Big Shoes To Fill
The children squealed with delight as she unfolded the paper chains of gingerbread figures. They would hang them on our class Christmas tree. I smiled as I watched her work, knew she was telling stories as she slowly cut the figures. Her hands didn’t work quite as well as they used to, back when I was a little girl, or even when she used to do the same Christmas project with my mother’s class. It took her longer to cut each chain, but her stories always enthralled the children. Mouths hung open, hands were clasped, and young bodies leaned forward with eager anticipation. It was a heartwarming scene.
Etta Cartwright had been a kindergarten teacher “in her day”. Like Mary Poppins, she was firm but kind. Children loved her. After she’d retired, she had volunteered in the school system. The children had grown up, of course, but those children had children and relationships continued. Take my case. My mom had talked of Ms. Etta to help me get ready for school. I was so afraid. But, the kindly older woman was there that very first day, hugging my mother and taking my hand. She’d calmed me and helped me to realize I loved school.
Throughout that year we’d become fast friends and I’d vowed that someday she would volunteer in my classroom as I welcomed children into their walk through the educational system. And now, here I was, a Kindergarten teacher with Ms. Etta Cartwright showing my class how to make gingerbread doll chains and telling her stories.
She could come only once or twice a week now as her years neared the century mark. I hoped I might be as agile and active as her at ninety-eight. Still, she’d slowed. The twilight years were upon her.
I hung up the phone that had taken me from the group. I still loved her stories as much as the children; hung on every word as well. I returned and waited for her to finish what she was saying.
“Ms. Etta,” I baited. “Tell the class the one thing you’d like to do more than anything else in the world.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she answered without hesitation. “I’ve always wanted to take a ride in a helicopter. They fascinate me so.” She went into a discussion about the look, the sounds, the smells; encouraging the children to join in with their experiences and desires.
“Class, the call I received was from Mr. Jamison, our Principal. The school has arranged for Ms. Etta to have her dream come true. She’ll be picked up right here in front of the school this Thursday evening for a tour of the Christmas lights throughout the city.” An extremely loud and disruptive cheer resounded through the children. Ms. Etta remained silent, her eyes on me. “Ms. Etta?” I asked once I regained control of my class, “Are you available?”
Silence awaited her reply. “Why of course, dear,” she answered with a smile bright and victorious beyond what any of us could imagine.
That Thursday, Etta Cartwright recognized her last desire in life. With much fanfare, she climbed in and waved at the gathered crowd from aboard the helicopter. The local newspaper and TV station were there too. I felt so joyful inside to have arranged this triumph for her.
Three days later, Etta passed on in her sleep. Although I knew that she now graced the streets of Heaven, shining just as brightly as the gold, my heart felt saddened for my own loss and for the children who would never experience her touch. I received a note from her a few days later.
“My Jenny,” the note read. “How happy I am to have touched your life and you mine. I loved you from the first day I saw you and knew you would follow in my footsteps. Someday it will be you making paper dolls for children as you tell your stories and touch their lives. Thank you for the wonderful gift. I look forward to my next venture in life eternal. I am satisfied now; having done all I wanted...”
Tears engulfed me. I knew I had big shoes to fill but Ms. Etta’s love and her confidence in me were like a held hand. I wiped my eyes and got out some paper and scissors. I’d never made my own gingerbread chain before. It was time to learn. I felt the approval of my dear friend as I began to cut.