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The pink bathrobe she wore was several sizes too big. It pooled around her feet and dragged behind her like the train of a great queen.
She told Shay she had a good Irish name. She told Zoya that the Russians were all brilliant, brilliant people. She told Emily that Emily Dickinson was her favorite poet.
She was the only one to come out and listen.
We were singing carols at a nursing home, and none of us wanted to be there. The platinum-blonde, overly perky receptionist at the front desk assigned our group the third floor. She showed all her glistening pearly whites in a wide, flaky smile as she told us that “Many of the nursing home residents are incapable of leaving their rooms due to illness or handicaps, so it is your duty as carolers to march through the hallways singing loudly for all.”
None of us wanted to be there, but not having much choice, we patrolled the halls of the third floor for a good hour, belting out carols at the top of our lungs until there wasn't a song in the book that we hadn't sung. Our throats hurt. Our heads hurt. Our backs hurt. Our feet hurt. Most of the girls were wearing high heels from the party. Most of the guys weren't even trying to sing anymore.
Finally we ran out of songs. The third time we sang “Silent Night,” we sounded more like a funeral procession intoning a dirge than Christmas carolers. We moved as fast as a funeral procession too, dragging our feet and checking our watches to see if we were near finishing. Besides, we reasoned, no one was listening in this creaky building that smelled of mildewed wood and old people.
Then, as we rounded the corner for the umpteenth time, we saw her. She was humming along to our morose rendition of “Silent Night,” her fluttering hands clutching her pink bathrobe, her filmy white hair floating around her head like a halo.
Not wanting to pass up our only visible listener, we paused, forming a clumsy semi-circle, and managed to finish the song after scraping together a teaspoon of enthusiasm and a dash of Christmas spirit. But our lackluster performance didn't bother her.
“That was beautiful,” she said, clasping her hands together and beaming. Her bathrobe had slipped open, revealing a flowered nightgown and blue slippers. Her legs were thin, the skin paper-thin and painted with delicate blue veins. They were porcelain doll legs.
“‘Silent Night' is my favorite song, you know. I wish I had something to give you. But I suppose all I can give is my thanks.”
We smiled, warming a bit as we cracked the icy expressions that seemed molded to our faces. We were telephone poles all connected by the same wire, all buzzing with the same thought. What a sweet old lady.
The long hour of walking and singing seemed worth it, just to see her beaming, her blue eyes alight with sparkles, her hair wafting around her face.
“May I … may I shake your hands?” she asked hesitantly. “I'd like to know all your names.”
“Of course.” I couldn't single out one person who said that, we all said it, in varying ways. We all wanted to stay a bit longer, let our teeth breathe for a few seconds, our faces melt, and most of all, look into her dancing eyes.
She shuffled over to the first person. “Your name?” she asked, clasping the girl's hand in both of hers.
“Grace! Like Grace Kelly! Do you know Grace Kelly?”
Grace smiled and nodded yes.
“Beautiful,” the woman crooned. “She was beautiful, and so humble.”
She moved on to the next person. “And your name?”
“Caroline! Are you from the South?”
“My parents are.”
She laughed in delight at her intuition, and we all laughed with her. What a sweet old lady.
“And your name?”
“Michael! Like the archangel!” she giggled. “And your name?”
“John! A good strong name. And your name?”
“Elizabeth! She was the mother of John the Baptist, you know.”
And down the row she went, with a small tidbit for each person, feeding us a little fact or comment that we savored. She made our names special, suddenly giving her worn rags the beauty of a priceless gown. She showed us something we would never have discovered on our own, and it was priceless.
Then she came to me.
“And your name?” she asked, clasping my hand in hers, small and warm, like a bird's wing. She held her other hand out to me as well, but not like someone would offer a handshake. She proffered it as if waiting for me to drop something into it, place my name within her grasp.
“Keilah.” Even as I said it, her fingers curled shut and began to massage the open air in her palm, feeling my name.
“Keilah,” she whispered. “What a beautiful name.” For a moment her blue eyes softened, and then she whisked on to the next person.
Keilah. What a beautiful name.
Finally, she got to the front and beamed, smiling up at us with twinkling eyes.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” she said. “And there's 15 of you?”
We nodded yes.
“That was beautiful,” she whispered again, clasping her hands beneath her chin and burying part of her face in her knuckles. “You know, ‘Silent Night' is my favorite song. I wish I had something to give you, but all I can give you is my thanks. My sincere thanks.
“You're welcome,” we murmured. We all smiled. We wanted to sing more for her. But before we could say anything, she said in the same faltering tone, “May I … may I hug you all? I want to know all your names.”
The room held its breath as something twinged inside us. Again? Of course we would love to … such a sweet old lady.
And down the row she went.
“And your name?”
“Grace.” Her voice was different, her eyes were hurting as she hugged the woman again, as something like cold realization tainted her face.
“Grace! Like Grace Kelly! Do you know Grace Kelly? Beautiful woman. And so humble! And your name?”
“Caroline! You aren't from the South, are you?”
“Yes, m-my parents are.” Faltering. We were all faltering now, slipping. Realization, like ice, growing on our skin.
She laughed in delight, so excited, so overjoyed. We didn't. When we hugged her, we held her. When she spoke, we clung to her words.
Then she came to me.
“And your name?”
“Keilah,” I whispered, my voice muffled in her frothy white hair as she embraced me.
“Keilah,” she repeated, stepping back and holding me by the shoulders at arm's length. “Keilah …”
She looked at me piercingly with blue eyes. Lucid eyes. Seeing eyes. And for a moment, I thought that she remembered.
“What a beautiful name.” Her face melted into delirious happiness once more. “Such a beautiful name.”
Then she stood at the front again, clasping her hands beneath her chin and swaying, her pink bathrobe pooling at her feet.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” she said. “There are 15 of you?”
Numbly, we nodded.
“‘Silent Night' is my favorite song.”
“Yes,” we whispered. “We know.”
“Beautiful.” She beamed at us. “I wish I had something to give you, but all I can give is my thanks. My sincere thanks. May I hug you all? I want to know your names.”
We were telephone poles strung together with the same wire. And the same thought traveled down the wire like a snowball down a hill, gaining momentum with every second. Realization. A new awareness. As if our innocence had been taken, snatched, stolen.
Eventually the group leader told us we had to go. We waved good-bye to her, watched as she beamed, and waved, and shuffled back into her room, her pink bathrobe like a queen's train behind her. We walked down the hallways, quieter now, subdued, so happy, so sad. Our time was up too soon. We went back to the lobby. The receptionist passed out a basketful of mini-candy canes to thank us.
Candy canes. How thoughtful, we telephone poles thought. And suddenly the receptionist's teeth didn't look so glaringly white or her smile so fake. We thanked her for her consideration, for the candy canes. But they weren't worth as much as being told that your name was strong, your name was that of an archangel, of the mother of John the Baptist. Candy canes weren't worth as much as a delighted laugh or twinkling blue eyes or frothy white hair drifting around sun-spotted skin and smiling wrinkles like clouds on a warm day. Candy canes weren't worth a fraction as much as being told that your name was beautiful.
She had apologized for having nothing to give us but her thanks. We couldn't have asked for more.