Authors: Gayle Roper
And his melting smile and beguiling manner and earnest eyes would win my assent.
I might have continued to act the wimp forever if my younger brother, Sam, hadn’t forced me to see things differently and shamed me into taking my life back into my own hands. When he was a kid, Sam loved Jack, but in his later high school years Sam matured greatly. In fact, in many ways, he matured beyond Jack, who by this time was a handsome, charming man fast approaching thirty.
“He’s always late, Merry, hours late sometimes, and he never calls to tell you,” Sam said. “And he never apologizes. That’s inconsiderate. I’d never do that to a girl I was dating.”
“Don’t let it bother you,” I said. “It’s just Jack’s way. He has trouble with time.”
“And you think that excuses his lack of respect?”
“It’s okay.” I patted his arm. “Really.”
Or: “Does he ever ask you what you want to do, Merry? It seems to me you’ve watched an awful lot of church league basketball and baseball games, but I don’t remember him taking you to a concert or anything you like. And he’s always trailing his fan club of guys who are as irresponsible as he is. Who does he think you are? One of the boys?”
“Believe me, he knows I’m not one of the boys,” I said. “And I like church league ball games. I can always listen to music on a CD or my iPod, but you can’t see these games unless you’re there.”
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to the games,” Sam said. “I’m saying he should go to the concerts, too. For you.”
“If I’m not bothered, Sam, then I don’t think you need to be, either.”
Or: “He’s coming to get you in five minutes, and he just called? Isn’t he ever considerate enough to plan ahead? And aren’t you smart enough to be unavailable? For heaven’s sake, Merry, you were going shopping with Ellen and Joyce. Now you’re going to let them down just to be here for him? How’s he supposed to learn to appreciate you? You let him walk all over you! You’re a marshmallow!”
“The girls understand that Jack comes first, Sam.”
“He might come first with you. I just wonder if you really come first with him.”
“Sam! How unkind!”
When Sam first started talking against Jack, I just ignored him. After all, what did he know about love? He was only a high school kid.
When I began to suspect that he might be right, I worked hard to plug my ears. I couldn’t listen; that would be disloyal to Jack.
One memorable night this past July, Jack was scheduled to pick me up for my birthday dinner. We were going to Anna Maria’s, where they served the best pasta in the world, and I was dressed in Jack’s favorite dress.
“It makes your dark eyes flash and your skin glow,” he’d told me once.
The last think I did as I got ready was tuck into my purse a letter I received that day about an article I’d done on children with AIDS.
“Perhaps people will understand my grief better because of your article,” the mother of a stricken child had written. “I cannot thank you enough for your tenderness and accuracy.”
I smiled with satisfaction. Even Jack would have to see that I’d done well.
Mom and Dad and Sam left about six-thirty for an evening with friends, and I waited patiently for Jack. At eight he hadn’t arrived, nor had he called. Nine and no Jack. Ten. At ten-thirty, as I was rereading my fan letter for the umpteenth time to buck up my flagging spirits, the phone rang.
“Merry, I’m hungry.”
It was too late for Anna Maria’s and fettucine Alfredo, but we could still get a Big Mac if we hurried. “Happy birthday” can sound sweet over special sauce, too.
“Come on over to my place and make us some eggs, okay?” Jack said.
So much for special sauce. I looked at my letter, folded it carefully and put it under the phone where it would be safe until I got home.
“Sure, Jack,” I said softly. “Be right there.”
What an idiot.
I opened the front door just as Mom and Dad and Sam crossed the porch.
“How was dinner?” Mom asked.
I hesitated. I knew how they would react to the news that Jack not only hadn’t come for me, he had also asked me to come to him.
a little voice inside said.
Asked? How about told.
It’s nice to realize that some semblance of sanity remained, but at the time, I tried to squash it.
Sam, now a handsome eighteen-year-old three weeks short of leaving for Penn State, looked at me.
“You never went out,” he said. “Right?”
The kid was too smart. Willing my chin not to tremble, I nodded.
“But you’re going out now?” Mom asked. She looked around for Jack.
“He’s not here, is he, Merry?” said Sam. “Jerky Jack isn’t here. He never was here. What did he do? Forget?”
“No!” said I. “He called.”
“Sure,” said Sam sarcastically. “About five minutes ago, I bet. What was his excuse?”
“He didn’t make any excuses,” I said in a shaky voice.
“But if Jack’s not here, where are you going?” Mom asked.
They all stared at me.
“He’s hungry,” I said, just as if that explained everything.
“Of course he is,” Sam said. “Jerky Jack wants to eat Marshmallow Merry.”
Dad reached out and laid a hand on Sam’s arm. “Easy, son.”
“Dad!” Sam was almost in tears. “He’s making a fool of her!”
My father looked at me with pain in his eyes. I looked at the floor.
“Merry,” Dad said, “do you know that you rarely laugh anymore?”
I looked up, startled. That wasn’t what I expected him to say. I expected the heart-wrenching talk about Jack wasting my youth. I knew how to ignore that one.
“Do you realize that you have lost the gutsy independence that used to worry your mother and me so when you were in high school?”
“If I’m such a wimp,” I said defensively, “how come I’m such a good journalist? Huh? That takes guts!”
He just smiled sadly. “Do you know that you put Jack ahead of everything, including common sense and God?”
I stared at the porch floor again. Deep inside I knew my father was right. I knew Sam was right. Somehow, I
become a spineless marshmallow. And not even a soft, spongy one that bounced back after it was squeezed, but a permanently mashed one whose heart ached all the time, especially when Jack told me that he loved me, but…
Mom put an arm around my waist and gently led me back into the house.
“You can’t run to him whenever he calls, Merry,” she said. “You know that. And he’s not going to change, I’m afraid. He will always see life only from his own narrow point of view and act to satisfy only himself. It’s a tragedy, because he’s squandering a great potential for serving God by serving Jack, but that’s how it is. Jack first and foremost.”
I shivered in the July heat. I wrapped my arms around myself, trying vainly to get warm, as my mother continued relentlessly.
“You must face the fact, honey, that Jack’s way of thinking leaves out a wife—which is probably a good thing, because she’d spend her life being hurt and Jack would never understand why.”
“But I love him,” I whispered. Tears filled my eyes. “I know things can’t continue as they are, but I don’t know what to do.”
“Move,” said Sam so quickly that he’d obviously been waiting for the chance to state his idea. “Go someplace where Jack isn’t. If he cares enough, he’ll come and get you. If he doesn’t…” He shrugged.
I didn’t go to Jack’s that night. I also didn’t sleep that night or for several more as I thought and prayed. Move! The very thought made me sweat. As a compromise, I got my hair cut.
“What have you done?” Jack asked angrily when he saw the shorn me.
“I got my hair cut,” I said as he stalked around me. “Don’t you like it?”
He shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess, if you like girls with boys’ haircuts.”
I looked in the mirror at the young woman with curly, spiky black hair. “I do not look like a boy.” I didn’t look like me, either, but I figured I’d get to know this stranger in time.
He ignored me and got to what, for him, was the point. “You never asked me.”
For some reason, for the first time in years, I got angry at Jack. “I’m twenty-six, Jack. I’m allowed to cut my hair with or without your consent.”
The next day I went to the library when a story I was covering took me nearby. I read the want ads in the Philadelphia area papers. A week later I had a job at
in Amhearst, thirty miles west of Philadelphia in Chester County. In two more weeks I was ready to move.
“But we never talked this over,” Jack protested. “What if I don’t want you to move? After all, we’re thinking of getting married.”
“We are? When?”
“Sure we are. I just need a few more months, that’s all.”
I shook my head. “I
to find out who I am, Jack, who God made me to be, because I’ve forgotten.”
I determined when I first arrived in Amhearst that on work nights I would turn the TV off at ten and be in bed by ten-thirty. Discipline was absolutely necessary if I were to survive. The problem always came between ten-thirty and whenever I fell asleep. Such long, tossing, fitful, unhappy hours!
In desperation I began reviving a habit I’d had in high school and lost at Penn State: I began reading a chapter in the Bible and praying as I sat in bed with Whiskers crowded comfortingly against me. Maybe, in this way, I could calm my mind enough to sleep.
I began in the book of Philippians where Paul writes about pressing on and realized quite quickly that my father had been right that painful night on the front porch. In my total involvement with Jack, I had forgotten God.
Oh, I went to church every Sunday, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Jack. I sang the hymns and praise songs with joy and listened to the pastor with a critical ear. I knew that afterward Jack would want to discuss the service and the sermon, turning things this way and that, sniffing, pawing, looking for flaws like a cat looks for life in the carcass of a caught mouse. But, I was learning with considerable pain, it was Jack I wanted to please, and Jack I wanted to worship, not God. Any joy I felt was in the touch of Jack beside me, not in the presence of God within me.
Dear God, how forgiving are you toward someone who has become as shortsighted as I have been?
Slowly, weeknights in Amhearst became less terrifying, but weekends held their own special horrors.
And so, on that early September Friday night just after my move, I found myself digging through the trash can for Sunday’s bulletin, which I had just thrown away in my brief cleaning frenzy. I pulled it out and reread it, my attention drawn to the announcement about the bell clinic. I studied the words a few minutes, uncertain.
There had been a bell choir at Penn State, and I’d always itched to play in it. To my ear, bells sound so beautiful—lyrical and somehow angelic. But I’d never had the nerve to audition at school because of the music majors.
Now I nodded decisively, grabbed my purse and ran before I had a chance to change my mind. Maybe the bell choir wasn’t for a marginal musician like me, but at the very least I’d have something to occupy me tonight.
Much to my surprise, there were only about twenty people at the bell clinic, but those who were there were friendly and helpful, especially the woman beside me.
“I’m Maddie Reeder,” she said. “And I have no music sense whatsoever. I just love how the bells sound.”
I had found a friend, though her musical abilities weren’t quite as bad as she indicated. And she could laugh at herself, a trait I appreciated.
As usual, it wasn’t the notes that gave me trouble; it was the rhythms. I concentrated fiercely, and suddenly two hours were gone.
“Practices are every Thursday,” said the man who had introduced himself as Ned Winslow, the church’s music director. “You have to be at every practice. It’s not like a vocal choir where the others in your section can cover for you when you’re absent. If you’re not here, your bells aren’t played. So it’s a commitment.” He smiled at those standing before the tables. “How many of you are interested?”
I bravely raised a hand, and so did Maddie Reeder. About half of the others did, too, and the Faith Bell Choir was born. We premiered the first Sunday in October with an incredibly elementary song, but we impressed the socks off the congregation. We were to play the first Sunday of each month and for special occasions like Christmas and Easter.
By this December Thursday night, I felt I had acquired a few friends as I hung my coat and greeted the other ringers. We were a club, a group who shared a common cause, common experiences and common jokes. I belonged here.
I slipped on a pair of canvas gardening gloves and lifted two shiny brass bells from their red velvet resting places. I carried them carefully to the practice table and laid them down, then returned for two others.
I arranged the B-flat, B, C and C-sharp in an orderly line. On either side of me, people were arranging their bells, ringing them, sorting their music and pulling on their heavy gloves to protect the fold of skin between the thumb and forefinger from the rubbing of ringing the bells.
“All right, folks,” said Ned Winslow. “Turn to the piece we’ll play with the vocal choir Christmas Sunday morning. Merry, note that the arrangement wasn’t written by someone who knows bells. The C and C-sharp are written in the treble clef as with choral or orchestral music. You will want to transfer them to the bass clef.”
I began penciling in the changes and was halfway through the piece when Ned said, “Okay, let’s try it. Merry, just do the best you can.”
I hit my first clunker about the same time I became conscious of someone entering the room and sitting on the floor near the door.
“C-sharp, folks,” yelled Ned.
How does he know that?
How can he tell, with all the other notes being played, that it’s C-sharp that’s missing? Of course, that’s why he teaches music and I hit clunkers.
As I made the necessary transfer of bells, I realized our listener was Curt Carlyle. I hit three clunkers in a row.
“Want a bell, Curt?” Ned asked when we finished the song. “We can always use more ringers.”