We never know when we make a small gesture how it can change a person’s life. Shirley Santo smiled at me from the choir loft at church. She couldn’t have known that her smile meant the world to me. I was almost eight years old and painfully shy. For three years I had been holding onto a belief that there was something wrong with me. My belief was accompanied by a fear that I was unlikable and unlovable.
“When I spotted the older sister of a neighborhood playmate in the choir, I poked Mom’s arm and pointed, ‘Look, Mom, there’s Shirley, Fred’s sister.’
Shirley noticed and smiled at me. I scrunched close to Mom and buried my face in her arm. When I peeked out, Shirley wore a big grin. … Each week I anticipated the smile she never failed to flash. It spelled love.” Pages 25-26 in A Long Awakening to Grace
Then one day I arrived home from school to find Shirley visiting with my mother. She had come to ask me to be the flower girl in her wedding. I had never felt so special in my life.
An interesting aside: Shirley and Ralph were married in Sidney, Ohio, in the aftermath of the 1950 Thanksgiving blizzard, the worst in Ohio’s history. The snow was so deep (20-30 inches) and the winds so strong (40 miles per hour), cars couldn’t risk being on the road and confronting drifts as high as 25 feet in some areas … more like 5 feet in the Dayton area. I remember walking to the church for the rehearsal, my mother carrying my gown. As you can see from the picture, it was a beautiful wedding.
As the first person to challenge my self-defeating belief, Shirley is my first Angel. If she is still alive, she would be in her late 80s or early 90s. My last contact with her was in 1980 just before my ordination. At that time, I was able to find her and let her know where the love she had extended to me thirty years previously had led. I wanted her to realize that she had always held a special place in my heart. I’m grateful that I was able to let her know before we lost touch with each other. I am no longer able to track her down.
Sixty-seven years later, during this season of Thanksgiving, I am eternally grateful for all the Angels in my life … and for today, I am particularly grateful for this very first one.