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Fourth Place

Regretting Millie

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by Virginia Tyler

Don't die poor.
Don't get sick when your family is poor.
Don't get old that way either.

My Aunt Millie was tall.
She wore a gray suit and pinned on her hat
With a single pearl pin. Nobody scared her,
Not even the bankers, not even in the Depression,
When we were all scared.

When Howard lost his job,
I went to Aunt Millie.
She took us in, Howard, me, and the girls.
For $25 we lived in her guest room,
Cooked in her kitchen, and slept on her beds.
Our youngest, our boy, was born in her house.
The girls started school.
Howard got a new job.
Millie did not need our money,
She just chose to be kind.
She had loved her own marriage
And helped me keep mine.

Millie hung out our wash
And talked of her husband.
The sleeves of his shirts
Were always too short.
Charles Hans married her late,
And she raised their stepson.
Then Charlie died, and
Their son moved away.
Millie refused
To grow old and lonely,
So she moved us in, and
Our noise filled the house.
The girls sang along
To loud radio shows
While she stood by the stove
Stuffing peppers with me.

As the children grew up,
Aunt Millie grew older.
She came home from church tired,
Took a "physic" at night.
On Millie's sick days,
Aunt Emma would bathe her.
She cleaned up her messes
And put her to bed.
Her illness came quickly.
In the hospital Millie saw
Death heading toward her.
It was time to go home
And die where she'd lived.

Howard said, "No,"
That he was head of the house,
Now that Millie was gone.
(Never mind that the
House was still hers.)
If Millie came home,
A nurse would come, too.
She'd move into our room,
He said. "We'd have to go.
Where do you plan to live?"
I should have said,
"I'll take care of her."
"And raise three kids?" he'd ask,
"And care for me?"
I should have fought him.
I should have been strong,
But I feared leaving
As much as he did.
We had no money,
Only debt and more debt.
"She seems alright," I thought
As I sat by her hospital bed.
I was grateful for rest.
A worn-out mother with
Kids always around her,
I did not know then
How alone dying could feel.

I know it now.
Herb comes every day,
Brings dinner and chats.
I'm in my own house,
Right behind his.
I can make deviled eggs
If he boils the water.
I have my clock here and
All my snapshots.
I could have done this for Millie
If I had been braver.
She was good to me.
I just wish I
Had been better to her.

Virginia Tyler lives in Hillsborough

In "Regretting Millie," the tone of the speaker moves between joy, sorrow, and subtle shame. We are witness to a confessional of unrequited gratitude and the failure of reciprocity. This is a story-poem that is slight yet penetrating in its testimony of a regretting that looks back at a momentous once-upon-a-time when fear took hold and stole the courage to enact gratefulness. The speaker's class and social status embeds her distinct voice and flows naturally while it marks and remarks upon her material positioning and subjectivity. This poem takes us inside the borders of poverty, loneliness, and fear. We hear the characters as they speak among themselves and we are witness to their movements. The poem is more than a reflection on gratitude and appreciation; it is an evocation on the law of reciprocity. What others do for us in our time of need requires a response when in their time of need they come to us. What is the form of the response? Is it forgetting, entitlement, fear, or something more? The reality of this poem is that gratefulness is performed, not simply felt. Feeling without performance for the sake of fear breeds regret.

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