When I met Dorothy, I knew she was unique. Julia, my youngest was in second grade and brought home a new friend named Dorothy. Unannounced, she just popped off the bus with her one day. No planned play date. No mom-to-mom phone call. Just there she landed, ready to hang with Julia.
When I hear the name Dorothy, I can’t help but think of Judy Garland from the movie, Wizard of Oz, her blue plaid dress and brown doe-eyes, vulnerable and scared asking anyone and everyone how to find her home. This new friend, Dorothy was saucy. She had a quick wit like a gritty old man, yet she was all of eight-years-old.
And when Dorothy played at our house, she stayed for hours, with no one checking on her whereabouts. She had long brown hair, down around her face, and wore a pair of jeans with the junior high mascot on it. Her eyes sparkled, even exploded when she talked, and like a single firework, they faded with a circle of sadness. I recognized her eyes. I had that same look when I was that age.
Dorothy was not like Julia’s other friends. Like Julia, she was the youngest in the family of older siblings, but Dorothy’s siblings were teenage boys, the kind of boys you did not want your daughter to bring home. The brothers had an edge not common in our suburbia. They smoked on the front steps of their trailer, cussed with words in unthought-of combinations, and drove a loud car with a horn that had been modified to sound like a Peter Frampton song.
It was a friendship started by convenience, Julia let her sit next to her on the bus when no other child obliged. The kids teased Dorothy because she smelled like a pack of Marlboros and lived in the trailer park near the Dunkin Donuts.
Dorothy raised my motherly antenna. I questioned whether or not she was a suitable playmate for Julia, but I wanted to know more about the story behind those eyes. Dorothy was funny and laughed at her own jokes, truly enjoying herself. She made our whole family look at things just a little differently when we all swapped stories about our day around the dinner table.
I often referenced the saying “the only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well” to my daughters. I taught them to embrace their reality: that yes, we were a blended family, with lots of discourse and drama, and all these perfect families they see at school events, appearing preferred and complete, faced challenges.
I guess that is what I liked about Dorothy. She was just so darn grateful for anything – help with their homework as they unpacked their backpacks from the school bus, a simple snack of carrots and celery because I refused to buy ranch dressing to go with it, leftovers, and dish duty. We included Dorothy in the mandatory mundane, and she never complained. Other friends wouldn’t swim in our pool because it was chlorine-based and not salt water, refused to eat vegetables, wondered why we didn’t have an unlimited supply of juice boxes, and didn’t know how to rinse their own dishes.
Soon it was close to Christmas. During prayers one evening, Julia asked that instead of picking a child from my office angel tree, if we could play secret Santa to Dorothy and her family. Dorothy didn’t want much: she wanted a particular book that Julia had, called, “The Magic Locket,” (complete with a real gold locket in the insert), tennis shoes that had lights on the side like Julia’s, and she wanted colored Christmas lights on her trailer.
I added a lot to my own prayers that night. If only the narrative of the book, “The Magic Locket,” was real — that all the magic, the confidence, the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to, really works, without fail, because you wear the locket. If only life was that simple and guaranteed. The fact that it was at the top of Dorothy’s list made me stop and assess my own goals and my view of Christmas. Julia knew by Holy instinct we needed to help, and I felt akin to Dorothy in some strange way. She had coping skills in a busy family, working hard to make it and I remember with bitter grace some tough years in my own childhood.
As a child, I didn’t want anyone to know that my sister was sick and dying and that my parents screamed at each other late into the night. I got dressed in mismatched hand me downs, clowned my way through the day, played chase with boys on the playground, and made secret forts with friends after school, playing until it was way past the golden hour and their mother’s called them home.
And now, years later, I was a mother, ever hovering and worrying about my children. No question, as a mother, my motivation for working and doing well was to provide not only stability for my girls, but to give them some things I wish I had growing up: dance lessons, church shoes versus just clean tennis shoes, a new lunch box each year, big birthday parties, and all the confidence in the world beyond wearing a magic locket.
I worked outside the home all day and then begrudgingly completed housework and paperwork past midnight. I had two alarms set: one, the correct, perfect morning let’s-all-make-the-bus and two, sleep in a bit more and swing through the carpool line before the last bell rang.
The proximity of the Dunkin Donuts was dangerously close to our house, and that became the prescription for a code blue lousy morning. Frosted pink donuts and a large coffee with extra cream can cure a lot of bad moods.
The same lady served me coffee each time. I don’t remember her first name, but I remember her eyes. They were tired, like mine, and when she handed me my coffee, she still had a spark in her eye, with a kind smile. We were Sympatico, two moms struggling to make it through the morning, let alone navigate our jobs, children and personal wellbeing.
Julia leaned over me and said, “ Hi. Mrs. Bowdon, I’m Julia, Dorothy’s friend.”
I looked at Julia and looked at Mrs. Bowdon, who was handing me my coffee, and I saw the resemblance to Dorothy—that spark, that hope, that sense of humor.
That day, I skipped work and shopped. Santa wrote an inscription to Dorothy inside the cover of The Magic Locket, and I wrapped it and adorned it with a candy cane. I guessed at her shoe size and bought her two new pairs of shoes. I added a few gift cards and a note for Mrs. Bowdon.
I recruited help from the soon-to-be second ex-husband, and he came with a ladder, duck tape, and extension cords. I think one of the last things we did together was decorate Dorothy’s trailer.
He left his red truck running, the radio playing Frank Sinatra’s version of White Christmas. Even though it was 70 degrees in Georgia, Christmas was near and the trees and the wind swirled before a cold front arrived. We stretched the lights out, attempted to swag the lights reaching for anything to hang on the metal of the trailer, resorting to duck tape as our fastener of choice.
Frank Sinatra, duck tape and a few lights created a little Christmas magic. It felt profound.
That afternoon, Julia busted through the door thrilled that Santa got the word and paid an early visit to Dorothy. She said Dorothy squealed with delight as the bus approached her home and she saw all the colored lights twinkling in the midst of the rain. I poured a cup of tea, turned on a little Frank Sinatra and wrote my own letter to Santa, thanking him for all Christmas spirit bundled up in the story of the birth of Jesus.
With duct tape and Jesus, you can do just about anything – no magic locket needed.