The children squealed with delight as she unfolded the paper chains of gingerbread figures which would soon find their place on our class Christmas tree. I smiled watching 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 held the children spellbound. 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 as in 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 spinning memorable stories while showing my class how to make gingerbread doll chains.
She could come only once or twice a week now as her years neared the century mark. I hoped I would 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 and joined the children who hung on ever tale she told. I still loved her stories as much as they did. 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. My father was a military pilot...” She told of the stories he'd shared with her; 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 brighter than what any of us could imagine.
That Thursday, Etta Cartwright realized her last desire in life. With much fanfare, she waved at the gathered crowd from aboard the helicopter. The local newspaper and TV station were there too. I was overjoyed to have arranged this triumph for her.
Three days later, Etta took another flight, passing on in her sleep. And although I knew that she now graced the streets of Heaven, my heart felt saddened for my loss and for the children who would never experience her touch. I received a note from her a few days later.
“My Jenny,” she began. “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 you will be making paper dolls for children, telling stories and touching their lives. Thank you for the wonderful gift. I look forward to life eternal, having done all I wanted here...”
Tears fell to the card in my hands knowing I had big shoes to fill. Her confidence in me still warms me today like her hand in mine on that first day we met. I wiped my eyes and got out some paper and scissors. I’d never made my own gingerbread chain before. But, I felt the approval of my dear friend as I began to cut.
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