Crushed chocolate cookies

Foster childDing dong!

“There he is.” I smiled at Craig as I finished placing the freshly baked chocolate cookies on a plate. We walked to the front door together.

“Hello, Mr. White. Mrs. White. Good to see you.” The social worker placed his hand on the child beside him. “This is Benny.”

The boy stared down at his sneakers, which seemed too big for his body. He held a sagging plastic bag.

I kneeled down. “Hi Benny, I’m Karen. I’m so glad you’re here.” He avoided my eyes. When I touched his arm, he stiffened. For a second, I feared he would bolt.

“Please, come in.” Craig’s invitation reduced the tension of the first contact with our eight-year-old foster child. We were to be his third family in the four years since he saw his mom die from an overdose, and we were determined to be the last.

While Craig and the social worker completed paperwork, Benny sat on the edge of the couch, still studying his shoes and clutching his bag.

“I made chocolate cookies; do you want to try one?” I held out the plate.

After what seemed an eternity, he raised his hand, grabbed three cookies, and stuffed them in the pocket of his hoodie.

I cleared my throat. “Okay, these are for later. Why don’t you take another one for now?”

He shot me a glance, then took one more.

Craig saw the social worker to the door and came back with a ball and glove. “Hey Ben, would you like to play catch?”

“Sure.” The last cookie disappeared in his pocket.

From the window, I watched Benny trudge alongside Craig to the playground. Looks like a good start. I turned around to see his bag lying on the floor. I was about to bring it to his room when I thought better of it. We’ll do that together.

By the time Craig and Benny returned, I had started cooking, and food aromas filled the house. “Drumsticks and French fries—I hope you like it.”

Benny slumped into a chair.

“Honey, please, wash your hands first. Craig, can you show Benny the bathr—”

“Nooo!”

I almost dropped a dish as Benny sent the chair crashing to the floor.

“I hate you! I hate you!”

“Benny, what’s wrong?”

Craig reached for the boy, but Benny slapped him, ran to the couch, and seized his bag. “I won’t stay here! Tell Social Services to get me!”

“They’re closed at this hour, Benny. Why don’t you come and eat something?”

“No! I hate you!” He whacked the couch.

“You want to see your room?” Craig tried to distract him.

“I want to leave!” Tears streamed down his contorted face.

“We’ll see about that tomorrow. But if you don’t want to eat, I’ll bring you to your room so that you can sleep.” Craig picked him up, seemingly immune to the yelling and frantic kicking.

I followed them upstairs. When Craig put him down, Benny threw himself on the bed—shoes and all—and hid under the blankets, crying all the while.

Craig whispered, “I’ll eat something, then leave for my night shift. I’ll pray.”

The next moment, I found myself standing alone in the middle of the bedroom, its bright colors shouting failure.

God, I need You.

I sat down at the bedside and laid my hand on the crumpled heap of a child.

“Leave me alone!” He wriggled away from me.

“No, Benny, I won’t go anywhere when you’re so sad and upset. I’ll stay right here with you.”

The leering racing car on the bedspread seemed to mock me as I waited and prayed for a breakthrough. Finally, the sobs subsided.

Following a hunch, I asked, “Benny…may I hold you? I mean—like a baby?”

To my surprise, he pushed back the blankets and climbed on my lap. I held him in my arms and gently rocked him, until his body relaxed and he was fast asleep.

Carefully, I took off his shoes and pulled down the covers—revealing crushed chocolate cookies. I couldn’t help but smile as I wiped them from the bed and tucked Benny in. Then I bent down and planted a kiss on his forehead.

Dear Father, You loved us before we loved You. Please, now help us to love this child. Even if our love will be crushed…like a chocolate cookie, under the weight of his pain, we want to persist in loving him. Amen.

***

AUTHOR’S NOTES

This short fiction story was inspired by:

• “Removed,” a short film about foster care. See www.removedfilm.com and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOeQUwdAjE0.

• An newspaper article about foster care. See http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/verwaarloosde-en-misbruikte-kinderen-wie-helpt-ze-nog~a3889487/

Karen’s prayer refers to the following Bible verse: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV).

photo credit: via photopin (license)

 

Wings

It has been quiet on this blog… but today I publish the poem I wrote for the FaithWriters’ Challenge in October—the topic was “Zest.” Since then I have concentrated on writing in my mother tongue, Dutch. I am grateful to have been accepted as a member of a Dutch writers group, LetterSpinsels, where I will have every opportunity to further develop my writing skills. But I still love to write in English and who knows, maybe one day, I will write another book in this beautiful language.

If you are curious about my Dutch writings, see Kleurrijke Koorden (Colorful Threads).


Wings

Wings

While I stare into the dreary dawn of yet another day,
I am struggling for the strength and the steadiness to pray;
the constant whipping of a storm has left my spirit frayed.
God, please show
me how to grow.

All is quiet but a flitter: wings against the glass.
A fritillary at the window, frantic, tries to pass
the unseen obstacle to life. At the impasse,
it sits inert.
Maybe it’s hurt.

Despite myself, I scramble up to save the little thing.
Carefully, I cup my hands around its tender wings.
Against my palm, it tickles as it grasps and tightly clings.
Fatigue aside,
I stride outside.

My hands unfold. It sits so still, hiding its colored dress,
as if waiting for a sign. A breath of wind caresses…
It climbs the air; its rising, circling flight expresses
my delight;
a joyful sight.

A twisting dive, a swoop of wings, a swallow’s beak snaps shut
around the tiny butterfly. The cruelty converts
the blissful fluttering into a cramping knot of hurt.
With drooping head,
I trudge to bed.

How can I live abundantly when life resembles Sheol,
where I’m straggling through the dark—no map, no route, no goal—
and predators are on the prowl to feast upon my soul?
I shroud my face
and my disgrace.

Don’t hide and keep your heart from me, by circumstances bound.
Hide in the shadow of My wings, where steadfast love abounds.
Profounder joy and brighter light are nowhere to be found.
Come to Me
and be free.

Hues of pastel pink and blue now paint the new day’s sky.
I get up and spread my arms—I am God’s butterfly—
In His protection and His force, with eagle’s wings I’ll fly.
No time to waste—
there’s life to taste.

***

Bible references: Psalm 36:7-9, Isaiah 40:31.

photo credit: Silver-washed Fritillary via photopin (license)

My Treasure

Red Necklace

“A precious stone,” the owner of the souvenir shop had assured me. I loved the shiny pendant, so we spent our last birrs on the necklace before flying back home. Now the fading red paint reveals plastic, and I know that I’ve been scammed. But I don’t mind.

About seven years ago, my husband and I spent ten days in Ethiopia—days we’d been looking forward to so long. We had planned to make it a vacation, to explore Addis Ababa and its surroundings; to get to know Aisha’s country, and to give her the opportunity to say goodbye. Photos of monuments would serve as memorials of her roots.

Instead, the Lonely Planet Guide we pored over during our preparation, lay unopened on my nightstand. We spent most of our time in and around our hotel, immersed in bonding with the nine-year-old girl who now was our daughter.

Aisha bubbled with energy, despite the restless nights she spent coughing and tossing between us. She was relentless in her demands, but her little voice wafting through the air as I pushed her on a swing—wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa—made me give in every time. The first time in the swimming pool, she tripped and nearly drowned. It didn’t stop her from soaking in the pool an entire afternoon, until her golden skin showed goose bumps—and my teeth were chattering. We played Memory at least a hundred times. I only won once—the first time. That was when I explained the game to her.

She liked joking. During dinner, we felt something tickling our knees, and Aisha explained, “A cat. A big cat.” Looking under the table, we didn’t see anything but a pair of little hands. “Oh—it’s gone.” Her laughter at the look on our faces echoed through the room.

Milk and cheese were labeled “me no,” whereas chewing gum was at the top of her list of favorite foods. Our “no” to some of her wishes triggered several crying fits. I spent an hour rocking her, holding her tight and whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you…” to reassure her that even if we didn’t allow her to watch television all day, we still loved her.
Standing in front of the mirror for hours, she adorned her short, curly hair with pink ribbons and countless flower clips. Her best friend was my lipstick.

What little we experienced of the city affected us deeply. Modern office buildings rose high above corrugated iron shacks. Goatherds and donkeys wove through rows of honking cars. Elegantly dressed businessmen strode among begging lepers.

Each day, on our way to the nearby breakfast bar, we passed a person so marred by leprosy that it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or woman. We always put some money in the stump that was once a hand. One morning, my husband shared the Gospel. In the absence of a lower jaw, the person could only nod to confirm his words.

Just as we were about to continue our walk back to the hotel, Aisha cried, “Wait!” From her pocket, she fished the chewing gum we bought her that morning. Carefully, she pushed one—then two—sticks out of the package and laid them in the stump. The person nodded again, and Aisha skipped away, right into my arms.

We didn’t make photos of monuments, but monumental moments in our first days as a family were forever engraved in my memory.

So today, as I put on the red necklace with its fake gem, I feel grateful; a worthless souvenir from a country that birthed my greatest treasure—Aisha.


Although she doesn’t speak it anymore, Aisha’s native language is Amharic. Her song on the swing, “wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa” (written phonetically, as I heard it) means “back, forth, back, forth.”

Shards of Life

Broken Vase
About three weeks ago, I did an attempt to write a serious poem. It was the first time in my life (okay, since adolescence…). After I submitted it to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge, I discovered that God used it to speak into my own life. I had indeed built some walls that had dark corners with ugly growths. Covered by God’s grace, I put everything in the light. Restoration is in process. God is so good.

Here’s the poem, and I pray it will bless you.


 

The Broken Vase

 

A heavy weight has crushed my brittle heart

A vase that broke into a million pieces,

Its purpose lost. My emptiness increases.

I’m floored, oh God, all hope from me departs.

 

Betrayal, loss, affliction, and despair

Piled up until too bulky to be carried.

Under the crashed-down rubble now lies buried

My soul. Into the face of death I stare.

 

You say you’re near and you’ll revive my spirit.

So God, pick up this shattered heart of mine

My fallen, fractured selfand please align

Reality with what’s my rightful merit.

 

Your quiet’s hard to stand; my strength is streaming

Into the soil beneath my suff’ring soul.

A vortex drags me down, out of control.

Anxiety attacks, depression’s scheming.

 

Still waiting here for You, my God. Restore me.

Accomplish what you promised. I believe

That you exist, so why don’t You relieve

My anguish? Why not chase the gloom that’s o’er me?

 

Dear child of Mine, I’ve heard your ev’ry prayer,

Your cries and wails resounding in My heart.

I know the pain that’s tearing you apart.

You yearn, yet you don’t yield all to My care.

 

When you hold back, I cannot make you whole.

If you build walls, defensive with dead angles

Where anger broods and bitter roots entangle,

To shield your sin, I cannot mend your soul.

 

You do believe, but why don’t you surrender?

Why don’t you trust My mercy, love and grace?

Hand over all the fragments of your vase;

I’ll glue—renew—and pour it full of splendor.

 

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

 


 

photo credit: Day 207: Shattered Chivas via photopin (license)

The Photo Album

Photo Album“Mom, look what I found—pictures. Can I have a look?” Aisha’s voice interrupts my afternoon nap; a square photo album lands with a thud on the kitchen table.

“Sure, honey.” With a sigh, I hoist myself out of the recliner and sit down next to my teenage daughter. She lifts the heavy cover to reveal the first page, which displays the photo of a woman in her late twenties. Her complexion is perfect, her body athletic.

A stab of envy pierces my heart. I don’t need a mirror to remind me of my crow’s feet and the worry lines on my forehead. Without thinking, I reach up to touch the loose skin of my throat.

Aisha turns the page, careful not to tear the glassine interleave; the same woman smiles at us from a rowboat. She is a sportswoman and I know how she enjoys the rhythm of her strokes as the skiff glides through the water. On the opposite page, she is wearing a runner’s outfit; I recognize how she’s counting her steps, breathing deep, and reveling in the endorphin surge.

I look down at my fifty-plus body. It’s starting to sag. Arthritis is destroying my spine’s cartilage, sending painful messages to my right leg through compressed nerves. Walking is all I can do.

It is as if she’s mocking me, that woman in the pictures. She is in the prime of life, taking beauty and health for granted. In the arrogance of youth, she is confident that she will find the perfect love and lead a purposeful life, satisfying her innate need for happiness. A few bad experiences—and a couple of poor choices—have shaken but not shattered her conviction. She is in control.

Aisha studies the pictures, then looks up. “Is that you, Mom?”

“Yes, that’s me—about twenty-five years ago.”

“Wow. You’ve grown old.”

My mouth puckers. “Well, that’s what happens as time goes by.”

“What is it like to grow old, Mom? Do you feel worse now than when you were young?”

“Uh—” Suddenly, I remember the void. Because the woman I used to be searched for happiness in all the wrong places. The longing for love led her to make hasty decisions and choose harmful relationships. She hadn’t yet figured out that the career path she had taken wouldn’t lead to self-fulfillment. The pride elicited by a compliment of a manager and a significant raise—these things did nothing to fill the emptiness of her soul. And the runner’s high never lasted.

“I definitely feel better now.” As I talk, the truth of my words makes me smile. “Certainly, I’ve lost a bit of beauty and my body is wearing out, but I wouldn’t want to go back in time.”

“But why not? Didn’t you like being young?”

“Maybe I looked better, but I wasn’t happy.”

“Because you didn’t know Jesus?”

“Exactly.”

“Are you happy now?” Her gaze scrutinizes me.

I wrap an arm around her shoulder and plant a kiss on her cheek. “Definitely. And life is getting better every day.”

She leans against me as we quietly leaf through the rest of the album.

My outer self may be wasting away, but my inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16—ESV).


 

A Prayer about Worn Socks

Worn Socks

Dear Jesus,

This morning, I dropped a pair of worn socks in the trashcan and suddenly felt a twinge of guilt. My Mama went to be with You three years ago, yet I could almost hear her sneering, “Your Aunt Terry is a lazy bum. She doesn’t mend holes in socks; she just throws them away.”

Am I lazy, Jesus? I know I’m not the diligent housewife my Mama modeled. To her, housekeeping was a way of life that began at fifteen, when her father sent her away to be a round-the-clock maid. A relentless sense of duty made her toil every day, all day long.

Her countertop was always cleared. She prepared breakfast and invariably had lunch ready in time for us to get back to school for the afternoon. She didn’t vacuum the house by pushing the handle of the vacuum cleaner; she removed the handle, put the smallest nozzle to the tube, and went down on all fours to make sure it swallowed every crumb and dog hair from the carpet. The day she dropped a frying pan, and boiling oil splattered against her legs, the first thing she did was mopping up the mess. By the time she got to the doctor’s, her legs were two big blisters. The house was always spotless, from fridge to bathroom, from cellar to attic. Every cupboard, drawer, and wardrobe was neatly organized. When my father lost his job, she got a job as a janitress at a local school, doing what she did best.

And at the end of each working day, she put up her crooked feet—the painful result of a lifetime spent standing—and took out her mending basket. She never idled.

Ever since I was twelve, Mama urged me to tidy up my own bedroom, “Because you’re a girl and you must learn housekeeping.” I hated it. Dirty, she wrote in the dust on my bookshelves.

I’m in my fifties now and have my own family. But I still detest cleaning. Please don’t misunderstand me, Jesus—I love a tidy house. I just don’t like the process of achieving it. Somehow, it always ends up last on my list of priorities. I prefer talking with my husband over a cappuccino or worshiping You. Visiting friends, sharing Your love, and praying with them. Hiking in the woods, working on my book, or studying my Bible. Chatting with my daughter, helping her doing homework, or reading a good book.

I vacuum quickly, never on all fours. I never iron. Our wardrobes are a random pile of loosely folded clothes. I wash the dishes once a day. Never in my life have I done a spring cleaning. And I don’t mend holes in socks.

The other day, my daughter asked, “Who’s coming for dinner tonight?”

“Why, honey?” I stopped scrubbing the washstand.

“Because you’re cleaning the house.”

Jesus, it’s true that some days, I loath the idea of unexpected visitors, with dirty dishes piled up, a smudged floor, three dogs in the hallway, and schoolbooks plus half the contents of my daughter’s dressing table scattered in the dusty living room. But then You encourage me with the words that You spoke in Martha and Mary’s house, and I decide I’d rather be found amidst the clutter, radiant at Your feet, than grumpy in a spick-and-span house.

I can’t imagine dust or dirt in heaven. Mama must be having a good time.

By the way, can you please tell her that I love her—and assure her that I’m not a lazy bum?

Thank You, Jesus.

Amen.


You can find the story of Jesus in Martha and Mary’s house in the Gospel of Luke 10:38-42.

I submitted this article first to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

photo credit: New socks required ! via photopin (license)

GraceTruth-Featured

Greedy for Mushrooms

Truffle HuntingWhat’s that car doing down there, at the entrance of our pasture?

I descend the steep dirt road and notice a man approaching. “Buongiorno.”

Signora.” The man avoids looking at me.

“Excuse me, but what were you doing?”

“Searching… tartufi.”

Truffles? Our grounds contain truffles?

“Uh—black truffles?” I try to sound casual.

He shuffles his feet and thrusts one hand into his jeans pocket. “Well…no, white ones.”

The white gold of Umbria—worth up to €3000 per kilo.

A nervous excitement seizes me. “Did you find any?”

Beh, not really. It hasn’t been raining enough.”

In an instant, I’m transported back twelve years…in France…

***

The scent of resin enveloped me as I left the path and ducked under low branches into the pine forest. By the light of dawn, I scanned the soil for porcini mushrooms. Nothing. Had someone gotten here before me? Although I hadn’t detected any signs yet—mushroom stems, cut at ground level—the mere idea of an intruder was enough to infuriate me. Never mind that it was a public forest; I discovered this porcini-rich area. It was mine.

My gaze fastened on a bulge in the earth. I brushed aside needles to reveal the light brown cap of a mushroom. After removing the soil around the fungus, I cut its stem and inhaled the creamy, nutty fragrance. My spotless treasure, weighing at least a pound, filled me with exhilaration.

Just as I closed the lid of my basket, a rustle called my attention. I froze. I caught a glimpse of a rival’s boots as he wandered past, his stick lifting the underbrush along the path. Needles pricked my face; my back ached. But I refused to budge.

While waiting for the threat to recede—my eyes ever roving—I spotted a mushroom above ground, about ten feet away. As soon as all was clear, I crawled to it and found it wasn’t alone. This wasn’t hunting; this was mining! I worked feverishly. My knife hovered over some small ones; if I left them, tomorrow they’d be much bigger—but no, I couldn’t risk anyone else discovering them. The entire porcini family disappeared into my basket. They were mine.

On my way back home, I overtook my foe.

“Porcini hunting?” He asked with more than normal interest.

“Yes, but it’s a bad year.” I twirled my basket as if it didn’t weigh five kilo.

“You’re right—I didn’t find anything either.” His plastic collecting bag fluttered in the breeze.

***

The man’s whistle calls me back to the present. A beagle comes running and sits down at the feet of his owner.

“Does the dog help you to find truffles?”

Si, signora. When he sniffs them out, he starts scratching the ground, and I dig them up with a scoop.”

He takes his hand out of his pocket and shows five marble-sized truffles. “Do you want them? They are yours after all.”

They’re mine…

I ignore the whisper in my head. Thanks to Jesus, I’m not the person I was twelve years ago.

“No, please keep them. I only asked because yesterday, I found a dead badger with snare wounds around its snout. I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t put any traps out here; they would hurt our dogs.”

“Thank you.” He puts the truffles back in his pocket.

“Will you sell them or eat them?”

“Definitely sell them, signora. I recently lost my job. Since my wife works only part-time, and we have two small children, I am looking for ways to make some money.”

Before he closes the door of his old Fiat Panda, he lifts his hand in greeting. “Grazie, signora. Arrivederla.

A trail of grey smoke marks his path as he drives up the road.

I set out for my walk back home. Despite the steep climb, I manage a spring in my step.


I published this article first on FaithWriters.

Photo credit: Stefano Cellai/age fotostock