When I was a boy I worked for several years for a retired teacher named Etta Kelly. She had moved into the house across the street from us when I was younger and had developed a friendship with my mother. She was in her 70’s when we first met and everything about her was light. She had pale white skin, perfectly white hair, a giant white car, white dog. She radiated. After a short time across the street Mrs. Kelly moved several blocks away, but one day called and asked my mother if I would be willing to do some work for her.
What she wanted was for me to come to her house every day after school and on mornings during the summer and assist her with anything and everything that she might need help with that particular day. This included digging in the garden, cleaning, moving furniture, running to the post office or grocery store, carrying items from one part of the house to another, cleaning the cellar, weeding, and whatever else might be needed. In return I was paid $5.00 a month (though after the first month or two I almost always got an extra $5, $10, or even $15). I don’t know how that would translate with an adjustment for inflation, but even then it wasn’t very much.
But there was something I needed more than money at that time in my life and Mrs. Kelly provided it to me. What she gave me was an adult who cared for me, listened to me, and respected me. My real pay was in the conversation that occurred every day after I finished my tasks. There would almost always be ice cream or some other treat–usually ice cream–and a bottle of Coke. While I ate and drank Mrs. Kelly and I would sit and talk. Sometimes I would work for a mere 15 minutes to half an hour and we would talk for an hour or more. In the winter we sat at her kitchen table. In better weather we sat in the back yard with chairs facing the city park where other boys played basketball and other sports.
Mrs. Kelly knew so much about the world and I loved listening to her tell stories, particularly recollections of her youth at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. But she also loved listening to me. She truly cared what I had to say and I don’t know that I had ever had that before. At the time I was an awkward and uncertain youth, very unsure of myself. I was insecure, and to be honest didn’t like myself very well. As time passed I grew to accept myself and I always credited her with teaching me self-respect. I wondered for the longest time how she could possibly have instilled that in me. Of course I now realize that she didn’t teach me self-respect. She gave me respect and treated me as an equal and because of that I grew into my own sense of self with more confidence. I also remember her talking often about not caring what others might think of me as long as I was true to myself. Because of that I grew confident in my opinions and world views and was willing to stand up for what I believed to be right, a trait that has followed me to this day. I think she would have been proud of the man I became.
Mrs. Kelly passed away after a long hospital stay in 1972 when I was 15 years old. I heard the news at my aunt’s grocery store and it absolutely devastated me, even though I knew it was coming. My mother had said that Mrs. Kelly would not come out of the hospital and Mom always had a way of knowing these things. Still, I cried all the way home from the store and carried that grief with me for years. I had lost a genuine friend who had reached across the generations to befriend a kid who needed her presence at that time. But I was left with more confidence because of her and perhaps I didn’t always love myself as much as I should, but I knew that I was loved and valued. Never has another job paid me as handsomely.