The room was silent but for the sound of a woman’s voice tracing the recollections from the long life of a dear lady. Millie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1918 as the War to End All Wars wound down. The world faced change. And not just political change. By Millie’s reckoning, the most significant inventions during her years were the radio, automobiles, electricity, motion pictures, and the computer. She recalled an era flavored by gas lamps, outhouses, wood stoves, ice boxes, open windows, and attic fans.
Millie’s family listened to the answers that she had provided to a history student’s class project questions. The lady had been a case study in traditional American values, a living portrait of a bygone era.
What inventions made the biggest differences in Millie’s life? “Electricity and street cars.” The New Orleans “street cars” (trolleys, to non-New Orleaneans) transported Millie to and from her job as a school teacher. What did she remember about the Great Depression? “Dad lost his job. We used food stamps and ate hot dog stew.” Washington progressives had not yet hit their stride, so stamps and weenies had to suffice in place of government trying to guarantee everyone equal comforts.
Even with husband working in Pendleton Shipyard, brother-in-law serving in the Seabees, and cousin living in a prisoner-of-war camp, during World War II Millie had no idea that millions of Jews were being imprisoned and killed in Europe. She recollected that newspapers and the radio made little out of the Holocaust during the war. But Millie remembered that she “hated Hitler.” She “was horrified” by the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 9/11.
Who were the worst Presidents? Anyone who knew Millie would find her answer of “Nixon and Clinton” no surprise. To this lady, morals were everything. That the names of a miscreant from each side of the aisle flew from her lips seemed fitting with corruption so rampant across America’s political spectrum.
When Millie reached her teens, she went on dates—dates governed by rules. Curfews were no trifling matter. There were movies, dances, tennis, “girls’ sports,” church on Sunday and holy days, and family trips to Abita Springs, Louisiana—a daunting fifty-five miles by automobile.
If Millie could have reversed time, she would have liked to have gone back to high school, “because of the sleepovers.” As this response was read, the odor of feminist disgust was detected wafting from enlightened urban centers of the deep blue coasts. What was Millie’s idea of the American dream? “…to marry and have children.” The floor rumbled as a wave of conniptions emanated from the headquarters of the National Organization for Women.
Millie held some experiences dear, others not so dear. Once when she was young, after stepping into a garden and having the ground cave under foot, underground ghosts from a now-removed outhouse made their presence revoltingly apparent. Millie had also narrowly escaped being bitten by a rabid dog—an event so harrowing that she developed a lifelong fear of touching animals. On the happier side, Millie recalled, “Birthing five children, rearing them—each one different, the last one the hardest—visiting them after they were married in different parts of the United States, and having six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. We played hop scotch, hunt the hay, and card games. We also loved to play under the house and dig holes.” Millie fondly reminisced about “Grandmaw’s on the weekend,” the “picture show” at night, and riding with her uncle in the rumble seat of his Tin Lizzie.
It would be tough to improve on the wisdom Millie offered to young people. “Be careful of the friends you pick. No alcohol or dope. Do your best to get a good education. Don’t be out at night alone—use the buddy system.” Simple, straightforward common sense in short supply these days.
Now that Millie has passed, my brothers, sisters, and I derive strength not only from the gift of her guidance, the power of her love, and the uprightness of her character, but also from how she treasured life’s sweetest nectar—the simple things. The lesson the school teacher taught best was not the difference in usage between the verbs “to bring” and “to take.” Yet until she breathed her last, Millie never missed an opportunity to scold grammar criminals. However the lesson the lady taught best was how to play the hand that life deals as a winner, even if all you get is jokers. When we fell, Mom told us to get up, try harder, and not expect someone to lower the hurdles.
It’s high time for America to embrace Millie’s way once again. The days that lie ahead will be shaped by the wisdom of our choices.