No wrapping: 97-year-old’s gift is in song

Around a dozen Edgerton Elementary 4-5-6th-grade choir members made a surpise caroling visit with Cecilia Gresback, a 97-year old Maplewood resident Dec. 16. Next, the singers were off to the Maplewood Mall for a singing engagement.
Around a dozen Edgerton Elementary 4-5-6th-grade choir members made a surpise caroling visit with Cecilia Gresback, a 97-year old Maplewood resident Dec. 16. Next, the singers were off to the Maplewood Mall for a singing engagement. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
97-year-old Cecilia Gresback, Maplewood, and her daughter Rita Shor of Woodbury, were surprised when Edgerton Elementary carolers arrived in her living room.
97-year-old Cecilia Gresback, Maplewood, and her daughter Rita Shor of Woodbury, were surprised when Edgerton Elementary carolers arrived in her living room. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
Rita Shor displays the Christmas card she received from Edgerton choir. She’s seated next to her mother, Cecilia Gresback.
Rita Shor displays the Christmas card she received from Edgerton choir. She’s seated next to her mother, Cecilia Gresback. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Carolers sent from across the country

The scene: following a fresh sprinkling of snow, 14 young carolers from Edgerton Elementary School file into Cecilia Gresback’s living room, filling her Maplewood home with song and good tidings. The 97-year-old rocks her chair back and forth and claps her hands, keeping tempo with the carolers as they sing “Holly Jolly Christmas” with a keyboard accompaniment.

Her daughter, Rita Shor, sitting by her side, can hardly keep her eyes dry.

Friendship across the years and miles

Gresback recently went on home hospice care to live out her last few months in the comfort of the rambler she and her late husband George built in 1954.

Although Cecilia has been able to live alone since losing George in December 2005, her recent deteriorating health prompted Leslie Woodruff—a dear friend who lives on the East Coast—to dream up something unique to to give Cecilia this holiday season.

But how do you find and wrap something that isn’t material—something that demonstrates your love, your shared memories and makes a memory all its own?

Leslie began calling local schools in search of a choir that could visit Gresback’s home, just hoping she’d find someone who’d make an extra trip to convey her wishes.

She found choir director Debbie Romero at Edgerton.

A leap of faith

The drop-in concert required a leap of faith for Romero. She had already been rehearsing holiday songs with members of the Edgerton Superchoir for various caroling stops (they meet for an hour every Wednesday morning before school), but she had never received such a personalized request before.

She brought it to the attention of the school’s principal, Melissa Sonnek, and the two decided to add this stop, just a few block from the school, to the choir’s caroling field trip.

Meanwhile, Woodruff had warned Gresback and Shor to dress up because they’d have some visitors at their home that morning, but that’s all they knew to expect.

Composing her emotions, Shor says the performance was a complete surprise.

In a later interview, Principal Sonnek says the visit offered students a valuable lesson not covered in the classroom.

“I think it’s important we give our students opportunities to grow not just academically, but also as people. one of the things I really value as a principal is love. It’s not something we really talk about in education,” Sonnek says. “The fact that our students were able to give a gift like this, of love, to someone who needed it most, that’s something that most of them will remember.”

‘It felt good’

Romero says her students also enjoyed singing at the Maplewood Mall, the Minnesota History Center and the Good Samaritan Nursing Home. Their morning performance at Gresback’s home, though, stood out.

Dressed in her choir attire—a red vest, white dress shirt, black bow tie and black dress pants—Delaney Shipman, 11, says she has gone caroling before, but this experience was different.

“I feel this was one step up,” she says. “It felt good. It’s not every day you get to go sing in someone else’s home.”

Looking over at Shor and Gresback, Shamyiah Otoo-Essilfie, 10, adds, “I felt joyful and happy that I got to meet someone who’s very thankful for their mom.”

“I just think that the kids, by performing for her, got as much out of it as she did. They were able to relate to her on an emotional level,” says Romero, explaining that she briefed them on Gresback’s health situation beforehand.

The carolers, a mix of fourth, fifth and sixth graders, presented Gresback and Shor with a holiday card and sang their hearts out in “Winter Fantasy,” “Marshmallow World,” and two other holiday numbers.

A lifetime of music

Even though Gresback, who’s now legally blind, couldn’t see much more than their shadowed figures, she could hear them singing, loud and clear. And that’s all she needed to start reminiscing over childhood memories, back in the 1920s and ‘30s when she helped turn farm fields with a horse-drawn plow in the summer and gathered around the piano with family in the winter to create their own holiday entertainment.

When she moved to the Twin Cities in the late ‘30s, she continued to pursue her passion for music by joining the choir at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Extending her sense of rhythm to the dance floor, Gresback frequented The Prom Ballroom in St. Paul. It was here that her future husband, George, first asked her to dance with him. He had a bad leg from polio, but he danced with Gresback for nearly 58 years.

This year, Gresback’s children and grandchildren will celebrate one last Christmas Eve by her side. Shor says they are preparing ham, pulled pork, green beans, potatoes and cherries jubilee—the flaming ice cream dessert—for dinner. Of course, the menu wouldn’t be complete without a batch of Gresback’s date pinwheel cookies as well.

As for the bookcase full of photo albums, family members are happy to sit by Gresback’s side and describe the photos she can no longer see, prompting her to tell them stories about the special occasions and family history documented there.

Woodruff plans to make a donation to the choir program to thank them for their holiday favor.

But the students say they already have their reward.

“It’s heartwarming,” says Josh Petterson, 11, after singing a final song for Gresback. “I just want to wish her a Merry Christmas.”

 

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