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CUSTODIAN OF HEARTS
Excerpt from The Summer People's Children: A Memoir of Winters and Losers
-A book by Sandy Garson
On a Saturday night in early June while Vice President Bush and Tsar Gorba-chov were having a sleepover at Camp David to hammer out the future of planet Earth, we were having a potluck supper to celebrate the retirement of Ann Trainor as custom-dian of our school. About 140 people set themselves up in the new all-purpose room at the now three-room school with pasta salad, baked beans, hot macaroni and the usual assortment of homemade cupcakes.
We had to stand when our honoree was brought in, for she was tough to see, stunted below five feet. Flashing Churchill's V sign with both hands, Ann danced down an aisle and up onto the little stage where she took her place behind the fringe of crepe paper streamers across the head table. Everybody applauding was from the island except the empty-handed older couple beside me. Apparently, Ann's two inland sisters had sent their minister and his wife to represent them.
"We know Ann through them," the wife whispered with bewilderment, "but what we don't know is: what exactly did she do?"
“Listen to the speeches,” I replied.
There were about a dozen, starting with the fellow who was principal of the two-room school twenty years earlier when Ann had first been hired. Right away he admitted he'd been queasy about this loudmouthed little person because he'd never seen anyone like Ann before. Right away, everyone laughed, remembering their own initial reaction to her cross-eyed freakishness. When the roar subsided, the past principal admitted he'd also never in all his life seen any building as immaculate as our school and that in all the years since he’d moved on, he never forgot it because he's never seen such spotless-ness duplicated. In fact, he said, he finds himself telling people everywhere he works about the big magic of little Ann Trainor.
The following principal followed with tales of his own amazement, revealing how Ann conjured some of that magic. While he himself was teaching the fifth and sixth grade, he said, he began to notice every day fifteen minutes before school ended, each week two different kids would begin to watch the clock, wiggle restlessly, continually turning toward the door until eventually a very loud "Pssst!" erupted in the hallway. Instantly those two kids would dash out.
“Ultimately,” he said, “I found them busily cleaning up the place with Ann. She always made the kids participate, so they understood this really was their school. Since she gave them candy and advice along the way, there was never a child who at least once didn't want to be her accomplice."
One of those children, Patti who had gone on to honors at Bryn Mawr, came back to step up and say that on her first day after kindergarten, she had been sitting on the front step feeling lost, lonely and as unhappy as she'd never been since when Ann came up from behind, sat down beside her, took a piece of candy from her pocket and said: "Here, it's not all that bad. I will be your friend."
Two children currently in the school then stood up and presented Ann a bucket full of the same hard candies she was evidently still dispensing from her pocket.
One of our town officers took the stage and told us about the night she came to the town office, which is in the school, and saw Ann bent over scraping all the desks.
" 'What are you doing?' I said and without missing a beat she replied: 'Well, the children eat at their desks and sometimes they spill something. When that dries, it makes tiny lumps and when they write papers later, these bumps make their work look messy.’"
Another town officer, a former summer person in a navy jacket, bowtie and tor-toise rim glasses said that a few years back he'd moderated town meeting for the first time and can’t forget it because at one point, seeing a raised hand, he called on "that little man in the back" whereupon Ann had ripped open her shirt and shrieked: "What's wrong with you! Can't you see the headlights?"
Everybody howled and hooted wildly, for blunt crossed-eyed Ann with white hair cropped behind her ears, huge black rimmed eyeglasses on a crooked bulbous nose, baggy men’s clothes and a gruff voice that booms in bass is frequently mistaken for a guy.
The fellow in the bowtie then pulled out a harmonica. Believing himself alone in the town office one night, he explained, he started playing and to his amazement, as though magnetized, Ann danced in with her mop. He now put the harmonica to his lips and when he blew the first note, Ann leapt from her seat and danced a jig.
“No room for inhibition in her, is there?” somebody said.
The visiting math supervisor took the little stage to tell us ours had become his favorite school because Ann always had a kind word, clean classrooms and a piece of candy for him. He pulled out two harmonicas, threw one across to her and now we enjoyed a lively duet.
There was nothing lively about the drab superintendent of schools who came next. Her second day on the job, she told us, her secretary buzzed: "’Somebody named Ann Trainor is out here to see you,’ she announced, “and she says right now!’ Ann came bursting in,” the superintendent went on, gathering enthusiasm, “looking like nothing I'd ever seen before, which scared me. But then she took a seat, folded her hands on the far side of my desk and very clearly explained what the children at this school needed from me. Ever since that day,” the superintendent choked on tears, “Ann's advice and guidance have been the secret treasure of my job. I don't know what to say except I love you and I'll miss you terribly."
The teachers gave Ann two pieces from the local potter: a clock and a soup bowl because soup is her favorite food. The supper organizers brought out a large decorated cake. The rest of us pitched in a pile of cards and gifts. One of our grandmothers took to the piano. We all sang: "The best to you, May your dreams come true..." and that was supposed to be it.
But as we were hitting the last note, a strapping crewcut young man in high-topped sneakers and Bermuda shorts rushed up to the small stage and snubbed out his cigarette. "My name is Pat Davis," he announced somewhat breathlessly, "and I am supposed to be at my own birthday party which my buddies are giving me. But I came here instead because it was more important to me to be here for my Aunt Ann."
The surprise speaker revealed how, as a troubled teenager, he'd found himself shunted away one weekend to "Aunt" Ann's. Almost every weekend for the next few years, he found himself voluntarily returning. "Ann took me in and taught me," he said, trying to fight back unmanly tears, "the discipline of work, the value of doing something right and most of all she taught me how important it was to care--about everything. She never gave up on me or let me down. I would today be a punk nothing if she hadn't made me follow my dream and I am in the Coast Guard today only because of her. So I came down here to say: Thank you for everything. I love you, Ann."
For the first time in the 20 years we knew her, Ann Trainor was speechless. In fact standing there on that little stage with the crepe paper streamers in a skirt and pumps nobody dreamed she could own, she was crying. Asked to speak, she wiped those thick black glasses and motioned weakly toward the piano. Next thing we knew, the grandmother was back at the keyboard and Ann was at the microphone belting in that gruff bass drum voice: "God bless America, land that I love... ."