Tiny lady looms large in her life

I can picture her walking down the rainy street from her small house a few doors away, our family friend and reliable baby-sitter, Mrs. Otto. A tiny woman with a heavy German accent, Bertha Otto was always there when we needed her.

On the day I remember, she was coming to look after the rest of us while my parents took the youngest to the hospital for a sensitive operation. Though it was a serious occasion, we knew we would be all right, because Mrs. Otto was in charge. She was one of those people who had no idea how important she was.

How often this is the case. So frequently the most significant figures in a family’s life are not teachers, doctors or even relatives, but those who play what seem to be smaller roles. Yet the familiar folks who fill in the details in our everyday lives have the greatest significance when memory looks back.

So it was with Mrs. Otto. This cherished neighbor never failed to respond in a time of need. When my mother needed to take one of us accident-prone children to the ER, it was Mrs. Otto she called. When my parents planned a much-needed evening out of the house, she was on duty. And in our little celebrations — First Communions and birthdays, and even one funeral — she was on hand. An important event wouldn’t have been the same without this tiny lady.

The same was true for Mrs. Reynolds, the woman my parents called on to care for us when my parents headed off to the hospital for one my many siblings’ births. I can still hear my mother giving last-minute instructions as my father helped her into the car for yet another trip to the maternity ward. Seeing Anna Reynolds’ face at the breakfast table meant we had a new baby on the way. When my father returned home from the hospital to announce his seventh child was another girl, I remember Mrs. Reynolds dropped the bowl of pancake batter to the floor. She was just as delighted and surprised as we were. She was a member of the family.

So many details crowd my memory when I think of this beloved family retainer. A divorced woman living, I now realize, at the edge of poverty, Mrs. Reynolds gave what she could from the little she had. In addition to her time, she shared stories of her childhood in Depression-era Detroit. She made us sock monkeys (I took mine with me to college years later) and doll clothes. She donated floral china cups to our tea parties. When my mother gave birth to her eighth daughter she taught us how to bake bread. My sisters and I must have been a handful at times, but nothing daunted Mrs. Reynolds. I don’t know what my parents would have done without her.

Another person my family couldn’t have done without was our Twin Pines milkman, Tony Tilotti. It may sound strange, but in the 1960s Detroit suburbs those who delivered goods to homes were some of the few adults stay-at-home mothers saw during the week. Tony, as we called him (he must have insisted on his first name because my parents never allowed us to call and adult anything but “Mr.” or “Mrs.”) was a native Detroiter who’d grown up in family of Italian immigrants. He regaled my mother and us with tales of a poor but loving childhood with his parents and grandfather. He also shared our family’s happy moments, bringing a box of frozen fudge treats for each of us on a birthday or First Communion day. We delighted in the coolness of his refrigerated truck on a hot summer afternoon. Tony’s twice-weekly deliveries were highlights of our quiet life.

When Tony confided to my father that he wanted to buy his milk delivery route, Dad convinced him to take a low-interest loan from him rather than turn to the bank. Tony never forgot this favor, and brought a gift to my family every Christmastime until he died. When he had to give up his route because of back problems, the neighborhood hosted a surprise farewell dinner for him at a banquet hall downtown. I hope that that evening Tony knew just how important he was to all of us.

Two babysitters and a milkman — why do I remember these three more vividly than I can recall my teachers or our family’s doctors or clergy? Maybe it’s because they wove themselves — unwittingly — into the texture of our daily family life. They were there so often, on so many important occasions, or just for the little moments that were important only to us. Mrs. Otto, Mrs. Reynolds, and Tony were our personal saints, models of love and faithfulness. Sadly, they are long gone, but they remain “of blessed memory” forever.

Who will bless our memory when we are gone? In whose life are you playing a more important role than you realize? Without knowing it, you just might be someone’s personal saint.