Aunt Mildred

June 1999

 

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 The letter arrived on a warm February Saturday in 1996. I reached into the little cubbyhole of a mailbox and drew back the usual stack of throwaway advertising which every physician glances through and discards. Midway through the stack it stood out: a plain white envelope with no advertising, with my name and address handwritten in the center. The handwriting was the fluid script common among my parents' generation, before we baby boomers learned our penmanship on paper ruled like a music staff. It was not written with an expensive calligraphy pen, merely a simple blue ink ballpoint; but still it was elegant without effort.

In the upper left corner, following the proper composition for a personal letter, was the return address. Someone from Greenwood - my hometown - Mildred Hester. Oh, of course! I remembered Mrs. Hester in several contexts. She and her husband, Bob, had been casual friends of my parents. Their son, Bobby, was one year behind me in school. I remembered her most for the year she taught me science, my eighth grade year.

The teaching of science courses in those junior high and high school years had not quite caught up with the imperative America was feeling in the post-Sputnik era. We were sometimes left to the uncertain skills of the football coaches, who were usually more clueless than their pupils. I well remember one such course. I had decided to take my tenth-grade biology course in the summer between ninth and tenth grades. It was not one of my better decisions. These classes lasted for two and a half hours each, rather than the shorter fifty-minute sessions of the regular school year. Coach Ed Smith's idea of teaching was to call on one student after another, and have that student stand and read a few paragraphs verbatim from the textbook. I have never been more bored.

Mrs. Hester was nothing like that. She brought an enthusiasm to her class which I found stimulating. My positive experiences in her class were the beginning of my interest in a scientific, and ultimately a medical, career.

After I left Greenwood I lost touch with most of my teachers, including Mrs. Hester. She kept up with me, however, and followed my progress through my medical training. I do remember my mother speaking of Mrs. Hester, who had told Mother how proud she was of my accomplishments.

But now - what did she think of me, thirty years later? I held the envelope in both hands and wondered. Mrs. Hester, like many people in my hometown, had positive memories of the person I once presented to be. I had heard from some of them: "I know you are Becky now, but I remember how much I liked you as Bruce. I will miss him." I can understand these feelings. I try to relieve my friends' apprehensions: "I'm still Bruce, just in the right container now. I still have the same mind and spirit. I just don't have a man's body or a man's name anymore."

What did Mildred feel? What would she say? With what name would she address me?

Anxiously I opened the envelope and removed several handwritten pages. With relief I read the salutation, "Dear Becky,..."

...I have been keenly interested in you since I met you - in your stroller. I learned to love and admire you, your parents, and your precious grandmother. Our numbers (family) are not as many as used to be - but my interest and love continues.

When you took your eighth grade reports home to your mother in 1960, Mabel called me. I have thrived on an encouraging remark you made to your mother. She was thoughtful and kind enough to share that remark to me. I used it and clung to it many times: "I am sorry to be leaving Junior High, because Mrs. Hester is the best teacher I have ever had." Bless you! I remember telling Mabel, "You know I am not capable of teaching Bruce science. I think he confused my love for him with my ability to teach. He has helped me learn to teach - day by day."

Wow, I thought, I don't deserve that praise. But it was awe-inspiring to think that I, as a young teenager, had made a lasting impression on one of my teachers. We never know who is listening to what we say, do we?

A lot of water under a lot of bridges since that day. I wish I knew you now - wish you could share some of your science with me. Wish I knew what to read...

She told me of her life, her retirement from teaching, Mr. Hester's death followed by Bobby's moving to Hattiesburg... loneliness I could understand. I cried for her.

No serious aches or pains - not afraid out here. Just want to remind you that I still care deeply - because I love you - Mildred Kerr Hester

Actually, I cried a great deal. What a great gift she was giving me - acceptance without question, and continuing love. Not understanding or having to understand everything. I knew I wanted to renew our relationship. I wrote back to Mildred immediately, telling her all that had happened in my life. In closing I told her,

I have so much more to share with you. May we continue to correspond? I will close for now, and write more later. Your concern and love mean the world to me. Thank you for caring. Thank you for making contact. Please let me hear from you again.

She replied with a wonderful long letter. "Let you hear from me? Just try to stop me." And so we began a correspondence. She told me of visits from some of my classmates. Pat Chambless, who had lived down the street from the Hesters many years ago, would stop in each time he was in Greenwood. He called her his "Aunt Mildred."

Reading her letters, I felt such peace and happiness. Since my parents passed away, I had lacked the generational continuity so important in family life. My transition had further disrupted what family I had left. I have numerous cousins, but only Jerry in Atlanta and Leonard in Memphis have stayed in positive communication with me. The others simply do not respond to my letters. From my parents' generation, only two uncles remain, Ray and Morris; and my efforts to remain in touch with them have also been unsuccessful. I missed having mentors who remembered my childhood and still related to me as an adult. Aunt Mildred. Well, if she could be Pat's aunt...

In the years that followed I wrote to Mildred all too infrequently. She would always reply so promptly. Once, after a long laps on my part, she wrote, "I was afraid you had been offended by something I said..." Never, dear one, never. Simply procrastination and poor time management on my part. I promised to improve.

Mildred would clip from the Greenwood Commonwealth news items in which she knew I would have an interest: the wedding of my niece (is it "former" niece? I choose to keep her) Sarabeth in Indianola; new additions to the Greenwood-Leflore Hospital; news from children of my contemporaries. Her letters were always a highlight of my days.

Finally, in early 1999, I received news of my high school class of 1964's reunion to be held in June. It would be my first return to Greenwood since the 1994 reunion. I promptly reserved time on my work schedule and composed a letter to Mildred, telling her of my plans.

(I must confess a morbid worry: would I be too late? After all, Mildred was now eighty-eight years old. I would be heartbroken if we couldn't meet in person.)

Dear Becky,

I wish I had something to offer you - have not seen you since the spring day you said goodbye to the eighth grade. I'm crowded and messy - but it is HOME - "my castle" - just haven't much to offer you but a hearty welcome.

Mildred needs a "house call" from her favorite doctor, please.

 

Dear Mildred,

Don't worry about straightening up. I have a very high tolerance for eclectic clutter. You should see my house! I am so excited about seeing you. Let's make it Saturday morning, between 10:00 and 10:30. Until then...

I made certain to carry Mildred's latest letter to me, with her address on the envelope. Nothing would prevent me from keeping her appointment. When I arrived in Greenwood I did a "drive-by" to be sure I knew exactly how to find her apartment.

Thursday and Friday passed quickly, with many good experiences as I wrote in my essay on Greenwood. Saturday morning I awoke early, so eager for our meeting. I arrived a few minutes after ten. The apartment had an inner courtyard. Someone - I was sure it was Mildred - had meticulously landscaped the area surrounding the front door. A neat, hand lettered sign on the doorscreen read "OPEN - please come in."

I opened the door and called out, "Hello." From the sitting room to the left she answered, "Becky? Come in here."

Mildred Hester sat in an overstuffed chair beside a shelf full of books, with the nearby television turned off. That image spoke volumes about her commitment to scholarship. She looked just wonderful - much younger than I had expected for age 88. Her bright blue and white striped shirtdress was clean and starched, and every hair was in its place.

I knelt to give her a hug, and from her firm embrace I knew her hospitality was genuine. She was as glad to see me as I was to see her.

We had so very much to talk about! She showed me pictures of her grandchildren, who at this time of the year are involved in competitive swimming. Bobby and his family visit sometimes, but not nearly as much as Mildred would like. We talked for a long time about my son. "He's your child," she reasoned, "and he must have some of your spirit. One day he will make contact with you."

Mildred had had a couple of strokes in the last few years, but had recovered completely. To my observation her mind was as sharp as mine. I noticed her two newest books. One was a dictionary. A dictionary! The other was a delightful book which Margaux had brought home a few months ago called Woe Is I. It's a humorous but very effective guide to good grammar. How wonderful, I thought, that she still places a priority on learning for learning's sake.

Oh, the stories she remembered! "I had been away from teaching for over ten years," she recalled. "Your class was my first one when I returned. I was so glad it was full of such good students."

She amazed me with an even older memory. "You were about five years old, and I told your mother I would look after you one afternoon. There were several of you children playing in our yard. I remember you asked to go inside to the bathroom. I knew you were old enough to go by yourself, so I stayed outside with the younger children."

I wonder where this is going, I thought amusedly to myself. You don't suppose I went in her closet...

No, that wasn't it. Different room.

"You were gone a long time and finally came back out. I didn't think any more about it, and later you went home with your parents. I went back inside. I had made a small three-layer chocolate cake earlier that day. The cake was still on its platter, but something looked different about it. It was smaller.

"I looked for my carving knife and found it, washed and clean, in the sink. I hadn't left it there! I cut into the chocolate cake and found...two layers.

"Becky, the only thing I could think of is that you took that knife, removed the small layer, and ate it. I wasn't upset - thought it rather resourceful, you know - but wanted to be sure you didn't make yourself sick. So I called Mabel.

"'How is Bruce?' I asked her.

"'Oh, he's fine,' your mother told me. 'But he didn't eat much supper. Said he wasn't hungry. Why? Did he tell you he felt bad?'

"'No,' I smiled. 'Just wanted to be sure.'"

We were both laughing out loud at the idea of my little stomach full of chocolate cake. I must have been a mischievous little kid!

The time passed so quickly. I had thought to visit for an hour or so, but when the "meals on wheels" came to deliver lunch, I saw the clock showing 1:15. Three hours had gone by and I hated to leave, but I wanted her to have her meal.

Another long and tearful hug followed and I kissed her cheek: "I love you - Aunt Mildred."

She smiled, agreeing, approving. "I love you too, dear. So very much." She rose from her chair and walked to the front porch with me, watching and waving as I entered my car and drove away, waving and crying myself.

Those three hours were a unforgettable blessing in my life. I felt connected once again to this older generation. It filled a great void. Along with the rest of my reunion experience, this weekend gave me back my past. What an incredible gift!

Thank you, dear Aunt Mildred. May I see you again soon! I promise it won't be five years.


becky@drbecky.com