THE GUMDROP SAINT
By John Thomas Tuft
The day dawned gray and cold, its lazy light like an old tom cat creeping out from under the bushes demanding to be fed before he goes to sleep off his nighttime exploits. Cleo stepped out onto the back porch, pulling her robe tighter around her, feeling just flat out tired; tired of colliding with people. It just felt so draining any more, dealing with people. Why did everyone think that their needs and concerns were the most important ones, needing to be dealt with before all others? She shook her head at the thought, wishing the sun was out instead of these awful dreary clouds. Two years on from the divorce and too close to being fifty years old for any comfort, she sipped at her coffee, feeling its warmth tickle all the way down. But when it reached her belly it just sat there, a faint sour of unease, a reminder to be unhappy. As she watched a squirrel making its tentative way across the back yard, she idly remembered the Gumdrop Saint.
“Nothing is forever,” her father used to say, “except forever. And if you can put it in a bucket and carry it around, then it wouldn’t be forever.” The memories flooded back, unbidden. The small, comfortable house in the northern woods. A big, burly man of a father, who always smelled of sawdust, loam, and oil. He would come home from the sawmill, swing her up on his shoulders, then let her dive into his pockets, seeking out the gumdrops that were always there. His roar of mock indignation at her delight in finding the sweet treats, demanding his tribute of all the yellow ones. While he chewed on them with great pleasure Cleo would pick the bits of sawdust from his scruffy red beard. And always, right about then, her mother coming out of the kitchen scolding them both for ruining their dinners with those foolish gumdrops, barely concealing her smiling eyes.
But nothing is forever. One day when Cleo was eleven, the big, burly man did not come home. When she got home from school her mother was sitting alone in the living room, pale and shaken. With tears she told Cleo that her father had been in an accident at the mill. He would not be coming home. And her world broke in half. Angry and scared, Cleo ran through the house searching. Calling for her father, over and over. Screaming at the top of her lungs, “He’s here. I know he’s here. He’s the gumdrop saint.” Broken worlds and broken hearts are not easily healed. A few days later, as the community gathered in the little church, to mourn and say goodbye, Cleo stayed silent. Very still. If you can put it in a bucket and carry it around, then it wouldn’t be forever. But the plain wooden box being lowered into the ground sure seemed like a forever.
Within a year, mother fell apart and could no longer care for Cleo. The state Children’s Home Society stepped in and took Cleo into their care. Cleo took up residence in a group home. It was not to be forever, but it was not the little, comfortable home in the woods. Cleo built a wall around her heart because heartache does feel like forever. At the Christmas party that year, someone brought out a beautiful bowl. Filled with gumdrops. The very sight of them enraged Cleo. She didn’t know why, but she picked up the bowl and threw it through a window, smashing it and scaring the other children there. If she had to be lonely, then nobody else deserved any better. And who could blame her? But it left a kind of forever mark on her record and even foster placement became remote, let alone adoption. It was six long years later that Cleo finally aged out of the system, wondering if she would forever be on her own.
Standing now on her back porch, Cleo tried to resist thinking about that time, but such exercises are fruitless. Going from the childhood of every day being a celebration to one where every day is a hollow endurance trial leaves a forever mark. She sincerely believed that her marriage would be forever, but it had not. All the other usual suspects seemed to offer a way to combat that hollow feeling, but they had not. She looked down at the deck. There were little holes in the wood, surrounded by the handiwork of carpenter ants: little mounds of sawdust. The light of an idea formed deep inside of Cleo.
She spent the day shopping, stopping at every Dollar Store General Tree she could find. That evening she put her plan into motion. Near dawn she came home from her trip and collapsed into bed to sleep soundly and peacefully. Which is why she did not hear the phone ring. Or this message: “Cleo, this is Janet, director of the Children’s Home Society. The kids are so excited. Everyone of them this morning found your surprise. At each table setting one of those little plastic trees. With gumdrops stuck to each branch. They’re so colorful. It’s wonderful, Cleo. And they loved their little notes… signed by The Gumdrop Saint.”
For you see, the only real forever is our need for the healing of love.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.