My brother, Jerry, had one child, a daughter named Margo. From childhood I included Margo in swim classes, charm/modeling classes, voice lessons, and volunteer efforts but—nothing inspired Margo like boys and marriage. I’ve lost count of her marriages—there were four, maybe five—but the first one was most memorable to me.
During high school, Margo had a boyfriend who lived down the highway from Pine Bluff in a wide-place-in-the-road-kind-of community called Grady. Margo and her boyfriend were both young, barely seventeen, when they announced their upcoming marriage.
Still in high school, the bridegroom-to-be was a farmer’s son with no job and with no future prospects. As old-timers would say, “He’s nothing but a kid whose still wet behind the ears.”
As the bride's Aunt, I made arrangements to host a Bridesmaids Luncheon at the Pine Bluff Country Club (using a friend’s membership)for Margo's bridesmaids and all female family members. At the time, I was living and working in Little Rock so I arranged the luncheon on a Saturday.
I don’t remember the exact year, but it was probably the mid-seventies, and it was hot. Everyone was decked-out in sheer fabrics, pastel colors--- drinking frosted lemonade and complaining about the heat.
When the mother of the groom arrived, everyone stopped talking and---stared. The serious-looking woman was wearing a black wool dress with long sleeves, black heels, carrying an over-sized black bag and a large piece of heavy plastic—what contractors call Visqueen. She apologized for being late and asked where her seat would be when it was time to eat.
Trying not to look surprised, I pointed out the place card with her name and asked if sitting between the mother of the bride and the bride’s grandmother would be all right? Without a word, she unfolded the piece of heavy plastic and carefully spread it over her assigned chair. Without explanation (she surely felt the stares and questioning looks), Margo's future mother-in-law began chatting with women close by. In a few minutes the chef announced it was time to serve lunch and everyone took their seats. Carefully smoothly the plastic over all the chair, the groom’s mother was the last to sit down.
It was impossible for Margo’s other grandmother, Mary Alice, to go unnoticed at any gathering. She was a blunt-speaking woman with a unique voice pattern....I sometimes described her accent as a Southern Baptist/ Southern Twang set-to-music. She’d always greet people with “Hi-There, girl! How-yer ya’all do-in?” Sure, it was a routine greeting, but every word of the greeting was broken into at least three syllables and every syllable represented a different note on the musical scale. Mary Alice’s greetings usually managed to cover at least two octaves.
The meal had barely begun when Mary Alice turned to the groom’s mother and blurted out: “Girl, why are you wearing a black wool dress at a summer party? And, why in Heaven’s name did you bring that big piece of plastic to sit on?” Everyone stopped talking; the quiet was deafening.
The groom’s mother, unsmiling, and speaking in a loud whisper said: “I don’t want to offend anyone here or shock anyone but since you’ve asked me those questions I am obliged to answer. I’m having my monthly—you know, the curse—and sometimes the blood just gushes out like a waterfall and goes everywhere and runs down my legs and in my shoes so I wear all black cause that way, the blood won’t show up on black so bad and....I bring my own plastic to sit on so I don’t bleed all over people’s upholstery or on their carpets. I try to be prepared by keeping a couple of damp dish towels in my bag to wipe the blood off my legs and shoes and off the floor and all the other places blood goes.”
Everyone stared down at their plates for a few, very-long seconds, waiting. Then, as if on-cue, the ladies lifted their heads, picked up their forks, and began eating.
What can one possibly say—when everything that should or shouldn’t have been said—has indeed, already been said?!?!
FROM MY BOOK: THE BEAUTY QUEEN.
FROM MY BOOK: THE BEAUTY QUEEN.
Anita Bryant and I both competed for the title of Miss America, 1958. As Miss Arkansas and Miss Oklahoma, we were invited back to the pageant the next year to serve as entertainers. Through the years, we have continued to serve as...friends.
"We had just started unpacking when Anita pulled out the tickets. “Surprise!” she threw the tickets on the bed. “He’s invited us for tonight's opening performance and we have front row seats!” Anita’s friend was performing at Atlantic City’s famous Steel Pier and three hours later, I was alone with her friend and America’s number-one heartthrob, Ricky Nelson.
For the first time in months I laughed, had fun, and felt completely happy. Midnight came too soon and, hand-in-hand, we walked the deserted boardwalk back to my hotel. Rickie surprised me with several romantic kisses before asking to see me the next evening. With lips still tingling, I danced off the elevator and down the hall to my room.
If only I could have ignored the note taped to my hotel door telling me to return my mother’s phone call. When my mother delivered her happy news…I wanted to run away: “Tomorrow, Jack is flying to Atlantic City to surprise you. Take him to the fancy parties, find him a good seat in the auditorium, and introduce him to lots of important people. It’s a big deal for Jack so--- behave yourself and when you see him.... act surprised!” Devastated, I left a phone message for Ricky, cancelling our date for the next night. Deep inside, I knew this moment would be one my life’s biggest regrets. Like ships passing in the night, our paths never crossed again.
Jack arrived the next morning, looking like a poster boy for the quote: “You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” His shoes were un-shined, his socks were dirty white, and he wore a cheap, faded, wash and wear suit. His first words were memorable: “God damn, everything about this place is expensive and everywhere I look some money-hungry Jew’s trying to pick my pocket! I hope you know the damn plane ticket was my salary for the next two months and I still have to pay for the train-trip home!!” At that moment, all my windows of opportunity slammed shut---and all my good times ended.
The week couldn’t have been more devastating. Jack’s sudden appearance ruined my hopes for auditions, singing offers, and any future in New York City. I felt defeated, more hopeless and helpless than at any point in my youth.
So.... I lost my virginity in a roomette, on a fast-moving train from Atlantic City bound for Little Rock. Good lyrics for a country song, right? Like an escaped prisoner being returned to Arkansas’s death row, I chose to submit rather than struggle. Two weeks before the wedding, I went “all the way” with a person who kissed badly, ignored foreplay, and satisfied no one but himself. Afterward, he apologized for not having a bigger “weapon.” For a man almost ten years older than me--- with years of sexual conquests--- someone who considered himself an expert on female anatomy--- Jack knew absolutely nothing about what Southern Men refer to as “priming the pump.”
Follow-up: Many years have passed since that awful memory. During those years I've learned a lot about life and love and men.....and… one valuable truth: When a woman’s breathless with excitement, overwhelmed with passion, and primed for the Grand Finale.....she isn’t thinking about the size of the equipment.....she’s only interested in how well it performs!"
This tragedy happened decades ago and I suspect that many—except for the immediate family---have forgotten about that deadly day. People who are not directly involved with a tragedy…..usually pay their respects, lock the incident in the past, and move forward. But those who personally-suffered the devastating loss, particularly the loss of one so young, have no choice but grieve--a lifetime.
Because I didn’t witness the incident or talk to railroad officials, details from so long ago are hazy, but one fact remains clear: On one ordinary day---a young man named Raymond-- in his twenties, married and with a new baby--- was accidentally “coupled” between two railroad cars.
I wasn’t living in my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when the accident happened that particular evening….in the train yards of the Cotton Belt Railroad. The level of my father’s voice was unusually low when he called to tell me about the accident. I sensed that my father, an experienced railroad engineer, was painfully-shocked by what had occurred in the place he called his “other” home.
I didn’t know the young man personally, but I’d seen him from a distance. Our small neighborhood was friendly; we knew who lived in every house. And I remember when Nancy—a tiny, young blonde who lived just one block from my parents---married Raymond.
My father related what little he knew, saying that after the impact, Raymond was conscious. He talked with people around him, asked for a cigarette, and began instructing people about what to tell his wife and family. He recognized the seriousness of his injuries; apparently he knew that his chances of survival were nearly zero.
No doubt doctors and emergency teams arrived within minutes. The young man was surrounded with attention from experts…..but the situation was grave.
There was no question that the procedure for uncoupling the massive steel joints… now joined together through the young man’s midsection…was enough to kill him. And, medical personnel knew that, within seconds of the uncoupling, the victim would bleed to death.
Perhaps my father said it best: “Heroes are born from Tragedy. Raymond was “just a kid” yet he never-once thought about himself. All he could talk about was his wife and their young child. He kept expressing his concern for Nancy---kept worrying about how she’d make it without him.”
Yes, an ordinary-young man named Raymond died that ordinary evening in Pine Bluff, Arkansas when railroad officials had no choice but uncouple the railroad cars that were keeping him alive and “intact”. I’ve never forgotten Raymond’s death. The way he died will haunt me, always.
Don’t accuse me of being morbid just because I think about, talk about death and dying. Death is an undeniable part of Life. It comes to all of us and…..we won’t know the day, the hour, or the circumstances. For that reason, I keep practicing my “strength” training, hoping to stay strong, unselfish, and level-headed--- until the end.
Think about what you’ve read and ask yourself: “Who among us—when faced with life’s end---will think of others rather than ourselves? How many of us will remember to say “I Love You” to those nearby?”
Finally.... will any of us remember to whisper a simple“Thank You, God” for giving us the gift of life?
Chutzpah= the quality of audacity, for good or for bad. The Yiddish word is derived from the Hebrew word ḥutspâ (חֻצְפָּה) meaning"insolence" or "cheek".
As a teenager in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I made my spending-money by babysitting. Back then, I think the going rate was 50 cents an hour---certainly not get-rich-quick money. My babysitting services were most-popular among local Jewish Families, with such familiar last names as Baim, Sherman, Gershner, and Blau.
Young and impressionable, I observed that Jewish women were more confident, more out-spoken, than other women in Pine Bluff. Jewish women appeared to “say what they thought and get what they wanted.” From that time on, I began noticing that every Jewish woman---from Arkansas to New Jersey, from California to New York—wore the fanciest jewelry, the most elegant furs, drove the finest cars---and had the most adoring husbands.
In the eighties, while living in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, I became friends with a young doctor named Bob, from Long Branch, New Jersey. I never tired of hearing Bob's most-unusual story.
Growing up in a poor Italian family, Bob was determined to earn money for Medical School and soon, he took the advice of a few of his more-seasoned, male friends. Barely eighteen, he signed up to be a House Boy at one of Long Branch’s Fanciest High-Rise Hotels. The Hotel catered to wealthy Jewish Widows from New York City who paid large sums to live there, year-round.
Basically, being a House Boy meant doing anything and everything requested by “The House”….meaning the occupants therein. When Bob wasn’t attending college, taking tests, and studying, he was driving some Jewish Lady (in her car) to the hair dresser, bridge parties, shopping, and doctor’s appointments. He also served as a Jewish Woman’s “date” for dinner, movies, plays, and sight-seeing, It seems Bob was a favorite dance partner for the much-older ladies too, but-- most intriguing--Bob was the most sought-after House Boy when the Jewish Ladies were in need of a... bed partner.
Fascinated by his former job description, I asked Bob endless questions including, what the job paid. Of course it was difficult to break-it-all down for each “assignment” but… he said that working approximately 48 hours on an “average” week earned him more than 6 thousand dollars. He explained that Jewish Ladies liked to “tip” rather than pay an hourly wage. So, the more these wealthy women liked your looks, your actions, and your ability “to please” them….. the bigger the tip.
He admitted there were some major “challenges” and described one Jewish Lady in particular. The Lady was more than eighty, in a wheelchair, completely incontinent, had loose dentures, and--- despite endless cosmetic surgeries and hair implants-- resembled a grotesque old man. Even worse, because of her “plumbing problems”, she smelled like an outhouse. Bob said it was widely-rumored she was the wealthiest woman in the building and... she tipped well to the young boys she liked best. He admitted to spending several nights with her but refused to divulge the intimate details(I was insatiably curious). Bob only confirmed that he received five thousand per night.
I’ve always said that money can’t make you happy but--- it allows you to be selective, gives you choices. Jewish Ladies from Long Branch, New Jersey, seemed to enjoy spending their money in entertaining ways, like: When in need of a dancing partner, they just paid for the youngest and best-looking House Boy with the best moves. When they felt lonely, they chose the best House Boy money could buy-- to provide all-kinds of attention. And, when they wanted a bed partner, they select the best-looking and best-equipped House Boy in the building and paid him for a “job well done.”
By the way, Bob had no problem paying for college or med school, thanks to the Jewish Ladies of Long Branch. He may not have loved his job but....it certainly loved him back.
Hmmmmm...wonder if....this doesn't sound a little-like prostitution?!?!?
But--- who cares!?!?! Most importantly, Bob is now a wonderfully-trained gynecologist who has a reputation for knowing all-there-is-to-know about women.
In life, nothing stays the same. I won’t elaborate on my various teaching experiences or concentrate on the nasty attitudes around me or focus on the misguided missions of too-many teachers. Neither will I waste valuable time describing the poor working conditions in today's classrooms or the lack of leadership among most educators--because, in the final analysis, the only thing that ever truly mattered to me….were the students.
Wherever I taught, it was always about the children. I could write another book about the countless students in my classrooms and how each student touched my heart. It will always be my prayer that I changed at least one life... for the better.
None of us can ever know what children have been forced to see, to do, or to experience. Growing up, I yearned for a role model---someone to inspire me—someone to help me reach higher than myself. My fourth grade teacher was indeed my role model when I was 9 years old and, because of her,I become the first woman to travel the length of The Great Wall of China.
Growing up, I acted as my own cheerleader, reading book after book and encouraging myself to learn more. Even into my sixties, I returned to college to earn my Masters. I felt the need to teach, to be a role model for children with special needs; to reach-out to children--like me-- who were emotional disabled.
If you ask which student I remember most from my five years of teaching at Jenkins Center, Pine Bluff, Arkansas-- I would easily say--- Anthony.
The very first day I met Anthony, I was overwhelmed with his quietly-shy demeanor. He was four years old, unable to talk, and he demonstrated absolutely no response when I spoke his name. Anthony's records indicated he'd shown very- little progress since becoming a student at Jenkins, two years earlier.
Anthony was a beautiful little boy--- almost angelic-looking---with big brown eyes, curly long hair worn in braids, and his soft yet-silent presence seemed to invite respect.
As soon as I entered the classroom, Anthony and I bonded like best friends and, together, we found his voice. Within months, Anthony could respond to his name, was able to talk, and he was motivated to learn song lyrics faster than anyone in the room. It wasn’t long before Anthony led the class in singing all the songs. He learned so fast he was able to move to a regular school. I made it a point to visit Anthony in his new classroom where he proudly demonstrated his new computer skills. It took several years before Anthony and I crossed paths, again.
One day, at noontime, parked under a big shade tree in the Post Office Parking Lot, I was listening to the radio and eating my lunch...when someone knocked on my car window. Turning around, I was thrilled to see Anthony. I rolled down the window and Anthony said, “Hi Ms. Miller! Can you get out of the car please...so I can hug you?
In a flash--- I was out of that car, so happy to get a big hug from my star student! Anthony was excited because he had passed all his tests and was now, officially, moving to the next grade level. Now, Anthony was getting to share his good news with me!
My marvelous student had grown bigger and taller and smarter, with every new day. Anthony’s mother stepped out of her car, beaming with pride, also happy to share Anthony’s good news. She praised Anthony's progress and said "Ms. Miller, Anthony could never have accomplished any of this without you." Before leaving, Anthony grabbed my hand and said “Ms. Miller, you are still my favorite teacher and I’ll always love you best!”
I held back my happy tears until I’d waved a final good-bye and was headed back to my classroom. It only takes one "Thank You" and one story with a Happy Ending...to make my life worth living. And, it only took one "Anthony" to let me know... I was in the right place at the right time....to make a difference.
Anthony is one of my most- precious memories. I’ll carry him in my heart---forever.