My friend Mildred died recently, just one week from her 101st birthday. I last saw her at her drive by 100th birthday party last year. She waved and smiled at each guest as a long line of vehicles queued up and waited their turn to give a word of congratulations on becoming a centenarian. She may not have known every one of them, but that didn’t matter as she sat wrapped in a blanket surrounded by family and balloons. It was her day to be celebrated and the sky cooperated with glorious blue. The October chill meant a heater had to be employed in a make shift shelter by the road, but Mildred didn’t seem the least bit phased. She was enjoying being outside in her beloved nature, with her beloved people. And that sums up her long life…beloved nature, beloved people.
I first met Mildred when she was only 93. Just a young thing. She answered an ad in the paper I had placed for help with a project for my class. We became fast friends as she cultivated a love of poetry in my students. Before I knew it, she had uncovered a depth of feeling in them that I had never been able to tap. The resulting progressive poem still remains on stations along the nature trail at Testanee Gap Elementary School.
Our poetry club that year was a great success. Mildred and I were kindred spirits ever after. She repeatedly came when I needed a poet. She inspired my students and encouraged them in amazing ways. Teachers who love their subject matter and their students always bond to one another and to their students.
I had no idea when I met her that she was a well-known poet, and had won the Georgia State Poetry Society contest or the Charles B. Dickens honor. Twice. No one else had ever done that. I did not yet know she had published two chapbooks and was in process of writing her book Moving Gone Dancing when we met. I thought she was simply a nice lady who answered my ad. Turns out I was right.
To attempt describe Mildred is like trying to capture the wind. The first word that comes to mind is feisty. She had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them. Yet, at the same time she was respectful of varied other perspectives. She and I didn’t agree on many things but that never stopped our mutual admiration for one another.
Despite our differing opinions on some things, we were bonded over our passion for teaching and learning. She was one of my biggest fans. She checked on me when I had cancer and rejoiced when I published my first book. We swapped signed copies of our books and were both proud to hold each other’s words in our hands.
She was as passionate as she was nostalgic. Her subject mattered to her, whether it was poetry or conservation or family, she was devoted and dedicated to it. Her memory and story telling was captivating. She shared so much with my students about the history of our region because she had lived it. She painted pictures with her words, not just in her poems but in her lively retelling of her life experiences. Of when Helen got its first phone, and how someone would have to walk to your house to tell you that you had a phone call. Let me tell you, that blew the children’s little minds. She gave perspective on the advancement of education by describing a one room school house in which she taught all ages, and that had a “bathroom” that was simply holes situated over the river. Another moment of wonder as my students’ appreciation for indoor plumbing skyrocketed. She gave herself fully to sharing the past with them.
One time when I went for a visit to her cottage, she told me a story about the Gingko trees. She started with the history of the tree. It’s the oldest tree in the world with origins in China. Then she informed me that when the Gingko leaves turn brilliant yellow in the fall, they do not drop one at a time but instead let go all together on the same day. Within 24 hours or so they will transform from full branches to naked skeletons with golden confetti at their feet. Back in the day, the library used to do a fundraiser where patrons would guess what day the leaves would fall off the Gingko tree. It was a quarter per vote. She didn’t remember what the winner got, probably bragging rights, but she said that is how the library got the money for books. Then she insisted I take some Gingko leaves from the tree just off her porch to put into my encaustic paintings, which I did.
Every time I see a Gingko leaf now, I think of Mildred and her stories. The bright way in which she lit up a room. Her all or nothing passion. The wisdom of an ancient. Her zest for life and learning…always learning. Her free spirit, being carried by the wind. I am thrilled to have gotten to be her friend, even if it was a shorter time that I would have liked. I learned so much from her in our short time together. She was an amazing and unique woman who was ahead of her time. I will miss her greatly. Dance on Mildred. Dance on!
By: Mildred Greear
when I dance.
When I dance
from the inside
my dance will begin
with an earth-on-axis whirling
spinning like mad.
At first, I may look like a kite
before my arms become blurred
and disappear out there
as I dance right through fingers
right through tight skin everywhere.
Up, up on toes, I will be taller
than I have ever been;
everything gone north and south.
Let me tell you,
it will be good reaching that high
after touching so low.
You may look out and say
there’s a whirlwind out yonder!
when already it was likely me
blowing your hat off
as I danced right by you.
Right by you!
and that’s no whirlwind out yonder
kiddos, that’s me