The quietness of that October evening in 1991 was a welcome relief from the hectic, noisy routine of working with 10 troubled young ladies. “My girls,” as I affectionately referred to them, had left for an activity, and I was on duty at the group home where I worked to answer the phone and catch up on documentation. I sank with satisfaction into a chair and mused over the many things I have learned in this place about God’s love and how to show it to some very hurt and often angry 6 to 14-year-old girls. Yes, the hours were long, and the staff relished the few moments of peacefulness we could snatch between crises but mingled with the pain and exhaustion was a very real sense of God-given purpose and joy in having a part in touching their lives.
“These girls really have a way of snuggling into my heart,” I thought, as I wrote down the afternoon’s incidents in the daily log. Each one was special, and I couldn’t help but smile as their faces passed, in quick frames, through my mind. I wondered where they would be 20 years from now and whether they would remember the principles we had taught them about Jesus. Would they remember that He loved them, died for them, and could meet their needs if they would only continue to trust Him?
The phone rang interrupting my thoughts. I reached for the receiver and said “good evening.” A lady introduced herself as Helen. “I used to live at your home and they told me back then if I ever needed a place to stay I could count on the Boylston Home. Is that still true? I’m 58 years old and I’m not poor. I lived at Mercy home ( the name of the home before it was changed to Boylston) from 1947 to 1949.”
I hesitated because we get many prank calls and my initial thought was, “Oh great, another one of those kooky people looking for handouts.” Her speech was slurred, and I wondered if she was drunk or something. I later learned that she was just naturally slower speaking.
“Well Ruth, let me tell you a little bit about the place when I lived there.” She drawled.
I had a desperately hard time trying to make out her words because she spoke very slowly like it was a terrible effort to formulate and express her thoughts. I sat and listened without much comment as she told me about the home she remembered. There was the mean house mother who got very angry with her because she didn’t know what elbow-grease meant. “I thought it was some kind of Dutch cleanser or something and she got so angry that she gave me at least a half a dozen black marks. How was I to know the difference? I never heard that term before in my life.”
She sounded so much like a lost child that I felt even then all she really wanted was some understanding and a friend who cared enough to listen to her. She told me about how she was teased and pick on mercilessly by the other residents and how the house mother made fun of her tears. One day, she told her teacher. “They stopped picking on me after that!” She stated it smugly like she had won a major battle and proved herself. “I think the house mother found out I had told on her and she didn’t dare say anything mean to me after that. She was a nun, you know, and told me I’d never amount to anything. Well I showed her. I showed them all. I got married to a rich man, and I have lived a good life. I paid cash for the Cadillac that I drive now. I have a son in Washington politics.”
She continued drawling on for an hour, telling me about the terrible memories she had of her three years at this home and my heart went out to her.
The girls arrived home and I told Helen I had to go because I needed to help put them to bed. She thanked me for listening and ended with, “now you find out for me and let me know if I can spend the night there if I come to town after dark!” I promised I would, and we said goodbye.
Over the course of the next few months, Helen would call to talk either for half an hour or three or four times in a one-hour period. She always repeated the same stories, sometimes with a few more details and always with her slow, somewhat slurred speech.
Soon she asked if she could visit the home and maybe take one of our girls out for an ice cream, or to supper, or to the mall? She didn’t want our well-behaved girls, either! She wanted to spend her time with the one or two girls who cried a lot and had a hard time fitting in or feeling loved. She wanted to let them know that she knew how they felt, and she was there to show them that someone cared.
She had an interview with the Director and the Board. They said she could take the girls out. Well, she was so excited that she had to call me right away to tell me about it. She wanted to know when she could start?
She kept saying to me over and over, “you have no idea what this means to me that you would trust me, a total stranger, was these dear little girls! I promise I’ll be good to them!”
She came to see me before she took out her first girl. “Just so you at least have met me first and know who I am,” she explained.
When she arrived, I opened the door to a five-foot two spunky little lady. Her hair was dyed a deep reddish brown and her eyes sparkled. Her movements were slow and methodical. She wore obviously expensive clothes without the poise characteristic of natural wealth. Her perfume was a little too strong and her hands were weighted down with very expensive, big rings. But, she was funny, and friendly and the girls took to her mothering.
I took her on a tour of the home. She showed me some of the rooms she remembered and told me what had changed since she was there. “We used to have 40 girls living here you know. We did laundry for money and we did the backyard garden. I used to live in this room,” pointing to one on the landing of the second floor.
She called me after her first visit just overcome with gratitude. She couldn’t get over how happy the girls were, how well-dressed and obviously loved and cared for. She said, “Ruth, you are the reason there is such a difference there, I know it.” I reassured her it was the whole staff committed to the care of the girls. Our desire was to not be just another group home but a family, to give them an idea how real homes functioned. “Well Ruth, I still think it’s because of you but for whatever reason those girls are loved! And they know it! That means so much to me! It’s almost like I’m healing my own memories coming back to visit now and seeing things so different than when I was there.” Once again she told me her story of cruel treatment and feeling unloved and unwanted.
Time passed. She bought Easter baskets for the girls and sent us over $300 to buy Easter dresses and shoes for all of them. “Now I don’t want any of this money going to pay your salary or to fix that house up!” She made me promise! “You make sure this is spent entirely on the girls, but don’t tell them where it came from!” Christmas came around and she sent us little packages with perfume, nail polish and the like. “For the girl stockings” were the instructions. She came over before Christmas that year and spent an afternoon showing the girls how to a make Christmas bag and decorate it for wrapping a gift.
Easter came again and with it the familiar little baskets. I have to admit my little mission to Helen had fallen by the wayside. The same “elbow grease” story was getting old now, and I was too involved in my busy day to really stop and listen the way I had at first. But I reminded myself to be polite and kind. I knew that she was lonely since her husband had died 10 years earlier.
In late April, Helen stopped by to leave some jelly beans for the girls… a whole case of them… I wasn’t there when she brought the jelly beans by and I missed her when she dropped off Easter baskets that year. I was disappointed because I hadn’t seen her in so long. She took such delight when the girls ran up to give her hugs when she came, and always called me to thank me over and over “for letting me work with your girls.” She said it made her feel so much younger and more useful.
In late May, I had a strong burden to call Helen because I hadn’t heard from her for a while. She had been sleeping and I woke her up, but she was delighted to hear my voice. She told me she had just gotten out of the hospital from being quite sick. After we talked for a few minutes she said she was tired and wanted to sleep. Before she hung up, though she thanked me for calling saying, “it made me feel so much better! You made my day.”
3:45 p.m., June 9th, 1993. My birthday! I was feeling down because I had wanted to spend the day with my twin sister, but she was 400 miles away and I was on duty. I was on my way out the door to an appointment when the phone rang. I nearly ignored it because it had been ringing incessantly all day. But I decided I should be responsible, so cordially spoke the usual greeting. The man on the other end of the line asked if I would give him an address for sending donations. I gave it to him, then asked him who he represented for our records. He told me his name and position, but my mind lost that information with his next words. “Helen passed away on Sunday, June 6th, and she requested people to send donations to your home for Memorial instead of flowers.”
I wandered around the house in the hours and days after that call willing the phone to ring with Helen wanting to tell her all-too-familiar story. I even called her house once, hoping I had somehow dreamed that awful call from whomever he was. No answer, obviously.
The next day’s newspaper confirmed the information I had missed. She had died of a massive heart attack in her sleep over the weekend. Her cleaning lady found her Monday morning. The wake was scheduled for this evening. I took several of the girls to give them a chance to say goodbye. As we sat around the room and took turns viewing the casket, people stood around and chatted about Helen. They commented on how she loved to call people and just talk. “Should be buried with a phone,” one guy offered playfully then choked back a sob. “She loved to give people things,” another commented. But they all talked about how she loved the home and how much it meant to her to spend time with the girls and do little things for them. “It was almost like she felt that she never really belonged anywhere until she got involved with you people,” said one lady who was one of the few friends who knew her well.
As I stood for a moment of stillness besides the lifeless form of my friend. I thought, “I have learned something from this relationship. Never take people for granted! You just don’t know when you will lose them. Make sure your last moments with them are always full of kindness and care.” I thank God for the precious memory of a phone call I received on a quiet evening in ’91 and another one I made off-the-cuff one day in ‘93. I will never forget how joyful her voice sounded when she realized I had taken time out of my busy day just to say “hi” and see how she was feeling! I again pondered the principle I have heard often in messages and Chapel Services of how terribly important it is to follow the inner promptings of God’s Holy Spirit to reach out. It may be the last lifeline for a hurting soul and always means more to them than we will ever know.