Where there's a need, there's a miss Ethel

Posted: Oct 09, 2002 12:00 AM
I found Miss Ethel the usual way. I called the Baptist Church closest to my house and asked a single question: "Do you know any church ladies who would like to baby-sit?" "Sure do," said the lady on the phone. "I have a list." I took the first name, made the call, and so Miss Ethel came to be my then-toddler son's baby sitter, the second one I'd found through a Baptist church. That was 15 years ago. We had just moved to Florida from California, and I was starting a new life as the cliché of our time - a divorced single mother. The expected emotions prevailed as I agonized over life's logistics: Too little time, too little money, too little of everything except guilt. Working parents, especially single ones, know the drill. What they may not know is what I figured out instinctively, probably owing to a heritage that included a Baptist grandmother. If you have to leave your child for several hours during the day, better to leave him with a kindly lady, preferably a retired first-grade teacher, who is well known to her church. Miss Ethel, who died last week, was all those things. I heard about the death of Ethel Williams in the way I seem to learn about deaths these days - through an e-mail from a family member. I had lost touch with Miss Ethel, one of those regrets we all have when it's too late. Her granddaughter told me she had been living in a nursing home the past six years, suffering Alzheimer's. The family hoped the newspaper might say something about Miss Ethel since she had been a schoolteacher for 40 years. I volunteered to do the honors, not only to pay tribute to Miss Ethel but also to underscore the vast untapped resource of older women, some of whom delight in spending their time productively, who love teaching children whose mothers work, who wonder why they must sit idly through their days when there's so much need for their considerable talents and ample hearts. They don't come any better than Miss Ethel. She was intelligent, educated, warm, loving, generous, thoughtful, diligent, devoted, talented, patient and, yes, feisty. She once went on a prim rant about a male store clerk calling her "young lady." "What you want to call me 'young lady' for?" Miss Ethel thundered to the startled clerk. Well, probably not. Miss Ethel didn't have thundering in her. More likely she 'tsked' a little louder than usual. "I'm not young and you can see that!" Like I said, feisty. When I'd pop home unexpectedly the way guilty parents do, invariably I'd find Miss Ethel reading to my son, or making crafts, or pointing to pictures in magazines and engaging in lengthy discussions about which tools made the most noise, both a desirable characteristic to a 3-year-old boy and predictive of future parent-son divisions over questions of volume. She helped him make decorations and costumes. She baked him a rabbit cake for Easter. She showed him how to take naps, which, I suspect, were more for her benefit than his. She loved him. I am certain that Miss Ethel and Wanda, who preceded her, get most of the credit for my son's passion for books and music, for his empathic nature, for his appreciation of and affection for people who are, as a matter of fact, not young. These are not insignificant gifts, and whatever amount I paid Miss Ethel and Wanda was money well spent, and not nearly enough. My son barely remembers Miss Ethel, but it doesn't matter. She is in him, a part of his character, a piece of his heart. Her parting reminds me 15 years later that the world is full of Miss Ethels. Wherever there is a church or temple or mosque, there are retirement-age women, maybe even retired first-grade teachers, who may be lonely or yearning to be useful. The understanding now that most parents will return to work while their children are still small has birthed a zeitgeist that confers approval on the warehousing of children. Out of necessity, we tell ourselves, "It's OK." Yet, in most of our hearts, we're not so sure. We have made acceptable that which accommodates our wants and needs rather than those of our children. But. Having been through those wars and survived with minimal damage, including intact eardrums, I can testify to this much: If you can find a Miss Ethel - look under churches in the Yellow Pages - it really can be OK.