Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Piece of Her Legacy

Usually I don't go to Estate Sales. In the south, they tend to mean one of two things: either it's a rich family who doesn't want squabbling amongst the living therefore property of the deceased is auctioned off or a family is without heirs and wants to dispose of things quickly. The one thing they have in common is the hope of the auctioneer that the people who show up will equate "old stuff" with "valuable antiques." I wouldn't have even known this one was going on if Mom hadn't e-mailed me about it.

You see the dearly departed had been my second grade teacher, Miss Cotton. After Mom, she was the second most important person in the development of my reading skills. They both taught me to love words. Miss Cotton rewarded that love of reading with gifts of books. I still have the two books I won in her class. "Heidi" was first prize for reading the most books. A copy of "Black Beauty" was the prize in our shoebox parade float contest, which had to be based on a book we read...and explained to her. Mine was "The Princess and the Pea", with Barbie standing in for the princess and a dried black eyed pea as her nemesis. Each book featured Miss Cotton's neat handwriting, always filled with praise. "Thanks for being an excellent student!"was inscribed in my books.

Miss Cotton stands out not only for sharing her love of reading but for bringing in physical symbols of countries as we read about them. I have to wonder how many friends she had in the military. Someone had to lend her all those items from a variety of countries which she used as hands on learning tools. Somewhere there's a picture of me wearing an apron and wooden shoes from Holland while cradling the ugliest, carved wooden troll you've ever seen. He even had a wart on his nose. In the photo I'm flanked by two classmates modeling other outfits from the area. Miss Cotton made sure that each of us had a chance to shine. When she wasn't encouraging us to read, she encouraged us to write our own stories. Yes, I still have the one I wrote about the wandering neighborhood dog, Tippy. It not only earned me an A, it earned a spot in my baby book. Being the first born, mine is about 12" thicker than it should be.

Of course when she died, she was no longer "Miss Cotton" having found her Prince Charming along the way. I was somewhat surprised to find her name in the Obitituary column the week before as she'd only been 69 years old. I felt one of those twinges that hit you when a pleasant memory has suddenly been tarnished. The reminder that you're not eight any more and those "older" people you respected are now passing on to the next level. And that would've been it if Mom hadn't pointed out the estate sale at Miss Cotton's home. A single thought popped into my mind.

Books. I bet she had lots of books.

Books were, in fact, mentioned in the ad for the sale. And yet I was overwhelmed by exactly how many I encountered after walking through the front door. Every room in the three bedroom house seemed to have a bookcase brimming over. The garage had been enclosed, the car moved out so the books could move in. Even the end of the hallway had a bookshelf. For a moment I felt like a kid in a candy store.

I tried to concentrate on the hardbacks, which were being given away for $1 each. For a moment the choices were overwhelming. I took a deep breath and thought silently, "Concentrate. The books will find you."

The first title that grabbed my attention made me laugh. I adopted it on the spot. It was a book of short stories entitled, "The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Make You Miserable." The author dedicated it to his "long suffering wife" who has followed him, no matter what. In fact, she wrote the Foreword, which begins with a cheeky, " long as I can remember, he's always been several steps ahead of me. That's the reason I agreed to write this foreword. For once, I want to be first."

Miss Cotton, so far so good.

As I perused her stacks of books, I hadn't counted on the creepy feeling of seeing strangers wander through the house, opening closets and rummaging through kitchen drawers in search of treasures. Some were reverent and polite, some were pushy and rude. At one point a woman loudly complained that a man had pushed her out of the way. Her husband bowed up, filled with fire and ready to fight, head spinning left and right looking for the culprit. I purposely stepped in front of the culprit, a man probably in his eighties who'd merely bumped into the woman. I know, not only because I witnessed it, but because the gentleman and I had bumped into each other also in the crowded hall. We both grinned, wished each other well and tried to continue through the house. As the woman huffed because her husband couldn't find someone to pound into the ground, a small part of me wanted to yell, "What is WRONG with you?! The lady of the house is no more, you have your arms filled with her stuff and are complaining about the price. A decent, kind woman has moved on and you're angry because an old man in the crowd was jostled into you. Lady, you should be ashamed!"

Miss Cotton was always big on manners.

I was surprised at how big a difference it made to personally know the deceased. I didn't just stumble upon a treasure in an antique store. I knew this woman. And she had made a difference in my life.

I made myself stop at five books. An autobiography of John Kennedy Jr. entitled "Forever Young" was added, as well as 2 by Robin Cook which I'll probably enjoy because they're large print and I won't have to hunt for my reading glasses. The last was a nod to my childhood. In fact, it was the only children's book I saw. It was ironically titled, "Miracle in a Shoebox. A Gift of Christmas Wonder."

And that's what Miss Cotton nurtured in me. Wonder. In spite of what some people think, I consider that sense of curiosity a gift.

As an adult I ran into Miss Cotton throughout the years. Once Mom was with me and asked, "Do you know who this is?" Grinning ear to ear I replied, "Sure. It's Miss Cotton. Who has a married name I don't know." She'd been genuinely proud that I'd gotten a degree in Education, even if there were no teaching jobs available. She admitted that I had been in the very first class she taught and she'd tried to teach us everything SHE'D learned. With a laugh she added she'd often worried that she'd overdone it and ruined us for life. I'd answered truthfully. You weren't just interesting, you were interested in US.

And that made all the difference.


Susan said...

Wow, what a lovely story; I enjoyed this so much! If you felt like sharing it more, it would be a great addition to a teacher's magazine or anthology--it would mean a lot to readers to know how much we go on loving our teachers long after we walk out of the classroom.

Oh, look: Chicken Soup for the Soul is looking for teacher stories. Yeah, it's a hint...

Thanks for sharing your memories of Miss Cotton, and enjoy your new 'old' books!

hope said...

Oh what an influence YOU are. ;)

I took your hint and ran with it...but I cleaned it up first. It never fails: 1200 word maximum and it was 1207.

You are sneaky in a most lovely way. Why just the other day I decided to pull myself out of the dumps by writing. Didn't have to be anything in particular, just writing. I took one of the prompts you shared [young man in a taxi outside his parents' home] and it began writing itself. Now if I can just get back to it, as I was interrupted and had to leave lunch to go back to work. :)

Dave King said...

That is a fabulous post. it would have made an excellent obit for her. I can appreciate how creepy the experience must have been for you, but what comes over is her wonderful effect upon you.

hope said...

Thanks Dave. She was a unique teacher.

Susan said...

Dave's so right, it's a lovely tribute. If Chicken Soup turns out too full to fit yours in, you should (I'm getting so bossy these days) send it in to the local newspaper for the one-year anniversary of her passing, as a memorial. That would be a lovely thing.

You know that man-in-a-taxi prompt wasn't my idea, it's actually a link to a call for submissions on that topic: when you're finished the story you could send it in for publication. I completely understand about writing yourself out of the blues: it's the best 'medication' ever! Good luck with everything!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, a smart and very moving piece of writing.