A rabbit bridges the silence

Esther and I entered through the Mother Goose-decorated door to serve our first stints as senior volunteers at Grandmother's House Preschool. We'd found the notice "grandmothers needed" on the bulletin board of our retirement complex.

The young director of the preschool introduced us to the children, pronouncing our names and the children's slowly. Wide eyes looked up as we nodded and smiled and gazed in awe at the scattered toys - most not invented when our children were nursery-school age.

Little Amy held up a doll-size cup. "Want some tea?"

Esther and I grinned and nodded, captivated by these cherubs. I was ready to cuddle an armful of them, ignore fresh finger paint, and read them the story of "Peter Rabbit" or "The Little Engine that Could," still on the shelves after all these years.

Two-thirds of triplets, Lisa and Linda were larger and bolder than their brother, Tim. They mothered him and took turns clapping hats on his head. The headgear, explained the director, was donated by one of the other grandmothers in celebration of long-ago "dress-up" fun with her children.

Tanya was oldest among the dozen preschoolers, a child surely destined for the US presidency or, at least, to rival Bill Gates in executive skills. She cited rule after rule and instructed her classmates on where they were to sit for the flannel-board stories.

Then there was Jennifer, glued to a spot on the floor in the corner. She clutched a hug-worn, stuffed rabbit against her chest, modeled, we concluded, after Peter Rabbit's mother in Beatrix Potter's famous story.

Jennifer's thumb was perpetually clamped in her mouth. If a child or adult came near, she inched away until at least a yard separated her from any other being. The school director coaxed her, repeating her name, offering puzzles, clay play, and ribbon weaving. The little face, thumb attached, moved from side to side in a definite "no" to each offering. Neither Esther nor I could decide what to do with - or for - this little girl.

Jennifer appeared well fed and cared for, but we grandmas worried about her. She had the woebegone aspect of a child out of "Oliver Twist."

After a few Fridays at the preschool, Esther found a treasured niche - deep in the sofa corner. The moment she sat down she was surrounded by children. Each brought a favorite story for her to read. They crowded close, two on her lap, one under each arm.

Esther often looked toward Jennifer's corner. "Want to sit in my lap for a story?"

Jennifer always shook her head.

Last Friday morning all the children except our Jenny had gone to the next room to convert toilet-paper tubes into rockets. I was mopping up spilled juice and pushing chairs back into position.

"Oh my!" I heard a happy exclamation from Esther and turned to see that she held Jennifer's stuffed rabbit aloft. "You sent Mother Rabbit to say hello to me?" she questioned. "Shall I send her back?"

Jennifer nodded. Esther tossed. The floppy bunny fell short. Jenny quickly removed thumb from mouth and leaned forward to gather Rabbit against her chest.

"Will she fly to me again?" Esther asked.

Jennifer smiled and launched Rabbit into another perfect lob across the room into Esther's hands.

"Why don't you join Rabbit over here for a story?" Esther held a book toward her.

I held my breath, waiting for the customary denial. Instead, Jennifer rose from the floor and crossed the room. She climbed up, cuddled Rabbit into her own lap, and settled against Esther's shoulder.

As I watched and listened, Jenny's thumb came out of hiding long enough to turn the pages of "The Little Engine That Could."

Even rabbits can fly when they're traveling to seal a friendship.

Note: All the children's names have been changed. Esther is also a pseudonym.

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