From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

The True Spirit of Christmas

If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.

One more hour, I thought. Just one more hour and I’m free. It was Christmas Eve and I was stuck in beauty college. It wasn’t fair. I had better things to do than wait on fussy old women with blue hair. I had worked hard and fast to get four shampoo-sets and one manicure finished before lunch. If I had no more appointments scheduled, I could leave at two o’clock. Just one more . . .

“Number seventy-one. Carolyn, number seventy-one.”

The receptionist’s voice over the intercom made my heart fall to my stomach.

“You have a phone call.”

A phone call. I exhaled a sigh of relief and headed up front to take the call.

As I reached for the phone, I gave the appointment pad a cursory glance to confirm my freedom. I couldn’t believe it. I had a 4:30 perm. No one in her right mind would have her hair done on Christmas Eve. No one would be so inconsiderate.

I glared at the receptionist behind the counter. “How could you do this?”

She took a step backward and whispered, “Mrs.Weiman scheduled you.” Mrs. Weiman was the senior instructor, the biddy of the ball. When she spoke, no one argued.

“Fine,” I hissed and turned to the phone. It was Grant. His grandmother had invited me to Christmas Eve dinner, and could I be ready by three o’clock? I fingered the diamond snowflake necklace he had given me the night before. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I explained the situation. After an interminable silence, he said we’d make it another time and hung up. Tears stung my eyes as I slammed the phone down and barricaded myself behind my station.

The afternoon hung bleak and gray, echoing my mood. Most of the other students had gone home. I had no other patrons until the 4:30 perm, and I spent the time at my station, stewing.

At about 4:15, Mrs. Weiman stuck her pinched face around my mirror and advised me in her soft, no-nonsense tone, “Change your attitude before she gets here,” then quietly stepped away.

My mood would change all right, from angry to murderous. I grabbed a tissue and whisked away the fresh tears.

My number was called at 4:45. My tardy, inconsiderate patron had arrived. I strode brusquely up front to greet a very shriveled, frail old woman gently supported by her husband. With a tender voice, Mrs. Weiman introduced me to Mrs. Sussman and began escorting her to my station. Mr. Sussman followed us, mumbling his apologies for bringing her in so late.

I was still feeling put upon, but I tried not to show it. Mrs. Weiman cradled Mrs. Sussman closely as she lowered her into my chair. When she began raising the hydraulic chair, I feigned a smile and took over, stepping on the foot pump. Mrs. Sussman was so small, I had to raise the chair to its full height.

I placed a towel and plastic drape around her shoulders, then jumped back, aghast. Lice and mites were crawling over her scalp and shoulders. As I stood there trying not to retch, Mrs. Weiman reappeared, pulling on plastic gloves.

Mrs. Sussman’s gray top knotwas somatted,we couldn’t pull the hairpins out. It disgusted me to think anyone could be so unkempt. Mrs. Weiman explained that we’d have to cut her hair to get the mat out, and Mrs. Sussman just looked at us with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Her husband held her hands tenderly in his as he knelt beside the chair.

“Her hair was her pride all of her life,” he explained. “She put it up like that on the morning I took her to the nursing home.”

Evidently her hair hadn’t been combed or cleaned since that morning nearly a year before. His eyes misted over, and he shuffled to the waiting room.

Mrs. Weiman cut the matted top knot gently away, revealing a withered scalp peeling with yellow decay. She worked patiently and lovingly, and I feebly tried to help where I could. A perm would eat through her scalp like acid. It was out of the question. We bathed her scalp gently, trying to dislodge the lice without tearing her hair out. I dabbed antiseptic ointment on her festering sores and twisted her sparse hair into pincurls. The curls were held in place by gel, for we didn’t dare scrape her scalp with clips. Then we gently fanned her curls dry near the warmth of the radiator.

Mrs. Sussman slipped a palsied hand into her tiny bag and drew out a tube of lipstick and a pair of white lace gloves. Mrs.Weiman dabbed the lipstick softly on her lips, then carefully threaded the shaking hands into the dainty gloves. My thoughts were drawn to my grandmother, who had recently passed away—how she always put on lipstick before walking to the mailbox on the curb. I thought of stories she told of her youth, when no proper lady would be seen in public without her gloves. Tears formed in my eyes as I silently thanked God for having taken her with dignity.

Mrs.Weiman leftme to sterilizemy station and returned with Mr. Sussman. When he saw his wife, their mutual tears flowed unchecked. “Oh, my dear,” he whispered, “you’ve never looked lovelier.”

Her lips trembled in a smile.

He reached into his coat pocket and presented Mrs. Weiman and me each with a small nativity set: Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. They were small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. I was filled with love for this man and his sweet wife. For perhaps the first time in my life, I knew the true spirit of Christmas.

We walked the Sussmans up front. There would be no fee this night. We wished them a Merry Christmas and saw them outside. It was snowing lightly, the first snowfall of the season. The flakes looked like powdered diamonds. I thought briefly of Grant and the dinner I had missed and knew that on this Christmas Eve, his grandmother would understand.

Carolyn S. Steele

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