Kind Gestures by S. Webster

Chapter 1

Beth6:30 a.m.

Pulling herself out of bed this morning Beth remembers George saying something about going over to his mother’s for breakfast.  She hears the television come on downstairs and knows that at this hour the boys are still in their pajamas. It’s okay. School doesn’t start for another week and there is plenty of time for them to sit in front of the television before she needs to get them ready to go.

Once in the bathroom she closes the door behind her and looks at the bruises wondering when there would be enough, enough to take a chance on finding something better for her and the boys. How many times has she asked herself this question only to end up convinced that the chances are slim. Her eyes skim over her reflection and quickly look away. She feels weak and incapable of making decisions on her own. Maybe today she can find the guidance she needs. If not, then she will begin again to get through another day knowing that staying here and hoping for change is what it will always come down to.  And that wouldn’t be so bad if she could only convince herself that maybe, just maybe she needed to accept that she might just have it coming. George could be right when he says she needs to appreciate all he does for her and should show him more often how much.

Her mother is probably right too when she reminds Beth she’ll never do better than this good-looking boy who thought there was something worth saving in her. After all he is a preacher’s son well-schooled in righteousness and the ways of the Lord.  Beth knows her mother tells her this because she does not want her coming back home, certainly not with two young boys in tow. Time and again she has been told by Paula Siddons this is just a phase some men go through. Beth should stop and consider how fortunate she is, and think how her friends at church would react to her leaving the pastor’s son. Not to mention turning her back on what is surely part of God’s plan.

Beth locks the door behind her and thinks about what her mother said. Is this really what He wanted for her, her Jesus who is always there for her, waiting, comforting and forgiving? Kneeling down on the soft rug in front of the toilet she carefully raises the seat with trembling hands and leans over the cool water. Sitting back on her heels Beth clasps her hands together in her lap. It feels good to be on her knees again this morning, here in the one place of guaranteed privacy. It is her confessional and her sanctuary. Cleansing takes place here.  And Beth knows she’ll be cleansed again this morning as she slowly lifts her bruised and aching arms to place her elbows on the edges of the cold porcelain bowl, shaking hands holding fast to each other.

Closing her eyes Beth feels the sensation of being lifted, being held. Her trembling slows as calm and coolness enter her body as she prays. Prays for forgiveness and prays for help. God, it feels so good to talk to Him, tell Him all she is feeling – and then listen to what He has to say.

She is so grateful to have found the power of peace this place offers and in a strange way grateful to George for helping her discover it. Last year he had thrown her in here to clean herself up and ‘get it together, for God’s sake’. When he kicked her legs out of the way and slammed the door shut Beth found herself slumped on the floor in front of the toilet. Holding on tight Beth retched into it, and flushed.  Feeling better she flushed it again. The movement of the cool water was taking away her pain and soothing her very soul. Staying where she was Beth prayed – prayed hard for God to help her to be what George wanted. She felt certain that He was there with her.  And with His help she would be able to pull herself up from the floor joyful in her duties as wife, mother and daughter.

She knew she was a burden George no longer wanted.  But he would never leave her. He would not risk the wrath of his father if he did that. George was trapped in a marriage he could not get out of and the frustration with his situation found release in hurting her. Beth had nowhere to go but retreat further into her faith.  Her belief in the power of prayer grew in the same proportion as his annoyance with her. It irritated him how she put her hands together over each meal and seemed to take longer and longer giving thanks. It was just toast, for God’s sake. But Beth would put her hands together slowly, glance around the table to make sure the boys were doing the same, and then launch into how much they all had to be thankful for.

She knew she would likely pay for it later, but this was a time to talk to God. This was one of the few times during the day she believed God was listening and waiting to hear what Beth wanted to tell Him through praise and affirmation of her faith. It was impossible to make anyone understand the feeling that welled up inside her when she placed her hands together. Was it like a waterfall flowing upward? Was it a burst of butterflies? How does one even explain the surge of joy that happens inside that fills the chest so full on its way to lips waiting to rejoice in word or sigh or smile. Beth trusted the power of prayer and tried hard to show God how much.

A year later and she was still trying, still praying. Beth was a good mother. She knew that. Lately she believed she had become a better daughter as well by no longer telling Paula how George hurt her. Talking about it didn’t change anything and it had hurt her in other ways hearing Paula’s words that stung her eyes and stayed in her thoughts for days.

You have a roof over your head, food on the table and two healthy children.

It was a lucky day for you when George married you.

I never knew why he wanted you but consider yourself blessed and stop your complaining.

George is probably under some kind of stress that he knows you are incapable of understanding and it will pass. It has before and it will now.

Just don’t be stupid and stop acting so pitiful.

You’ll be fine.”

Beth used to think she was lucky indeed to have him, to have been chosen over all others, especially Patty Anne and Linny, two of the most popular girls in school. But within a couple of years of their marriage George began to take pleasure in telling her that both of those girls wondered what in the world he saw in her. He would tell Beth how much prettier Patty Anne and Linny were and how back in high school they expressed their love for him in the back seat and behind the bleachers. He liked telling her that it was he who had introduced them to an excitement that kept them coming back for more. So what was wrong with Beth?

When George didn’t choose either one of them, they settled for what was available. She learned from her new husband that after trying out both, Patty Anne picked Charley and left Fred for Linny. The truth is that all three of them were now married over ten years to husbands who had no idea how much they fell short of their wives’ expectations. If they or anyone else in town for that matter, knew how their wives really felt no one could tell, because like so many others in a small town of open doors and welcoming smiles, they keep telling themselves, ‘Life is good and we are happy. Just look, anytime you want. See? We are happy, we are good and happy’.

There was little happiness and less love in the house Beth grew up in with Paula. It was a small dark cabin hidden in the trees and shadow of a ridge beyond Ogden Pond less than five miles south of town. There was no father, no siblings and few friends. Whoever had fathered Beth was nowhere around and there was no evidence he had ever been there.

Paula was employed by a textile company doing piece work at home sewing bed linens from fabrics cut to size and delivered weekly.  Her paycheck was sent every month based on the count of finished linens picked up and returned to the factory for inspection and packaging. She did what she could to keep the house picked up and delegated jobs to Beth as soon as she saw an interest in the little girl to mimic her mother. In truth Paula was not a happy woman and found no joy in raising a child. It was simply another job that needed to be done.

Beth’s good nature made it easier. She loved the sound of the sewing machine overhead as she sat on the floor pulling fallen pieces of cloth into a pile while watching her mother’s foot rise up and down. When her mother finished her sewing for the day Beth would take the scraps of fabric to her room to press flat with her small hands and stack them neatly by size and color. These she used to continually redecorate the house of cardboard cartons she made for her dolls, all the while telling them about the house they would live in some day when she was all grown up. Some day.

Both Paula and Beth had hopes that something better was coming. For Paula it would be a man. A man who would make all her problems disappear just by being there and being reliable. One of the men she brought home would stay and make things better. But they didn’t stay long. Paula Siddons wore thin after a while when she became needy, irritatingly needy.  And seeing those hopeful eyes of the little girl was a reminder of what some of those men had left behind. And sooner or later each one would leave with mother and daughter wondering why.

It was clear that Beth was the problem. Pitiful little Beth hanging around hoping to be noticed and getting in the way. She was a constant reminder that there was more than just Paula involved. Hopefully it would not be much longer and Beth could find someplace else to go. All Paula had to do in the meantime was to keep herself attractive and encourage Beth to move on when the time came.

Beth did not miss the love she never received but knew deep down there was something better than being here in the cool dark loneliness of an unloving home. It would just take time and distance – time to grow up and as much distance as she could get between herself and here.

It did not take long. As soon as Beth turned fourteen years of age she was baptized into the Baptist church and felt the pull of God’s love and a need to serve. Here in her new family of the congregation she heard praise for the first time and felt wanted. Before she turned fifteen a year later Beth was spending more time with the women from church who appreciated her and less time with a mother who didn’t. The church women were such good women.  Women who wanted Beth so much they’d come out to the cabin and bring her into town to supervise their children in bible school or lend a hand in the kitchen.

Her mother was happy to see her out of the house and accepted the women’s praise about Beth’s usefulness as though it was to her own credit how the girl was raised. In just a few years Beth went from a neglected waif to a budding young woman working her way toward missionary training. God had plans for her.

She was ready for whatever He expected of her. Her easy manner and devoutness to her church did not go unnoticed by Pastor John and his wife. In Beth’s last year of school they asked if she would like a job cleaning the house and helping in the garden after graduation. In the fall she could start her training for missionary work. Beth was truly happy with how her life was going.

By mid-summer she had quietly developed a crush on Pastor John’s son, George, a young man she was yet to meet. Like her he was an only child and pictures of him were displayed throughout the house. Beth’s favorite was the photograph of him wearing his dress uniform and standing by an American flag. She dusted this one most often. His parents were so proud and talked about him every time Beth came to clean.  He was good and kind and brave according to his parents and so handsome. He had been places Beth had only heard of or seen in magazines. Beth felt she knew him. And he was coming home.

It was her first infatuation and she indulged herself in hopes of being noticed as she continued working at the church, cleaning and gardening for Pastor John through the rest of the summer. George would tell her later that he couldn’t help but notice her. Not only because she was always around but also because her crush on him was so obvious.

Since Beth was always filling in where needed it was easy for George to convince her she was needed by him during that particularly hot summer. She was in love and willing to serve her God in whatever way she thought he wanted. It made sense to her that God would want her to love a preacher’s son. She had no idea then that her need to please God and George would be followed by ten years of one of them becoming increasingly agitated with her.

At the time Beth really tried to make George happy but he needed more than she could give and knew it was somehow her fault. She just didn’t know how to be whatever it was he wanted. And he wanted so much.

She also didn’t know then that George had started at a very young age seeing how far he could go, how much sin was safe, and how to charm his way into and out of almost any situation. But that charm did not work on convincing his father that he shouldn’t be forced to marry Beth just because she got herself pregnant. Stupid girl, he told her. Why couldn’t she go take care of it like other girls did? Why did his life have to change?

But Beth held on to her God. There was a divine plan going on here. And it was her duty to wait and see it through. Pastor John and his wife had grown very fond of Beth and were happy to welcome her into the family. They looked forward to their first grandchild who would be here by late spring. And even though George tried every argument he could think of to prevent having to give up his freedom and marry her he was not going to win this time any more than he ever won disagreements with his father. Beth knew George could not go against Pastor John. He would not jeopardize his father’s respected position in the community by being anything less than the dutiful son. Fine. If that was how it had to be, he’d marry her.  And on their wedding night George told Beth that she would be making it worth his sacrifice.

Her home now is on a residential street a few blocks from Main. It is a big house set in the middle of a large fenced lot filled with  tall white pines and rhododendron that partially block the house from view. George has pretty much lost interest in restoring the old two-story home. Although he is a licensed builder in North Carolina and Georgia, like many in the construction business, George is struggling to make ends meet in this slow to recover recession. He told Beth over a year ago there was little time and money to spend on a house he regretted ever buying and that he only bought it because he ran out of excuses when his father ran out of patience.

She knew it was probably true. That was the way things were with George and his father, Pastor John. One pushed and the other pushed back. And as usual the one with God on his side was going to come out the winner. Beth knew that much. Why George hadn’t learned that years ago was a mystery to her and his father.  She could not remember a time when Pastor John didn’t get the upper hand. Sooner or later George would come around and do the right thing, do it for his father and his family. And do it in that order. His father’s wishes would always come first.

It was a good thing for Beth and the boys that their happiness mattered to her father-in-law. One day Pastor John simply put his foot down and told George that he needed to get Beth and the boys into a house and out of a rented double wide trailer on the edge of town. So when this “needs work” house near the church came on the market, George’s father put up the down payment and told his son to make it into a home.

Beth doesn’t mind living in unfinished rooms. It is so much better than where she grew up. By comparison this house is a mansion and she loves walking through all the doorways to all the rooms. When alone in the house she will pause and take a slow long step over the threshold to each room and savor the feeling of entering a whole new space where colors, carpeting and curtains can be completely different from the room she just left. This is the house she always dreamed of when she was young playing with her scraps of cloth and cardboard box houses. This house is her dream come true.

When they moved in she hoped her new house would have all the things she didn’t have growing up. It would be the home she could fill with love and more children, the smells of fresh flowers and delicious meals prepared in a large bright kitchen. This house would be clean, very, very clean. And the curtains would be pulled back letting sunlight pour in over the polished surfaces of furniture and floors. There would be bright sunny smiles on the faces of her children when they rushed to greet the man who wanted to return to them each day.

Even now there were times when Beth could convince herself that it was still possible. She knew George liked being a father. Sam and Danny were good boys and she saw how proud his father was now that George was settling down.

She just needed to be a better wife. George had needs. Why couldn’t she just do what he asked and it would be good for both of them? Why couldn’t she see that?  He tried gentle coaxing and then sulking. After that he tried getting her to drink with him in the evenings after Sam was born. But it made her sick instead of relaxed. She was a disappointment and George went from frustration to irritation and then anger.

With alcohol the anger turned mean and one night George hit her – hard. It was the first time and satisfying in a way after her shock and pain were quickly followed by compliance. Maybe this was how she wanted it. Okay, he can do this. It certainly added an excitement that wasn’t there before. And over time George got good at inflicting just the right amount of pain in just the right places. Giving her time for the bruises to heal even had a way of heightening his excitement.

Beth suspected that if he became impatient with waiting there were other women who gladly filled in. He was often out of town traveling from one job to another. And there had to be the occasional lonely housewife in those houses he spent remodeling during the day while their husbands were at work. Not to mention the women waiting tables in bars and looking for some late night excitement during his longer renovations in towns over the line in Georgia.

Over ten years and another baby it became the routine in their marriage. During the day pretending everything was fine, and at night making it hell for each other. He said she liked playing the wounded wife. That was how George saw it. But in fact Beth just wanted to get it over with as much as he did and sometimes would get herself into position before George was even ready. “God, he told her, you can take the pleasure out of anything”. He would remind her again what a sorry excuse for a wife she was and that Sam and Danny were the only good things to come out of this marriage – that and his father’s approval.

It is after 7:00 a.m. when Beth is dressed in a loose cotton top and skirt that covered her bruises. She calls to the boys to turn off the TV and puts on her shoes. The boys have dressed themselves by the time she comes down to get their breakfast and tidy up. When finished she sits at the kitchen table to make a list of what she needs to do today – take the boys to the library – stop by the post office and bank. McDonalds for lunch. While the boys are playing in the park she plans to stop by Veronica’s dress shop for something pretty that George might like to see her in. Around four she will take the boys for an overnight with their grandparents and after that stop by the Marty’s Diner for takeout. It is going to be a special evening.

“Come on, boys. Are you ready to go?”

Like their mother Sam and Danny are good at pretending everything is fine.  They are children. It is easy for them to slip into a fantasy when they want or need to.  Back in their bedroom Sam wipes Danny’s face, smiles and nods hard at his younger brother who lets out one last short sob before smiling back and yelling, “Coming, Mom.”