Generations share holiday tradition

HILMAR -- Paper towels, a paintbrush and an old set of sculpting tools sat near two small pie tins filled with plaster of Paris in a kindergarten classroom at Elim Elementary School.

For generations, Hilmar children have gone home around Mother's Day with plaster handprints for their moms. Barbara Strom, 88, has been making prints at Elim for almost 60 years -- the first 30 or so years as a teacher, the past 26 as a volunteer.

On a recent afternoon, she sat down to start on the 2008 batch with a dozen supporters and friends.

"You have to wait until it's just right," Mrs. Strom told 6-year-old John Alamo.

She tested the plaster's consistency with an outstretched middle finger and asked, "Which hand are you going to use, John?"

The little boy bashfully raised a small right hand. Mrs. Strom pressed it into the goop. A smile crackled along his face. She gently held his hand in place.

"It feels cold now, doesn't it?"

The boy was too engrossed to answer.

Two years ago, Mrs. Strom had a knee replacement and told some Hilmar mothers that she'd have to stop visiting Elim to make the prints. Wrangling 5-year-olds and stirring the thick plaster was taking a toll.

"Oh, no you're not!" Karen Tate (1974 handprint) remembers saying. "We'll sit you down and you can just direct. We'll do the hard work."

That's how it's been the past few years.

Garnell Bawcum has a handprint from 1949, when she was Garnell Parmley and was in Mrs. Strom's class. In those days, kindergarten teachers handled as many as 60 kids a day over morning and afternoon classes. Before starting at Elim in 1946, Mrs. Strom taught in a one- and then a two-room schoolhouse in what was called at the time the Little Hilmar school district.

"Dad had all 12 (handprints) up on the wall, the siblings," Bawcum said on a recent morning, watching Mrs. Strom work almost 60 years later.

Mrs. Strom doesn't remember when she started the handprints or how the idea came along, but suspects it was passed on from another teacher.

3 generations have own sets

Three generations of Bawcums stood back and watched their first teacher work. The fourth generation, little 16-month-old Lilly Ann Brewer, played on the school room floor -- not quite old enough for a handprint all her own.

Three generations of Martins were there, too.

Gerri Martin, 57, still has her handprint from 1956 and her 36-year-old son's print from 1977. Her son's wife, Polly Martin, 35, had her print done in 1978, and her children Candice, Avery and Emma are years 1995, 2004 and 2008.

Kindergarten teacher Lynette Rocha pointed to an easel with big, shaky handwriting in several shades of Magic Marker. The kindergartners read aloud:

"Dear Mrs. Strom, Thank you for coming to our class. We liked making the handprints. They felt cold and funny like cement. From Mrs. Rocha's class."

The old teacher tugged on her modest silver necklaces and nodded a quiet thank you. Thousands and thousands of handprints seemed to clap appreciation.

"This community is very supportive," Mrs. Strom said. "When you do something for their children, they're there for you."