By Lorry Myers
The phone rang and it was Kay, the school lunch lady. Her call was unexpected and so was her question. Kay wanted to know about my youngest daughter’s name. When I told her I found the name, Mariah, in a song from a musical western called, Paint Your Wagon, Kay immediately asked me to sing it. “I am not a singer,” I told her, laughing it off.
“That’s not what your daughter says.”
Kay Thurston was a school cook before dietary guidelines and government mandates transformed the food tray. This lunch lady cooked with bacon grease, plenty of sugar, and salt.
Miss Kay took her job seriously.
She had a powerful imagination and the kids she served only fueled it. Kay collected costumes for every season and every reason, creating beloved characters like the feisty Mrs. Milkbottoms, and the green witch on Halloween. For a generation of children, Kay was Mrs. Claus, reading holiday stories and handing out hugs all while living her best life.
Kay was something else.
She seemed to look inside a person and see what others didn’t. If she sensed a child needed food, she gave them more. If a child needed someone to say their name, Kay would be the one. This lunch lady had a way of pulling children into her world, one of those children was my daughter. Day after day, year after year, their relationship grew into something remarkable.
Something worth talking about.
Mariah told Miss Kay that her name came from a song her mother sang to her so that’s when Kay called. When I denied that I was a singer, Kay told me she didn’t care. She simply wanted to hear how I sang the song to my baby. Hearing a professional sing, They Call the Wind Mariah, was not enough.
Kay needed to hear this momma’s lullaby.
So, I sang it, right then and there, over a phone attached to the wall by a cord. I sang from memory, getting lost in the words as I did. When the verses were through, Kay simply said, “Thank you, dear.”, and hung up.
The next day, Mariah was serenaded in the school lunch line. My daughter’s face glowed red as everyone stopped to hear Miss Kay belt out a showtune.
Mariah loved everything about it.
The serenading continued, both in and out of the lunch line. For her eighth-grade graduation and every graduation after that, Miss Kay showed up at our door and sang my daughter’s song. She sang for Mariah on every birthday and even on her wedding day. When Mariah’s young husband was diagnosed with cancer, Kay added her own words to the song, recorded them, and sent them to Mariah. New verses full of encouragement, strength and hope that a young girl desperately clung to.
Miss Kay sang my daughter through it all.
When healing came and then the babies, Miss Kay continued calling Mariah and singing that ever-changing lullaby. Mariah began savings them all, playing them on repeat when she needed Kay’s words the most. That friendship between a young girl and the lunch lady only deepened over the years.
Everyone needs a lunch lady like Kay in their lives.
For the full column, see this week’s edition of the Centralia Fireside Guard