A Special Gift from an Older Woman

While standing in front of her grandmother’s house in Williamsburg in November, my daughter says hello to a passing neighbor on her afternoon walk. This neighbor—surely another grandmother—stops to engage Sarah in conversation.

Sarah politely describes her studies as a high school student back in Pennsylvania. She learns that many years ago, this older woman was once a high school science teacher. I stand off to the side and imagine the woman younger and sturdier, with chalk in her hand, teaching with lively steps in a classroom of her past. How quickly our careers end. How quickly we age.

My daughter’s face brightens as she explains her love of microbiology, but then she shares a true dilemma: she loves both history and biology equally. How will she decide upon a future career?

It was a simple question to a new, older friend.

Weeks later, a strange present arrives under our Christmas tree back in Pennsylvania. The older woman that Sarah met just once (who I have since learned has no grandchildren of her own), sent Sarah a precious gift:

a book on the history of microbiology. 

With an attached letter, equally precious to Sarah, the woman explains that, with Sarah’s interest in both history and biology, she might love this book. She tells Sarah of its 1926 publication that quickly became a beloved classic that the woman read herself when she was Sarah’s age. The book, Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kruif, captivates Sarah. Sarah reads on of how inspired the woman was about each chapter’s recounting of how some monumental discovery in biology and medicine was originally made. 

The woman writes, “this book may have some influence on where your future studies take you.”

My daughter felt so loved and so seen and heard by an older person other than her parents taking interest in her future. That single letter, that single gift, that single conversation might just set a young girl on her course; it might set her sail in the right direction to catch some new wind.

I felt myself tearing up with appreciation for this older woman who never stopped being a high school science teacher after all. I thought of her pulling the dusty book off the shelf and thinking of my daughter. Maybe she saw herself as that bright 16 year old, torn between two paths.

I felt aflame with love for her. She taught me something, too. I thought of how, in 20 years, I might one day be the kind of older woman who sends letters and books to young writers I meet on my afternoon walk.


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