MILDRED WILSON - PRIORITIES
Mildred Wilson is a former Deputy Director/Consumer Advocate for the Michigan Legislative Service Bureau. She spends her time as a caregiver for her mother and writing fiction and nonfiction. Her most recent piece was an essay, "Lord Byron and His Strange Relationship With Food," for Hektoen International.
Long hours. Heat. Humidity. Sweat. Sore knees.
Nina Turner, a tall black woman in her mid-thirties, stood up, arched her back, and rolled her head from side to side. She looked up at a pale blue cloudless Michigan sky. May had been unseasonably hot and humid, temperatures hovering in the eighties, and now the first part of June was shaping up to be the same way.
A long black plait hung beneath her large white straw hat. Sweat trickled down her face. The front of her tee shirt was wet and stuck to her body outlining her ample breasts. She tugged at the top and shook it. A little burst of air offered some relief. One large side pocket of her cargo pants held her pruners and weeder. She pulled off her gardening gloves and stuffed them in the other side pocket. Then, she reached into one of her back pockets and pulled out a cloth and wiped her brow, face, and neck. She had spent most of the morning kneeling in her front yard pulling up weeds. She had trimmed her boxwood shrubs and planted a row of pink begonias in front of them. Her husband Jeffrey usually handled the shrubs, but he was no longer around. She was pleased with herself. She and Jeffrey were first time home owners and she loved her house. She looked around at her neighbors’ yards and felt that her yard could compete with
any other on her block. But the weeds! As frustrating as it was,
weeding had become therapeutic and helped her work through her
Nina heard footsteps and turned around. It was the postman, Henry Anderson. Henry Anderson had been the postman for this northwest Detroit middle class neighborhood for over twenty years. Nina smiled and looked at her watch. It was eleven o’clock. You could set your watch by Henry’s schedule. He knew everyone on the block by name.
“Morning, Mrs. Turner. How are you?”
“Morning, Henry. I’m fine. I’ve been trying to stay ahead of these weeds, but it’s a never-ending job.”
Henry chuckled. “That’s what my wife says, but your neighborhood looks good. Everyone seems to have trimmed their shrubs and planted flowers. I’ve noticed that even Mrs. Coleman at the end of the block has put her flowers out.”
Nina laughed, “Yes, she’s amazing. She’s in her early nineties and is an inspiration to all of us.”
Henry handed Nina a small packet of mail. “I don’t have much for you today,” he said.
“Good,” Nina said. “I’ve got enough bills.”
Henry shook his head. “Don’t we all. Have a good day and don’t work too hard.”
Nina went into the house and put the mail on the kitchen counter. She grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and sat down to look at her mail. She had three pieces. Two were bills. The third was a small yellow envelope, the kind that cards are sent in. She decided to open the envelope first. “I wonder what this is?” she muttered. Inside was a card. On the front flap was a beautiful red rose. Underneath the rose was the phrase “Just Thinking About You.” Inside the card was a short message that read, “Have faith and let the words of Teresa of Avila quiet your anxieties and never-satisfied needs.” It was signed, “Take Care. A Friend.” A small insert contained the poem. It read:
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
Is nothing wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.
Nina’s eyes filled with tears. She had always yearned to grow up and have a happy life. Her father had worked hard on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company and her mother had worked as a secretary at Providence Hospital to provide her the benefits of a good start in life; a good education, spiritual development, and self-giving concern for others. They had been high school sweethearts and married right after graduating. For some reason, they grew apart. They divorced when she was ten years old. She vowed that when she grew up she’d take her time and marry the right person. Together they would raise a family and have a good life. When she met Jeffrey, she thought she had found him. They’d met in undergraduate school at Wayne State University. He was handsome, smart, had a good work ethic, and wanted to marry and have a family. She didn’t realize that there can be differing opinions between two people, supposedly in love, about how a happy and moral life can be lived out.
This card was just what she needed as she thought back to that night, two months ago, when Jeffrey told her he was leaving. They’d had a nice dinner and pleasant table conversation. While she cleared the table, he had offered to put the children to bed and read them a story. After doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, Nina went into the den and turned on the television. Jeffrey joined her and told her he wanted to talk to her. He turned off the television and sat down opposite her.
“In a quiet controlled voice, he said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve thought about us a lot and things are not working out for me.”
Nina’s eyes widened. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
Jeffrey lowered his head and paused. Then he said softly, “I want a divorce.”
For a moment Nina couldn’t speak. Then, in a raspy voice, she said, “A divorce? Why?”
“I’ve met someone.”
“Is it someone I know?”
“No. I met her when I went to a conference in Los Angeles last year.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Six months. We hit it off right away. She’s a consultant for a large software company.
“Are you moving to Los Angeles?”
“Yes. I’ve gotten a job offer and I accepted.”
“How can you just walk away from a ten-year marriage? We have a family and a year ago we bought this house. Everything seemed to be going well.”
“I’ve been unhappy with my job for a long time. This new job requires a certain amount of traveling, but the opportunities are endless.”
“What about Jennifer and Chelsea?”
“They can visit me in Los Angeles.”
“Children deserve two full-time parents, especially black children. Having our children was not a unilateral decision on my part. It was a joint decision. We agreed that we were ready for the responsibility of children. They weren’t accidents.”
“Yes, I know, but you’ve been a much better parent than me.”
“Whose fault is that? You sound like we were in competition with each other.”
“I know, but I agreed to have children, because I knew you’d be a great mother and they’d be company for you.”
Nina frowned. “What do you mean they’d be company for me? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. People get dogs and cats for company. They don’t have children.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. You know what I mean. I’ve always been focused on my work and I’ve never been able to give the children the time you did.”
“That’s not my fault. You could have found the time if you had wanted to. You found time for golf.”
“Yeah, but a lot of that was just business.”
“I never tried to hold you back,” Nina said. “I’ve been supportive of everything you’ve wanted to do.”
“Yes, you have, but I’ve needed more. Maybe, it’s because Carolyn and I are in the same profession. We can talk.”
“What do you mean you can talk? You could always talk to me. Through all your professional ups and downs, I’ve been here. I was a good listener.”
“Yes, but it’s not the same. Carolyn is full of ideas and energy. She makes me feel like I can do anything. You’ve been much more low-key. You’ve always relied on your faith when things weren’t going well. I always had trouble just sitting back and hoping everything would work out.”
“You make me sound like some religious air head. Good Lord, Jeffrey, what part of the civil rights struggle did you forget? You were born and raised in Detroit like me. A lot of people we know are still struggling. Some are in jail. We’ve been lucky. I’ve relied on my faith when you didn’t have faith in yourself. Over the years as you’ve tried out one idea after another or complained that you had been purposely passed over for a promotion on your job, I prayed to God about that. Eight years ago, you led me to believe that you had found what you were looking for and we could start a family. I believed God had rewarded my faith and I took you at your word. I quit my teaching job when I got pregnant with Jennifer. Now, it appears that you’ve found greener pastures.”
“I could never talk with you about my work.”
“You knew that when we met. I didn’t major in computer science. I majored in English literature. We were different, professionally, but we had the same values. At least you led me to believe we had.”
Nina was brought back to reality when a voice shouted, “Mom!”
Nina looked around. The school bus was shutting its door and Jennifer and Chelsea were running up the sidewalk. Jennifer was eight and Chelsea was six. They were the light of her life. Even though her ego had been crushed when Jeffrey left, she never cried in front of her girls. She kept a lid on her tears until she was alone or at night when she was in bed. She had learned from her mother that where children were concerned, a parent’s priorities had to be clear.
“Hi, Girls. How was your day?”
“Good,” Chelsea said. “Last week, my teacher read a story about a boa constrictor and today our principal had a man from the pet store come to our school. He brought one with him. Its name was Lemon.”
“Wow! That must have been exciting,” Nina said.
“Yeah. I got to touch it, too.”
Nina frowned. “Oh, my Lord. What about you Jennifer. Did you touch it?”
Jennifer frowned and shook her head. “No. That thing was too big and scary for me.”
“I’m with you, Jennifer. I don’t think I would have touched it. Are you girls hungry?”
“Yeah,” the girls said in unison.”
“Good. We’ve got spaghetti and meatballs tonight. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Hurry and wash up and then set the table.”
On Friday of the next week Nina planted a red hibiscus in her back yard. School would be out in a couple weeks. The girls had promised to help her pull weeds. In return she would organize her days so that on the weekends, she and the girls could do fun things, like going to the Science Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, Belle Isle, or the Detroit Zoo. She wasn’t going to worry about Jeffrey. He promised that when he got settled, he would invite the girls out to Los Angeles. So far, he had called them several times, but they hadn’t seen him since he left two months ago. She prayed he would keep his promise.
Nina received another card. The cover had a picture of a beautiful white lily and below it the phrase, “Just Thinking About You.” There was a message inside the card that read, “St. Augustine said that without hope, the four ancient “natural
virtues,” justice, courage, wisdom and moderation, could not be
attained. In his poem, “Dreams,” Langston Hughes expresses
“hope” in the following lines.” It was signed, “Take Care. A
Friend.” A small insert contained the poem.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Nina was puzzled. “Who is doing this?” she mumbled. She took comfort in the cards, because her divorce had been a complete shock. Her lifelong dream for a good and happy life had been shattered. She had taken everything for granted and when Jeffrey left, it was as if she had fallen into a sink hole and couldn’t get out. She put on a happy face for her girls, but inside she was a wreck.
It was lunch time and she decided to take a break and grab a bite to eat before resuming her gardening. She had saved the
first card and placed it in her desk drawer. She found it and
reread it and placed the two cards back in the drawer.
A week later Nina received another card. Like the other two cards, the front flap had a flower on it. This time there was a picture of some Black-Eyed Susans. Below the flowers was the phrase, “Just Thinking About You.” Inside, the message read, “The Greek word for love is agape, signifying the highest form of love, which is giving of the self. Emily Dickinson says it best in her poem, “They Might Not Need Me—Yet They Might.” The closing was the same. “Take care. A Friend.” A separate insert contained the poem.
They might not need me—yet they might--
I’ll let my Heart be just in sight--
A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity--
Tears filled Nina’s eyes, but this time, she let them fall and she lowered her head on the table and sobbed. Last Sunday, after church she had taken her girls to the Detroit Zoo. They’d had fun. Chelsea had especially liked the reptile section and
took special delight in pointing out the snake that she’d seen
at school. She and Jennifer both shuddered as they looked at it.
Later that night after they had gone to bed, Nina overheard the
“Do you think we’ll see Daddy soon?” Chelsea asked.
“Yes, I think so,” Jennifer said. “He promised us that he’d have us visit him and he’d take us to Disneyland.”
“Momma said that if you pray, God will answer your prayers. I’ve been praying about it, but God hasn’t answered my prayers,” Chelsea whined.
“Momma says that sometimes it takes a while before our prayers are answered, but he’ll answer them,” Jennifer said in a reassuring voice.
“Okay. I’ll keep praying. I sure hope he hasn’t forgotten me.”
Nina stood outside the door and covered her mouth to stifle her sobs. Later that night as she cried in her pillow, she prayed for strength and guidance. “Lord, I’m leaning on you and trusting in your love.”
Nina cell phone rang just as she reached for a cup of coffee.
“Hi, Nina. This is Michael. How’re you doing?” Michael Baxter was her attorney.
“I’m doing good. I’ve been busy with yard work, planting new items and pulling weeds.”
“That’s a lot of work, but I’m told that it’s relaxing and therapeutic. Anyway, the reason I called is that I’ve got all the paperwork done. Jeffrey agreed to our terms and signed off. I need you to give the papers a final look-see and sign them. When can you come in?”
“I can come in tomorrow morning. I need to be home in the afternoon when my kids get out of school.”
“Great! How about 9:30 tomorrow morning.
“Okay,” Nina said. “I’ll be there.
Jeffrey had agreed to give her the house and a modest child support package. She knew she’d need to get a job to live comfortably. She had been an English teacher with the Detroit Public School system when they married, but after their first child, she never went back. Perhaps, she’d be able to find a job as a regular teacher. If not, she’d substitute.
After Michael finished talking to Nina, he called David Matthews. He was a client and a close friend. They had known each other since high school.
“Hey David. How’s it going?”
“Not bad. How are things with you?”
“Oh, things are moving along. Did you ever call Nina?”
There was a pause and then David said, “No. I chickened out. I felt like she might think I was taking advantage of her.”
“What! After you raved and raved about how beautiful she was and that you wished you could meet her.”
“Yeah, I know, but a divorce is serious business. She’s probably still vulnerable. I’d hate to have her think poorly of me.”
“You might be right. Nina is a wonderful person. She’s one of the few female clients that I’ve had that didn’t want to take her husband to the cleaners. All she wanted was the house and custody of her two girls. She didn’t even ask for child support. She felt she could take care of herself and her kids. I counseled her against that. Much to my surprise her husband insisted on paying child support.”
“I’ll wait a little longer before I call,” David said.
“Okay. I’m going to hold you to that.”
The next day Nina went to Michael’s office to sign the papers. Jeffrey had also agreed to cover her expenses for ninety days. In that period, he felt that Nina could find a job.
“Is everything okay?” Michael asked.
“Yes. It looks okay to me. I’m surprised that he agreed to pay all of my expenses for ninety days.”
“I added that,” Michael said. The way he sprung the news on you about leaving and the fact that he cheated on you was low-down. I hinted that a female judge might be assigned to look over the papers and she probably wouldn’t be amused with his behavior.”
Nina laughed. “He fell for that?”
“Yeah. Guilt is a bummer. Sometimes, it will make you agree to anything.”
“I’m planning on looking for a teaching job. I was a high school English teacher when Jeffrey and I got married. I left teaching after my first child. If I can’t get a regular teaching job, I’ll substitute.
“Do you have a preference as to where you want to work?”
“Not really. I worked for the Detroit Public School system before I had children. I’ll probably check there first.”
“Feel free to use my name as a reference. I’ve done some work for the district.”
“Thanks, Michael. I’ll do that. I really appreciate all your help. I’m still a little depressed. Some days are better than others, but I know it’s going to get better.”
“The last time you were in my office, a friend of mine was here. He saw you as he was leaving. His name is David Matthews. He and I have known each other since high school. He called me and raved about you. I took the liberty of giving him your phone number. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Why was he here?”
“David is a good person. He used to work as an executive in downtown Detroit, but his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident five years ago. He took it very hard. He lost interest in the corporate world. He quit his job and opened a small bookstore. I counsel him on some of his business interests.”
“Where is his store?
“It’s on Woodward in midtown Detroit near Wayne State University. He specializes in inspirational material, including a lot of poetry.”
“I’m not mad at you,” Nina said. “But I don’t think I’m ready yet for a new relationship.”
“I understand,” Michael said. “You need to take time to grieve, but, eventually, you’ll need to trust someone.”
Nina smiled. “You’re right. Thanks for everything, Michael.”
“It’s been my pleasure. You’re a good person, Nina, and you deserve to be happy.”
Nina smiled. “I needed that. Thanks.”
As Nina walked out of Michael’s office, it suddenly hit her. She knew who her anonymous friend was. She had to meet him and express her appreciation for the cards. They had been a source of comfort when she needed it.
Michael’s office was in Southfield. Midtown Detroit was about twenty minutes away. She took the Lodge Freeway and exited on Warren. When she got to Woodward, she began her search. As soon as she saw it, she parked her car. Luckily, she found a spot not far from his store.
The store was called “The Happy Life.” It was small, but very welcoming. There were reading areas with comfortable chairs and the store was plastered with inspirational posters. As she was looking at a poster that listed the seven virtues, a young woman approached her.
“May I help you?”
“Yes. Is Mr. Matthews in?”
“He’s in his office. I’ll get him for you.
“Thank you.” Just then, her cell phone rang.
“Hello, Mrs. Turner. My name is David Matthews. I’m a friend of Michael Baxter. I saw you at his office and asked about you. He gave me your number. I hope you don’t mind. I don’t mean to be forward, but I was wondering if we could meet sometime for lunch or dinner. I know what you’re probably going through and sometimes it’s helpful if you have a friend to talk to.”
While David was on the phone, the young woman interrupted him and told him that a lady was in the store to see him.
“Yes. Michael told me about you.” Nina said. “As a matter of fact, I’m in your store.”
“What?” David yelled. “You’re in my store!” Then the phone went dead.
“Hello,” Nina said. “Hello,” she repeated.
She heard a soft voice behind her.
Nina turned around and saw a tall, well-built man with a clean-shaven head and face. He was wearing a pair of black jeans and a black tee shirt.
Nina smiled. “Hello.”
A big smile appeared on the man’s face. He offered his hand. “I’m David Matthews.”
Nina extended her hand. His hand was warm and soft to the touch. “I’m pleased to meet you. Lunch sounds nice.”