When I was seven, my mother told me I was getting a “Big Sister” from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Since my brothers were too young for the program, only I would be getting one. I was getting a fake, older sister because I was special.
Yeah, I was skeptical, too.
When Mrs. Ferguson arrived that first Wednesday, she limped into our apartment with a metal cane. I received the rejected Big Sister. The Big Grandmother.
She did her research on me, though, and found out that we had something in common. We both loved to read. Our first stop was at the Southworth Public Library in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
I had never been to a library before. She showed me how to navigate the children’s section and gave me space to explore. She headed to the biography section.
Back at the counter, Mrs. Ferguson handed over her library card and asked the librarian if I could have an application. I didn’t know they gave kids library cards. No one else in my family had one. I held that application like it was a golden ticket.
After the library, Mrs. Ferguson drove us into the woods. I worried that I was in a real life Hansel and Gretel situation. Bad things happen to children in forests. It turned out her house was an old cabin with weather-beaten shingles camouflaged among the trees.
She showed me her wild garden, explaining flowers and plants with names I quickly forgot. I liked how she let them grow free.
Her home brimmed with tangible treasures. Ships in bottles. Intricate silver tins. Yellowed maps. Benches stacked with books. Landscape paintings by her husband. Haunting art photographs taken by her daughter using only a pinhole of light.
Two enormous antique mirrors hung on opposing walls. White Christmas lights sparkled around them even though it was late spring. I remember examining myself full-length in one mirror and seeing my back in the other one across the room. From a certain angle, I could see myself standing behind me as well, and another me, and another, front, back, front, back, like parallel versions of me waiting in different frames for different futures. I lost and found myself in those twinkling mirrors.
Then it was time for baking. This was it—I was a goner, a confection in her oven.
She opened a cabinet and pulled out a box of cake mix, saving me from a heart attack. While the cake rose alone in the oven, she taught me to play dominoes, backgammon, and gin rummy.
Hours later, it was time to leave fairy tale land where I got to play the fake princess instead of the broken child.
As time when on, you would think I would’ve respected my time with her. Nope. As I grew older, it was embarrassing to tell my friends I couldn’t go bike riding because I was going with my Big Sister. I lied to them and made up excuses. I didn’t want them to think I was abnormal.
I started to test her. Several weeks I pretended to be sick to sabotage the program. I didn’t want to be someone’s project.
Any normal person would’ve given up. She kept coming. Every freakin’ Wednesday. She was more stubborn and persistent than I was. I gave in and learned how to trust someone.
For seven years Mrs. Ferguson picked me up every Wednesday and brought me to the library and her home. I read Amelia Bedelia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, The Babysitters Club. I began hiding romance novels from her at the library counter. Moved on to King. Koontz. Alcott. Angelou.
At thirteen, the program ended. She said she would keep in touch. I thought that’s just what people said to make goodbyes easier. But she wrote me cards, and we’d still get together every few months to catch up. Every birthday she would send me a book in the mail. She even met my oldest daughter, and we spent several afternoons together collecting sea glass and blowing bubbles.
Barbara (Sid) Ferguson was a stranger who volunteered to care about me faithfully for twenty years. She taught me about growing up gracefully with passion, connection, and creativity in my life. She had high standards yet broke rules if it would bring joy. Her funeral was an outdoor tea party where guests wore crazy hats and told jokes. Even in death, she had style.
We never talked about my childhood. We didn’t talk about anything important or life-altering. And ironically, that time spent not talking about heavy stuff helped me develop my inner peace.
Art, nature, creativity, books–these are the spiritual tools of survival that are most often neglected. These helped form my identity so I didn’t get stuck in patterns of dysfunction. She would’ve been thrilled to hear that I’ve become a published author.
I thank her for giving me the quiet gifts of time and commitment.
In 2001 I must have written her a letter thanking her. While I don’t have my letter to her, I saved her written response. I think it’s only fitting to end this blog post by sharing her words to me.