As Cotha Prior strolled past the new shop that sold body lotions and soaps, the lavender-wrapped bars displayed in the window caught her attention. Her daughter would like those. Once inside, Cotha picked up the closest bar and held it to her nose. The fragrance carried her back to her childhood.
She remembered Margie, the little girl in her fifth grade class who always was poorly dressed and whose bathing habits were, well, not one of her regular habits. Even at that young age, Cotha knew how important the opinions of her friends were, so although she felt sorry for Margie, she couldn’t risk being friends with her.
Then one afternoon, as young Cotha colored the states on her homework worksheet, she casually mentioned Margie to her mother, who stopped in the middle of stirring the stew to ask, “What’s her family like?”
Cotha didn’t look up. “Oh, really poor, I guess,” she answered.
“Well, it sounds as though she needs a friend,” Mrs. Burnett said. “Why don’t you invite her to spend Friday night with you?”
Cotha looked up quickly then. “You mean here? Spend the night with me? But, Mom, she smells.”
“Cotha Helen.” Her mother’s use of both names meant the situation was settled. There was nothing to do but invite Margie home. The next morning, Cotha hesitantly whispered the invitation at the end of recess while her friends were hanging up their jackets and combing their hair. Margie looked suspicious, so Cotha added, “My mother said it’s okay. Here’s a note from my mother to give to yours.”
So two days later they rode the school bus home while Cotha tried to ignore the surprised looks on her friends’ faces as they saw the two of them together. Had two fifth grade girls ever been quieter? Cotha thought of other times when she’d been invited to spend the night with a friend. They would talk and giggle all the way to their stop.
Finally Cotha gave a determined little huff and said to Margie, “I’ve got a cat. She’s going to have kittens.”
Margie’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I like cats.” Then she frowned as though recalling a painful memory and added, “But my dad doesn’t.”
Cotha didn’t know what to say then, so she feigned interest in something outside the school bus window.
Both girls were silent until the bus rolled to a stop in front of the white house with green shutters.
Mrs. Burnett was in the kitchen. She greeted Cotha and Margie warmly and then gestured toward the table, which was set with two glasses of milk and banana bread. “Why don’t you girls have a little snack while I tend to dinner,” she said.
When the banana bread was finished, Mrs. Burnett handed each child identical paper-doll books and blunted scissors. Dressing the paper women in shiny dresses gave them something in common to talk about. By the time they washed their hands for dinner, they were chatting enthusiastically about school.
After the dishes were done, Mrs. Burnett said, “Time to take a bath before bed, girls.” Then she held out scented soaps wrapped in lavender paper. “Since this is a special night, I thought you might like to use fancy soaps,” she said. “Cotha, you first, and I’ll wash your back for you.”
Then it was Margie’s turn. If she was nervous about having an adult bathe her, she didn’t show it. As the tub filled, Mrs. Burnett poured in a double capful of her own guarded bubble bath. “Don’t you just love bubble baths, Margie?” she asked as though the child bathed in such luxury every day.
She turned to pull Margie’s grimy dress over her head, then said, “I’ll look away as you take the other things off, but be careful climbing into the tub. The bubble bath makes it slippery.”
Once Margie was settled into the warm water, Mrs. Burnett knelt down and soaped the wet washcloth heavily before rubbing it over the child’s back.
“Oh, that feels good,” was all Margie said.
Mrs. Burnett chatted about how quickly Cotha and Margie were growing and what lovely young women they were already. Repeatedly she soaped the washcloth and scrubbed Margie’s gray skin until it shone pink.
Through the whole thing, Cotha was thinking, Oh, how can she do that? Margie is so dirty. But Mrs. Burnett continued to scrub cheerfully, then washed Margie’s hair several times. Once Margie was out of the tub, Mrs. Burnett dried her back and dusted her thin shoulders with scented talcum. Then, since Margie had brought no nightclothes, Mrs. Burnett pulled one of Cotha’s clean nightgowns over Margie’s now shining head.
After tucking both girls under quilts, Mrs. Burnett leaned over to gently kiss them good night. Margie beamed. As Mrs. Burnett whispered, “Good night, girls,” and turned out the light, Margie pulled the clean sheets to her nose and breathed deeply. Then she fell asleep almost immediately.
Cotha was amazed that her new friend fell asleep so quickly; she was used to talking and giggling for a long time with her other friends. To the sound of Margie’s gentle breathing, Cotha stared at the shadows on the wall, thinking about all her mother had done. During Margie’s bath, Mrs. Burnett had never once said anything to embarrass the girl, and she’d never even commented about how grimy the tub was afterward. She just scrubbed it out, quietly humming the whole time. Somehow Cotha knew her mother had washed more than Margie’s dirty skin.
All these years later, the adult Cotha stood in the fragrant store, the lavender soap still in her hand, wondering where Margie was now. Margie had never mentioned Cotha’s mother’s ministrations, but Cotha had noticed a difference in the girl. Not only did Margie start coming to school clean and pleasant on the outside, but she had an inside sparkle that came, perhaps, from knowing someone cared. For the rest of the school year, Cotha and Margie played at recess and ate lunch together. When Margie’s family moved at the end of the school year, Cotha never heard from her again, but she knew they had both been influenced by her mother’s behavior.
Cotha smiled, then picked up a second bar of the lavender soap. She’d send that one to her mother, with a letter saying that she remembered what her mom had done all those years ago—not only for Margie, but for Cotha as well.
by Sandra Picklesimer Aldrich and Bobbie Valentine
Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk to Margie, now undoubtedly an adult, about her recollections of the “sleepover”? I would guess that the love and care given by Cotha’s mom to a dirty, bewildered little girl made a lifelong impact on her. It certainly had that effect on Cotha, who was watching carefully.
As parents, we often intentionally set out to teach our children the lessons they’ll need for life. Many of us forget, however, that in our unguarded moments we’re still teaching our kids. The simple things we do each day—helping a neighbor change a flat tire, letting an elderly woman ahead of us in the line at the supermarket, or giving a bath to a lonely young girl—say more than the most stirring lecture.
Children pick up their parents’ values in the routine experiences of everyday living, and most of this teaching is done with very few words. That’s true for small matters and for the most important instruction of all—the values and principles found in Scripture. I hope you will keep this in mind as we talk about “model” parenting over the next week: Your kids are watching you every minute, and much of what they see will be remembered for a lifetime.
- James C Dobson
From Night Light For Parents, by Dr. James & Shirley Dobson