A Few Moments With A Former Headmistress

`You have a visitor, Aunt Mabel,'' the nurse announced. The old woman in the bed peered into the darkened room. I gave her my name. Her hand hardly moved in greeting. I took it between my own.

She'd been my headmistress. Winter and summer, she wore the same gray cape. I can recall nothing else except the serviceable leather moccasins in which she strode about the school property with her spaniel, Crumpet, always at her side.

What could I tell her now about the years since my graduation? Small talk of husband and children seemed out of place, inadequate to the moment. At a loss for words, I stood stupidly holding that tiny hand and listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock while memories crowded the room that smelled of old books and old dust.

Piles of papers covered every table, stacked in expectant, crooked piles on the floor, as if waiting to be read. Clearly, they were not to be thrown out.

It had always been like this. As a child, when I was called to her office, I would climb the uneven stone steps, lift the latch of the heavy double door, and find her sitting at her desk, a sibyl surrounded by books, magazines, and papers. Everything in the small crowded room seemed slightly askew, a hodgepodge of purposeful chaos.

Her short, cropped, gray hair poked out in all directions. I would stand with heart pounding and cheeks flushed while she looked carefully at me through round wire glasses. I don't remember gentleness or humor. But I don't remember the lack of them either. I only knew that she took me seriously and that this was a heavy responsibility.

In daily assemblies, she shared whatever seemed important to her that morning. She talked to us like grown-ups about current events, the movement of hurricanes, Gregorian chants, or the immorality of littering. ``Don't be muckers,'' she told us firmly.

At the end of each assembly, we repeated together Micah's stern commission to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Some would have called her an old maid. But I felt that this was her choice. Only one of three women to graduate in her university class, she must have had her chances. Perhaps her passion found a different outlet, like the river that breaks through a soft place in its bank and starts a new branch of itself.

Certainly, she loved the written word and always shared its power and beauty with us. We were encouraged to write each day. No one was excluded.

As the silence lengthened and I struggled to find words big enough to fill it, I watched the dust mites move slowly down the fading band of afternoon sunlight that slanted through the window. Then from the bed I heard a small, distinct voice. I would have known it anywhere. But now it seemed to come like an echo from the past.

``How is your spirit?'' she asked.

And I told her.

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