by Ward Miller
New York, USA
My mother was a remarkable woman. Born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1897, her high school graduation picture shows a beautiful young lady with long brown hair and blue eyes. She attended college in Milwaukee with Golda Meier (Israel’s first premier).
One of my earliest recollections, when I was about 3, is of a bitter cold day in 1932, the middle of the Great Depression. A man knocked on our back door, and asked my mother for something to eat, as he hadn’t eaten in three days. Mom said she was cooking stew and would give him some. “But as my husband isn’t here, you must eat on the back porch.”
She gave him a heaping plate of stew plus two slices of bread. Later he knocked again. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he handed Mom the fork and plate — as clean as if washed — saying, “God bless you, Madam.” At that moment I learned what a compassionate person my mother was.
At age 21, in 1918, my mother began employment with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She was assigned to a new facility in northern Georgia. She, a Yankee in the Deep South, was assigned alone to create YWCA programs for a doubting small community. She told stories about “those Y days”, about wonderful people who welcomed her into the community.
When my sister became a Girl Scout, Mom was the troop leader. Soon she was president of our school PTA. In her later years, my mother established Rossville, Georgia’s Garden Club, the Professional Women’s club, the town’s first lending library (which she served for 50 years) and other “firsts”.
There was quite a turnout at her funeral in 1990, when she died at 93. At the wake my sister and I moved among her many friends, exchanging remembrances.
At one point we saw a stranger turn away from the casket with tears on his face. We approached him and my sister asked, “Did you know my mother well?” He replied, “I guess so. I owe my life to her!”
He told us that when he was a young child, in 1918, his family of seven all came down with the flu. The “new lady from the YWCA” heard about their illness and came to help.
This 21-year-old shy girl, from almost a thousand miles away, stayed in their house with them, caring for each when they could not get out of bed or cook their own meals. He said, “We would never have made it without her loving care.”
Amazingly, the night before I had read a brief account of that very incident in one of my mother’s diaries.
Recently reading that a “bird” flu may have been responsible for the 40 to 50 million flu deaths worldwide in 1918 and 1919, I was reminded of my personal connection to that time. Today when I hear about the avian flu, I have a warm feeling about my wonderful mother.