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A simple gift can change a life.

Halfway through my final year of nursing school, I attended my sister's wedding. It was pure fairy tale, the kind most girls dream of. At the reception, another relative boasted of getting a new car. My cousin had recently gotten engaged, and she was congratulated repeatedly. Several people asked me what I was doing, and when I replied "going to college," I got either raised eyebrows or comments like Aunt Jane's, "still?"

The next day after church, Mrs. B., my mom's friend, and a surrogate aunt, asked about the wedding.

"You sound envious," she said after I described it to her.

"I am," I said. "In fact, I've decided to quit school and get a job. I'm tired of everyone else getting things they want. I'd like some new clothes, a car and a break from all the studying."

She gave me a hug and smiled. "Be patient," she said. "Your day will come."

Later that week I received a note from her. In the envelope was a quarter-yard length of black velvet ribbon wrapped around a card. The accompanying note read, "I would be honored if you would wear this on your cap at graduation."

The thought behind the present was what made it so special. She knew a black ribbon attached to my cap signified I had met the qualifications to begin my career in nursing. It was the equivalent of changing sides with the tassel for other graduates.

The gift served its purpose. It reminded me that graduation was close and that folks wanted me to succeed. I was moved that she had faith in me and grateful that I was smart enough to read between the lines, and understand her message.

That piece of ribbon was a tangible symbol of her expectations for me. It helped me focus on what I had already accomplished, and to renew my determination to be a registered nurse.

I wore the ribbon at graduation, and throughout the rest of my training I carried the ribbon in my uniform pocket. It was a touchstone, telling me I could, should and would achieve my goal. During one difficult period, I even slept with it under my pillow.

Through the years, I've come to realize how different my life would be if Mrs. B. had not sent the ribbon and the unspoken message. Because I received some badly needed encouragement at a critical junction, I put aside distractions and concentrated on gaining the skills necessary to practice medicine, a field I truly love.

Those skills served me well. I used them to function in a variety of situations. I know I provided hope, comfort and quality health care to patients in hospitals, the military and in facilities run by New York State. I was able to support my family through my husband's lengthy terminal illness and to be self-supporting as a widow.

When I made the decision to retire, I took a cap, attached Mrs. B.'s ribbon to it and placed it and her note in a display box. The ribbon was a bit tattered by then, but I would not have thrown it away for anything. A friend noticed the box, and asked about the significance.

"It's my inspiration," I said. "It reminds me that gifts can change the direction of lives, no matter how small or inexpensive. It's the thought in choosing the gift and the giving of it that counts."

ELIZABETH S. WALLACE lives in Geneseo.