I want you to know Gertrude Hainer. To know her as I did, you will have to imagine your way to the middle of the last century, 1950 to be exact. To Mary, Gertrude was a soft-spoken elderly woman, with charcoal, gray-dusted hair, kind eyes and an erect carriage when she walked. She may have been fifty years old when Mary first met her, but to five-year-old Mary, Gertrude was “elderly.” Mary’s parents called Gertrude “Aunt Gertie”, thus a great aunt for Mary. Gertie lived with her younger sister Minnie (Aunt Minnie) who owned a millinery shop in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. In those days, the sisters would have been called spinsters. They shared a house, a modest, but sturdy clinker brick home on an elm tree-lined avenue, with concrete stairs to the front door that for Mary required elephant steps to climb. Inside, there wasn’t much to invite a visiting youngster except for shelves of books in almost all the downstairs rooms, books as ubiquitous as wallpaper. Mary could choose any book she could reach to pass the time until the visit ended and her parents returned with her to the car where they would drive on to another relative in the northern Midwest.
Gertie was a school librarian, a job she treasured. In snowy mid-winter she would tug on her black galoshes and walk the cinder-treated sidewalks to the school where she would hang her overcoat in the back room, warm her hands on the steam heater, then unlock the heavy front door to welcome the first student. Children arrived to thaw out before the first school bell, or to meet friends before class. The child Gertie awaited as warmly as promise was the child who interrupted her at the card catalog to ask if she could find a book the child would enjoy reading for a book report. Then Gertie put her whole mind in gear to ask questions that would reveal the child’s interests, for she had hundreds of books that would suit a book report; however, Gertie wanted to serve the child. Adventure? Mountain Climbing? Raising a pet? Happy endings? Sometimes she knew just the right book; other times she offered three or four until the student, attracted by the book’s cover or by Gertie’s engaging voice as she read aloud the introductory paragraphs, would check out the book. It was a red-letter day for Gertie if the child returned a few days later to ask, “Miss Librarian, could I have another book just like the last one?” Those days, Gertie would return home to Minnie at dinner to tell her about the enthusiasm of a young reader. Although she never married, never had her own child, Gertie loved pleasing children.
Perhaps that love motivated her to send a Christmas gift to Mary every year — nothing extravagant but chosen with Mary in mind. However, just as Gertie was forever elderly to Mary, Mary was forever a little girl to Aunt Gertie. Each year a gift wrapped in red tissue paper arrived from Aunt Gertie for Mary. Every year, a sweet gift for a little girl. But Mary grew up to eleven and twelve and proud thirteen. The gifts? A frilly pair of silky undies, an easy reader, a patent leather over-the-shoulder purse for Sunday School, lacey ankle-socks. Mary groaned in disappointment, or laughed aloud as she grew up. BUT Mary’s mother insisted that Mary write a thank-you to Aunt Gertie, a card that would not just say thank-you but would also mention the gift and how it might be used. All cards acknowledging gifts were to be mailed within three days of Christmas. It was the law!
I cannot recall when the gifting ceased, but it eventually did. Gertie went on to retire from the school library. Mary went to college, married, had a child, and became a school teacher. Her marriage ended, leaving her to raise her daughter alone. Mary had long forgotten Aunt Gertie. Her thoughts were consumed with finding a home for a single mom with a two-year-old girl. It was 1974, so nearly impossible for a single woman to secure a bank loan for a home. Then one day Mary’s father called to say Aunt Gertie had died and had left Mary $4,000, enough then to secure a bank loan for the remaining mortgage. Mary and her little girl moved into a yellow cottage in View Ridge, a four-block walk to the nearest elementary school.
Dear Aunt Gertie,
Thank you for . . . .