She was a beautiful girl. She had long, dark red hair almost to her waist. In a few years hair like hers would be the rage. But in 1962 it just meant she was too poor to go to a beauty shop to have her hair cut or permed. She had lots of freckles sprinkled all over her face and arms and neck. Her clothes were obviously hand-me-downs. She came from a large family. She wasn’t always clean. I guess you could say she had a lot of strikes against her from the very beginning.
We weren’t very nice to her. We didn’t play with her. We didn’t include her in playground activities. When we traded papers in class to grade them, everyone always rolled their eyes or did a little cringe if you had to trade with Grace. You know, like you didn’t want to touch her paper because she had touched it.
One winter when the weather forced us to stay inside for recess, some of us found a Christmas play written in a woman’s magazine. We asked our teacher, Mrs. Edman, if we could put on a play. We began to pick out parts. Grace wanted to be in the play. Someone said no. The teacher intervened and we were given a long talk about treating others as we would like to be treated. We felt bad for a little while. We gave Grace a minor part.
I don’t remember if Grace went to school with us for many years. She was inconsequential to me. I didn’t pay attention to her. She was just a shadow in the background. She didn’t graduate with us.
When I turned 40 I began reading the obituaries on a regular basis. Parents were dying. Sometimes young people. As you get older obituaries become something you read.
Grace, the obituary read. I checked the date of birth and her maiden name. It was her. A dull pain went through my heart, caught in my throat as I read on. She had died in a nursing home. At the age of 40. She had married but her husband had already passed away. She had a son. Her son had died too. When he was just 12. That’s how old Grace was when I knew her.
All the wonderful things that had happened to me over the years came flooding through me. Why had I been so blessed while Grace had seemingly not been blessed at all?
Grace is a word you hear in church. Why had God allowed all these bad things to happen to Grace. Grace means “unmerited help given to people by God”. Was that some kind of a cruel joke? What had He done to help Grace? Then again, what had I done? Nothing.
I felt guilt and shame. I still do. I have not forgotten Grace. I think about her on a regular basis. Last spring, I walked through the cemetery near where I grew up. My mom is buried there. I walked through to see if the daffodils I had planted at my mother’s gravesite had bloomed yet. I walked to the far corner of the cemetery where the oldest graves are located. Much to my surprise I found Grace’s tombstone. It was a nice stone. It had some plastic flowers stuck in the ground in front that looked pretty new. No husband was there. No son. Some other relatives, perhaps a mother and father were there. Again I wondered. What was Grace’s story? Had there been any happiness in her life? She had married. She had a son. Did she have some brief moments of happiness and joy that we all hope to have? Was she happy despite her circumstances? Is she happy now? Did she earn eternal grace from God?
As a teacher, I was often drawn to the children who were neglected or who had difficulty learning. Many teachers can say that; it’s just part of who we are. I sometimes think that knowing Grace and remembering Grace made me want to help others. It made me a more accepting person. I can’t forget Grace. I shouldn’t forget Grace. Her shy smile and freckles should always be a part of me.