“I Was A New Widow, Having Lost My Husband Less Than A Year Before”
Story by Alison Peters
I scanned the tables in the church fellowship hall, marveling at the expert transformation. No longer sporting its Junior Church decor, the huge room had shed its Sunday fare and was spectacularly adorned for what was clearly considered to be a very special occasion. I felt even more undeserving, even more sure that I didn’t really belong here.
This was a formal luncheon in honor of the staff of the church’s Christian school. The church ladies who so expertly and lovingly prepared the food and performed the magic of decorating the tables, were presenting their labor of love as part of the congregation’s appreciation to the principals, teachers, aides who worked at the school.
I wasn’t a principal. Or a real teacher. In fact, I wondered if “aide” even fit. I worked at the school for a grand total of two hours each weekday, from 3:30 to 5:30. I was responsible for the group of children needing to stay at the school after regular school hours to wait for their parent/s to pick them up. Some of the parents had work schedules that prevented them from being able to transport their kids home right after school.
My young charges ranged in number from 10 to 20, aged from 6 to 15. Looking back, it is amusing and surprising to me that I was able to “hang in there.” Although I have been a “kid-person” all my life, this position was no small task. I kept chomping away, perhaps wondering all the while if I had bit off more than I could chew. In hindsight, I am pleasantly surprised that I survived. But at the time, walking into that hall, all decked out in its “appreciation banquet” attire, I felt so very insignificant. Although I had received a formal invitation and knew I was welcome there, I felt as if the nameplate at my setting should have read “glorified baby-sitter.”
I was a new widow, having lost my husband less than a year before. My job at the Christian school was my first, not only since he had died, but in the last 17 years. I had yet to get my feet under me, feeling somewhat displaced and unsure of the world in general, my life in particular. I’m sure this accounted for part of my extremely humble outlook from the moment I received my invitation. But also, that same insecurity, that feeling of semi-lostness could account for the fact that I survived my job. In certain and varied situations, numbness is an asset.
It was a little bit alarming to be directed to the front table, but I followed obediently, vaguely gratified to see they had spelled my name correctly on my nameplate.
Many of the ladies were already seated and engrossed in happy conversation in friendly huddles. I relaxed. After all, I didn’t have to actually DO anything.
I don’t remember exactly how I learned that yes, I DID have to do something. That part is a blur in my memory. Right along with the others of far more noble and worthy positions within the Christian academy, I would, at some point in this program/luncheon, be asked to stand and tell this entire group something about my particular function at the school.
Oh heaven help me.
Even in my panicked state, I noticed how exceptionally pretty the white-haired lady seated next to me was. Her nameplate stated she was “Janie,” but I did not remember ever seeing her before. It crossed my mind that I wished to look half as good as she did when I reach her age. Accompanying that thought, came an honest admission that hey, actually I wish I looked half as good right now, at nearly 20 years her junior.
Janie and I exchanged pleasantries and after a few minutes, I couldn’t help but be impressed that this lady, so refined and pretty, was also delightfully humorous and personable. I gave her a tiny clue of my horror at knowing I was going to be required to stand and utter some real words. She was encouraging and funny.
One at a time we were called on by name to stand and give our impromptu speeches. I tried to spend the time planning, plotting and memorizing exactly what to say, but found it impossible because I was enjoying listening to what the others were sharing. When my name was called, I was able to stand. Not only that, I heard words coming out of my mouth. I talked for a couple of minutes, and was pleased to note that I had no hecklers. No one threw anything at me. The faces in my audience were friendly. They laughed at the right places. I sat back down without knocking anything over or falling off my chair.
Janie reached over, gave my hand a pat and whispered, “You did great!”
I appreciated her even more.
With my dreaded terror behind me, (and of course, having it prove to be nowhere near as horrifying as I had feared), I was able to concentrate on more interesting things. Hesitant to ask Janie a question resembling: “What are you doing here?” I simply sat beside her and listened, enjoying myself while others shared their stories.
With the speech-giving, sharing part of the program complete, our speaker announced our special music, and expounded on how blessed we were to have to have such a gifted soloist take part in our appreciation luncheon. Aha! Janie! So that’s what she was doing here!
I listened and realized, on top of everything else, this lady could sing, too! She sang “I’m Singing.” I recognized the song as soon as Janie began, and was surprised that I even remembered many of the words, especially the chorus. I had not heard that song since I was a kid listening to my much-loved dad and brothers. I could almost hear their wonderful harmony as I had when they practiced their quartet songs in our living room decades before. What fond memories came to me, as I listened intently while this pretty, talented lady sang one of “their” songs.
Once Janie was seated again, I told her how much her singing and the song meant to me. I remembered that the speaker had mentioned Janie was from Michigan. Me too! Having thoughts of Michigan/Baptist/songs/family bouncing around in my brain and heart, it seemed somehow sensible to ask her: “Did you, by any chance, know any Stichlers?”
The only thing that might have made my question seem any more ridiculous would have been if the last name I had asked her about had been “Smith” or “Jones.”
Her beautiful, kind blue eyes widened. She told me: “Denny was the love of my life.”
I could hardly believe my ears. “My brother!”
We hung on each other’s every word, marveling in our discovery. “I remember him so well,” she shared with me, “I can even tell you his middle name, Noel and that his birthday was on Christmas day.”
I was even more surprised when she said her memories of Denny and the rest of my family were 60 years old, from when she was six and my brother a couple years older. She spoke of how nice he was, and how she had admired him as a little girl. She remembered some of my other siblings and mentioned a baby girl she did not remember as well. Together we calculated and I figured that would have had to have been my older sister, Kay. I hadn’t even been born yet … Amazing! Talk about life-long memories!
As I listened to Janie reminisce, I was nearly in awe. “What a memory you have, Janie!”
She leaned in closer as we sat at the table, totally absorbed with our newfound ties, and laid her hand on mine. Giving my hand a gentle squeeze, she smiled warmly, her eyes twinkling. “I could NEVER forget your family, Alison! They were so very kind to us!”
Janie shared with me that when she was six years old, her father had left her and her mother alone. It was a most traumatic time in her life, she said. She expressed thankfulness that her memories of that time included the Christian love, concern and real help from my parents and caring family. She said she and her mother moved away just months later, and never saw any of my family again.
Not only were these memories of Janie’s 60 years old, but her acquaintance with my family so very short, a period of mere months! Yet recollections, for her, were that strong. To me, her words spoke volumes.
Love for my family swelled in my heart. Thankfulness joined it there, for a God Who knew just exactly what He was doing, seeing to it that a glorified baby-sitter’s nameplate was set right beside beautiful soloist, Janie’s.
My family… fine Christian examples… who made such a positive impact on a heartbroken little six-year-old girl, that she would remember them for the rest of her life…
…That God would bother to reach across 60 years and 1300 miles to see to it that Janie and I sat next to each other at a luncheon…that He so expertly steered our conversation in exactly the right direction, with exactly the right song, to see exactly what he wanted us to see?
My parents have both died. So have four of my 5 brothers, including “the love of Janie’s life.” There is great comfort in knowing most certainly I will be reunited with them one day. And Janie will too!
How thankful I am for God’s placement of me into my fine Christian family on this earth. How incredible to contemplate our “extended family” and the ties that bind us, most of which won’t be discovered this side of heaven.
With heart and soul, I sing along with the Gaithers: “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” as I keep these things…and ponder them in my heart…