Unforgettable and Inspiring

~Rev. Dr. Sharon Wilson

Most of us have had extra time for reflection these last months. I’ve shared with you some of the memorable books I’ve read and invited all of you to send in your picks. As I was out for a run with Molly today I found myself thinking about some of the people who have had a huge influence on me. Two people are always top of mind….and they could not have been more different!

Ruth McCuaig was my Sunday School teacher from ages twelve to fourteen. Her own daughters were grown by this time so she had no vested interest in the sustainability of the Sunday School at Melrose UC. Ruth, for whatever reason, chose to be with our group of about a dozen girls.

I remember little of the content of the curriculum but I have vivid memories of lengthy, thoughtful conversations. Any topic we came up with she deemed worthy of our time. She was a published writer, an art collector and world traveller and from this vantage point she encouraged us to dream without limits. No matter how wild our ideas, she listened respectfully and validated our emergence as capable young women of the congregation and the world.

On visits home while away at university she was one of the people I made a point of seeing. As life took me farther afield we turned to letter-writing and finally emails to keep in touch until her passing. Ruth was wise and gracious but she was no pushover. Over the years we tangled on a few topics but that only served to help me grow. She guided me to look deeper and more broadly at issues as diverse as faith, career, values, community service and politics. Our last emails were a blessed chance to offer gratitude for this friendship born in a Sunday School class that lasted until I was nearly fifty.

The other person of influence is a man whose name I no longer recall. I knew him only briefly when I was a summer student at DOFASCO, a steel company in Hamilton. During my undergraduate years I drove the mail truck through the plant. I was the first female student to work outside of the office in a traditional male position.

My summers were successful enough that the company began to hire females for many more of the factory positions. One of my stops on my twice-daily route was the labour office in the Foundry Division. This was where unskilled labourers would gather at the beginning of each shift to be assigned their work for the day. As such, it was a pretty quiet place for most of each shift.

The first time I dropped off the mail, the fellow who looked after labour office asked me if I played chess. He was a short, round man nearing retirement. I found out later he had escaped Hungary during the revolution in 1956. As a university student who’d played a fair amount of chess over the years, this looked like a bit of fun. How wrong I was.

The first game ended in almost instant humiliation for me. I was crushed but determined to do better. Over those many summers our games lasted longer and longer. With only two chances each day to make moves we had lots of time to pour over strategy. Sadly, I never beat him. It’s little wonder as he finally confessed that he was a chess master before his escape from Hungary.

It was, however, another episode that sealed him as a person who gifted me with a huge life lesson. At Christmas during my final year of university I attended the huge company Christmas party with my parents. As a manager my Dad was there to greet the thousands of employees and their families. Mom was dressed in her finest looking very much like she was at a garden party at Buckingham Palace!

My friend from the labour office came over to us, gave me a big hug and asked about my studies. We talked about my thesis research while my parents watched perplexed. Finally, he asked for my address so he could send me some things he thought might help. My mother was horrified as I gave my address to this stranger! She was picturing all sorts of misadventure that would come from this grave error of judgement.

What I got a few weeks later was a stuffed manila envelope of citations from obscure military history books and journals. Many were extraordinarily helpful to my paper and I was able to include them. This man taught me the wonder to be discovered when we are open to people. If I had stopped wanting to know him when I encountered him with his broom in hand, I’d have missed not only his genius at chess and encyclopedic knowledge of European history, I’d have missed his humanity.

While I must acknowledge the many flaws in my personality much of what is good about me has come from people like these. Their influence and wisdom may have been at least a little unexpected but, over a lifetime, I’ve come to accept that these are the very folks who shape the best part of who we are.

I’d like to invite you to think about the special people in your life and share your story in First Word. Who are your influences? How have they shaped you? How are you paying it forward?