Today we went by the dress store to pick up my daughter Emily’s pageant dress. I had chosen a dress shop close to where we lived, though to call it a shop would have been a bit of a stretch. It was a storage building attached to the side of a trailer. Off to the side stood the Woodrow Wedding Chapel – yet another storage building where happy couples could walk down the aisle after renting a wedding dress. An orange tabby was asleep on a bale of hay by the front door. A little girl’s white dress was draped over the bushes in the sunshine. It really didn’t look like the place to rent a pageant dress, but I had been lucky enough to find one for Emily there last week. With shoes, however, I had no luck anywhere.
I had to wonder at my rotten luck in not being able to find any shoes within a thirty mile radius of where we lived. Too big, too small, wrong color, nothing was working out for me this week. I really didn’t have time to look, especially with all three kids in tow, so I reluctantly had called the shop back earlier to see if they had shoes for sale. Having been assured they did, we drove the twenty miles over back roads and potholes to the Woodrow Wedding Chapel and Dress Rental. I was having a bit of a pity party as I drove. My oldest daughter, Sarah, was having some very trying behaviors. Sarah has autism and some days are worse than others. But I couldn’t let Sarah’s behaviors interfere with Emily’s pageant. Still, I was wishing I had taken something for my headache as I listened to my youngest, Sophie, enthusiastically sing Old McDonald from her booster seat. Repeatedly.
As we walked inside, I could tell that Debra (owner of the Woodrow Wedding Chapel) was neck deep in the rush of altering dresses before the pageants of this weekend. Sequins and beads were scattered on the table near a floral curtained room that served as a changing area. Rows of dresses with pieces of paper carefully pinned to them were hung across the ceiling, clothesline style, waiting to be picked up. Yet more racks of dresses, unrented, filled the rest of the building with bright sparkling fabrics.
Debra looked up at us and smiled tiredly, gesturing to the shoes in the corner. “Start looking for a size that fits, darlin’, and we’ll see what we can do about coloring 'em.” She started a bit when she saw my oldest, Sarah, rocking side to side, hands over her ears and eyes wide at all the bright colors and sparkling beads. I was quick to assure Debra, “She has autism but I’m going to hold tight to her so she won’t touch anything.” Knowing my luck, I figured Sarah was good for about a thousand dollars of damage if she darted away and grabbed something.
Debra came over to us and knelt down beside her and said, “Hello sweetheart, do you like the pretty dresses?”
I replied, “Sarah is non-verbal, she doesn’t talk.” And then, as Sarah began to sing Achy Breaky Heart, I added, “She does, however, love to sing.”
Debra touched Sarah lightly on the shoulder and said, “She’s a little songbird, ain’t she?” I agreed and turned my attention to Emily, to veto the high heeled glass slippers she was trying on. When I glanced back my heart almost stopped. Debra had taken two of the dresses off the hangers and handed them to Sarah to play with. Considering that the dresses rented for $75 up and most had a value of several hundred dollars, I thought it prudent to intervene.
“Please don’t let her play with those,” I told Debra, “she’ll tear them up and I can promise you that I can’t afford to replace them.”
Debra looked up from the rhinestone butterfly she was showing Sarah. “I am the oldest of ten children,” she told me. “My youngest sister wasn’t expected to live past one year. They told my mother to put her somewhere but she brought her home. She stayed with us, and she was sixteen years old before she passed. She never talked but she loved to sing. And look at sparkly things. And rock. We musta wore out fourteen rockin' chairs in those sixteen years. She was so happy.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I told her what I personally believe to be true. “People are the way that God meant for them to be. There are worse things in life than living your life happy and content, surrounded by those who love and care for you.” I could tell she agreed.
She asked me if I minded if she brought her mother in to meet Sarah, and went next door to the trailer. A few minutes later an older lady came in and her eyes locked onto Sarah and softened. She knelt down beside her, touched her on the head, saying, “Hello sweetheart.” Sarah didn’t reply but started humming Rockin Robin. The lady smiled and turned to me. “Do you mind if I sit near her for a minute?”
Of course I didn’t mind but had to watch. It is so interesting to see how people interact with Sarah. Regardless of how well they know her, there is usually a hesitancy or a pause when they get close, as if they worry she will dart away or push or do any of the unexpected things that she is known to do. But this lady melted next to her as if she’d known her all her life. She put both arms around her and pressed her face into Sarah’s hair, inhaling deeply. Any mother, anywhere would recognize this hug. She smiled into Sarah’s hair and whispered, “Little songbird, what a sweet girl you are!”
Meanwhile Debra had gone to get her daughters to come meet Sarah. I could tell that the teenagers were a bit confused about the fuss being made, but they smiled politely and said hello to Sarah and the rest of us. Debra pulled down three more dresses and handed them to her Mother who showed them to Sarah. By now I had given up counting the dollars of damage that Sarah could do and indeed Sarah was running her fingers over beads and sequins, fabrics and stones. She would squeal with excitement every couple of minutes, prompting another hug and smiles of delight from Debra and her Mom.
They tossed pink and purple pageant dresses into the air with abandon laughing as they floated down. They played peek-a-boo with a turquoise and silver dress with more layers than I could count. A stone studded blue formal was spread on the floor for them to run their hands over. Crushed brown velvet rubbed across their cheeks, arms and hands. I closed my eyes to the potential damage that could occur and instead looked at the absolute joy emanating from the two ladies whose sole attention was focused on Sarah.
I was suddenly glad that I hadn’t found the shoes I needed somewhere else. My day, which had been quite crappy, had become a bit more beautiful. When it came time to leave, Debra’s Mom walked us out, past the bale of hay with the sleeping tabby and hugged Sarah one last time. “Bye little songbird,” she whispered, “come back and visit me again.”