Quiet Heroes

A few weeks after Mother died, I got a note from her church with a list of people who had made memorial gifts in her name, so I could write a thank you from the family. One name on the list was a mystery. I asked Mother’s last surviving sister, but she did not know who it was either. We both had seen the name in the return address field of greeting cards Mother had received during her time in the nursing home, but neither of us had inquired further. I wrote the thank you. It was necessarily short and bland, as I was not bold enough to ask, “Who are you?”

The answer, though, came a short time later. The donor sent me a generous letter saying she was happy to have received my note, as it gave her an address for a family member. In response to my unasked question, she explained that she had a brand new degree and teaching certificate when hired by the school where my mother taught. The year was 1950, and my mother was already a veteran of probably half a dozen years. (I believe Mother’s teaching career began in 1942. I know she took a year off to have me, and I believe there were some other interruptions during the war years.)

They were colleagues for just one year before my correspondent had moved on. But she credited Mother as the reason she had survived that first year. Like Mother, she had served a full career as a teacher. She had moved several times to different cities and schools, so had lost touch with Mother for a while. But she had always remembered that year of being mentored and had re-established contact many years ago. Except for that first year, it was a friendship carried out almost entirely by correspondence. It lasted nearly seventy years.

Mother seemed to inspire long-lived friendships, even across barriers of distance or age cohort. I can think of several friendships with younger families, some more than a generation younger. Her neighbors’ four children became like grandchildren to her. When it came time to sell her house, that next-door family bought it, lovingly and beautifully updating its 1950s style to a contemporary twenty-first century look and functionality.

She made connections with other people to the end. Whenever she returned to the hospital, nurses who had cared for her previously would stop by to see how she was doing. Later, as I would walk the halls of her nursing home with her, it seemed nearly every staffer had to stop and give her a hug.

Mother was the gregarious one, and the stories people tell me typically stress kindness. Daddy died ten years ago, but I stilI hear admiring stories about him, in which the lauded traits are service and dependability. When I was young, he worked for a laundry/dry cleaners, managing operations for the often-incapacitated owner. (Pioneering radiation treatments for cancer had left the owner confined to a wheelchair, yet grateful for the decades they had added to his life.) During this period, Daddy also held leadership jobs at church. My childhood memories have him leaving his laundry job at six, coming home for a quick supper, then—several nights a week—rushing off to a seven-thirty church meeting that might last until ten.

Later, he became a self-employed carpet cleaner, working into his seventies until dementia forced his retirement. While we were working out details of Mother’s funeral, the funeral director, who had been a friend and neighbor of Mother’s older brother, told me he would ask Daddy to clean the carpets in his home each year during their family vacation. Daddy knew where the house key was hidden, would let himself in, do the work, and send a bill. One year, he found an envelope with a substantial sum of cash that had slipped behind a dresser and been lost. The funeral director returned from his vacation to find the intact envelope on top of the dresser, with a note from Daddy.

After Mother’s death, I was sharing some of these stories with a counselor, and she used the term, “quiet heroes.” That seems about right.

Quiet heroes. You may know some. You may be one. By their very nature, these quiet heroes may be unaware of the impact they have on others, of the grace they bring into other lives. Nancy’s niece recently recalled a book Nancy had given her many years ago, a book about women who had made a difference. She said she “wore that book out,” reading it again and again, mining it for inspiration. Nancy had not known.

One more story. When our son was born, Nancy’s mother was unavailable, so my mother came to help for a few days. Nancy has repeatedly praised the gift of those days, commenting how Mother quietly kept the household running (meals, laundry, …), not offering advice unless asked, allowing Nancy and Jay the freedom to work out a mother-child pattern that worked for them.

Quiet hero indeed.

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