My writer friend Allison and I have formed a symbiotic relationship. She has been helping me organize the contents of my garage and I am helping her earn money for a spiritual journey she is taking this summer. As we were sorting through old pictures, books and my son’s early drawings, I discovered a forgotten treasure. I found an old collection of James Whitcomb Riley’s stories and poems!
When I was five years old, our early 1950's public school system didn’t have kindergarten in my tiny hometown of Connersville. My mother had a friend, Milburn Bannister, who ran a private kindergarten in her home. It was in her basement and was set up exactly like a classroom. I loved it. I actually attended two years because, as the story goes, I was too short for the desks in the first grade classroom at Grandview Elementary School.
We even had an actual graduation and got to wear tiny white caps and gowns. We had the ceremony in the Administration Building in Roberts Park. This made it seem even more important. I had gotten a brand new pair of white patent leather Mary Jane’s to go with my new white dress. I was so proud of those shoes. There I stood in the front row proudly holding my little rolled up diploma with the white ribbon tied around it, when I heard a sound like water trickling. I looked down and then over. Standing next to me was Jan Moore; she was a very fair-skinned blonde. Her face was beet red. She had gotten so nervous that she started peeing and the stream ran down the uneven old stage right on my brand new shoes. The yellow liquid was so stark against my gleaming white shoes. I remember being so mad at poor Jan and my parents shushing me after the ceremony while trying to assure me that my shoes weren’t ruined. I think maybe they were afraid I might try to slug her. I’m sure her parents got her out of there as quickly as possible because she was sobbing from the humiliation. Mrs. Bannister appeared with wet and dry paper towels to clean off my shoes.
Bannister was what was called a handsome woman in those days. I remember her kindness and patience with all of her students. In our classroom she seemed like a happy person, but as I grew older and became adept at eavesdropping, I realized this was not the case. Mrs. Bannister, my mother and Dorothy Young, my friend Sharon’s mother, would have coffee on Saturday mornings and talk about their lives. Sharon and I always came along to play with Milburn’s daughter, Janet. She was six years older than us and as we grew older we thought she was the height of sophistication. She wore pearls to school every day. We knew we could never be that classy. Even as we listened to Janet talk about the best lipstick and nail polish brands, I kept an ear peeled to what our mothers were saying around the kitchen table. Milburn had become a widow at a very young age and was left to raise her daughter on her own. It seemed she was never able to move past her husband’s death. As the years went by her handsomeness turned to severeness and then to a permanent mask of bitterness that stayed with her until her death. Milburn so overprotected her daughter that Janet couldn’t wait to get away and left home with the first man who came along. Milburn was alone again.
As for me, I was quickly becoming known as “the kid who always had her nose in a book”. I was also becoming a secret writer, never telling anyone about it. I was always searching for stories and ways to tell them. By the time I got to high school, Mrs. Bannister was no longer a big part of my life. I was very surprised when she showed up at my house the evening of our baccalaureate with a gift for me. As she handed it to me, she held on to the plainly wrapped package for a second and her sharp blue eyes looked into my dark blue ones behind by tortoise shell glasses as she said, “This is a gift that will last you a lifetime. You will enjoy it many times over. It’s the best gift I could think of for you.” And she was right. What better gift for a voracious reader and would be writer. Words were what I craved. And here was a poet/writer I could read without being intimidated. He wasn’t a major poet, but he was an Indiana treasure. He told our stories in the language of real people. And this is what I’m still striving to do. I always thought Mrs. Bannister had eyes that could see into your soul. I believe that she somehow sensed what books had meant to a little girl who needed an escape hatch for most of her young life. Thank you, Mrs. Bannister for being the first in my circle of support.
Rebekah for The Poplar Grove Muse