Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Remembering the Ones
Who Made a Difference

On my last trip to Columbus—a sad journey two years ago to clean the cabinets and desk drawers of my aunt, following her passing that November—I lingered over a box full of photos, debating whether to toss or save.

The box was filled with those tiny school portraits—you know, the thumbnail-sized kind parents pass out each year to everyone in sight—but not one of them was of a person I knew.

Unlike those photographs we often find in our now-gone relatives' collections—the type bearing absolutely no identification of the portrait's subject—almost every one of these pictures included a name.

Just one name, that is: a first name. Usually found beneath the words, "your friend." And a thumbnail-sized thank you letter to someone who was obviously their favorite teacher.

That would be my aunt.

Over the years, my aunt had evidently preserved these mementos of students who now, likely, were adults, themselves—some, possibly, even teachers. It makes me wonder whether, on a cold November day—maybe when she was feeling discouraged, herself—she pulled out this Stash of Students Past to reminisce. And soak in the positive feelings sent her by those who had not yet outgrown that endearing childish habit of thankfulness.

Sara Jacqueline Davis was a homegrown graduate of Columbus' Ohio State University, that gargantuan institution of higher education football-with-a-college-attached. She had chosen to major in home economics, a now-quaint career choice from which she eventually swerved to specialize in library science. That, of course, required yet another degree—in her case, a master's degree—but that was no problem. She was a career teacher with no family of her own to distract from her professional goals.

A social person, my aunt made many friends over the years—not just students, but fellow teachers, people she met on her frequent travels, members of her church, fellow volunteers, neighbors. A special focus of her verve for life was cheering on her beloved "Buckeyes," either in the stands or with a circle of friends at the parties she hosted at her home.

Though her career path eventually morphed from full-time teacher to librarian to part time substitute teacher, she refused to let herself become idle. Up until the injury that eventually took her life at the age of eighty seven, she kept a part time position in a local gift shop, just for "pocket change"—and company.

It was interesting, receiving the guests who stopped by, in the rainy November weather, for visitation before her funeral. They came from all walks of life. Hardly surprising, considering her cheery affect and spunky approach to life. Each came with a story to tell our family—how they came to know her, what they did together. But most importantly, what she meant to their life.

It's funny, thinking over all the things that I remember of this aunt from my own life. The ones that stand out the most aren't the achievements she accomplished, or any flashy, stellar claims. They hover mostly around childhood memories—like the time that home ec teacher promised to help me learn how to sew, took me through the whole process from picking out the fabric to completing the project, my very own stuffed animal (a cat, of course), or just the generic fun that seemed to radiate from her. She was a fun and favorite relative.

Mostly, though, in adult-eyed retrospect, it turns out that the most remarkable thing about this woman was her slow and steady consistency. Over the years, bit by bit, she built a life of constancy. Though she was petite, I guess some found a rock-like stability in her that became the antidote to the turmoil and angst in many pre-teen students' lives.

Every now and then, I run across a well-written piece, explaining how the author decided to—against all odds—go back to find and thank a teacher who made a big difference in his or her life. While I'm glad for all those who heed that nudge to reconnect with the people who poured so much of themselves into that writer's life, I'm sure glad that wasn't the case for my aunt. For there, in a box in her desk drawer, was the testimony of many years' worth of students who didn't wait, but said their heartfelt thanks, right when they could.

Jackie Davis teacher in Columbus Ohio circa 1950s

Photograph, top left: portrait of Sara Jacqueline Davis, circa 1950; below: in front of the Columbus school where she taught for many years in Ohio; originals from the private collection of the author.


  1. Your Aunt sounds like a very interesting lady. We had one in our family too! Did you end up saving the photos?

    1. Ouch, Nicholas...that's a painful question. So much was happening when my sister and I had to pack up the house and sell it. I vacillated so much, I couldn't remember whether I had or hadn't saved them...but when I went back, months later, I couldn't find the photos. Of course, by then, I thought it would be real neat to try and use the research skills we are accustomed to using to find these students--a real shot in the dark, but wouldn't it have been fun to actually find someone?!

      Unless they are hidden away in some of the boxes of my aunt's stuff that we did keep, I'm afraid, however, that they are gone forever--all except for the sweet memory of having discovered them, right when I needed the encouragement.

  2. I love the way you write. This one is especially nice.

    1. Thanks, Margie. My aunt meant a lot to me, and it helps to be able to share her with others.

  3. Dittos Margie's comment.

    I really like that photo of your Aunt - she was really pretty!

    She sounds much like my great-aunt Mary (grandfather's sister) - always full of laughter and bright eyed. She was perhaps a little overshadowed by her very extroverted Irish husband - my great-uncle Jim. Both sadly missed - and especially so on Thanksgiving when they would come for dinner.

    1. Iggy, aren't those special relatives the ones who who have that extra staying power in our memories? It sounds like both your great aunt and great uncle were special people to you--real blessings to keep remembering.

  4. She was beautiful! How nice that many people came to her service and what wonderful sentiments from her students...I bet she did look at them and read what they wrote. She had a really good dash! :).

    1. Yes, she had a good dash!

      It was a strange feeling, being at visitation before her service. Neither my sister nor I are Columbus residents and really knew no one there (other than my aunt's neighbors), so there wasn't really anyone (at least among the living) to serve as a compelling reason for any local people to come to the visitation or funeral. I think the thought crossed my mind that maybe our family might be the only ones there--especially considering I think we had to have the funeral on Veterans Day, a holiday when people are out doing other things (and I think it was a three day weekend, to boot). It was a real surprise--and a blessing and encouragement--to meet all the people who stopped by at visitation and at the funeral to tell their story.


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