Ways of seeing: More than skin deep

Sometimes as a child I would lie in bed and stare at the speckled wallpaper, lights from passing cars moving across my bedroom, and I would think of Mrs. O’Connell. As beams glided across my face, my bedspread, the wooden floor, I had a feeling she knew The Secret.
She was the most beautiful woman I ever knew, with strawberry blonde hair, silky pastel dresses and a gentle voice. When my mother became ill, Mrs. O’Connell put her hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and offered to help with any of my girl questions. It seemed to me she had all the answers.
I loved any excuse to go across the street to her tidy ranch home and chat with her. Mrs. O’Connell’s house smelled like lemons, and she never seemed rushed. Her blue eyes smiled, and she seemed so interested in me. She was surrounded by a force field of love that encompassed me, and I wanted to remain there.
Once Mrs. O’Connell told me about her youngest son’s clay sculptures. Terry’s autism prevented him from speaking or relating to others, but he knew and sang the words to every song on the radio. Mrs. O’Connell described the details of his elaborate clay suspension bridge models that even included the New York skyline. I was mesmerized and asked if I could see one of them.
“He never lets anyone else see them,” Mrs. O’Connell confided, a small, knowing smile playing on her lips. “He always destroys them before I can put them on display.” I felt honored she chose to share this family secret with me.
Her other sons had wondrous stories, too. Timmy, who was older than me but in my grade, was small and impish and looked younger than his actual age. He periodically missed whole weeks of school. We all thought Timmy was slow. He worked with a tutor and couldn’t read in fifth grade.
But one day all the sixth graders had to bring our desks and chairs into the gym, where a substitute teacher spent the whole morning reading Oliver Twist out loud. After way too many pages, she paused to ask what had happened thus far. We slid low in our seats and tried to turn invisible, but Timmy stood up and retold the entire story of Oliver’s life, recalling details I hadn’t heard or understood. We all breathed sighs of relief and amazement. Timmy was a hidden prodigy.
His brother Patrick had wiry hair, bumpy fingernails and a knack for math and science. Though as small as Timmy, he looked like an old man. I often heard my parents whisper that Patrick was back in the hospital. People said Mr. O’Connell had worked in radar during the Korean War, and that was why three of their four sons had problems. Mr. O’Connell wasn’t home much, but Mrs. O’Connell handled her household magnificently on her own.
Or perhaps that was an illusion. One afternoon I came home to find Mrs. O’Connell lying motionless on her back on the floor in our den. Her hand was poised in a graceful extended gesture, as if she was about to comment on the weather or a book she’d just read, a lit cigarette resting between her fingers. Frightened, I turned to my mom. “Mrs. O’Connell was feeling tired,” she told me as I stepped backwards, still staring. I had never seen anyone poised that still, cigarette smoke dancing and twirling across the space above her.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had already sensed Mrs. O’Connell’s struggle. Caring for her four boys, with their various needs, she sustained a grace that imbued her with wisdom but also took its toll. She was exhausted, yet she was not defeated.
Not long afterwards, my mom died. Then my dad switched jobs, and our family moved. It was a confusing time. Lying in the dark of my bedroom, I wanted to ask Mrs. O’Connell all my girl questions. Even more, I wanted to ask her about The Secret, the vast mystery we feel so close to in our youth. Although we now lived far apart, I felt her beside me.
Pat O’Connell stopped by years later while I was visiting my dad. Though in failing health, she was fully present. After hearing about our latest exploits, she complimented my father on how well he had parented his three daughters all those years on his own. “Look how wonderfully they turned out,” she pronounced with joy. My father beamed. No one else had ever acknowledged him that way. I cannot imagine a more generous gift.
As we sat and spoke, I realized Mrs. O’Connell was probably never outwardly the most beautiful woman imaginable but rather a freckle-faced lady with a huge and gorgeous heart who held out her hand where she saw the need. I felt thankful for her presence in my life and grateful to all the Mrs. O’Connells around the planet who heal the world each day with acts of loving kindness.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.

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