“How do you know if someone loves you?”
I exhaled softly through my smile. “Wow, that’s a tough one. Why don’t you start off with something hard this morning?”
Donald chuckled and kept his eyes on the road. We had just started our morning route and the school bus was cold and smelled faintly of moist feet.
I settled back onto the hard, cracked seat and snuggled deeper into my sweater. “Are you and Sue having problems?”
He shrugged and gave me a sidelong glance. “She’s been distant lately. I can’t really put my finger on it. It’s like, she’s looking at me when I’m talking to her, but I can tell her thoughts are a million miles away.”
“Well,” I sighed and positioned myself so that I could see him from across the bus aisle, “it’s never easy to relocate.”
We were silent for long moments before he continued in a soft voice. “It’s just …” he paused as we turned down the first street of the day, “we’ve always sort of argued, but this is somehow … different.”
I studied him for long moments, but decided to wait to respond until after our first passenger settled into her seat.
“Morning Sara,” I smiled softly at the eight-year old girl who stepped onto the bus. “Did you have a fun weekend?”
The girl flashed a toothless grin at us before offering an enthusiastic nod. “We went to Silver Dollar City!” she said, her dark green eyes widening for emphasis.
I played along and gasped dramatically. “You did?! What did you do?”
Sara carefully maintained her balance before settling into a seat some rows back. “I rode a roller coaster for the first time!”
I gave her an impressed look. “Were you scared?”
“Nope!” She said, shaking her head vehemently back and forth; long, straight strands of chestnut-colored hair gently brushed her cheeks. She then shrugged and lowered her eyes to her lap. “Well, maybe a little.”
“I’m sure you were very brave,” I said.
She gave me a happy nod and settled deeper into her seat. She pulled out a book and I took that to mean our conversation was over.
I shifted my attention back to the driver. “Give her time, Donald,” I said, maintaining a soothing, rational tone of voice. “You’re asking her to uproot her very existence and start all over again. It’s enough to throw anyone for a loop. I should know.”
“Oh, that’s right. You were married to a preacher. I keep forgetting that,” he said while shooting me a sympathetic look.
“Yes.” I could feel a lump forming in the back of my throat at the thought of my dear husband. “It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since he passed away.”
“Well, he’s in a better place now,” Donald responded and I simply offered a lone nod to let him know I heard him.
I didn’t really believe he was in a better place, but this wasn’t the time for a philosophical discussion.
“So, you two moved around a lot?”
I sputtered a laugh. “You could say that, yes.”
“And how did you handle it?”
“Well, I didn’t, if you want the truth.”
“Oh?” Donald’s head swung around and he gave me a surprised look before offering a smile to our second passenger.
“Morning Adam,” he said and the boy silently nodded to him before taking a seat near the back of the bus.
Adam ignored me completely, but I expected it. Ever since I had had to scold him and his little friend, Patrick, for their naughty behavior toward the girls last week, he hadn’t spoken one word to me.
Donald shifted his eyes from Adam’s back and then returned them to me. He raised his brows and gave me an understanding look. I waved his concern aside and continued our discussion.
“Yes. I’m afraid I was quite a brat when we first got married.”
“You?” Donald laughed and maneuvered the bus out into the morning traffic. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Oh yes,” I said, my voice quite contrite. “I really had a hard time with Timothy’s profession, calling, vocation, whatever you want to call it.” I fluttered my hand in an attempt to articulate the correct word.
“You sound like you were bitter.”
I glanced out of the window and vaguely noticed passing buildings before continuing. “I was, Donald. I really was.”
“But didn’t you know what you were getting into when you married him?”
“Well, yes and no. I mean, I knew he wanted to spread the Gospel, but I don’t know, I just always pictured us staying in my home town and running our own church. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought he had quite a different vision in mind.”
“Regrets?” he asked, his voice came out gruff and I knew that was just the way he sounded when he was trying to be understanding.
“Oh yes, plenty.”
He shot me a look of surprise.
“What? I’m being honest,” I laughed back.
Our conversation paused as we picked up another child.
“I don’t regret marrying him, Donald,” I clarified as the child took her seat. “I regret the way I acted toward him for the first year of our marriage.” I shook my head in self-disgust. “Honestly, it’s a wonder the man kept me around, I was such a brat.”
“Because … I was spoiled, I guess. It was really hard on me to uproot everything I had built, from getting our house in order, to making new friends, only to have to start all over from scratch every few months. And I missed my family. A lot.”
Donald nodded in agreement and opened the door for three more students.
I watched as the children happily took their seats. Oh to be so young and carefree once again, I thought.
“But I can tell you the exact moment I realized I knew my husband loved me, despite my irrational behavior.”
Donald arched a brow. “Oh yeah? When was that?”
I turned around to check on the dozen or so children we had in our care up to that point before turning back to the driver.
“He had an interview in Ohio,” I began. “And I was furious. We had just moved to North Carolina and I had settled in, and was making new friends when he sprung the Ohio thing on me. It was a very small church and they were desperate for someone. But I remember I didn’t care,” I gave an apologetic shrug. “I told you I was pretty selfish back in those days.”
Donald kept his attention trained on the traffic, but I could tell he was listening intently to me. His eyes would wander over to me in the overhead mirror from time-to-time.
“We were on our way to Ohio and I pretty much nagged him the entire trip. We got up to some small town … Blanchester, I think, when we ran into an ice storm. It was like driving into a crystal bowl – everything was glistening, it was quite pretty, actually.
“Anyway, I took my rings off to put lotion on my hands and tucked my rings into my coat pocket. I had meant to put them back on, but our skidding around on the ice distracted me and I forgot about them.
“At one point, we stopped to help someone who had skidded off the road. Timothy helped the man push his car back onto the road and I had kept the man’s wife company. In fact, we got along so well, that we exchanged emails and we still keep in touch to this day.” I smiled at the memory.
Donald stopped to open the door and my favorite child, Marylyn, stepped on and promptly swung around the entrance to snuggle in next to me. I put an arm around her and gave her a squeeze.
“Hey there, kiddo. How are you?”
“Fine,” Marylyn responded and primly tucked her jacket around her small frame.
“Are we done already?” I asked as Donald turned the bus around and we headed toward the elementary school. I didn’t wait for his answer before continuing.
“I better hurry up and finish my story, then.” I cleared my throat and turned my thoughts back to that cold February morning in Ohio.
“I think it took the men about twenty minutes to get the guy’s car on the road again. I remember we had to give it a jump as the battery was weak and the engine would barely turn over.”
I felt Marylyn’s trusting eyes on me and I smiled down on her before returning to my story.
“We had been driving for an hour and were talking about the people we had just helped, the Wallace’s, when I realized I didn’t have my rings on. I tucked my hand into my coat pocket and came up empty. I checked my other coat pocket and … nothing, but I did notice a small hole about the size of a half dollar in the lining of my pocket and that’s when I started to panic.”
Marylyn gasped and Donald gave me a sympathetic look in the mirror.
“That sounds just like the boy in the Polar Express, Ms. Connie!” said Marylyn.
I gave her another squeeze and nodded. “I was devastated. In addition to them being my wedding rings, they were also family heirlooms and couldn’t be replaced.”
I glanced down at my hands and balled them into fists at the memory.
“There was no consoling me. We had to go back and look for them. But we were already so late as it was that Timothy didn’t want to turn around and go back. He was quite cross with me. But do you know what he did?”
“What?” Marylyn asked.
“He turned the car around and we went back to look for my rings.” I smiled at the thought. “We must have looked for those rings for nearly three hours. In fact, some folks stopped to help us, which I thought was incredibly nice, but no luck. We couldn’t find them.
“It was as we were getting back into the car that I noticed something shiny on the floorboards …” my voice trailed off. I looked down at Marylyn expectedly and she didn’t disappoint me.
“The rings!” she said with a giggle.
“Yep. Those darn rings had been in the car the whole time. Well, I was elated! We had found them! But I was also worried. Would Timothy be angry at me for being so careless and for wasting so much time? Can you guess how he reacted?”
Both Marylyn and Donald shook their heads.
“He laughed. He thought it was hilarious and it was in that moment that I realized just how selfish I had been with him. And it was also in that very moment that I knew he loved me.”