Beginner's Heart

People talk to me. Like Mr. Mills in the seat next to me yesterday. We started with the fact that it was his 91st birthday. (He took as his due that Southwest Airlines gave him a bottle of Korbel Brut to help him celebrate :)). We progressed to me being an active & willing audience for his life stories. I wish I had taped our conversation. That would have been my present to me :).

Digression (you should be used to these by now :): I’m about 1/2 way through a great book ~ Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It chronicles the 20th-century odyssey of almost 6,000,000 black Americans out of the South to points north and west. Reading like an epic novel, Wilkerson’s book follows three black Americans from birth to old age, illuminating their reasons for leaving the South, their hard work to achieve success elsewhere, and the difficult choices that faced so many black Americans during the years between 1915 and 1970.

Mr. Mills might have been one of Wilkerson’s interview subjects. He left Texas to join the war, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere in the European theatre, he told me. “I have the service stars — five — to prove it,” he said proudly. And like many other black Americans, after fighting for European freedom, he wasn’t content to live under Jim Crow in Texas.  So he headed to Chicago to work.

“It was snowing in October,” he said, shaking his head at the memory. “So I decided I’d go someplace warmer.” California beckoned, as it did to many black Americans in the late 40s.

He got there hitching a ride: “One of my Daddy’s friends was a Pullman porter,” he said. “I went down to the yard to see him, and he let me go all the to California.”

In December, Mr. Mills will make that trip in reverse, but once again in a Pullman car. “I’m getting me a Pullman,” he told me. “I’m gonna sit in that seat and just look and ride and ride and look. And when I get tired, I’ll just crawl into bed and sleep.”

He’s spending the money he made traveling to see old friends and family, he explained. “I got a friend in Chicago. Frost and me, we go way back.” And he said he’s blessed to be ‘doing all right’ w/ his finances.

“I had me a good hauling company,” he said. “I was blessed — I got a government contract hauling, and I made good money.” Which he invested soundly, he assured me. “Two things I keep up on,” he said. “The weather and the financials.”

Throughout the 2+ hours of our conversation between Albuquerque and Oklahoma, Mr. Mills repeated this mantra: “I’ve been blessed.” Yes… But listening between the repetitions, I heard hard work, sacrifice, and generousity. I heard of 17 young relatives Mr. Mills has put through college, the most recent a young grandson who just completed law school.

“We have it all in our family,” Mr Mills told me. “Seven Ph.D.s, lawyers, everything. They’re no dummies.”

And I heard of his wife’s early death from cancer, her tenacious hold to life. I heard of family gathering from across the country to celebrate this man whose life has seen more changes than perhaps any other era in American history. I saw that old adage come to life: The Lord  helps them as helps themselves, as my Aunt Bonnie used to say.

Funny, shrewd, irreverent and reflective, Mr. Mills told me how he debated lending a young relative money to bail him out of mortgage default. “Baby,” he said, “why’d he go buy a house he can’t afford? He was raised better than that. He shoulda known better.” Still, Mr. Mills couldn’t not help, he said. “This may be when he learns that lesson,” he said.

I don’t want to leave you with the idea that Mr. Mills was simply a history lesson. Every time he called me ‘baby,’ I was charmed. Wearing his well-cut suit and snap-brim fedora (y’all know how I love men in hats!), he used a neatly pressed handkerchief when he coughed. And he laughed outright when I returned teasing for teasing. “You’ll do, baby,” he told me. “You’ll do.”

So will you, Mr. Mills. You’ll continue doing what you’ve done for 91 years ~ working hard, enjoying your life, focusing on your blessings and charming everyone who knows you. Happy Birthday, Mr. Mills. You’ll do.





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