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The Spring Cleaning Angel

In this excerpt from Heavenly Company, an angelic visitor inspires a depressed woman to see the beauty around her.

The Spring Cleaning Angel
Credit: Joern Rynio
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I  lived with ugly for a long time and it had become invisible. Trash is normal. Unwashed dishes are something I should take care of, and I would. Later. The laundry piled in corners didn’t matter because those clothes were out of season anyway. 

We bought our sofa at a garage sale, and it was a little shabby then. Why should I bother dusting tables or removing the blankets from the floor? There can be many reasons for a young family to live in filth. None of them are good. For me, it was a combination of depression and revenge against my husband for not making my dreams come true. I had a long list of grievances against him, not the least of which was his refusal to go to church with the baby and me.

When I left the house one Sunday morning, the baby and I looked fine. We were clean, brushed, and smiling; no one knew the chaos we lived in at home. I liked to attend church, but week after week of watching those happy families only deepened my depression.

Rather than responding to the sermons with repentance, resentment built up inside me. I didn’t want to be in this awful place. It was all Bill’s fault. Why did he have to rent a farm house for us rather than something in town? The country might have been his dream, but it wasn’t mine.

When the service was over, I drove down tree-lined roads and back to the ugly house. When I pulled in the gravel drive I expected to see Bill somewhere around the barn. He usually waved or came out to the car, but I didn’t see him anywhere. I opened the back door and kicked stray shoes out of the way.

“Bill?” I called. There was no answer. Voices came from the living room. I put my sleeping baby down and continued to listen. The voices definitely weren’t the TV. A middle-aged woman sat on the sofa with a girl about six years old on one side and a boy of maybe ten on the other. She looked up and smiled.

“Did you enjoy church?” I felt too stunned to reply. “Your husband invited us in,” she said. She didn’t look threatening, but something about the little group made my skin prickle. We hadn’t had company in the house since we moved in two years earlier.

“Our car broke down and your husband–isn’t his name Bill?” She looked to her son who solemnly nodded. “Yes, I’ve got it right.” She continued as though the boy had given her a good grade on a test. “Bill let us in and said you would be back from church soon. He and John are working on the car.”

“Uhhh, I’m glad he could help.” “I folded the towels for you,” she said and smiled. “I moved them from the sofa. Hope you don’t mind.” There had been laundry on the couch? I looked absentmindedly around the room. What happened to the blanket that was on the floor in front of the television? I had no idea what to say or do next.

Exactly what should I do with company? I had almost forgotten what it was like to have anyone visit. “Could I get you some water,” I said to cover up my uncertainty, “or something?”  My voice sounded tense. I took a breath and tried to relax.

“That would be nice. Thank you very much.”

Back in the kitchen, there were no clean glasses. In fact, I wasn’t sure we owned glasses anymore. For the last couple of months we drank from old canning jars. If we still owned drinking glasses, they would be on the top shelf. I pulled over a chair, climbed up, and reached. I sighed in relief. My fingers felt four glasses, pushed onto the back of the shelf. I pulled them into the light, and they were dusty. I jumped down and looked around the kitchen for a towel. Nothing. That must have been one of the things I had left piled on  the sofa.

Oh well, I thought, the end of my full skirt makes a good substitute. As I dusted the glasses and filled them, I kept thinking about the woman and those two children. Something about them unnerved me. She seemed unnaturally relaxed and friendly. Perhaps that’s what it was. I had been so lonely and miserable, I didn’t know what a contented face looked like. Her face seemed to radiate good will and acceptance. She acted as though she dropped into strangers’ homes every day–dirty, filthy homes like ours. But I had detected no judgmentalism, no unkindness.

Just then, a verse from the Bible (Hebrews 13:2) came to mind that we should be careful to entertain strangers because by doing so some people had entertained angels unaware. Angels? How could they be angels? Kids can’t be angels, can they? Do angels get thirsty? They looked so–so ordinary. “And so happy,” I said out loud.

I filled four glasses but because I had no tray to carry them on, I pressed them together as I had once seen a waitress do and carefully balanced them as I carried them into the living room. “I didn’t get your name.” She smiled and said, “I’m Carol.”

“Most people call me Judy,” I said, “but I like Elizabeth better. That’s on my birth certificate.”

“Elizabeth, I am very glad to know you. Did you plant those roses by the front steps?”

There were roses by the front steps? I knew we had front steps, but I’d never bothered to investigate. No one ever entered through the front door anyway, and the steps only led to an ancient porch with loose boards and rusted screens curling at the edges. Before I could think of a response, she said, “They are only in bud stage, but I think they will be bright red, and they’ve climbed nearly to the roofline.” She smiled again and added, “I’m sure you must enjoy looking at them.”

I smiled but said nothing. For the next hour, Carol did most of the talking while I sat quietly. I was enthralled by her voice and cheery disposition. Her two children said nothing, only sipped their water and followed the adult conversation with animated eyes. Carol pointed out the beautiful and the possible. Had I ever noticed the intricate grain in the wood-paneled walls? Wasn’t spring wonderful this year? The sunshine was warm and if the drapes were opened a little it would fill the room. Bluebonnets bloomed all along the roadside. Wouldn’t they make a delightful bouquet?

She didn’t condemn me or suggest I pay more attention to my home. Rather, she described what she saw when she looked at my familiar surroundings with eyes focused on the pleasing and the lovely. What kind of woman was she? I felt such acceptance by her and wondered how she could see such dirt and lack of care and yet point out the beauty. About that time both men entered the house. Bill led the way to the front door–the one with the rosebush ready to bloom.

He pulled open the rusty screen and told our guest to watch his step on the loose boards. “The car’s running smoothly,” Carol’s husband said. “Bill did a fine job.” Carol collected the glasses and set them on the end table while the children shook my hand like miniature adults. They thanked us again and left.

I felt sad as the car disappeared and I turned back to the house with a sigh. I scrutinized the room and tried to see it as Carol did. She had folded the blanket I had missed earlier and placed it neatly at the end of the sofa below an end table. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? It certainly looked better folded there than crumpled in the middle of the floor. I walked into the kitchen. Garbage, trash, and scattered clothing assaulted me.

Depression started to take over. It’s filthy, I thought, but it’s just too much work. Too much to do–too much. I decided to flop on the sofa and watch television. Just then a bird began to sing. It was just an ordinary chickadee and the chirping wasn’t particularly melodic. Yet like Carol’s words, it drew me to something pleasant within my chaotic surroundings. I paused and looked around. If I opened the window, I might hear more. With a shove and a little pounding, the old wooden sash slowly lifted.

Fragrant air joined the bird’s warble. Carol was right. It was indeed a lovely spring. Slowly, one chore at a time, our home began to improve. I stopped looking at all I couldn’t do and what I didn’t have. Instead, I focused on the possibilities that small differences could make.

As my home environment cleared, so did my mind. I slept less, cried less, and began to peel away my self-pity one stubborn layer at a time. I’ve always wondered about the visitors who came that Sunday afternoon.

Were they angels? I’m not given to romantic thought or fantasy, but I’ve never been able to convince myself they weren’t some kind of special angels fulfilling an assignment to lift me out of my depression and to help me appreciate life. I know that in a single afternoon I briefly saw my world through different eyes–through angel eyes–and nothing has ever looked the same again.

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