Yesterday, I learned that Mrs. Eichner (she will always be Mrs. Eichner to me), a dear teacher and mentor, died last year. Her obituary is in the Edmonton Journal, but it doesn’t in the slightest capture her real impact.
She was my Sunday School teacher, and her granddaughter was among my best friends. I remember one lesson where she had two boxes, one big and one small. The big one was much bigger, wrapped in brightly coloured Pokemon wrapping paper and adorned with a bow, and the smaller one was wrapped in plain paper. I wanted the big one, but I chose the smaller one. Much to our surprise, when the boxes were opened, the big one was found to contain a bottle labelled with poison’s death’s head, and the smaller one had a wonderful prize. I don’t remember the prize anywhere near as much as the lesson that followed. She taught me then not to look at the outward appearance of something – it may look good and enticing on the surface, but the real test of value is what’s on the inside. Sometimes, the things with the most eye-catching wrapping paper contain that which will kill us. Sometimes, the things with the plainest, most unassuming of appearances contain the most beautiful of treasures. So, rather than seeking that which looks the best, and discounting what looks small and unappealing, if we set our sight on the heart of a thing, we will find what it truly is.
One time, she told us about when one of her grandchildren was small and she’d made them a chocolate milkshake. But when she went to tell her grandchild about it, that grandchild said they didn’t want it. Confused, Mrs. Eichner nevertheless went to pour out the milkshake, only to discover shards of glass in the drink. If her grandchild had had the milkshake, they would have been terribly injured. I disagree with Mrs. Eichner’s interpretation of the glass in the drink as an act of Satan, but I will never forget how simple and present God’s protection became for me as she continued the lesson and expanded on the implications of that story. I will always remember how much God loves and looks out for me even when I haven’t a clue what he’s doing when I follow the subtle nudges he places in my heart. And I will always remember how her story showed me how simple it is to follow God.
In another lesson, she told us about a time when she had a vision of Jesus, lying on a bed, covered in bandages. When she asked him why he had all these bandages, he said it was because every time someone sinned, every time someone acted cruelly or carelessly, it wounded him. Even to tear a branch from a tree simply to have it would cut him. From that lesson, I saw clearly how tender God’s heart is, how much he cares about good being done. She also showed me then that my actions have consequences, that when I do what is wrong, it is hurtful to others. Even if that pain were not visible, it exists, and Christ carried the weight of it all as he went to the cross. From that day on, I was attentive to how I acted and sought not to cause pain in others and in the world.
She did another lesson where she had us all write down the largest amount of money we could think of. Everyone else had written millions and billions of dollars. I wrote a thousand. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t even thought of anything beyond it, but she was delighted. I don’t remember the exact thrust of that lesson, but I will always remember learning that the most important things in life have nothing to do with money and can’t be measured by it. That the measure of a person’s success has nothing to do with how much they made, but by how much they loved. And, oh, did she love.
Mrs. Eichner was a wonderful painter, and I took some art lessons from her with some other kids. In them, I learned that trees are thicker at the base than the stem, in both the trunk and the branches. I learned that, when a tree has a knot in it, that’s where a branch used to be, and the trunk will be thicker around it to support the branch that isn’t there. She taught me that branches aren’t afterthoughts stuck on the surface of a tree, but that they emerge from the centre like our arms emerge from our bodies and that there are curves where they do. She also taught me how to draw snow on the trees and to shade it with blue. I still have the tree I painted during that lesson.
Another time, we each painted a house in the winter. I still have mine, and I remember coming up with all kinds of details to put on it. Christmas lights, a snowman, footprints in the snow, a fence. When I did the windows, they seemed empty to me, so I filled them in with yellow for light. It seemed the most logical thing to do. When she saw this, she praised the detail, said I’d made it look warm and inviting, that it looked like people lived in it. I was embarrassed by the praise, but I loved it all the same. I would have had no idea I’d done something special if she hadn’t told me – I was honestly surprised when she mentioned it that no one else had done the same. She was so good at building people up every chance she had.
This might have been before or after the art lessons, but I remember painting something while at her house. In the corner, I painted a tiger, but I’d accidentally made the back leg too thick. Since you can’t erase paint, I decided to turn that extra thickness into a baby tiger, hanging around its momma. I told Mrs. Eichner what I’d done and why, quietly delighted with myself for my ingenuity, and she loved it. She told me that that’s exactly what artists do when they make a mistake – they turn that into something else so it looks like they always meant for it to happen and the picture becomes more beautiful as a result. In doing so, she taught me not to fear mistakes, but to take them as an opportunity to make something beautiful.
When we moved back from Alabama in 2004 after three years gone, I was excited to see her again. The first moment I got at church, I went to her to say hello and ask if she remembered me. She did. Of course she did. And she said two things in our exchange that I will always remember, both her words and how she said them. The first was, as she smiled and put a hand on my cheek: “You were always so beautiful.” The second: “You were always my favourite.”
I felt conflicted about the second one for years. Playing favourites with people was something I knew to be wrong. But sometime in 2014, I was talking with someone who also knew her and I mentioned that. And they said “That’s the kind of thing she says to everyone.” Which made it even more special because of the obvious sincerity with which she’d said it to me. The fact that she could love me like that without it being at the expense of anyone else – and I’d felt guilty in many of the moments I shared above when she praised me in front of others because I felt that her elevating me meant lowering others, and I didn’t want that, even as I glowed from her encouragement – that she would love like that speaks to the hugeness of her heart.
That time I spoke with Mrs. Eichner in church was the last time. Around the end of December 2014, during a shift in the library, I found myself thinking about her again and wanting very much to speak with her again, to buy a painting of hers so I could always have a piece of her to remind me of how she saw me and encouraged me. She continued to come to mind in quiet moments all through the beginning of January. As it turns out, those were her last days on Earth, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found that the day that ebbed was January 18th, the day she died. I feel honoured to have known, even if I didn’t realize that I knew, honoured that I was somehow with her in her final days.
I loved her (and to make this utterly clear for any who might be tempted to follow the perversion of that word, I loved her the way one human deeply loves another, devoid of romantic or sexual overtones). I loved her, and I know she loved me. I couldn’t even begin to recount how much she meant to me – all I can share are these paltry few stories.
They say not to speak ill of the dead, and I couldn’t speak ill of Mrs. Eichner even if I tried. I am so happy to have known her, even as I hate that that is now in the past tense (it’s funny how we can get used to the past tense when we haven’t seen someone for a while, but there are a few verbs like “know” that are jarring in their past tense without qualification). I am so happy that she lived such a wonderful life, that she loved and was loved so generously. I am happy that she always wore the same perfume and that I will remember her and smile every time I smell it. And my heart is breaking that she is dead. I look forward to seeing her again in heaven, and I will yet weep that she is dead.
When I told my mom that Mrs. Eichner had died last year, she said that Mrs. Eichner was always so generous, so affectionate with her love. She mentioned the perfume and said it was so strong. And I said how I loved it – it was Mrs. Eichner’s perfume and always will be, not a brand name you’d find in a store, but a part of her.
And, before then, as I read her obituary, even as I was frustrated by how little it said about her personal impact between all it said about her professional impact (I had no idea how respected her art was! And, really, it doesn’t matter to me anywhere near as much as how she treated me and everyone she met), I came to the part at the end where it gave details about the funeral and smiled at where it said, “In lieu of flowers, Edith requested donations to the Missionary Work of Susie Eichner in Slave Lake Alberta and the North care of Abundant Life Church.”
Of course she would.