She had the face of a crone and the heart of a saint. She was the first woman to capture my imagination as a young child learning about grace. I forgot about her for decades, until I came across a black and white photograph of her perhaps twenty years ago. My heart was so sad when I lost it, but my mind still bears its imprint vividly. And that same heart never lost touch with the spirit of the quiet presence of love who met my innocence with her affection.
Miss Irene Dornblaser has come to mind recently in this curious and amazing place to which I’ve come: elderhood. I simply needed to write some more about these elder years, and I was ready to take a look back at the most important people who have led me to who I am now. It was her face that showed up first. I knew this was where I should begin.
Looking back is our journey to who we are now. It’s the way we find regret and repentance; forgiveness and acceptance. We travel there, as often as necessary, to learn: to discover the reality of who we were and to seek the lodestars who we met along the way who showed us the direction toward the deepest love that we would need.
I was maybe 8 years old when I first met her. An age when the scripts of life are being written fast and furiously, when curiosity and fascination are scooping up great heaps of life wherever they happen. It was the age of innocence and curiosity and expectation and I was in love with life.
Two years ago, I wrote a brief, dense little piece about Miss Irene Dornblaser – because she needed to be remembered, and I needed to honor her place in our third-grade lives.
“Miss Dornblaser was the Christian missionary who
came to our grade school to tell us about Jesus. She
came so long ago yet she is buried deep in the love
that I knew in my childhood. Love is what she showed
us with her homely but glowing face. She was ancient
and mysterious, having lived in China all those years
before coming home. So when she had us fold our
arms on our desks and put our heads down on them,
we were fed the quiet beauty of prayer by a woman of
God, unafraid and unapologetic and full of light.”
In the late 1940’s, Miss Dornblaser would have been known as a spinster. She was not a beauty. Tall and exceedingly thin, she seemed to float on her calm demeanor. Her hair was set in a familiar-for-the-time older woman’s bun, neatly held together at the nape of her neck. Marcelled waves on the sides of her hair were her only brief nod to fanciness.
She wore long-sleeved, crepe dresses that went down to mid-calf and neatly buttoned at the neck. Her shoes were “old-lady” shoes – black, with a thick heel, tied carefully at the ankle. She carried a modestly decorated linen handkerchief in her gnarled, long fingers which were never awkwardly used and which rested so quietly, elegantly placed in her lap.
Her face was long and very thin, her mouth small and wrinkled like her skin. Her smile seemed to stretch from front to back, rather than from side to side, and it arrived easily and often. Her wire-rimmed glasses, a paean to the modesty befitting a missionary, sat lightly on her aquiline nose. Her eyes had a warmth to them that welcomed her small charges in.
We sat correctly, quietly as she spoke. Her words held us, and perhaps it was also her low and soothing voice that captured our hearts and hopes. She was Love standing before our 30 desks, neatly arranged in rows of 6. She was the confirmation of what my parents had been teaching me by their example. How rich was my life!
Miss Dornblaser’s love embraced us all with a kind of perfection that would too soon fade but which would remain as the nearest thing to it that we would have going forward. Her beauty was the radiance that filled her and reached out to us. We didn’t think of her as old or ugly. She was who we could become.
We all know that true beauty isn’t just skin deep, right? But oh, that skin beauty thing is alluring! I’m going to admit it: even at 77, when I look into that mirror, I still have to do just a bit of reinterpreting about what I see there. Maybe we all do. I think we all do.
If we’re brave and honest, if we stick with it, if we don’t avoid our own gaze, we can see the new beauty that has quietly been making its way to the surface. The new beauty that has arrived so slowly that often we didn’t really notice it.
Each artist’s wrinkle has been carved there, threadlike or deep, to announce that we have been alive and kicking and bravely living our own stories, page by page, chapter by chapter. And the writing has been worth the effort.
Beauty can be only skin deep sometimes. In the new elderhood that I’m relishing, my eyes see my crone face as beautiful. Beautiful with the long history of my life, with all its ups and downs. Beautiful with the weight of the mistakes which I have laid aside with forgiveness. Beautiful with the joy that lights it up when I remember just how miraculously I have survived my losses and found ways to thrive. Beautiful with the smiles that beamed and the laughter that exploded with happy times. Beautiful with the calm spirit that has learned to cherish quiet and deepness and the power of humility.
Looking back. Sifting through the faces that rise to the surface. When we spend that time with a heart that seeks the love and grace and humor and depth that life has brought us, we can discover a wonder that just has to say, “Wow! Just…wow!!”
We all have a Miss Dornblaser. Who was yours? And what gift did you find there that showed the direction of love for you? The truth about beauty? Looking back is so worth the effort!
So at age 77, I still cherish the memory of Miss Irene Dornblaser. I think that she taught me, long ago, how to do my older years more gracefully and gratefully. She was a uniquely beautiful part of how I got here. And I’m very okay with that.