Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Ordinary Hero

She was born in the middle of The Great Depression to what later generations would call a family of migrant farm workers. The youngest of nine living children, it seemed fate had stacked the deck against Millie from the start. In the pre World War II South, if you didn't work, you didn't eat. At the age of three, Millie was following her mother through the cotton fields, dragging sacks which her mother filled one by one. When she wasn't in the fields she was washing clothes and cooking for her parents and older siblings. Since this was all Millie knew, she did her chores and lived her life.

Eventually Millie's father and brothers got jobs in a coal mine. Not the mechanized world of 21st century mining but the brutal indentured servitude of the mid 40's. A world of back breaking labor and company stores. Still, the family could eat regularly and Millie could finally start school. She quickly found an affinity for math and reading, so much so that this bright child skipped the second grade entirely. She made friends and the world looked so much brighter. Unfortunately for Millie, this wouldn't last. One day, during the fifth grade, her brothers came to get her from school. There had been an accident. Even though her father would live, he would never work another day. It was an eleven year old's time to help share the load. She left school  never to return.

At age fifteen Millie's life would again change in a way that would define her forever. A sister had a baby, a baby she was not equipped to raise. She wrapped the baby in a blanket, handed it to Millie, and walked away, abandoning both her newborn daughter and her teen-aged sister. Millie took this challenge as she had all others. She fed and changed the child and found a job. Over the next ten years, this scene would be repeated twice. A child born, a child abandoned. Most people would have thrown up their hands and said "No"! Not Millie. Her sense of  duty and her love for these children led her to take them in and raise them as her own. Fate was not done with Millie. As her older siblings married and moved away, the responsibility for her aging parents fell more and more on Millie's shoulders. Finally, at age twenty five, Millie was the sole support for three adults and three children, all from a job that paid thirty cents an hour. Nothing fancy, but there was food on the table every day and everyone had clean clothes and clean faces. Government assistance didn't exist in the days and even if it had, Millie would probably not have taken advantage of it. She was that kind of girl.

At age twenty nine, Millie got married. True to her sense of responsibilities, she brought the three children and her aged parents along with her. Her new husband, being the kind  of man he was, accepted this and raised these kids as his own. Finally Millie had a son of her own. But even this was accomplished by Millie being Millie. She continued to work every day until a month before she delivered, and returned to work two weeks later. Not an office job. Millie didn't have the education for that. A job as a presser at a dry cleaners. Standing in inch deep water with one hundred twenty degree heat and steam all around, eight to ten hours a day every day. She brought her newborn son to work in a box and fed and changed him until he was old enough to be left with her aging mother.

You would think that all this drudgery would have turned Millie into an angry, bitter person. You would be wrong. Yes, as befitting someone raised in a household with four older brothers, Millie did have a temper. When she raised her voice, it was enough to peel the paint from the walls. But her anger was always aimed at those who would hurt the ones she loved. It was said that if you hurt one of her "kids", you might as well go ahead and beat yourself to a bloody pulp and save her the trouble.Her heart was a big as her voice. Rarely was there a summer day when some wayward neighborhood kid was not having lemonade and cookies on her front porch. Her husband was a preacher. She was at the church every time the doors opened, willing to give her time and her shoulders to carry the load or to comfort those in need. You would always find her on the right end of the fifth pew, bible open and church kids packed in next to her. Her hard work and dedication raised a generation. Of her own children, she raised all four to adulthood and two to college.

Millie finally retired after fifty seven years of work. She did not want to, but her husband suffered a stroke and there was no one left to care for him. For a year she bathed him, fed him, and changed his clothes. Twenty one days after their forty sixth anniversary, Millie walked to his casket and surrounded by her "kids" kissed him goodbye.

Alzheimer's has now claimed Millie's mind. It has not claimed her spirit. Anyone who talks to her is told that she is ready to get back to work. She walks around her nursing home as unofficial ambassador, clutching her baby doll, making everyone feel welcome. In fact, given a chance, she grabs a broom and mop and cleans the floor. Her only concerns are those she loves.

For the heroes of this world there are many monuments, statues, and memorials. For this precious lady there are none except the memories of the ones she touched. Only one person ever called her Millie, her pastor who she treated as a son. The world and her husband called her Mildred. I call her Mom.


Amy Kay said...

Wow, beautiful. I could only hope my son thinks as much of me. You are so blessed to have a mom like Mrs. Kelley.

Terrell Manasco said...

That one is a keeper, Terry. Great writing. If one can read this without acquiring at least a good-sized lump in the throat, they would have to be a cold-hearted human being.

Arsh said...

Regardless of what the comment above suggests... I really can only barely relate to this message.
It's certainly not for lack of amazing writing skills or a truly amazing story about who must be a truly remarkable woman... Rather, it is because my own experience differed so greatly that I am completely unable to understand the kind of person you describe as being someone that one might call "mom".
My mother, in concert with my father, taught me most everything in life that I did not wish to become...
On the other hand, my grandfather was a certainly remarkable man who I could relate to this story indeed. I would say you are lucky to have had someone so close to you with that kind of loving spirit. My grandfather was with me only half of my life so far... and I'm only 25. But his spirit will remain with me forever in the lessons he taught me and the gentle nature he showed; the nature I wish to show to my own child and with which I strive to relate to her every day.

I call anyone with such a wonderful parent fortunate.
I was fortunate to have such a person in my life for even a short time. But for me, this person was not my mother.
I have a hard time relating to others' feelings about "mother"... because when I look to my own, I feel only pain and loneliness. Not because my mother has died... but because she was dead to me long before she left this life. Not because I wanted her to be... But because she was not strong enough to love an odd child.

I find this story amazing, inspiring... but I guess my emotions regarding "mother" went somewhat cold a long time ago. If this makes me a cold-hearted human being... well, it doesn't. It just makes me a human being who was not given to such an amazing mother as Mr. Kelley. You sir, were indeed fortunate.

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