From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Learning to Listen

One year, I went out of town to attend a writer’s conference. As I stepped off the jet back home in Atlanta, my family waited for me. After we had embraced, I started telling them about my trip. At least I tried to. Everyone wanted to tell me something—especially eight-year-old Jeremy. He jumped up and down in order to be heard, and his voice carried above the other children’s, even above my husband Jerry’s.

Everyone needs something from me, I thought. They don’t want to hear about my trip. What is it Jeremy keeps saying?

“Poster paper, Mama! I have to have poster paper. We’re having a contest at school.”

I put him off, promising we’d talk about it later. Back at home I readjusted to the telephone, doorbell, sorting laundry, driving carpools, answering questions and wiping up spills. I fought off the creeping knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep up with the needs of my family. As I moved about hurriedly, trying to decide what to do next, Jeremy kept reminding me, “I need the poster paper, Mama.”

Gradually though, he began to speak more softly, almost as though he were talking to himself. So I put Jeremy’s request at the bottom of my long list of things to do. Maybe he’ll just hush about the poster paper, I thought hopefully.

My third day home I managed to salvage about fifteen minutes to try to type an article. Sitting at the typewriter, I heard the dryer stop. Another load of clothes should be put in. Two important phone calls needed to be returned. One of my daughters had pleaded with me several times to listen to her recite part of The Canterbury Tales. For over an hour one of the cats had meowed right in my face trying to get me to feed her. Someone had spilled orange Kool-Aid on the kitchen floor and smeared it around with a dry towel. It was past time to start supper, and I hadn’t even eaten lunch. Nevertheless, I typed joyfully for a few delicious minutes.

A small shadow fell across my paper. I knew who it would be before I looked up. I glanced up anyway. Jeremy stood quietly watching me. Oh, Lord, please don’t let him say it again. I know he needs poster paper. I need to type. I smiled weakly at Jeremy and kept typing. He watched for a few more minutes, then turned and walked away. I almost didn’t hear his comment. “Contest is over tomorrow, anyway.”

I wanted to write so much that, with a little effort, I could have tuned out his remark. But I couldn’t ignore the silent voice that spoke urgently to my heart. Get him that paper—now! I shut off my electric typewriter. “Let’s go get the paper, Jeremy.” He stopped, turned around and looked at me without even smiling or speaking—almost as though he hadn’t heard.

“Come on,” I urged, grabbing my purse and the car keys.

He still didn’t move. “Do you have something else you have to get, Mama?”

“No, just your poster paper.” I headed for the door.

He lagged behind and asked, “You’re going to the store just for me?”

I stopped and looked down at him. Really looked at him. Spots of whatever he’d eaten for lunch at school stained his shirt. Untied, flopping shoes and traces of orange Kool-Aid that turned up at the corners of his small, grim mouth gave Jeremy a clownlike appearance.

Suddenly, a look of utter delight shot across his face, erasing the disbelief. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. He moved with amazing speed and running to the bottom of the stairs he threw his head back and shouted, “Hey, Julie, Jen, Jon, Mama’s taking me to the store! Anybody need anything?”

No one answered him, but he didn’t seem to notice. He sprinted out to the car still wearing the Christmas morning expression. At the store, instead of running in ahead of me, he grabbed my hand and started rapidly telling me about the poster contest.

“It’s about fire prevention. The teacher announced it a long time ago, and when I first told you, you said we’d see later. Then you went out of town. The contest ends tomorrow. I’ll have to work hard. What if I win?” He went on with endless enthusiasm as though he’d only asked me one time for the paper.

Jeremy didn’t want an apology from me. It would have spoiled the joy. So I just listened. I listened to him as intently as I ever have anyone in my life. After he bought the poster paper, I asked, “Do you need anything else?”

“Do you have enough money?” he whispered.

I smiled at him, suddenly feeling very rich, “Yes, today I just happen to have lots of money. What do you need?”

“Can I have my own glue and some construction paper?”

We got the other items and at the cashier’s, Jeremy, who usually doesn’t confide in strangers, said, “I’m making a poster. My Mama brought me to the store to buy the stuff.” He tried to sound matter-of-fact, but his face gave him away.

He worked silently and with great determination on the poster all afternoon.

The winner of the contest was announced over the school intercom two days later. Jeremy won. His poster was then entered in the county competition. He won that, too. The principal wrote him a letter and enclosed a check for five dollars. Jeremy wrote a story about the contest. He left it lying on his dresser and I read it. One sentence jumped out at me. “And then my Mama stopped typing and listened to me and took just me to the store.”

And a few weeks later, a large yellow envelope came in the mail addressed to Jeremy. He tore into it and read aloud slowly and almost in disbelief the Certificate of Award. “This certifies that Jeremy West has the distinction of reaching the state finals in the Georgia Fire Prevention Theme and Poster Contest.” It was signed by the comptroller general of Georgia.

Jeremy fell on the floor and did somersaults, laughing aloud. We framed his certificate and often when I see it I remember that almost—almost I’d turned away from his request to get him some poster paper.

Marion Bond West

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