Mother was starting to get better. She was out of the bed more than she was in it, and she got dressed in real clothes in the mornings. But we were still going to people’s houses during part of the day so she could rest. One morning, however, I begged to stay home. I could help her. I was big enough. I wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be a help. I made all kinds of promises and pleaded until finally she agreed.
I was so excited when my brother, Bryant, was picked up and I was left to take care of Mom. I felt so grown-up and was even more excited because of the feeling of stability that staying home gave me. This was affirmation that things would be normal again. Life would return to the routine I knew and loved. It was proof to me that Mother wasn’t going to die and leave us. But the morning didn’t play out the way I thought it would. It was supposed to be warm and wonderful—the happy ever after ending of a terrible ordeal. But it wasn’t. Mother was irritable.
She wanted to be back to doing the work that defined her life. But her energy didn’t match her desire. She’d dust a few things and then have to sit down. She’d sweep and have to lie down. She’d wash a few breakfast dishes and collapse on the couch only to come back and find the water cold and the suds gone, so she’d start over. I tried to help, but was aware that I was in her way. I watched. I listened. I tried to figure out a way to win her favor. After all, my future depended upon it. If I was of help maybe I’d get to stay home the next day, too.
I have no idea what happened next—whether I did something wrong or said something I shouldn’t but suddenly she was very upset with me and told me I had to sit on a chair for forty-five minutes. It must have been something awful because the normal time-out was a half hour. Mother pulled one of the chrome with green nagahyde chairs to the center of the room and plopped me on it. I was not to move off the chair. Disciplining me had exhausted her. She went back to bed.
I watched the red second hand swirl past the big black numerals on the clock. It didn’t go around once before that grew boring. I twisted my legs around the cold chrome chair legs and wished I could at least have a book to read—wondered if I dared ask her for one. I scanned the spotless kitchen noticing how the light reflected in the polished wax floor. Then glancing at the counter I saw something unusual—a pile of cuttings from magazines next to mother’s recipe box. Usually nothing sat out on mother’s counters—ever. But this pile had been there for several days now and every time mother passed it, she commented on how she needed to get her recipes organized. The night before I’d heard her tell Dad that this was one task she could do. After all it didn’t take much energy to organize recipe cards, but even that she couldn’t seem to get to. She had decided to leave it out until it was done. It was her way of forcing herself to do it no matter how tired she was. Even I had recognized the sound of discouragement in her voice.
Suddenly, as I saw the pile and remembered her words, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Surely if I organized the cards for her she’d not only commute my time on the chair, but let me stay home every day ever after to help. I’d just learned to read and I knew all about organizing written things into alphabetical order. So I scooted the chair to the counter and opened the metal file box. There were already a lot of cards in the box. The first cards had titles that read, Orange Rolls, Bread Sticks, then Cornbread Muffins. No wonder mother was so distressed. This did need organizing.
Quickly I emptied the entire box onto the counter. The white index cards spilled everywhere. In addition there were light-brown tabbed cards, but instead of the alphabet like at the library, they had words on them. I didn’t bother to even read them. They were only printed on one side and so I turned the cards over and carefully printed letters on the tabs. There weren’t 26 cards with tabs, so I doubled up the last letters of the alphabet so that I had a card for every letter and put them into the box. Then I began the task of organizing. I remember feeling so proud. Certainly this would change mother’s irritable mood. I would make her so happy. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about this task any more.
Quickly I put the Apple Strudel card under the A tab and the Chocolate Delight Cake under the C tab, Savory Beef Flank under the S tab, and the Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie under the P tab. I worked fast, filled with a consuming sense of purpose and delight. Soon I had the cards that had been in the box alphabetized, but I wondered what to do with the loose clippings on the counter. I knew that pile was what really bothered mother. Many cards in the box were written on, but there were also a lot of clippings taped to cards. That’s probably what she wanted. But I couldn’t get to the tape without getting off the chair. I pondered what to do and finally decided that if I just took the box into mother’s bedroom and showed her what I had done so far, she would be so delighted she would let me off the chair. I could get the tape, finish the job, and bask in her satisfaction.
I know my smile filled my whole face. I could feel each side of it hooking onto my ears. I had a surprise and didn’t even think about the fact that I was getting off the chair before it was time. After all what would that matter when mother saw how I had helped her? I walked boldly into her room, the box stretched out in front of me as if I were carrying a crown to the queen. Mother opened her eyes half way, but before she could say anything, I did. “You know how you wanted to organize your recipes? Well, I did it for you. Look.”
She took the box, opened it, and squealed. “What have you done?”
This reaction was even more than I had expected. “I alphabetized every one for you,” I said proudly.
“You what?” Only then did I realize that she was not delighted. She sat up with more energy than I had seen in weeks. She grabbed my arm, pulled me back to the kitchen, put me on the chair, told me to stay there another forty-five minutes and that if I dared touch anything, I’d have to answer to my father when he got home.
Shocked, I watched her scoop up the clippings and recipes and disappear back into her bedroom. I’d never in all my life seen her so mad. Baffled I could only stare after her. I’d done something wonderful and she rewarded me like this? The sickness had changed her. This wasn’t my mother. Why wasn’t she praising me and thanking me? Instead she was so mad I dared not ask. Quietly I wept out my forty-five minutes and then spent the rest of the day trying to stay out of her way.
It wasn’t until many years later while sitting in my first day of seventh-grade-cooking class that I understood what had happened. The cooking teacher had a desk full of items we would need to purchase for the class. She showed us the text book, an apron that would have our name embroidered on it, a recipe box, and the white-lined index cards on which we would write our recipes. Then she held up a stack of light brown cards with tabs. Each tab had a word printed on it. I recognized them at once. Shuffling through the stack she read the words I hadn’t read that long ago day: appetizers, breads, cakes, cookies, etc.. As she explained that we would organize our recipes under these labels knowledge in the form of lightening jolted through me. That’s why Mom had been so mad those years before. Recipes weren’t alphabetized! I hadn’t organized her box, I’d unorganized it! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry—finally I understood.
I learned a great lesson from this experience that I have tried to remember. Sometimes when people hurt or hinder you, they are actually trying to help you. I also gained a deep sense of gratitude for the fact that Father in Heaven judges us not just on our actions, but on the desires of our heart.