I have a vivid memory of standing next to a pretty little girl in my 4th grade classroom. As I glanced down at our hands, my fingernails were not as white as hers and my arms still showed the dirt remnants of my latest adventures on the ball field.
Two years later, at a new elementary school, I learned the devastating truth, that apparently, I dressed all wrong. “Why do you wear summer clothes in the winter?” The perfectly dressed classmate asked me?
Seasonal clothing – that concept eluded me. But the shame of not fitting in didn’t, it stuck for years.
There’s a great scene in Betty Smith’s book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where seven-year-old Francine has to take her little brother, Neeley for their vaccines. To take his mind off what she perceives is impending torture; Francine spends the morning with Neeley making mud pies. Forgetting to wash up like their mother told them, Francine drags her brother, mud and all, to the local health department.
Francine goes in first where a nurse scrubs a nice clean white spot on her arm. In disgust a Harvard trained intern who was obligated to work a few hours a week at the clinic says,
“Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm…”
Francine is so angry she doesn’t even feel the needle jab. And while the nurse is bandaging her up, Francine blurts out,
“My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me…besides, it won’t do no good. He’s a boy and he don’t care if he is dirty.”
I anguished reading that scene.
And when I had children of my own, I overcompensated by keeping them clean. No dirt would gather under their fingernails. And of course, they had the best clothes, even if it meant sewing them myself from scraps purchased at Ben Franklin’s.
But then a funny thing happened. One day, in casual conversation my Aunt Jeanne Marie said,
“After your father died, when I was living with you guys in Arlington, I used to watch the little girl next door as she left for school. Her clothes were always pressed and her hair neatly done. Then I’d look at you guys and my heart would just break. There was so much to do and your Mother and I were doing the best we could. But I always wanted better for you guys.”
Suddenly, all those years of stored up pain melted away. Somehow, just knowing she saw my need made it better. There was comfort in knowing I didn’t suffer alone.
Aunt Jeanne Marie knew. And that knowledge was like cool water to a thirsty soul.
And to think, He sees it all…
He has searched me, and He knows me.
He knows when I sit and when I rise;
He perceives my thoughts from afar.
He discerns my going out and my lying down;
He is familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue, He knows it completely.
He hems me in behind and before, and He lays His hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain…
Praise be the Lord.