You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.
I’m driving a neighbor teen, I’ll call her Nina, to a scheduled appointment, when she tells me the news of her great-grandmother in El Salvador. “Santos won’t eat anymore. She says she sees Jesus. Miss Evelyn, abuela is dying.” Her tears turn to sniffles and then to sobs. I pull off the road and stop the car.
“We can pray for her,” I say, fondly remembering frail, toothless Santos when she visited the year she turned 80. “And for your family. And for you, too. Dear Jesus . . . Amen. Remember that song from last year’s school chorus, ‘Sing Me to Heaven’? Let’s try that.” We have a few minutes to spare. In the front seat next to me, in the confines of the warm car on a cool day, her spirit settles. I hand her a tissue as I fumble for words. “Do you know,” I offer finally, “that a psalm says that God sees our tears and saves them, in a special jar? God can forget our sins, but God remembers and takes care of our tears.”
Reflecting on the encounter, I catch a glimpse of myself as an unwitting imitator of Christ, a witness of Nina’s journey, standing by to respectfully hold—contain—her emotion, her treasures, her burdens.
Holy Spirit . . . you are the one in whom all treasures are contained.
—St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi
More than a decade ago, Nina’s immigrant family moved in to the adjoining townhouse. We shared a stoop and a living room wall. I quickly connected with the strong-willed girl who stammered through the few English sentences she had learned in first grade. On good days, we sang the alphabet on the lawn. I bought chalks, and we drew rainbows on the sidewalk. On bad days, she’d bang on my door until I thought she’d break through. I’d preach patience. She’d stop and glare. One afternoon, she ran from me into her house and quickly returned carrying a flimsy grocery bag. Her eyes beamed with pride. “Look!” she cried.
My eyes teared at the sight of the bag’s contents, nubbins huddled in the bottom—the most pathetic collection of crayon bits I’d ever seen. Dirty, broken, collected from God knows where. But they were hers. I don’t remember if we colored that day. I know that I nearly went out to buy her a box of 24 brand-new crayons. But I felt a check: No, find a way to honor what she has. From an old suitcase of sewing scraps, I pulled a turquoise remnant and a ribbon drawstring. In less than an hour, I stitched a bright tote to secure her treasures. “A special bag to hold your crayons,” I said the next day. She ran inside to show her mother and then we transferred the goods. Months later, at Christmas, I gift-wrapped new Crayolas to supplement the supply.
I think of the in-the-beginning story of Adam and Eve protecting their privacy by making themselves fig-leaf aprons. God’s response? God doesn’t provide new bodies or disregard their personhood; assessing where they are and what they have, God gives them more durable wraps fashioned from animal hides (though some rabbis have proposed that this refers to the origin of human skin as we know it). This Genesis detail grounds the spiritual experience of two visionary saints: the godly assurance of Margaret of Cortona (“I shall clothe you in my grace”) and the complementary prayer of Catherine of Siena (“Clothe me, clothe me with yourself”). Cover me. Shield me. Contain me. Is it a universal heart’s desire?
He is our clothing that for love wraps us, clasps us, and all encloses us for tender love.
—Julian of Norwich
It’s now 12 years later. Nina still lives nearby, though not next door. I still keep a watchful eye. She’s responsible for personal chores, including her laundry. This means lugging an unwieldly, tall, plastic basket heaped with clothes up and down three flights and across a sidewalk to a basement banked with coin-op washers. Looking for sympathy, she recently called and asked me for help. “It’s too difficult for me,” she told me. I admit, her task was formidable, especially considering broken basket handles. “I have an idea,” I said. “A surprise for next week.”
From my linen closet, I pulled old pillowcases. I bought some sturdy cording and made three malleable laundry bags, the kind I used in college. She could hug them, lug them, throw them over her shoulder like Santa. With her grandma’s guidance, she could balance them on her head.
I might have but didn’t remind her of her original crayon collection. I focused on the here and now. Enclosing an overwhelming load.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
A new family has moved into the apartment next door. A new first grader speaks yet a different language at home and is learning English at school. Yesterday she knocked. “Do you have some colors for drawing and some paper?” she asked me.
“What kind of paper?”
Her older sister stepped up. “Tomorrow is teacher appreciation day, and she wants to make a card,” she said.
“Just a minute. I’ll be back,” I replied. I went into my house and returned with some pastel typing paper and a new box of 24 crayons—some back-to-school bargain I hadn’t been able to resist. “OK?”
Half an hour later, she knocked on the door again. “Thank you, Miss Evelyn,” she said, returning the still-tidy box.
“You’re welcome.” I reached out to receive the crayons, then pulled back my hand. Something—someone—prompted me to ask another question: “Do you have any crayons at home?”
“No. I don’t,” the girl told me. No complaint, no ask, but a wistful eye.
“You keep them. But wait,” I replied. Back inside, I rummaged through a pile of abandoned children’s projects and unearthed a coloring book: Winnie-the-Pooh, most of the pages pallid, awaiting a waxy tint. “Here. This too. For you.”
The girl on the stoop flipped through pages, smiled with approval, and skipped off down the brick stairs.
This article also appears in the April 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 4, pages 19-20). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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