An Open Letter to the Women Tending to All Children as their Own

A determined letter of intention from a grateful daughter.

Dear — , I am finally putting to paper a letter I’ve been writing in my head for years. I haven’t seen you in over a decade. I bought this card around Christmas time, 2006, because even with just a one-year-old, I was starting to get that undeniable awareness of how much I owe the women who have poured themselves into me. I thought of you in particular. So, sometime during the holidays in ’06, I sat down and wrote the following in black pen: “Dear — , I was thinking of you the other day and decided to send you a quick note.” And then I got interrupted somehow (the aforementioned toddler) and never finished telling you. The card has stayed in my accordion file and has moved with us three times.

It is now December, 2010. I’m finally back from my four-year interruption. I now have a second daughter, and the toddler that likely interrupted me years ago is in kindergarten and already asking very skeptical questions about the existence of Santa. The newest toddler in my life is 18 months old. At the moment, they’re both still blessedly asleep.

What I’ve been meaning to tell you for years is that you changed my life. We busy humans must, as often as we can, acknowledge these transformative contributions, which is why I started, kept, and am finally and determinedly(!) finishing this note. I have known a handful of strong women who tended to me as if to their own child, and you are in that precious handful.

I was only 17 when I started hanging out in your kitchen. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to have a extra angst-ridden teen in the house or an extra mouth to feed, but you never let on. In fact, as I remember it, teenagers flocked to your house for years. You invited us in, fixed us food, taught us stuff, and never kicked us out — no matter how late we stayed. I know for a fact my brother-in-law still washes new clothes with a cupful of salt because that is how he learned from you how to keep colors from fading. You taught us life hacks before Life Hacks were a thing.

I can’t tell you how often I think of you when I am in the kitchen. The kitchen was your workshop. The majority of my food prep knowledge came from standing next to you at your cutting board. I still cut tomatoes and onions just like you did. I make salads often because of your influence. I stole outright your secret 5-ingredient recipe for “Dad’s Dressing.” I’m not even joking when I say I eat it all the time and served it last night to friends who loved it. Also, I just poured myself a cup of coffee in a pottery mug and remembered that both my sister and I love handmade pottery because of your kitchenware collection.

What I remember best about you is that you taught so naturally as you worked. You would invite me to help with whatever was happening, and you taught me how to do whatever I didn’t seem to know (but wasn’t going to admit to not knowing). The teaching part happened very naturally, almost organically, as you spoke. You taught me how to make quilts. You taught me how to use a Mac. You taught me how to make people feel welcome.

It must have been odd for you to have me coming in and out of your lives for so many years, quite randomly. I will never know how you managed to always greet me with such happiness in your voice. It was often at the holidays that I came around, back in town from college after months, and you would always give me a present. I still have a fleece turtleneck that you gave me — you had one yourself and said they were wonderful, and you were right. I still have the small copper strainer you gave me. I even still have the snowflake glasses you gave me the last time I saw you, so long ago. I just used them recently to entertain. Since I never gave you much notice before I showed up, I assume you gave me things that you had purchased for yourself or had planned to give to others. I want you to know I don’t take that for granted.

Uh oh … I hear a toddler. If I’m not back in 20 minutes, just believe in your heart that I will finish this note.

New Year’s Day, 2011: This looks like I let this go another year, but the interruption this time really only lasted a week. I hope you had a lovely Christmas.

To finish my letter, I just wanted to add one more thing: I will never forget the knowledge you gave me as a young professional trying to get hired on as a teacher in our remote little Alaskan school district. Not only did you get me work with you at the district’s media center, you brought me along side you and mentored me, which could not have been easy for you, as busy as you were. Shoulder-to-shoulder with you, packing boxes to ship to the villages, and over the screech of the packing tape, I learned how education systems work on the district level. How to duck and dodge the politics. How real change is made not by kissing ass, but by refusing to.

You had the Dewey Decimal System memorized. You showed me how curriculum gets adopted. I began to get an understanding of actual media and information literacy while shelving books-on-tape with you. I learned that it matters what we feed ourselves intellectually, and that it matters what the children in our care are given to consume. You taught me how to inspect ideas. You taught me that the best books are worth protecting.

And, just as you did when you were chopping vegetables, or sewing, or gardening, or painting the shed — all of this teaching you folded into regular conversation. As headstrong as I was, I never had a sense of being talked down to. You never made me feel silly for not knowing things I probably should have by then. When I did finally launch a teaching career, I discovered how difficult that is to pull off.

Please tuck this letter away somewhere you can get to it when things get to be too much. Let it be medicine to your soul as memories of you are to me. Let it remind you there are hearts (mine is only one of many) that are grateful — perhaps are even more capable of gratitude — because of you. May we all tend to those entrusted to our care, even if for a time, as you tended to me.