Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Boy in White

For some time, I have wanted to post about the boy in white, but I have hesitated because the story appears in my book, Blest Atheist, and I have generally posted excerpts from that book and my other publications on Mahlou Musings, rather than here. There are differing audiences between the two blogs, but I think the story can also appeal to readers of this blog. So, I will summarize the story here. You can find the longer, more complete story that is closer to the original in the book on Mahlou Musings.

The story of the boy in white intertwines with many of the leitmotifs of this blog. I began this blog with discussions of abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional) and blessings, and the story of the boy in white, which comes from my childhood, contains these leitmotifs as well as hints of the supranormal/angelic, which have also been discussed here at various times. Here is the story in brief:

On one bright, cold winter day, I dragged my sled three houses down our New England street to our neighbor’s teton-shaped hill, where all the children in our area of town gathered to race down to the mostly untraveled country road below on sleds, cardboard, or whatever else was available. I pulled my sled up the hill, waving to the other children in the neighborhood but mainly concentrating on the anticipated thrill of the ride. We were a community of children in the sense that we all knew each other, but our sport was an individual one. We did not share adrenaline-spurred shrieks of fun, but rather we quietly felt the thrill that defined the fun of New England downhill sledding.

That afternoon as I was pulling my one-person wooden sled up the hill a third time, I noticed a young boy, clad all in white and definitely not adequately covered for the sub-zero temperature that rosied our noses as they protruded from the scarves wrapped around our necks and faces and tucked into the hoods on our coats. I puzzled over the boy in white only momentarily as I mounted the hill and then the sled and began my third downhill run toward the road. Suddenly, about half-way down the hill, the boy in white, well blended with the surrounding snow in my visual field, began moving across the path over which my sled was about to speed.

“Get out of the way!” I yelled. I was as much annoyed at his being in my path as I was afraid of hurting him. He stepped back, and I briefly caught his sad look as I zipped past.

The memory is old and the details lodged in the mind of an 8-year-old whose perception of the world had moments of extremism. Therefore, I will not insist that every detail was precisely as I remember it today. What I do remember precisely, however, was being shaken by my own unkind words. I hurried home, towing my sled and a bundle of regret and concern. Somebody had to help the boy in white! He was wandering through the New Hampshire cold with no coat! He would freeze on the hill or anywhere else in our neighborhood. He seemed so oblivious to his surroundings and to the cold. He must be poor, indeed, I thought. We did not have much when we were children, but we always had warm clothes, and we were always bundled up, displaying a “cared for” look.

“Ma,” I called as I dropped the rope of the sled and ran into the house. “There is a boy on the hill without a coat. He is going to freeze! We have to help him!”

“Well, let’s go,” she said. I could not point him out through our window, so we set off for the hill. By the time we got there a few minutes later, however, he was nowhere to be found. We looked farther afield, but we saw no lad in white. Ma asked some of the other children, but none remember seeing him. I was at a loss to explain to Ma why he was not there, but she was not angry this time. In spite of her inability to love her children in an altruistic manner -- indeed, she was a highly abusive parent, one frequently emotionally out of control -- whenever someone in the greater community needed help, Ma was always jolly on the spot. Those two seemingly mutually exclusive attitudes — cruelty to her children and kindness to the community — made it difficult for us children to understand Ma. It also made it difficult for the community to understand our reaction to Ma for the community’s experience of her has always been positive.

As for the boy in white, I never saw him again. My friends insisted that he never was there, that he was a figment of my imagination that had frozen in the cold and was hallucinating snow images. Not a boy in white but a boy of snow. Still, I can see him today as clearly as I saw him on the hill so long ago. Today, I wonder if he was not there to teach me a lesson in kindness, in neighborly love — and to reveal perhaps why Ma may, indeed, live in grace, in spite of all her earlier cruelty and self-absorption for when there was a need for a Good Samaritan, Ma was usually the first volunteer. Perhaps God was using her, too? If God could use an atheist, as I was for so many years, then perhaps a believer with a temper, like Ma, might also be a potential instrument.

The long-ago lessons of the boy in white, unspoken lessons that allowed my subconscious, rather than conscious, mind to develop a morals-based value system, also showed me two important things that have dramatically shaped my life. First, I realized that day that there were two faces to Ma. That provided the foundation for the forgiveness that God required of me years later and which came easily once God pulled me out of my beloved bramble bushes. What God forgave me, I can certainly forgive others. Where God took me back, I can certainly take back others. Tit for tat gains nothing for no one. Forgiveness heals. That is one of the great lessons God has taught me on more than one occasion.

The second conclusion I came to all those years ago on the hill was that unless I was careful I would grow up to be the same hothead as Ma: my instinct had been to yell at the boy in white. Certainly, I did not want that. From then on, I worked hard to be the opposite of Ma. (Of course, I would tell her so from time to time when she was in the middle of beating, kicking, biting, or otherwise abusing me, and that did nothing to endear me to her; rather, I usually got an extra helping of the physical abuse as a result of my “big mouth.”)

How young I was when the boy in white crossed my path! Decades later, I can only conclude that God has always been with me. I have just been slow in seeing the linkages. I am grateful that now I can see them. Once again, God is spoiling me (and I love it).

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