CABB’s Winter

Challenge, 2022

DECEMBER HOLIDAYS

DECEMBER 5 ~ CHESTER GREENWOOD DAY
(INVENTOR OF EARMUFFS)

The Kindness of strangers

by Linda S Barth

“Cathy! Cathy, where are you?!”

Caroline Chandler hurled herself down an icy path, racing recklessly toward a brick building huddled in a grove of trees in a clearing in the park. Its façade was partially hidden behind a vibrant throng of children and parents, their delighted laughter seeming to mock her terrified shouts.

“Cathy! Come back!”

Tears burned and blurred Caroline’s vision. She had turned away from her child for mere seconds, but that had been more than enough time for the little girl to disappear. How could this have happened? What kind of mother am I? 

Her gasping breath rasped in counterpoint to the erratic rush of her thoughts.

I should have been more careful! I should have known!

Dodging strollers and sightseers, she darted past a corner of the building. The bright, tinny calliope music clanging from within jeered at the wobbling hope in her heart. Cathy would be there. She would. She would!

And she was. Her wayward, willful daughter was perched on a wrought iron bench, swinging her booted feet back and forth as she smiled up at a shabbily dressed woman Caroline had never seen before. From her vantage point, Caroline could hear Cathy’s laughter blending with that of several children who hovered around her. They clearly were not part of Cathy’s usual preschool playmates group, but at first glance they seemed harmless enough. 

Caroline took two rushing steps forward, then hesitated, entranced at what she was seeing. Her often shy, demure little girl, the one who refused to pose for Christmas pictures with a department store Santa Claus – He’s a stranger, Daddy! – or walk into her classroom alone – You come with me, Mommy! – clearly was enjoying every moment engaged in an activity she had been warned repeatedly she must never do.

Caroline shook her head. Not long after Cathy’s fourth birthday, the always sweet and sunny child had developed a shadow twin. Seemingly overnight, Yes, okay, I will had given way to No, stop, I don’t want to, I can do it myself. 

Part of Caroline admired the fiercely independent, eager to explore, longing to learn little girl her daughter was becoming; yet she could not help missing the sometimes clinging, needing to please, content to comply toddler she once had been. Especially when a spontaneous flight from safety into the unknown had left her child vulnerable to dangers she could not yet imagine. But what did any of that matter right now? The tumultuous morning had once again circled back to serenity. Caroline had found her beloved child safe, happy, unharmed. 

And, she observed with a grudging grin, the repugnant object that surely had inspired the child’s defiant departure was now atop the blonde curls on another little girl’s head. This story was one she couldn’t wait to hear, even as memories of the morning’s earlier hours filled her.

* * *

As soon as they stepped out onto the icy glitter of new-fallen snow, Caroline knew her daughter would not be able to resist slithering and sliding along the sidewalk. “Cathy, please be careful.” She tried to keep a warning tone out of her voice. She didn’t want to be that kind of parent, but this was her little girl, the only child she would ever have, their miracle, and she couldn’t bear to see her get hurt.

“It’s okay, Mommy!” Cathy took a swirling plunge forward, twirling their clasped hands. “I’m a ice skater, like in the show we saw!”

Caroline quickly tried a different tactic. “Maybe we can go to the skating rink another day. Let’s just walk to the park for now. You don’t want to fall down and get hurt, especially when that special treat is waiting for you.”

Cathy immediately slowed to a fairly sedate stroll, and Caroline breathed a silent sigh of relief. 

“I’m going to ride my favorite horse!” The child’s excited smile transformed abruptly to a frown. “What if somebody else took it?” 

Caroline felt her heart constrict at the look on her child’s face, so full of trust that her mother could answer any question, solve any problem, soothe any hurt. “Well, if another child is riding that particular horse when we get there, we’ll just have some hot chocolate and wait until it’s your turn. How does that sound?”

Cathy’s smile brightened the world. “It sounds good!”

As they entered the park, Caroline only half-listened to her daughter’s excited chatter about squirrels and snowflakes and sparrows, reflecting instead on the mercurial changes in the child’s mood just before they left their apartment. Eager and excited to struggle into her pink snowsuit and boots – I can do it, Mommy! Silent and chagrined as her mother removed and replaced the boots, this time on the correct feet. Cheerful and chirpy as she urged their hasty departure – Let’s go now, Mommy! The snow might melt!

And then just at the door, yet another side of her daughter emerged – with a vengeance. “No!”   She twisted her neck and dodged out of reach, screeching, “No earmuffs!”  To her mother’s shock, Cathy yanked the white fur headwear out of her parent’s hand, hurled it to the carpeted floor, and kicked it as hard as she could.

Ordinarily, Caroline had all the patience in the world, especially when it came to dealing with her daughter. But after a morning that had already seen a sleep-tangled mess of honey-colored hair made worse by a four-year-old’s attempts to brush it herself; followed by a decision that a once favorite cereal had somehow turned “yucky” overnight; and the ensuing struggle with snowsuit and boots, the inexplicable refusal to wear the earmuffs was all just one step too far. 

Caroline picked up the earmuffs and in one fluid motion secured them to her daughter’s head so quickly that the child didn’t have time to evade her. “You’re wearing the earmuffs or we’re staying home. And do not argue with me about this, Catherine.”

The vehement protest about to blurt from the little girl’s mouth was subdued to a squinty-eyed pout and a reluctant nod. With the earmuffs firmly in place, the pair had left the apartment, one stomping her small feet down the hallway to the elevator, the other sighing and shaking her head.

“So, can we, Mommy? Can we?”

Caroline blinked her attention back to her daughter’s high-pitched voice. “Can we do what?”

“Feed the birdies! They’re really hungry! Did you bring the breadcrumbs?”

Caroline shook her head. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I forgot them at home. We can do it next time.” For a few seconds, she wondered if this would prompt yet another outburst, but her child simply shrugged and said “okay” as they continued along the path toward their destination.

Caroline’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. That was too easy. What else is going on in that mind of hers? In a moment, she got her answer.

Cathy began to inch a mittened hand toward her head, then dropped it immediately to her side as she realized her mother was watching. She smiled upwards, widening her eyes but didn’t say a word.

Her mother smiled back. “It’s such a beautiful winter day! All this lovely snow in the park. Aren’t you glad we decided to go for a walk?” She whistled as she swung their clasped hands back and forth, making her daughter giggle. 

Cathy tilted her head. “Yes, Mommy…but it’s not that cold out. Can I take the earmuffs off?”

Caroline shook her head. “No, you may not.”

“But I don’t want to wear them!” As if of its own volition, Cathy’s free hand rose again, ready to remove the unwanted headgear.

Caroline halted abruptly on the path, bringing Cathy to a stop along with her. For a few moments, she wavered. Why not give in? Was it really so important? Then, remembered images of herself as the spoiled schoolgirl, the defiant adolescent, the rebellious teenager she once had been flashed their warnings, and her decision was made. “We’re not having this conversation again, Cathy. If you take off the earmuffs, we’re going home immediately, and you won’t have your ride on the carousel.”

The little girl seemed to weigh her options. Then with a dramatic sigh that only a four-year-old can summon, she muttered, “Okay. I’ll be good. I promise.” She scuffled her feet along the path but made no further attempt to change her mother’s mind.

Again, Caroline breathed a sigh of relief, feeling all was well. She was right to follow her instincts, to nip her daughter’s defiance in the bud without squashing her need for independence. Clearly, little Cathy was now willing to take responsibility for her actions, and that had to be a good thing.

Only a few minutes would pass before she realized the promise of daughterly acquiescence was as insubstantial as the frosty breath the child huffed into the morning air.

* * *

 “Cathy!” Caroline rushed toward the bench as her daughter pivoted and leaped from it, scampering into her mother’s arms.

“Mommy!” She squirmed to look up into her mother’s face. “I’m sorry I ran away. I didn’t mean to…” Tears filled the child’s luminous eyes. “I’m really, really sorry.”

Caroline hugged her tighter one more time, then crouched down to her level. “I was so scared when I realized you were gone. Don’t ever do that again, Cathy, not ever!”

The child nodded, sniffing back further tears. “I won’t, Mommy. I promise.” Then she turned toward her newfound friends. “This nice lady helped me! I told her you were taking me to ride the horses and she said to stay here until you finded me.”

Caroline straightened and turned to the woman and children standing quietly nearby. “Thank you so much for watching over my daughter. I don’t know what I would have done –” She bit her lip to hold back tears of her own.

The woman smiled. “No need to thank me.” Her fond gaze swept over the children clustered beside her. “I’m used to caring for the little ones, and when your child seemed to need some help, well…” She shrugged. “I’m just glad we were here for her.”

Caroline smiled back. “I’m glad, too, more than I can adequately say.” She looked at her daughter nestled at her side. “Cathy, you need to thank this nice lady for helping you.”

She beamed up at the woman. “Thank you for helping me, Mary.”

“Cathy! You do not call a grown-up by her first name. Please apologize right now!” She turned to the woman. “I’m so sorry for my daughter’s rudeness.”

“Oh no, that’s quite all right,” the woman assured her. “All the children simply call me Mary.”

Caroline glanced quickly at the diverse group of youngsters. She must be their teacher, perhaps at one of those new progressive preschools, or by the looks of their clothing, maybe they’re part of one of those nice charity groups. She extended her kidskin-gloved hand to Mary. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mary. I’m Caroline, and well, you’ve already met Cathy.”

Mary shook Caroline’s hand, her worn woolen glove sliding against the supple leather. “It’s so nice to meet you. Cathy told us not to worry, that you’d be here soon, and she was right.”

Cathy smiled at the unexpected praise, then pulled on her mother’s hand, urging her to bend closer to hear her whispered words. 

Smiling, Caroline straightened and reached into her purse for her wallet. “Cathy would like to treat everyone to a ride on the carousel to say thank you for your kindness.”

The children, who had remained silent, shared uncertain glances, then all eyes turned toward Mary. But it was the tallest of the two boys in the group who spoke first. “That’s nice of you, ma’am, but you don’t have to give us nothing. We already have tickets. We were just waiting here with Cathy before we went in.”

“Winslow’s right,” another boy stated firmly. “We saved up our money from doing extra chores, and that’s what we decided to spend it on.”

A little girl with dark gleaming hair nodded her head. “Father said we could. We made sure to ask him and he said it was all right for us to go up here today.” Her eyes widened as the other children shot warning glares in her direction.

The blonde curls of the smallest girl seemed as trembly as her voice. “Oh, no, Livia.”  

Again, all eyes turned toward Mary for guidance, then Cathy’s piping voice shattered the awkward silence. “Mommy, can I go on the carousel, too? With my new friends?”

“Yes, you may, but you need a ticket.” Caroline smiled at Winslow. “Here’s enough money for Cathy’s ticket. Would you please get one for her?”

“Sure.” He took the bill from her outstretched hand. “Dev, you hold Cathy’s hand. We don’t want her runnin’ away from us, too.”

Devin rolled his eyes but offered his right hand to their new friend. “Becca, you hold my left hand.”

“And I’ll hold Becca’s other hand!” Olivia volunteered. “Now we’re all set!”

The smallest boy in the group, silent and shy until now, scurried from his place of comfort at Mary’s side. “Wait for me!”

“Hurry up, Pascal,” Winslow yelled over his shoulder, “or there won’t be any horses left!”

As the little group scampered for the carousel, Caroline saw her daughter tug on Devin’s hand and then point at a prancing snow-white wooden horse, its fanciful golden mane and tail streaked with bronze and copper, a garland of crimson roses and sky blue ribbons twined around its neck and head. “I want to ride that one. That’s my favorite!”

Devin smiled down at her. “That’s a nice one. I always figured that one would be my little brother’s favorite, too.” At Cathy’s quizzical look, he added, “He couldn’t come with us today, so it’s all yours.”

“But he can have a turn next time, right?”

Devin hesitated for only a few seconds. “Sure, next time.”

A sudden gust of icy wind nipped at the two women as they watched the children head into the carousel building. “Don’t worry, Caroline. Cathy will be fine with the children. They’re very responsible and they won’t let any harm come to her.”

Caroline hoped her smile made her appear more confident than she felt. “They all have lovely manners, and they seem so helpful and caring. You must be an excellent teacher.”

Mary smiled softly. “It’s not me. They are wonderful children, so good-hearted and thoughtful.”

“Well, I’m sure you must have something to do with that, and also the father little Becca mentioned. Are you all part of a church group?” Caroline blushed, hoping she wasn’t being too intrusive. It was obvious whatever group their new acquaintances belonged to was in need of financial assistance. I’ll talk to Charles. Maybe we can make a donation if I can get the name and address.

Mary hesitated, but only for a moment. “It’s a bit more like an orphanage of sorts, but we do have strong moral values that we model for the children – the importance of caring for one another, being kind, taking responsibility for one’s actions, expressing a generosity of heart and spirit. We feel strongly that they need to recognize an act of kindness and to offer them to others.”

Caroline nodded approvingly. “My husband and I try our best to instill those values in Cathy, too, but I’m not sure how successful we’ve been, especially after today. She has never been so defiant and willful, running off like that. I just don’t know what has gotten into her.”

Mary laughed softly. “Take it from someone who has dealt with many, many children over the years. There’s only one explanation – she’s a four-year-old. That’s just who they are – sunny and sweet one moment and little horrors the next!”

“How long does it last?” Caroline’s eyes widened in alarm. “Please tell me it will be over soon.”

“Well, it all depends on the individual child, but by five there’s usually a great change for the better.”

“Nearly another year of this?!” Caroline shook her head. “I’m not sure I can manage to deal with that!”

“You’ll be fine, Caroline. Cathy is a lovely child, full of wonder and joy, with an open heart. You and your husband have done a fine job raising her, and you’ll continue to do so.”

Caroline sighed. “I hope you’re right. But how do you know so much about Cathy after only spending a few minutes with her?”

A gentle smile illuminated Mary’s face. “She reminds me a bit of another of my young charges. There’s a lightness about your Cathy, a spirit of goodness. She has an innate sense of kindness and caring. Why, that’s how we found her in the first place.”  Mary gestured toward an overflowing metal trash bin a few yards away. “She was about to fling her earmuffs into that bin when Devin stopped her. She wasn’t happy about it at first, even stomped her foot and informed him that she was four now, a big girl, and he couldn’t tell her what to do.”

Caroline rolled her eyes. “One of her favorite phrases lately.”

Mary nodded in understanding. “But when he explained to her that it was wrong to waste something that another person might need, she listened to him carefully and immediately put the earmuffs on little Rebecca’s bare head and told her they would help keep her warm.”

“She did?” Caroline beamed with pride at her little girl’s gesture of compassion. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Your Cathy has a good heart. But I won’t lie to you. There will be moments, issues you’ll have to deal with, ones you’ll wish more than anything had never happened, but everything will work out in the end. I’m sure of it.”

A comfortable silence enveloped the two mothers, then another blast of frigid wind shivered through them. Caroline glanced back at the carousel and then toward a cluster of vendors’ carts. “Their ride must be ending. Let’s take them all for hot chocolate. My treat.”

“That’s very sweet of you, Caroline, but it’s not necessary. The children don’t expect to be given anything.”

Caroline shook her head firmly. “But they deserve it, and it would be an act of kindness if you let me do this for you.” 

“Well, I can’t argue with that, can I?” Mary grinned at her. “I can see where your daughter gets her sharp mind!”

* * *

Swinging their clasped hands, Caroline kept pace with her daughter’s skipping feet as they walked north along Fifth Avenue. Traffic surged past on the busy street, and Caroline did not hesitate to grip her daughter’s hand tighter. Cathy had promised not to run off again, but the concept of promises was a fluid one for a four-year-old.

A particularly bouncy jump over a crack in the sidewalk jostled the little girl’s untied hood, freeing her silky hair to the persistent gusts of the winter wind. Caroline sighed. It was much too cold to walk for several more blocks with a bare head, but she had no desire to rekindle their earlier argument. Still, her child’s health had to take precedence.

“Cathy, come over here for a minute.”  To her surprise, Cathy didn’t resist as her mother gently wove her through the crowded sidewalk toward the stone wall bordering the park. Without being asked, she tipped her head back so the hood’s ribbons could be fastened under her chin. 

“There!” Caroline playfully patted her daughter on the head. “You’ll stay warm and snug now.” 

“Like a bug in a rug?”

Caroline’s soft laugh blended with her daughter’s giggle. “Like the cutest bug I’ve ever seen.” 

Impatient feet were ready to resume skipping homeward, but Caroline still needed answers and couldn’t resist taking advantage of the resurgence of her child’s good nature. “Cathy, why did you give your furry earmuffs to Rebecca? You liked wearing them to school yesterday.” She waited, but there was no reply. “Your grandmother chose them especially for you. She thought you’d love them. I did, too.”

She gazed with concern at her little girl, her head turned away, suddenly silent and subdued. Her once skipping feet scuffled through an ice-rimed scattering of desiccated, decaying leaves.

“Cathy? Did you hear me?”

The child nodded but didn’t speak. 

“I’d like an answer, please. Why didn’t you want to keep the earmuffs?”

The expected defiant glare and sharp tilt of the head never appeared, yielding to tear-filled eyes and a quivering lower lip. Her one-word reply was a wobbly whisper. “Bunnies.”

Caroline shook her head, uncertain she’d heard her daughter correctly. “Did you say bunnies?”

A nod and another teary whisper confirmed that she had. Caroline guided her daughter closer to the bench. “Let’s sit down for a minute and you can tell me what this is all about, okay?”

Cathy sniffled loudly, then pulled a crumpled tissue from her snowsuit pocket, remembering the lesson about runny noses and sleeves she’d recently learned. “Okay.”

Caroline took her daughter’s mittened hand in hers. “Can you tell me now?”

Cathy sat up straight on the bench, looked at her mother, and took a deep breath. “I know the earmuffs are really bunnies. Bobby told me yesterday at recess.” She sniffled again. “I love bunnies! But I don’t like Bobby! He’s mean. He said somebody hurted the bunnies to make my earmuffs.” A flash of hope lit the child’s eyes. “Did he tell a lie?” 

Caroline struggled to find words that would convey the truth yet not break her daughter’s gentle heart. “Honey, I’m sorry, but he didn’t tell you a lie. The fur on the earmuffs did come from rabbits. Their fur is sometimes used to make things to keep little girls warm in the winter.” She hoped the straightforward, if incomplete, explanation would be accepted without question.

Cathy’s eyes widened with horror. “But the bunnies won’t be warm without their fur! Did someone give them new coats? Do they have little blankets on their beds?”

Her daughter’s words stunned Caroline into silence. Where had such understanding, naïve yet insightful, come from? She nearly cried to see the trust in her little girl’s eyes, the unwavering faith that her mother would make everything right.

Caroline knew she couldn’t tell Cathy the truth. But how could she live with herself if she lied to her child? In a heartbeat, she made her decision. Mary had said there would be moments, and this was one of them. The world was full of painful truths that someday must be faced. But not today.

“I’m sure the bunnies are fine, Cathy. You don’t have to worry about them.” 

For a moment, Cathy hesitated, then nodded and clambered off the bench. “I want to go home now.”

Her mother rose to her feet and took her child’s hand. “Then, that’s what we’ll do.”

For a few minutes they walked on in silence. To Caroline’s eyes the gleaming promise of the winter day had begun to turn dreary and pale, and she wondered what might bring the joy back to her daughter’s eyes. But what more should she say, what might she do to make it so?

Her little girl answered the unspoken questions.

“Mommy, I think the bunnies are happy they helped Becca stay warm, don’t you?”

Caroline smiled down at her child. “Yes, I do. And I’m happy you were so kind to her.”

Cathy looked up at her mother, her eyes wide and gleaming. “Can I play with her and Livia again someday? Can they come to my birthday party?”

Caroline had forgotten all about trying to obtain some contact information for the little group, and she knew it was highly unlikely they’d ever meet again. But her daughter’s tender heart had been wounded enough for one day. “We can look for them next time we’re in the park, and if we see them, I’m sure it would be fun for you to play together again.” 

“Devin and Winslow and Pascal, too?”

Her mother nodded. “Devin and Winslow and Pascal, too.”

For several steps, Cathy skipped along at her mother’s side, then she scooted to a stop. “Uh-oh.” Her little face creased in a frown.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“My favorite horse. Devin said his little brother is going to pick that one for his favorite. What if he wants to ride it next time and he won’t give me a turn?”

Caroline smiled as she gently squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Those children are all so kind and polite. I’m sure Devin’s brother is, as well, and he’ll be glad to share the horse with you.”

Cathy tilted her head, considering her mother’s words. “And he’ll be my new friend, too?”

“I think he will,” her mother replied. “After all, anything’s possible.”

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