2nd Place – January 2022

A Grateful Heart

By

Gail Armstrong

Howling winds of January whipped at the school windows, as the first-grade class settled into Miss Platt’s classroom.

It was the day Miss Platt promised to bring in her irreplaceable collection of ceramic dogs.

Excited anticipation was felt throughout the classroom, and we were all on our best behavior.

Sizzling, hot water in the old radiators sent welcome warmth into the large room.

Snow-soaked mittens smelled of wool and permeated the large room as they dried on the hot radiator.

“You’re a good class,” she said proudly, excited to share her ‘babies.’

Her greying hair and kind eyes reminded me of Grandma.

At six, I longed for a puppy or a kitten. “No animals,” Dad had said. “Someday when we have our own home you can have a pet.”

My stomach churned as I inched closer to the long table where Miss Platt had set out the prized collection in an irresistible eye-catching display. It felt like butterflies were fluttering in my small chest. I was thrilled. My breathing speeded up. I thought I wouldn’t be able to breath at all. 

Oh, I love them, I thought, as I gazed in awe.

Big ones, little ones, brown, black, white, and sandy. The bright sunlight streamed  through the tall windows. The brilliance of the light bounced off each miniature statue as I envisioned them coming to life. I was mesmerized.             

***

Collies, beagles, poodles, a German Shepard, and others I didn’t know, positioned like a parade of magical creatures.

 Some had their legs spread out in a run, others were sitting, prim and proper.  

They were all different in appearance. One caught my eye because of its diminutive size. A tiny one. I was caught up in emotions so strong that his black button eyes seemed to be looking directly at me.

 He was black and white and spotted with tan.

 The little guy was sitting, and he was perfect!

He’s so little. A baby, I thought.

 “He looks lonely,” I said softly to myself. Miss Platt heard, smiled, and answered, “he’s very small so I take extra care not to lose him.” She walked down to the end of the table to talk with someone else.

 Someone needs to love him, I thought as I reached up, grabbed the small replica, and tucked it neatly into my dress pocket. No one noticed. No one said anything. It would be okay. Miss Platt has more. She won’t miss him, I foolishly thought.

I went directly to my room when I got home. Mom would not like it if she knew what I had done. As I took him from my pocket, I caressed his shiny coat. The hard, cold exterior reminded me he wasn’t real. I kissed his black nose and tucked him warmly under the doily on my bedside table.

***

In the morning, as I got ready for school, I lovingly picked up the dog, and sighed heavily as I tucked him deeply into the bottom of a clean dress pocket, again.

Back at school, when no one was watching, I gently set him back on the table with the rest. I wanted him, but I couldn’t have him. He belonged to someone else.

As I thought about what I had done, my stomach ached. I wondered if Miss Platt knew. 

She never spoke of it. If she did, she used Grace in not saying anything. Maybe she knew I wasn’t a thief, but a good person, caught up in the emotions of growing up.

Mom and Dad never knew.

I learned a valuable life lesson all by myself. Guilt. It creeps into your soul and eats away the goodness that you are. I didn’t know it then, but it made an impression on me. I’ve not forgotten it.

 A six-year old does silly things while experiencing the world.

 Thank you Miss Platt, you were a great teacher. There’s more to learning than writing and arithmetic. The value of kindness can over-ride a six-year old’s foolishness.

***

The ward at the Nursing home was buzzing with nurses pushing patients in wheelchairs, and visitors speaking quietly as they came and went.

There were men and women talking in the dining hall after lunch while others were lying in beds, pallid, sick, and most of them lonely. I had decided to bring my beloved comfort dog, Barney in to add joy to their quiet lives.

Barney was my second dog, a collie. He was a puppy when I got him three years ago from a neighbor who’s female had given birth to seven puppies. Susie the beagle had passed from cancer two months before. I was coping with unimaginable sadness in my loss when Barney was born. He was the runt of the litter, and I chose him.

 I had many pets once Mom and Dad bought their home, but Barney had a special quality. He seemed to be aware of people’s sadness and emptiness and he nurtured them. A gentle, receptive, highly intelligent animal, and the patients loved him. He gave them a reason to get up each day as they waited in anticipation for the daily visit. The love between him and the people was undeniable. Most people were on the pages of their last chapter in life. It was heart-warming to see the bond. Sometimes, heartbreaking when we knew any visit could be the last one for them. It gave me joy to share my Barney.

***

Clare was in her early seventies and had experienced two strokes. She was bedridden and the diagnosis was poor. She couldn’t speak well, but her knowing eyes watched with absolute concentration. They seemed to say what her unmoving lips had trouble doing.

0She and Barney were made for each other. Barney became more alert as we approached her room, and her motionless face brightened up as soon as she saw his long pointed snout poke in the doorway. He would only enter the room on my command of “okay Barney, In.”

We visited the Happy Valley Nursing Home faithfully for two months. Even though the name was strange for a place where people were old and sick, the atmosphere was pleasant with compassionate people taking care of the elderly and sick, and they did it with a joyous heart. I had a contented feeling after leaving.

One day, upon entering Clare’s room we were jolted upon seeing the bed empty and made-up. A friendly nurse saw us and came into the room.

“Julie, you’re here to see Clare?” she smiled before a sadness came over her face.

“Yes, is she somewhere else?” I didn’t want to hear what she might say. “Barney and I came to cheer her up,” I said as it felt like my stomach tumbled ten feet.

“I am so sorry to inform you, that our Clare has gone on.” She said with an unmistakable sadness.

  “Oh no.” Tears welled up I in my eyes as I brought my hand over my mouth.”

“She was ill I know, but I didn’t think she was,” I took a deep breath as my voice cracked. “So sick,” I continued.

“I know, we all loved her. As you know, she had gone down-hill the last couple of weeks. When you first started to visit, she was able to communicate a little.  

“Clare had given all the nurses a gift from one of her collections, and a couple of months ago she had one set aside for you. She loved her visits with you and specially Barney.”

“What would she give me?” my eyes widened in astonishment.

 “She just said, you would know what it is,” as she passed a small box to me.

 My hands trembled as I carefully lifted the lid off the tiny box.  I couldn’t hold back the barrage of tears, streaming down my face as Barney whimpered and cuddled close to me. He was comforting me as he had so many times before for Clare and others.

How could I not have seen the familiarity in that elderly, sweet face. I thought.

Sitting in the box with cotton wrapped around it, was the baby dog I had taken and returned so many years ago.

Many years, illness and sorrow had kept hidden the real Miss Platt.

I put the box with the tiny dog into my dress pocket and headed home with a heavy but grateful heart.

Writers’ workshop and writing group