wooden bar, hanging above the bed like a trapeze, so that Mary could pull herself up to sit.

I was sent to the kitchen to get Mary’s breakfast tray. That room, like the rest of the house, was dark, and I didn’t see two old, white-haired people sitting at the table. They told me they were Mary’s parents, thanked me for giving them a day off, and pointed to a breakfast tray. On it was a sauce dish with half a golden cling peach in syrup, a slice of toast, and a small glass of milk. It didn’t seem like enough food for such a thin, bony person.

Janet unfolded the legs of an interesting contraption and placed it across Mary’s lap; I set her breakfast on it. While Mary slowly ate, I looked across her, at the largest window I had ever seen. I moved my eyes around the flower bed and called to myself the names of the late summer blooms I knew: blue bachelor buttons, orange marigolds, pink zinnias, black-eyed Susans, and purple spikes of delphinium. Lots of small brown sparrows and some cardinals pecked at the grass, until a pair of noisy blue jays swooped in and chased them away.

When Mary was finished eating, I took the breakfast tray to the kitchen and then stopped in the bathroom to get another tray on which were a bar of soap, a washcloth and small towel, a curved white enamel basin with toothbrush and toothpaste, and a comb. Meanwhile, Janet was helping Mary remove her bed jacket.

I made another trip to the bathroom to put warm water into a white enamel bowl, this time with a red rim. All were settled on Mary’s lap tray. I wasn’t sure what was coming next and was both relieved and surprised when Mary gave herself a sponge bath, brushed her teeth, with much foaming, and combed her hair.

Mary’s arms were always covered up in church, so I had never seen the scars on her left elbow. When she saw me staring at the lines on her flesh, straddled by dots, she said, “After I got polio, I had surgery that allowed me to move my left arm.” The motion was awkward, like a fish flopping around. She had more natural movement in her right arm, none in her legs.

“When I was a young girl, I used to drive a car with a rumble seat, go to movies and dances with my friends. I was selfish and neglected the Lord.” I couldn’t imagine her doing any of those things.

Janet took the bigger basin, I the tray into the bathroom. We emptied both and hung up the cloths. After pulling Mary’s nightgown over her head, I wanted to turn away again, so I wouldn’t have to look at her chest, flatter than her behind. I didn’t, because she could see me this time.

We began dressing her by lowering a slip over her head and pulling underpants as far up her legs as we could. We rolled her back and forth to get the white underclothes in place. I figured the worst was over.

A pretty deep blue dress, with tiny white flowers, was hanging near the bed. When I took it off the hanger, it felt like the soft fuzz of a newborn chick. We went through more rolling to get the dress on; I thought it would never end.

Then came the part that scared me to death. We put a piece of canvas under Mary, attached the corners to a pulley above the bed. While she grasped the wooden bar, we started lowering her into the waiting wheelchair. Sweat gathered under my arms, as she swung in the air. I thought for sure we would kill her. “You’re doing just fine,” she said, reassuring me.

We put on long tan cotton stockings. No need for a garter belt to fasten them up. Then black old ladies’ shoes, with a square heel and laces. Lastly, a long shiny navy blue coat. After putting her arms into the sleeves, we slowly tucked the bottom of it under her. We had a hard time getting the wrinkles smoothed out.

The fun part was putting a hat on her head and handing her matching black leather gloves. The hat had a small black feather tucked into the band.

She looked really nice—like my Sunday school teacher.

I couldn’t help smiling at our work. Mary smiled back, light reflecting in her eyes, as we wheeled her to the front porch and waited for Reverend Safford to pick us up in his ’39, black four-door Ford. Mary put her arm around his shoulder, as he placed one arm under her legs and the other around her upper back. I could see they had this all figured out.

He carried her to the car and put her in the front seat next to a little kid. We climbed into the back where there were three adults. The laps of two held us. Everyone talked at the same time, as we headed to the Safford’s home which became a church for Sunday services and Wednesday night prayer meetings.

Reverend Safford was a handsome man, with a southern accent and thick black hair that was slicked back. I loved his first name and wanted to call him Mack, though I never dared.

A kind man, he spoke softly when he stood behind the pulpit and began his sermons. Toward the end his voice got louder when he told us Jesus had died on the cross for our sins. He begged us to be saved, so we wouldn’t go to hell. I wasn’t sure what my sins were, though I knew I didn’t want to go to everlasting fire.

One Sunday night, Reverend Safford gave the altar call. Mrs. Safford’s beautiful voice floated over the congregation as she sang “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” She looked like an angel, soft red curls against her white skin. By the fourth time the chorus came around, the words got to me: “Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!”

Tears ran down my face, as I walked to the front of the church. Trembling, I knelt down. Reverend Mack knelt beside me and laid a hand on my shoulder. He thanked Jesus that I was ready to confess my sins. I prayed for forgiveness and asked Jesus to be my savior. Peace filled my heart.

I continued to get up early on Sunday mornings and take the long walk to Mary’s house, usually alone. Janet didn’t want to be my friend anymore. Jesus and Mary did.

Author Portrait

Fay L. Loomis, a nemophilist (haunter of the woods, one who loves the forest, its beauty, and its solitude), lives in upstate New York. A member of the Stone Ridge Library Writers, her poems, flash fiction, and articles are included in print and online publications. Most recently pieces have appeared in Halcyon Days, A Quiet Courage, Peacock Journal, and Postcard Poems and Prose. Fay holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from Michigan State University. She participated in the Honors College, graduated magna cum laude, was elected to Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa, and chosen Outstanding Graduate Student.