This article is very late in coming. I write it now because a glance at the calendar reminds me that today is the birthday of the late Agnes Schmidt, my personal angel.
As a very young child emigre from Europe less than a decade after WWII (and, more to the point for my family, the Holocaust) I came to New York with my parents. We had very few belongings and no ability in English. My parents where emotionally and physically broken. It took all their energy and faith to begin anew and raise a child. While I learned important values, social graces and Jewish religious practice from them, my childish soul found joy and refuge in a very unlikely place.
Mrs. Agnes Schmidt lived in the apartment directly above ours in the 4 story tenement in Brooklyn that was my first American apartment. Plans were made to find me a good nursery school with after care by another neighbor, Rae, who was a childless Jewish woman with a good heart. Mrs. Schmidt, married but also childless, often stopped by at her place. When we first met, I knew I would love this wonderful, fun-loving woman despite the fact that she was “old” and Protestant. Pretty soon, I would visit Mrs. Schmidt just to play. As a former teacher in Norway, she knew how to engage a young child. She bought me paint by number picture kits, puzzles, calligraphy pens and all manner of other fun, educational projects. Her living room was small, yet part of it became our “project area”. Everything she bought me was played with there; my own personal office. She was always happy to see me, never spoke down to me and was able to adjust our conversations as I matured. I often think of her influence on my life when I am working with my young clients or playing with my grandchildren. I am helped to remember the confusion and fragility of being so young.
Looking back now, as an adult older than she was when we first met, it seems to me that beyond anything else, Mrs. Schmidt gave me a calm environment in which to think. Not just thinking of a solution to a riddle or the creative thinking associated with art projects. Even back then, Mrs. Schmidt, teacher extraordinaire, realized that how we react to things emotionally requires a kid of thinking. Sometimes, when working on a project, I spilled things or made a mess. I remember stiffening up to ready myself for the lecture. Nothing. Soft tones asking me to please wipe it up. I actually felt myself become calm around her. My parents noticed this and it was one of the reasons that they did not object to my spending so much time at her place.
Mrs. Schmidt taught me the value of patience and practice. Perfection was not an issue- only doing my best. She gave me honest criticism with such softness and generosity of spirit that I never heard it as criticism, but rather, as instruction. When she asked me about my day at school or any event in my life, she listened to my answer with interest. She made me feel like I mattered. I often muzzled myself when I was with her because I wanted to be my best. For her.
I moved to a different area of Brooklyn and began school, but Mrs. Schmidt remained a constant in my life. Even in summer camp she wrote me letters and I wrote back. At this point she taught me to play checkers and rummy. She loved it when I thought “out of the box”. Despite her age, she was not a “rules” person.
Eventually, in my late adolescence, I moved far away and we lost touch. By the time I was married, I remember wondering what had happened to her and assumed that she had passed away. It saddened me that I did not get to thank her for the wonderful childhood memories she had given me.
Years later, when my mother had been gone for five years and our first child was two years old, by a sheer fluke, I found her again, alive and well living in another part of New York. Needless to say, our reunion was beyond emotional. The scenarios that life creates are usually far more gripping than any Oscar winning script. The special effects are more spectacular and experienced more fully since they are felt rather than seen.
As we held each other again, I was completely aware of the gift I had been given. Second chances come in many shapes and sizes. We often take for granted the life affirming and important ability to be both child and adult with those who are our cornerstones. I could now thank an amazing woman who helped me navigate life when she really did not have to. What was more, I could introduce my daughter to her! Over the years, Mrs. Schmidt and I kept in close touch and my daughter began receiving her own letters and little gifts in the mail. Mrs. Schmidt passed away when she was 84 leaving me with an ache, but so much gratitude. I was reminded of how much adults in any capacity in the life of a child can cause a ripple effect that would be felt years later.
Last year my husband and I visited Norway. Beyond the beauty of the country, I recognized the calm that had been introduced to me in my childhood. What was not present however, was human warmth. That was something that Mrs. Schmidt had come to on her own – and used it to make all the difference in my life and the lives of other children. There really is no “Thank You” enough for that.