Mrs. Beath. I smile when I think of her. She was a large woman. Like, 200+ pounds large. She lived next door to us when I was in grade school. All the houses and front yards on our street in the little suburban neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, looked pretty much the same – a couple steps leading up to either a little concrete stoop or a slightly larger covered porch, fronted by a rectangle of grass, all bordered on the right by a cracked cement driveway. All, that is, except Mrs. Beath’s.
Her yard was a chaotic explosion of color – not a patch of grass or cement to be found. Instead, she had planted every imaginable color and type of flower, all intermingled in a gorgeous if untidy array. In the center of it all stood a 4’ cement statue of the Virgin Mary. To a five-year-old, it was a yard full of beauty and wonder. I’d spend hours smelling and exploring, and often, under Mrs. B’s supervision, I’d clip arrangements to take home to my mom. It was heaven.
But even more heavenly than her expanse of flowers was her huge expansive heart. Many an evening, I’d go over and she would pull me up onto her equally expansive lap. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I will never forget how I felt. I felt safe. I felt seen. I felt loved.
My parents saw Mrs. Beath through very different eyes. They commented on everything from her physical appearance (“How can she let herself be seen in public looking like that?”) to her displays of faith (“I wish she would take that tacky statue out of the center of her yard!”) In short, they were embarrassed to be flanked by such an obese….Catholic!
Let me hasten to say, my parents were good people. They did their best. They just had a number of “issues,” intellectual elitism being one of the primary ones. They were very private, very emotionally reserved, and very non-religious.
Mrs. Beath weighed in heavily at the other end of the spectrum.
She’d never been to college. Her three daughters were all nuns. My mom called them penguins. (“Oh, my…one of the penguins is visiting again!”) Sister Mary Ann is the one I remember. She had the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen.
Mrs. Beath had no self-consciousness issues. She’d spend hours in her flower-garden, nylons rolled down around her ankles, swollen feet crammed inside her plastic sandals, her flower-print moo-moo house dress barely covering the essentials as she bent over weeding her “babies.”
She gave a “two bun salute” to any and all passersby. And she couldn’t have cared less.
But she did dress up on occasion. Like in early December, 1960, when she took me on the most exciting outing I could’ve imagined – a bus ride to the downtown Kaufmann’s store to see Santa Claus! Kaufmann’s had the most fantastic, moving Christmas decorations. Walking hand in hand with Mrs. Beath along their whole, block-long string of window displays was… magical.
But the real magic was in the simple moments we shared on her porch, as twilight merged all too quickly into time-to-go-home darkness. Together, we’d watch the lightening bugs come out, guessing where the next twinkling greeting would appear amidst the garden. We’d share that evening’s fresh-baked treat – apple cobbler, chocolate chip cookies, custard…
I do remember her telling me about Jesus. They were stories I’d not heard before. I found them fascinating.
As seasons passed, I spent less and less time on Mrs. Beath’s front porch. And none on her lap. Within a few years we moved to Ohio, and I never saw or heard from Mrs. Beath again.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned Jesus was not in the same category as Santa Claus. I was astounded when I realized some people, including Mrs. Beath, actually believed Jesus was for real! She hadn’t just been making up those Jesus stories, like the ones she’d told me about jolly old St. Nick.
(Now, romanticism aside, I must say it also took me years to sort out some of the underlying beliefs Mrs. Beath had passed on to me – like always having to be a “good little girl” in order to be rewarded with coveted Christmas toys or a heavenly afterlife. But that’s a whole ‘nother story…!)
Point is, as a 5-year-old, whether her stories were fact or fiction didn’t matter. What Mrs. Beath gave me transcended any verbal teachings or related misconceptions. Mrs. Beath gave me the experience of unconditional love.
And that can never, ever be misconstrued.