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Charlie's Prism
by Marilyn McDonald
10/30/08
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“The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”
John 1:19

Charlie Morgan sat watching December snowflakes fall lazily past the window of his fourth grade classroom. The school day was nearly over, and already a soft twilight was settling over this little rural Missouri town. Along the street outside, Christmas lights were starting to glow in the yards of neighbors.

“Alright, class, let’s get out our science books,” said Mrs. Canyon, Charlie’s teacher. “I have an assignment I want to give you before you go home tonight.
“Turn to page 48 and take a look at the picture of a prism,” she said, as the sound of turning pages filled the room.

“Natalie, will you read the third paragraph on page 48, and while she reads, please look at the illustration there that she will be describing.”

Natalie Gunther stood up with a self-important little shake and held her science book in front of her as if she were conducting a wedding service. “The classic prism is a solid piece of glass with a triangular base and rectangular sides,” she read. “When a beam of light passes through the prism, it is broken into a rainbow of colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. This process is called refraction. It is caused when the speed of light passing through the air is slowed down as it passes through glass. The light’s path is bent, or refracted, breaking the white light into spectral colors.”

“Thank you, Natalie. Now Charlie, will you read the next paragraph?” Mrs. Canyon asked.

Natalie, stung that her reading was over, flounced down in her desk while Charlie reluctantly stood to read.

“In the 1600s, the English scientist Sir Isaac Newton showed that a beam of white light is actually a combination of all the rainbow colors. He did this by passing the prism’s rainbow through a second prism. The rainbow colors merged back into white or colorless light.”

“Okay, you may sit down, Charlie,” Mrs. Canyon said with a quick smile at the boy. “Now, boys and girls, I want you to write a paragraph about the difference between reflecting and refracting,” she said, as heads bent over assignment books. “Remember, we talked about reflection in our science lesson earlier this week. You can go back to page 45 and look over that material before you write. I want your paragraphs turned in on Monday,” she said, moving towards her desk and gathering up books and papers. “Now let’s get our backpacks ready to go home.”

A few minutes later, Charlie was walking towards his school bus with his best friend, Larry Taylor. “Man, this weekend is going to be awesome,” Larry exulted. “My cousin Jeremy just got a new X-box and he said he’d let me come over and play with him,” he said, bouncing up and down. “I hope my mom doesn’t make me go do some dumb Christmas shopping with her,” he grumped. “Maybe I’ll tell her I want to stay at my dad’s this weekend—he won’t make me do anything,” Larry said, brightening.

“Say, Charlie, do you want to come over to Jeremy’s and play x-box too? I can get my dad to drive you!” Larry offered.

“No, I probably can’t. My grandma is real sick, and she’s staying with us now. My folks said we’d be sticking close to home this weekend in case she, well, you know…” he trailed off.

“Bummer,” said Larry. “Well, I’ll tell you all about it on Monday,” he added, waving as he ran over to where his school bus was loading.

Charlie rode home silently slumped against the bus window, watching the daylight fade from the sky. The bus passed Gardner’s Hardware, which was ablaze with Christmas lights. Above the store awning, a lighted rendition of Santa and his reindeer arched toward the sky, waving merrily to the street below. The windows of Marty’s Diner were rimmed with fake snow and hung with big white plastic snowflakes. Just enough of the real stuff had fallen to dust the pavement with silver. Charlie’s breath made foggy patches on the bus window.

Charlie thought about his grandma Annie, laying in the big bed upstairs for so many weeks. He’d never known his grandma to be sick—she was always so full of life and fun—“feisty” is what his dad used to call her. But this fall she had started coughing and couldn’t get over it. Mom and Dad had taken her over to the clinic in Russelville, and then she had to stay in the hospital for some tests. When they brought Grandma Annie home a few days later, everyone looked real sad. They talked quietly at the kitchen table that night after supper, and the next day, Dad started moving Grandma Annie’s things from her little house across the road. She’d lived with them ever since, getting smaller and weaker every week, Charlie thought.

The bus dropped Charlie off at the corner, and he walked across the dried brown grass of his yard to let himself in the kitchen door.

“Hey, Charlie,” said his mom, turning from the stove to greet her youngest child.

“Hey, Mom,” said Charlie, dumping his backpack by the back door.

“Supper will be ready in a little while. Would you like a snack in the meantime?” his mom asked.

“Nah, I’ll wait ‘til supper,” Charlie said with little enthusiasm. He left his coat on the coat rack by the door, and loped toward the family room where his father was watching the news.

“Hey, Charlie, how’s it goin?” said his dad, looking up and smiling at his son.

“It’s goin’,” said Charlie, supplying the standard reply they’d worked out between them years ago.

Charlie flopped on his stomach in front of the Christmas tree that stood twinkling in the corner of the room. If he half-crossed his eyes a certain way, he could get all the colored lights to blur together—he practiced this as the TV announcer boomed in the background:

“And there’s only 6 days left ‘til Christmas, so hurry on down to your Russelville Wal-Mart where there’s still a great selection of all the toys kids want under the tree!”

Charlie stopped crossing his eyes and looked at the ornaments hung on the lowest branches of the tree right in front of him. This was where all the unbreakable ornaments were hung, because the Morgans’ orange cat, Tomato, liked to amuse herself batting them around.

As if on cue, Tomato padded over towards Charlie, rubbing herself against him and nudging him with her pink nose. Lazily, she flopped on her side within reach of the tree and began pawing a plastic icicle ornament that hung nearby. Charlie noticed that as the icicle swung, it cast little rainbows of light on the shiny ornaments around it.

“Hey, Dad, what do you know about prisms,” Charlie said. “I’ve gotta write something about them for school Monday.”

Dad smiled as he watched Tomato creating rainbows with her icicle game.
“Not much,” he said. “Say, Grandma Annie wanted to see you, so why don’t you go up and ask her,” Dad added.

Charlie raised himself off the floor and wordlessly climbed the steps to his grandmother’s bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, but he knocked softly and waited to hear her voice before he entered the room.

“Well there you are, Charlie,” she said sweetly, reaching for him as he walked up to the side of the bed. Grandma Annie was sitting up, a soft flowered bed jacket drawn around her shoulders. Thin plastic tubes fed her oxygen from a bedside machine. On the other side, a table with pill bottles and water glasses was lit by an old-fashioned bedside lamp. In the corner, Mom had set up a small Christmas tree decorated with some of Grandma’s favorite ornaments, and underneath it sat a manger scene, lit softly from within.

“Hey, Grandma Annie,” said Charlie as he took her outstretched hand. “Did your nurse come to see you today?”

“Oh, yes, Irma was here,” said Grandma with a chuckle. “She got me all spit-shined and polished . She even brought me this new jacket,” she said, stroking the soft sleeve of the bed jacket.

“It’s real nice, Grandma,” commented Charlie. After a moment, Charlie asked, “Grandma, what do you know about prisms? I’ve got to write something about ‘em for school.”

“Prisms? Well, it’s funny you should ask me that. I was just reading this poem about prisms in the church magazine. Come here and let me read it to you,” she said, pulling him up on the bed to snuggle next to her.

“It’s called ‘Make Me a Prism’ and here’s what it says,” Grandma Annie said as she adjusted her glasses.

“Oh, Dearest Lord, I want to be a prism.
Sadly, I fear, far too often I am but opaque.
Ah, Lord, would You make me a prism?
That each angle, each edge,
whether there by Your creation,
by Your chiseling away at me,
or by the shattering effect of circumstances in my life…
That each angle, each edge
Would result in beautiful red and green and purple
When Sonlight shines through.
That as a broken vessel spills forth Your very living water,
When filled with Your very son,
So would my life in the glow of Your light,
Flood the room with baby rainbows-
Made by and from Your hand,
Shine down your Sonlight on me, please, Lord,
and make me a prism.”*

Charlie was quiet a moment, and then asked “What does ‘opaque’ mean?”

“Well, it’s something you can’t see through,” Grandma replied. “A prism is clear so light can go through it.”

She leaned over to the old-fashioned bedside lamp, whose shade was edged with chandelier crystals. She lifted one of the crystals off its hangar and brought it close for Charlie to see.

“Now this chandelier crystal is a prism,” Grandma said. “See how it has all these shiny sides and angles that catch the light?” Grandma held the crystal up to the lamplight and they both watched rainbows dance on bedroom wall.

“Yeah, that’s refraction,” Charlie said, remembering his science lesson earlier in the day.

“Well, so it is,” answered Grandma Annie. “What this poem is saying is that we all have our very own sides and angles. The good Lord makes us different, each one of us. Sometimes He changes our sides and angles by chiseling away at us, putting us through hard times or tests that wear away our rough edges. And sometimes, He just about lets us be shattered by things that happen to us…”

“Like you getting sick,” said Charlie softly.

“Now, now,” Grandma said, giving him a squeeze. “But here’s the beauty of it, Charlie. When God’s Sonlight shines through us, even when we’ve been shattered by what life brings us, He makes such a beautiful rainbow! All those colors spill out on other folks, and they just naturally want to know where those colors come from.”

‘Charlie, go over to the manger scene and bring me Baby Jesus,” Grandma Annie said.

Charlie obeyed, and carefully carried the little china figurine to his grandmother.

As she cradled the Baby Jesus in her hand, Grandma Annie said, “The Bible says in the book of John that ‘The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.’ That was talking about Baby Jesus—He is the true light. It was a dark, dark world before God sent His Son to give us light. It’s still a dark world for people who don’t know Him. But God’s Son is ready to turn the light on anytime for people who want it, and when they let Him shine through them, oh, what beautiful colors they’ll see!”

Charlie thought a moment more, and asked, “Then what is reflection, Grandma?”

“Well, that’s what you see when you look in a mirror, Charlie—what you see is what you get! The Bible says “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Someday, we’re going to see Jesus face to face, and He’ll look us straight through, and we’ll look Him straight through—no reflections then!” she said. Then she sighed and lay back on her pillow. “Well, I wore myself out there, Charlie. Maybe you’d better let me rest awhile before your momma brings me my supper tray,” she said with a weak smile.

Charlie leaned over and kissed Grandma Annie’s cheek. “I love you, Grandma. Thanks for helping me with my homework,” he said, and quietly left her resting.


When Monday came, Charlie didn’t go to school. That was the day the family went to Wembly’s Funeral Home to see Grandma Annie for the last time. On Tuesday they gathered with many of their friends at the Community Church to hear Pastor Fred talk about Grandma Annie’s life, how feisty she was, and how much she loved Jesus. He said she would have an especially happy Christmas this year with Jesus in heaven.

Charlie went back to school on Wednesday. Mrs. Canyon was real nice to him, and let her hand rest on his shoulder a little longer than usual when she passed his desk. Charlie tried to act interested in Larry’s story about his weekend with the X-box, but then Larry said, “I guess you don’t want to hear about video games right now,” and gave him his last stick of gum.

Before the end of the school day, Charlie went up to Mrs. Canyon’s desk and handed her a paper. “Mrs. Canyon, this is my science assignment I didn’t turn in on Monday,” he said.

“Why, thank you, Charlie. I didn’t really think you ….but thank you,” she smiled.

After the busses left the school yard that afternoon, Mrs. Canyon was gathering up her books and papers when she came across Charlie’s science assignment. She started to read it, and then sat down and held it for a long time while tears trickled down her face.

“Reflection,” Charlie wrote, “is like looking in a mirror. What you see is what you get. Refraction is like my Grandma Annie. Jesus shined His light through her, and she showed me all the rainbows.”




*”Make Me a Prism” by Kari Z. Murphy, on the blog Healed Waters; used by permission of the author.



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Member Comments
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LauraLee Shaw 07 Nov 2008
Well done!!!! This piece was chosen to be highlighted in the “Cheering Section” of the Faithwriters’ Message Boards. Congratulations! Click here to see yours and the others that were selected this week: General Submissions JEWEL CHEST
Dee Yoder  02 Nov 2008
What a beautiful story! The character of Charlie is so sweet and his love for his grandmother is so poignant. Lovely and tender.
Verna Cole Mitchell  02 Nov 2008
Your story is realistic and flows beautifully. I love your message and the family feeling shown so clearly.




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