Once upon a time, I was an elementary school librarian.
Well, technically an aide, barely making minimum wage and working 50+ hours a week ...but essentially I ran the library and absolutely loved it. If I had the time and money to go back to school, that's what I would be if I ever grow up.
The not-so-fun part of the job was cafeteria duty, walking up and down the aisles of screaming kids, opening milk boxes and ketchup packets, stopping food fights, and cleaning up...well, every once in awhile you got a sick kid, is all I'm saying.
But I was lucky: I had Jerry and Rena helping me.
I think at the time Jerry was the maintenance man for the school - maybe for the whole small district - but he was there to help Rena, his wife, who was the custodian. She had a special education teaching degree and I never understood why she preferred school custodial work to teaching, but she did, and she was awesome.
We worked as a team which made it fun. I would help wipe tables...they would help open milk cartons and stop fights.
I already knew them before that year, though. When we first moved to this little town, they ran an Italian restaurant serving great pizza. It was always packed. They helped us feel like this town was our home. We belonged.
They were smart, informed and active in the community. For years, Jerry and I sat until late at night at many school board meetings, staying on top of issues and decisions that were made.
Rena had an angel voice, using it to raise money and entertain the kids at school talent shows, and joining it with others in the local community singing group. She had a strong sense of right and wrong, and wasn't afraid to voice her opinion, but her smile rarely left her face.
What I didn't know until today was that they were childhood sweethearts, first getting together in junior high and marrying after college.
Rena passed away earlier this week at 63 of ovarian cancer; this afternoon I went to her funeral and told Jerry how much it meant to work side-by-side with the two of them.
Mourners overflowed the small church onto the sidewalk outside. The doors were open to the Texas heat, and, despite the ceiling fans, it was hot. Really, really hot. But no one seemed to mind.
In the crowd I spotted many familiar faces. Some from my librarian days who I hadn't seen in years, or the parents of my kids' friends, and even several members of my church, because in a small town, friendships cross many lines, especially if you're someone like Rena.
I admit my mind wandered a little as the preacher spoke about Rena's gift of singing and how it touched so many lives. Friends and family spoke of her devoted friendship and encouragement, of the fun they'd shared. A cancer patient who met Rena in a support group shared Rena's vow to live every day she had left the best she could, to spend as much time with her friends and family as possible as long as she was able.
Rena had an angel voice, and even though she never became rich or famous from it (at least not in the worldly way)...never had a hit record... she developed and shared the gift, leaving the memory of it as her legacy.
For me, as I struggle to find a potential career instead of just another job, her legacy was something different - her attitude toward her custodial job. She was the best custodian you'd ever meet, always doing her best, and eventually losing her job because she stood up for the truth, defending one of her workers. She refused to keep silent and compromise her values.
I remembered today that what matters most is giving whatever you're doing your whole effort. Singing, cleaning, parenting, whatever. Stay true to your morals and values and ethics, and make the people in your life the most important thing.
Give it all you've got, no matter what 'it' is.
Because what you do doesn't define you. It's how you do it. How much of yourself you put into it. How many people you help or inspire or encourage along the way.
Rena, you nailed it as usual, honey. Thank you.
I'm blessed to have known you.
"Use what talents you possess:
the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there
except those that sang best."
– Henry Van Dyke