(One of the great things about moving is finding old writings I couldn’t locate. This was one of my favorites. I wrote this while I was at Clemson.)
I sat beside the bed, as I had done for the past three days, waiting for some movement, some sign that Miss Mildred knew I was there. Since my daddy and grandma died in hospitals, they had become places of paranoia for me, and I could feel the chills creep up my spine as I inhaled that medicinal hospital smell that penetrated each and every pore each time I was forced to go inside of one. This time was no different and four nights in a row meant that smell was now clinging to every part of me, soaking into every hair follicle. But I was determined to overcome the feeling of combined disgust and fear and be here to speak to Miss Mildred when she woke up.
“You here again?” At this point, it seemed that most of the evening nurses knew me. At first, they looked at me a little curiously, a relatively young white woman waiting for an elderly black woman to wake up. I only nodded toward tonight’s nurse. “She’s been awake a bit today, but not much. Only a few minutes each time. You hang out long enough, I’m sure she’ll wake up for you.” I just nodded again, determined to overcome my disappointment and knowing I was not the only depressed person in this situation. I was driving my husband crazy by insisting on being here to talk to Miss Mildred before she died. I didn’t say that to anyone else, but I knew the reason I couldn’t give up. I needed absolution.
Joe got home from work each night since Miss Mildred was hospitalized during the past week just in time for me to knock him over at the door, yelling that both kids had eaten sandwiches and there was one for him on the kitchen counter. “Great,” he muttered each night. A sandwich wasn’t exactly a home-cooked meal, which I knew, but I worked all day, too, so I wasn’t going to waste my time too much time on feeling guilty about that. And I wasn’t havin the “you could cook occasionally, too” argument that had gotten old.
So, here I sat. And here Miss Mildred lay. I had known Miss Mildred and her family all of my life. As I looked at her aging face, I could see remnants of the woman she once was while I was growing up. She was a pleasantly fat black woman who came to help my grandmother at her farm house three days a week. Her ponderous body was part of her personality. I would never call her obese – that suggested an uncomfortable and even ugly amount of weight. With Miss Mildred, it was about her elegance within her excessive pounds. She always looked fashionable, even when she came to do our housework. Had she ever tried to lose some of the weight, I’m sure all twelve of her kids, along with my brother, sister, and I, would have cried to her not to do it. You forgot how enormous she actually was because it was the way she was supposed to be.
I had never seen her in a bad mood. “Miss Lottie, you gotcher choices in life. Why you can choose to be an ol’ sourpuss or you can decide to be happy. Old Abe said it da bes’ way – most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be. You can set your clock by it, girl.” I usually got this lecture from her when she could see that I was in a foul mood, or probably when my grandmother told her I was, and I would watch her and wonder just how she managed not to be a sourpuss. She was a poor black woman living in the country of North Carolina in the late 60’s when there was supposed to be equal rights for the black people but somebody sure forgot to come tell my neighbors about it. She had a husband, who tried hard to keep a job, but they were few and far between. So, instead, he kept a bottle. She had twelve – count ‘em – twelve children that she was working hard to support and educate and teach the right way. The remarkable fact is that every one of them finished college. We never knew quite how they did it. My uncle suspected it was some kind of special colored scholarship available only to them. Regardless, there were twelve who received four-year degrees, and by God, or by Mildred, they did it. I tended to believe that Miss Mildred might be a bit stronger in this situation than even God. She was an admirable woman by anyone’s standards.
Hearing the door open, I glanced toward it to see two of Miss Mildred’s daughters enter the room. The older of the two, Mary, smiled at me. She had always been the one most like her mother and treated me kindly when I was a child. The younger, Ruth, gave me kind of scowl that I guessed was meant to be a smile. Or maybe not. I scowled right back. It wasn’t up to me to figure out what kind of ill feelings she harbored towards my family or me. That was years ago, and I was here because of me now, not my family.
“She been awake since you been here?” Mary asked softly.
“No, she hasn’t,” I responded. Mary’s expression was gentle.
“You know, you could tell me what it is you need to tell her, and I promise I would get it to her. Case she wakes up while you aren’t here at night.” I shook my head and looked at my hands. “Okay, Lottie, you do it your way. I just don’t want you to upset her. We’re gonna go. Been here all day, so we were just checking on her one more time before we leave.” She glanced at Ruth. Ruth looked fiercely towards me.
“You aren’t gonna tell her something that will upset her are you, Lottie?” Ruth tried to whisper, but it came out more like a croak. I could tell they had been discussing my reasons for being here.
“Ruth!” Mary looked at her and shook her head.
“Ruth, I don’t really care what you think about me, but I love your mama very much. I’m not here to upset her. Please rest your mind about that.” I knew I didn’t say it exactly right, but I meant every word of it.
“You better not, Lottie. She’s trying to heal up, and she doesn’t need any more of your family’s problems to deal with while she does.” Ruth had spit coming out when she spoke; she was so angry. Briefly, I recalled that Miss Mildred had named her children after Biblical people. Ruth didn’t seem terribly Biblical to me at that moment. Mary grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the door. “This isn’t the black Jones family being subjugated by all you white Baxter’s anymore!”
“Ruth, let’s go!” Mary hissed in her direction and pulled her out the door. I watched them mutely as they struggled together into the hallway. I could hear angry words on the other side, but I made no attempt to understand them. This was their fight, and I wouldn’t attempt to defend myself against anyone else. I needed my energy for my confession to Miss Mildred.
I heard a soft chuckle from the bed, and I jumped up. Miss Mildred had one eye cracked open, and she was watching me with it.
“Ain’t she somethin’? That Ruth thinks she needs to fight every black person’s fight who ever lived. How you doin’, Miss Lottie?” The words were a raspy whisper.
“Is it okay for you to talk, Miss Mildred?” Suddenly, I was aware of the effort it required for her even to be awake right now, much less talk. What was I thinking?
“Yes, Miss Lottie, it’s okay. Long as I can keep my eyes open. They got me under some powerful drugs that hardly let me wake up. They must be expectin’ me to feel some fierce pain.” She managed to crack the other eye a bit. “You seen the stump?” Miss Mildred had developed diabetes some years ago, and after many complications, the doctors had been forced to remove part of her right leg, which was why she was here.
“I can’t see it, Miss Mildred. You are wrapped up like a mummy on your whole bottom half.” I glanced warily toward the stump, afraid it would jump out and force me to see it. I heard her raspy chuckle again.
“Don’t be afraid, Miss Lottie. I ain’t got nothin’ to be scared of. God will help me get through this. I’m sure of that. He’s done helped me get through everything else, some a bit worse than this. I ain’t afraid so don’t you be.” I looked at her weary face and her slit eyes, and I could see that she truly wasn’t afraid. She had a kind of quiet resignation about her that said she accepted whatever her God would hand to her. And she really did trust that He would see her through. The kind of faith that had always escaped me.
“Now, tell me, Miss Lottie. What you doin’ here? Why you been visitin’ my room every night? I know you love me, but I know you well on the inside, too. And your body’s fairly shoutin’ that you got somethin’ to say. So, tell me, girl. What you got on your mind?”
I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. I had come to do this thing; I was determined, so I ignored all the screaming voices in my head that told me to run – run far away. For once in my life, I was gonna make the brave and courageous choice. For once. And I dug deep for the courage that seemed all washed out of me.
“Miss Mildred…”, before I could even get started, tears began pouring down my face.
“Now, you hush, Miss Lottie. I don’t need you to be upset about nothin’. You hear me? Don’t you be cryin’ on account of old Mildred.” Her voice was a bit stronger, and she almost sounded like her old self. I could tell it was difficult for her even to speak.
“No, Miss Mildred, no. You gotta listen to me now.” I wiped my nose on my sleeve and took a deep breath. “I have to tell you this; it isn’t about you. At least, it isn’t about being scared for you. I know you’re the strongest woman I’ve ever known. This is about me. About a terrible thing I did. But I have to tell you, Miss Mildred. I have to.” I took a deep gulp and felt the sobbing deep in my chest. There was a tissue box on her nightstand, and I reached to grab one to wipe the black mascara that was running down my cheeks.
“Okay, honey, okay. You take our time. Miss Mildred ain’t going anywhere right now.” She continued to watch me, and I could see a tenderness on her face that I had rarely seen on my own parents’ or my grandparents’. I was terrified that after tonight, she wouldn’t love me anymore.
I smeared my makeup around on my cheeks some more with the tissue and took another breath. I couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen into my lungs, which shocked me at how much oxygen a body needed to be truthful.
“Miss Mildred, you remember when I was twelve, and money disappeared from my granddaddy’s safe? You remember I know that they asked everybody if they had seen anything. And then, Miss Mildred,” a deep sob escaped from low in my chest as I struggled to keep going with my horrible task. She continued to watch me with the same tender expression. “And then…and then…they blamed it on you.” At that, I screamed out, threw my head down on her bed cover and sobbed uncontrollably. As I struggled to control my emotions, I felt her hand on my head, patting me softly and lovingly. “They blamed it on you, and they took you to jail. They took you to jail for three days before anybody had any money to get you out.” I was crying so hard I could hardly talk.
“Yeah, Miss Lottie, they thought I done it cause I was the only one alone in the house that day.”
“They thought you did it because you are black, Miss Mildred!” I screamed the horrible words into her bed. They sounded muffled even to me.
“”Thas’ true, Miss Lottie. People sometimes can’t help how they was raised. I know that, and you know that, too. It don’t make ‘em bad folks. Just wrong.” I raised my head to look at her.
“But, it wasn’t you, Miss Mildred. I was in the house, too. I knew where my granddaddy hid the safe key. It was me. And I never said a word. I never owned up to it. I never told anyone that I was the thief. I didn’t tell my daddy. I didn’t’ tell anybody! That you were innocent. That you were the most honest person I ever knew – ever will know. I let you take the blame!” I put my head down and cried even harder. I felt that I was coming apart entirely.
“Miss Lottie, look at me.” I raised my head up, but it took a moment before my eyes followed. “Miss Lottie, you precious thing. I ain’t always been honest. Once upon a time, I was a young girl who thought that takin’ a nickel or a dime from her drunken daddy was part of my due. Yes, I did,” she admitted with a smile. “I stole too, Miss Lottie. Maybe that was God’s way of teachin’ me.”
“It’s not the same thing, Miss Mildred.” I shook my head as tears continued coursing down my face.
“It ain’t? Why, surely it is, Miss Lottie. Stealin’s stealin. I don’t think the Good Lord says that it’s okay as long as it’s a little thing. I imagine somebody else got blamed for mine more than once.” She looked away from me like she saw the memory. “I was my daddy’s favorite little girl. There was five of us girls. I remember my brother got a beatin’ one time. A whole quarter was missin’. And he had been mean to me. Stealin’ anything is still stealin’, Miss Lottie. I was guilty too.” She smiled at me, and closed her eyes. “I always knew this ‘bout you, Miss Lottie. I knew it then.”
I cried even harder. “Why didn’t you say something, Miss Mildred? Why didn’t you tell on me? Why didn’t you tell my granddaddy? Or my daddy?” I could tell by her slower breathing that the drugs were taking their effect and she was slowly drifting away into sleep again. She struggled for a few more words.
“Because now, Miss Lottie, you have become one of the most honest people I know. And if I had told on you, why then, I would have cheated you out of the chance to be honest. To tell the truth no matter how hard it is. I done the right thing, Miss Lottie. Look at you now.” With that, she slipped away into her healing sleep. I cried awhile longer on her bed, and then slowly sat up. I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, but I could feel the tiniest bit of sunlight open up inside of me.
I wiped my face and stood to go. Leaning down, I kissed Miss Mildred on her cheek. I saw the faintest smile come over her face, and then she eased back into her sleep. And, for a brief moment, I gazed on the face of the most exceptional teacher I had ever known. Perhaps there was hope for me after all.