Saving Grace: A Christina Carson Short Story
November 2, 2014
When can never truly know the power our smallest gestures of kindness or goodwill have on the lives of others.
MRS. GERHARDT SQUATTED DOWN in front of her five year old daughter and worked feverishly to roll up the waistband of her child’s ruffled pantaloons so the pants no longer dragged on the floor. She hadn’t had time to try the new outfit on her daughter earlier due to the seeming never ending list of must-do’s that defined her life since her recent divorce. He just walked out, she thought. Shacked up with that woman from work and walked out. Realizing where her mind was heading, she pulled her thoughts back to her present task before her anger reached another boiling point. The dress that was part of the ensemble fit fine, but Gracie was not a tall child and the hem of the pants covered her shoes and then some. Her mom struggled to get it all hiked up evenly. But every few seconds, her hand would come out from under the dress, and she’d push the heel of it into her forehead and rub hard and slow. Haggard was the word that best described Tricia Jo Gerhardt and late was the second best; today would make it three times this week in fact. She was struggling up the corporate ladder now; she needed the money. But tardiness was not well tolerated.
“Hold still.” It was a command, not a request. Gracie had been unaware she was in motion of any sort, so she just kept standing there as she had been. “I spent a great deal of money to get this dress for you, so you could look pretty on picture day.” The dress she was referring to was la haute couture for the preschool set. Peasant dresses were what they were called, the material hosting multicolored patchwork with ruffles at the wrists. The bloomer-like pants worn underneath the dress had ruffles at the ankles. Gracie would have preferred being outside playing with her dog, Billie, rather than getting all gussied up. This foray into preschool had not been her choice. She smiled over top of her mom’s bent head at her golden retriever, who watched this early morning fiasco yet thumped his tail expectantly, like they’d go play when this was over.
Once Mrs. Gerhardt had finally reached a length with the bloomers that allowed Gracie’s little satin ballet slippers to show, she pinned the fabric to the waistband and sighed. Still squatting, she gave her daughter a final once over starting with her ringlets, which she bounced a few times with the palm of her hand then shook her head and breathed out through her teeth. She hated that wildly curly hair her daughter had inherited from her father. She felt it made her look a bit too ethnic, is how she put it. Next, she licked her index finger and cleaned off the corners of Gracie’s mouth where some toothpaste had gathered. With that accomplished, she pushed herself up to standing, the silk in her slacks having suffered some heavy creases from that crouch. As she walked off to grab her purse and keys, she attempted to smooth them out, but in a fit of impatience she shook her hands like she was removing water from them, only the gesture depicted a woman on the edge. She left Gracie standing there, the child unsure if the inspection was over or not.
“Gracie what are you dawdling over. Come on. We’re late.” Gracie trailed after her kicking her heels up in a little gallop, stopping to hug her dog, then just outside the kitchen door she stopped again to pet her stick horse. Her mom stood by the car door, her fingers drumming out what sounded like a horse galloping, waiting.
As they drove to the school, Gracie’s mother lectured. “Now listen, I can’t be at the picture taking today, so here’s what you must do to look pretty for the photographer. Plump your skirt out and do not, under any circumstances, pull at your bloomers. Do you hear me?” Gracie nodded, never taking her eyes off her mother as she doled out her instructions. “You usually make that silly looking grin. Don’t so that this time. Smile pretty. And don’t let the camera lady take your shoes off because I paid a bundle for those slippers, they are real ballet slippers, you know. So leave them on.”
Gracie was trying desperately to remember each item of behavior that was now her responsibility. But all that she managed to remember was the comment about her smile being somehow wanting. That worried her most for she didn’t know what a nice smile looked like or how to make one. The parting shot as her mother opened the car door, undid her seat belt and tugged her out was when she said in an edgy voice, “ I love pretty girls and smart girls, so don’t disappoint me.”
In the time Mrs. Gerhardt had dropped Gracie off at her classroom and then disappeared down the street with the speed of a small caliber bullet, Gracie drooped like a four-day-old cut flower and walked to a quiet part of her classroom hoping to hideout. She was usually a buoyant little girl; quiet yet sweet, but this morning she felt frightened. She knew words to describe what she sensed in her mother— angry and sad. But she had no awareness of states of mind like driven or frustrated or abandoned, the state her father had left them in. What made sense to her was that she was somehow responsible for her mother being upset. And that made her feel like she was bad. She just didn’t know why.
Gracie stayed over in the corner hugging her bunny which she managed to sneak into the car with her. She hid it in the folds of her skirt so that he, Mr. Welty, would be there if she needed him. She sat rocking on a little wooden chair, trying smiles on her face, hoping to do one that felt right. She thought she had a good one and held Mr. Welty out in front of her to give her feedback. But before he got a word out, the teacher was there asking her if everything was okay. It so startled her that she leapt up from the chair, feeling her bloomers slide down as she rose.
She hadn’t noticed the ruffles had gotten under her feet, and her sudden jump up pulled them down to mid-thigh. Gracie had been so wrapped up in her smile practice that she couldn’t focus on the teacher’s question. Instead, she worked to get her bloomers back up to her waist.
“Is your pretty new dress for picture day?” the teacher asked.
Gracie nodded her head several times.
“Well you look lovely today. Your mother will be really happy to have pictures of you looking so pretty.”
That eased Gracie a bit, because she remembered her mommy saying she loved pretty girls. She looked up at her teacher and asked, “Do daddies love pretty girls too?”
The teacher winced knowing the situation at home. “Oh yes, Gracie, daddies especially love pretty daughters.”
She wanted to talk with Gracie more, but some minor outbreak across the room forced her to leave Gracie without further comment. The little girl turned back to practicing smiles, but the teacher was now calling the class together. Gracie didn’t know when their pictures would be taken, but every time she thought of it she felt frightened in a strange way. She didn’t know the word dread either, or she would have understood what was happening to her.
On the other side of the school, Mattie Bolton, who had been taking pictures of preschoolers all morning at Haines Elementary, was returning from her fourth bathroom break of the day wondering if people would begin to think she had a medical condition of some sort she’d spent so much time in the washroom. Had they investigated, they would have found her leaning against the wall trying to regroup. It had been a long day so far and now the afternoon stretched before her. She’d been involved with this photography gig for years, but it seemed of late the kids had become more ill-mannered and uncooperative than prior times, often almost impossible to work with. They either cried and whined or behaved like over-wound wind-up toys careening around the set with no concern for her equipment or props. And their mothers, when present, merely sat watching, making no effort to rein them in.
It seems every generation complains about kids relative to their own past, and Mattie was at that age where there were more years behind her than out front. But she was beginning to sense a growing agreement among adults of all ages that kids today were more akin to those in Lord of the Flies than Anne of Green Gables. And if you want to see this in all its glory, try to take their pictures.
She took a deep breath, rallied her last bit of patience and walked slowly back to the room where her set was located, hoping she’d not find one of the little imps hanging from the backdrop or swinging round the light stands.
She stood brooding in the middle of the world her set created – a perfect spring day accented with green grass sprinkled with daffodils, and early purple iris along with forsythia bushes filling in on the edge. It was spring as she knew it, had played in it and locked its fairyland-like qualities into her memory. Likely it was not spring as these children knew it, who, more often than not, played on their digital devices and experienced spring as a TV special. In the midst of her sulkiness, she caught herself arguing in her mind with some unidentifiable interloper.
It said to her, “You sound like your mother, Mattie, always thinking the past is better.”
“Do you really believe a diminishing connection with nature could ever be a step forward?” she spoke in return to the disembodied voice in her head.
“People’s habits have always been to think things were better in the past,” it replied. “Maybe you’re just an old sentimentalist stuck in a memory as elusive as I am.”
“That’s not an answer,” she replied. “What’s going to take the place of watching a chipmunk, cheeks filled with nuts or seeds, zipping across the yard? Or a bunny munching white clover, its little jaws moving in what looks like a circle? What’s going to soften our hearts and fill them with awe? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt amazement or kindheartedness toward my camera, my cell phone, my computer or my kindle like I do toward nature. Nothing I’ve found in this digital world congers tender words like cute, precious, sweet or soft. Could this lopsided exposure to life be what is making children so rough and harsh, self-absorbed to a new level of narcissism? Or is it their parents who continually issue commands rather than requests, with please and thank you almost forgotten replies?”
It suddenly occurred to her she was speaking her impassioned diatribe aloud. She stopped, listening to hear if anyone was in the room with her.
As she turned slowly to see if she’d have to quickly make some plausible excuse for herself, she noticed a child over by the door looking at the set out of the corner of her eye, seemingly too frightened to face it full on. She appeared so full of her own concerns that Mattie doubted she even noticed her talking to herself. The child was small for a five year old which made her appear almost delicate. Through the window across the hall behind her, the slanting fingers of light from the afternoon sun combed through her white-blonde ringlets making her head glow almost as it were ringed by a halo. Somehow she had arrived before the rest of her classmates, leaving the two of them in the quiet of this empty room.
Mattie caught her eye and squatted down as she beckoned her to come toward her the way she might invite an unfamiliar dog to her. The child focused on the floor in front of her as she responded to Mattie’s invitation, looking for all the world like someone walking toward her demise. As she came within the circle of the set’s lights, Mattie could see her little bottom lip quivering and two brown doe-like eyes, paragons of innocence, looking up at her, awaiting her fate. Mattie glanced off to the side, took a big breath and softened.
She studied the child off-offhandedly for a second; not wanting to make her feel any more uncomfortable than she already appeared. The behaviors she had become accustomed to from most of the little girls— acting like a princess, demanding center stage, sullen and stubborn— weren’t in this child’s repertoire. Instead, she stood sentinel straight, a death grip on the ear of the stuffed bunny she’d brought along—a friend perhaps— while a huge tear plopped over the edge of one eye and stuck there, looking like a plump summer raindrop at the start of a storm. It too quivered but with the inertia-laden energy of water about to spill downhill.
She watched Mattie as if her life depended on what the photographer might ask of her. Her ill-ease caused her to swallow so hard, she had to stretch her head upward to clear her little throat. Mattie was still squatting down, but she once again asked the child to join her with a come-hither nod of her head and a smile. Out of the blue Gracie asked, “How do you smile like that?”
Mattie turned to her and asked, “You mean this smile?” pointing to her own face. Gracie nodded.
“Yes. That’s a pretty smile. My mommy told me she loves pretty girls and that my smile looked silly. And my teacher said daddies like pretty girls too. My mommy is sad and my daddy is gone. I need to make a pretty smile for them. Then maybe they’ll get back together.”
Mattie had to turn away for a moment, the tears came so hot and fast to her eyes. She took several deep breaths and blew them out like someone wanting to whistle but without sound. Turning back, she said, “I can show you how to make a beautiful smile, but first you need to tell me your name.”
“Gracie,” she said, “and this is my friend, Mr. Welty.”
“Mr. Welty is already smiling, isn’t he?” Gracie looked at him in shocked surprise.
“He is.” The light that went on inside her head now glowed through her eyes. “If he can do it, I can do it.”
“You’re absolutely right, Gracie, and here’s how. For this first picture, can I hold Mr. Welty?” Gracie nodded her head.
She reached for the bunny and held it right in front of her. “Now, think about how much you love Mr. Welty. A soft smile spread across her face. “Now think about how much fun he is to play with.” As the smile deepened, the camera’s click told anyone listening Gracie just made her first smiling photo. “You look more than pretty. You look beautiful,” Mattie said as she viewed the image on the back of the camera. “Come here and look.”
Mattie squatted down and beckoned Gracie with her hand to come over and take a look. She heard the child’s breath suck in as she saw herself. “I look really pretty,” as her eyes lit up with amazement.
“You do, child, you sure do.”
Mattie then took Gracie by the hand, and they strolled through Mattie’s childhood spring depicted in the set. They stopped to get her reflection in the glass pond the set had. Gracie held up a kite in another pose, and Mattie told her all about flying them. She suggested Gracie ask her daddy to take her kite flying. They ended in a corner of the set where a flower garden of daffodils, tulips and bluebells was hemmed in behind a low picket fence. Gracie’s last picture was her sitting in the grass in front of it, her skirt splayed around her in a sweeping circle and the child holding a nosegay of flowers, her eyes bright, her smile perfect.
Just as they were finishing up, Mattie said, “You sit here Gracie,” indicating the spot right behind the camera which Mattie had attached to a low tripod. She showed Gracie where the button was. Then Mattie took Mr. Welty and set him in the green spring grass. “Click the button, Gracie.” She did and looked so proud.
“Now you have a close-up of your best friend to keep under your pillow.”
Just then the rest of Gracie’s class arrived pushing and shoving, squealing and shouting. Gracie turned to Mattie with a surprised little smile on her face. Mattie winked at her and gave her a thumbs-up. Then she knelt down and whispered in Gracie’s ear, just go blend in with them, and I’ll put you name on the roster as the first child already photographed. Your mother and daddy are going to love your pictures.” Gracie gave her normal little skip before her gallop, and she and Mr. Welty disappeared into the crowd.
Later that night, Mattie wrote in the journal where she reviewed each of her shoots: If there is one child like Gracie; there are others. Who knows what sort of smile they might be capable of if I were more willing to help than judge?
Years later in a dorm at Bryn Marr College, Gracie’s best friend (second to Mr. Welty that is) was lying on Gracie’s bed as they gabbed about an upcoming big weekend. When her friend plumped Gracie’s pillow to make herself more comfortable, she noticed a very wrinkled and tattered photo of a rabbit that had been under it. “Who’s this?” she asked, her eyebrows arched in mock curiosity.
“Mr. Welty,” Gracie replied as she reached over and reclaimed the photo. She stared at it, and, for the nth time, returned to that day. “It was the day I learned to smile—literally and figuratively.” She paused for a moment remembering the woman who had offered her a refuge from the fear and sadness she’d known at that moment in her life, an act of kindness that carried her through the hard years that followed. In retrospect, she’d dubbed that day Saving Grace, thanks to a lady whose name she never knew, but whose smile she’d never forgotten.
This story is dedicated to Adrienne Wall, a first class smile maker. See her outstanding work at
Adrienne Wall Photography.