63: Stinky Mary

63: Stinky Mary

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever!

Stinky Mary

There is an instinct in a woman to love most her own child — and an instinct to make any child who needs her love, her own.

~Robert Brault

I had hurried home after school, running the last half block to get there in time for whatever television show was playing in the afternoon. While I was happily munching on a snack, my mother was staring out the front window. “Marcia,” she said, “who is that little girl walking past the house?”

Irritated by the interruption, I stood and looked out at the unkempt girl who was one of my fifth grade classmates. I groaned as I told my mother her name was Mary before turning away in disgust.

“I want you to invite her over tomorrow after school.”

“What? I can’t do that! She’s stinky and nasty and nobody likes her. I can’t have her come to my house!” Waving my pickle in the air for emphasis, I complained that my reputation would be ruined, that nobody would like me or play with me anymore. I was careful to reiterate the fact that she smelled like pee.

My mother was undaunted and insisted that I bring Mary home with me. I knew that no amount of arguing was going to change her mind, so I agreed.

The next day, I waited until school was out before I approached Mary. I stood under the trees just past the school grounds, and when she walked by, her head down, I called her name. She acted startled, as if I might hurt her. Other kids had. They had said mean things and even thrown garbage at her.

I looked around, making sure nobody was watching, and asked her if she wanted to come to my house and have a snack and meet my mom. She agreed and started giggling and dancing in circles around me. Her unfettered joy made me feel awkward.

Fortunately, I lived really close, so we only had to cross the street and pass four houses. She knew which one was mine and raced ahead and up the steps. I had to brush up against her to open the door, and the smell of stale urine wafted off her clothes. I know I wrinkled my nose, but whether she noticed or not, I am uncertain. I imagine she was used to the reaction.

We stepped through the door, and the scent of fresh baked cookies filled the air. Mom seldom baked, and since she was baking now, I could only conclude she had done it to impress my guest. My mother came out of the kitchen all smiles, and I introduced her to Mary. She didn’t seem to notice the girl’s pungent aroma as she led her into the kitchen, where cookies and milk were already laid out on the table.

I sat. I ate cookies. I listened to my mother ask question after question. My mother tried to include me in the conversation, but I had little to offer. I was just biding my time until stinky Mary got out of my house so we could open the windows.

Finally, the visit was over. I stood quickly, ready to usher her out the door, when my mother put her hand on my arm. “Honey,” she said to me, “I have been sorting through your clothes today. I wonder if Mary and her younger sisters can use these clothes you’ve outgrown.” She smiled encouragingly, glancing at Mary while she spoke.

The girl nodded and grinned. She smiled a lot that afternoon. I hadn’t seen her do it much before, I realized. Then my mom pointed to three large bags stuffed with items that had recently been folded in my drawers or hanging in my closet. I was horrified. The kids at school had seen me wearing those clothes! If stinky Mary showed up wearing them, then everyone would know she had been here. I shifted uncomfortably, shooting daggers at my mother with my eyes.

My mother produced a wrapped up paper plate holding more cookies. “How about you take these home to your family?”

I looked at the three bags of clothes and the plate of cookies, and my heart sank. Mary lived two blocks down the street. I knew she couldn’t possibly carry all that stuff home with her, and my dad had our car at work. My mother was setting me up.

Sure enough, my mother picked up two bags and handed them to me. That left Mary carrying the plate of cookies and the other bag. I was not happy, but it didn’t matter. I had no choice. So, off we went down the street past all the houses where people lived and looked out their windows and could see me as I trudged past.

I’d never been to Mary’s house. But as I stood on the sidewalk looking at the peeling paint and the dead lawn strewn with broken toys and pieces of garbage, I was shocked. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Warily, I followed her up the steps of the cracked cement porch and on into the front room. I was assailed by a stench that made my eyes water. Mary whispered that we had to be quiet as her mother worked nights and was sleeping. She put the things she carried on top of piles of unidentifiable paraphernalia that littered the couch. I did the same.

She dragged me off down the hallway to her bedroom, which held a double bed that she shared with her two sisters. The younger siblings sat on the floor playing quietly. It became obvious that these two small creatures were the source of the odor. The bed they all shared reeked of urine. I made my stay as short as possible, escaping her world and running back to my own.

I am not sure what my mother expected of me regarding Mary, but I never attempted to befriend her. I observed my mother, at different times over the remainder of my childhood, watch for the girl as she dragged herself home each afternoon. Mom would walk out on the porch, wave Mary over, and hand her plates or bags of food, and the occasional items of clothing.

As an adult looking back, I realize that Mom did her good works in secret, never mentioning them to a soul. She just helped where she could. I secretly admired my mother for her kindness toward my classmate. I just wish I had told her. She taught me a very important lesson about kindness and compassion.

~Marcia Wells

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