The Poor Little Matchstick Girl
© Copyright 2022 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Mother, Winifred Stainbrook-Etgen. Photo property of Sara.
Father, Edwin C. Etgen. Photo property of Sara.
"The Poor Little Matchstick Girl" is a memoir and a true, biographical account of my brief encounter with a neighborhood girl named Deana—a ragamuffin girl who moved into my childhood neighborhood for a short period of time.
When Henry Buhler sold all but ten acres of his massive farmland, a developer bought it, converting it into a subdivision with row upon row of two-bedroom, cracker box houses built to attract young couples who were beginning their families. Within a few short years, the blue-collar neighborhood was teeming with children whose parents were poor and nomadic, renting the cheap houses for only a short period of time. Our neighborhood quickly became a revolving door, with vagabond families moving in and out every three to six months.
Their children freely roamed neighborhood streets, drawn to our home like iron shavings to a magnet, showing up in our front yard seemingly from nowhere and typically around mealtime. They joined us in whatever game my brothers and I were playing that day. When the game ended, Mother emerged from the house giving them a brown paper sack with a peanut butter sandwich and some of her homemade cookies. She occasionally outfitted some of them in shoes and clothes we’d outgrown and gave them toys we’d discarded.
“I don’t understand why you take care of all these ragamuffin children. You can barely feed and clothe your own!” Grammy often complained.
“We’ll manage,” was Mother’s cheerful response.
“You can’t possible know if you’re making a difference.”
But Mother had grown up during the Great Depression and knew first-hand what it was like wearing ill-fitting, dirty clothes, going to bed with her tummy aching from hunger, and wondering when she might eat again. “You’re right,” she said. “I don’t know, but I’m content with not knowing. What I can do is be kind and make a difference in a child’s life today then rely on something bigger than me to make a difference down the road.”
Deanna was once such ragamuffin little girl who, one bitterly cold January afternoon, wandered into our front yard where my friends and I were playing a winter version of dodgeball using snowballs. She was the epitome of a ragamuffin—a malnourished little girl roughly my age wearing a tattered dress and worn out old shoes too big for her feet. Her small hands were gloveless, numb and slightly red from being exposed to the cold. Her face was grimy and bore the most woe begotten look—a look that reminded me of Hans Christian Anderson’s poor little matchstick girl. When I approached her she looked as if she was on the verge of crying, and I wondered if she dared not go home because she’d not sold any matches.
Deanna was sweet, though, and we quickly became friends, eating lunch together at school and jumping rope with one another during school recess. After school we walked home together then sat on my front porch finishing our homework, playing card games and checkers, and cutting out clothes for our paper dolls.
“I don’t think Deanna has toys at her house,” Mother casually mentioned one day. “Just imagine how lonely and boring that must be for her,” Mother said, nudging me to put myself in Deanna’s shoes. “Maybe you could give her one of your dolls.” I did, of course, because I couldn’t conceive not having a doll to sleep with at night.
Just before my elementary school’s annual father-daughter banquet, Mother took me aside. “Not every little girl’s father is like yours. Her daddy is a damaged man whose soul is broken. Like so many men whose souls are broken, he’s full of anger—anger that comes out in his words and actions. Imagine living with a daddy like that,” she said, again asking me to place myself in Deanna’s shoes. “How would you feel about sharing your daddy with her on the night of the father-daughter banquet?”
Sharing my dolls was one thing, but sharing my daddy? That was something entirely different! I reluctantly agreed, harboring a little childhood resentment. On the night of the banquet, Deanna came to our house. Mother brushed and curled her hair and dressed her in a freshly washed skirt, a starched white blouse, and pair of snug-fitting shoes. We headed to school with Deanna on one of Dad’s arms and me on the other. Admittedly, I was a little jealous of the attention being showered on Deanna—jealous until I saw the joy that flashed across her woe begotten face. I was overcome with childhood tears, and I understood the difference a moment can make.
A few days later, I rode my bike to Deanna’s house only to find the door locked and the windows shuttered. Emptiness and pain filled my heart, for she, like the other vagabond children, was gone—gone in an instant. The years, like my childhood, have likewise come and gone. Throughout the years, I frequently thought of Deanna, but I never saw or heard from her again—not until the day of Mother’s funeral.
After the service a vaguely-familiar woman with two small children approached me. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she began, choking back some tears. I’m not sure you remember me. My name’s Deanna.
“Of course! I remember you!” I exclaimed. “How absolutely wonderful to see you after all this time. How kind of you to come, but how did you know of Mother’s passing?”
“I saw her obituary in the newspaper and knew I must come and honor her and your family. Were it not for your mother’s kindness and generosity,” she continued, “I surely would’ve starved. Were it not for your father, I would never have known what a kind, patient man looked like. Were it not for you, I would never have known what friendship and belonging looked like.”
We sat on a bench outside the funeral home for quite some time catching up and reminiscing about our childhood days spent playing together. Imagine my surprise when she told me, “I’m happily married to a kind and generous man. We serve as foster parents giving abandoned and wayward children kindness, respect, and a temporary sense of home and belonging. The two children here with me are two of four children we adopted last year, rescuing them from an abusive father much like my own. I do so wish I’d told your parents the difference they made in one girl’s life and continue to make through me in the lives of forgotten and neglected children. I hope they knew their small acts of kindness were like little candles, each one lit countless other candles.”
“Not to worry,” I smiled and hugged her. “Wherever they are, they know.”
We exchanged phone numbers and parted ways, promising to stay in touch. I drove home, the sting of grief over Mother’s passing diminishing somewhat. When I thought about it, I took solace in knowing her simple acts of kindness were seeds of faith—seeds that took root and spread in all directions. Those roots sprang up and made new trees that in turn sent out roots, and there was indeed no end to the impact both she and my father had. I’m reminded, too, that their acts of kindness and Deanna’s story lend credence to that old adage: “No act of kindness however small is ever wasted.”