“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
For the late Miss Ann Calhoun, Livermore, Kentucky.
You began the love of literacy in my family and enabled my mother to go to college.
Upward mobility came for my mother’s people.
To my namesake, it began with you -
I ran from my past. Growing up, I would read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and prove it. My “roads” ended up, usually, in a dead end, with a need for going into reverse, backup, and discover I needed to stay on a known road. During my first year in college, a few drinks, and a broad pair of shoulders in a University of Michigan jersey added another person into my journey of dead ends. With love and fear in my heart, I placed my daughter up for adoption – probably the first of two unselfish moves in my life. The first goes hand-hand with my second of my life’s unselfish moves: the reading of Miss Willie Mae.
I was twenty-three and old beyond my years when I finished my library degree and hunting job boards to find a job far away from my parents’ disappointment in me and far away from my past. My wild ways were long over, my heart broken. To fulfill my goal, I found a far locale away from my native state, into the western river counties of South Georgia, acquiring my first job as a junior public librarian. I packed up a small U-Haul with all my earthly belongings and left forever – never intending to look back.
South Georgia public libraries are often the heart of a town. For Kirkley County, we had two unincorporated communities and one small town that served as the county seat. Located on the border between Alabama and Georgia, Kirkley County was known for good fishing, had one public school and one private school. I soon learned that black students went to the public schools and white children attended the private school – and people of both races seemed matter of fact when I asked why. We had few businesses and our small town had no strong economic base. What I did not know about South Georgia, upon my arrival in 1988, although desegregated, was the continued segregation of the community – sometimes, I was confused what was by choice versus what was tradition. This was defined by how blacks and whites worshipped, intermingled, and the quiet politeness that did not go beyond just that. I found my role as librarian to bridge both worlds – and I enjoyed it. A young single white female outsider was greeted with Southern warmth, but tempered with unfamiliarity. Soon, I became the object of curiosity and later, suspicion when I turned down blind date after blind date and did not attend a Baptist or Methodist church regularly. I had to possess a happy demeanor. I could not ever show any weakness or trust anyone with my past. I was an outsider: I was to be an example; promiscuity and drinking not allowed. I had to be a paragon of virtue. I wanted to be quiet and at peace in my life and landed exactly in the location I desired. I was starting over.
On Friday nights, lines of the community would form to check out movies. The town had no movie store to rent VHS tapes and we were the main source of entertainment. The majority of our patrons were black and I found myself smiling and happy for the first time in years: I was wanted and needed. I could forget my daughter, at least when I was working. “Get that line straight,” Miss Willie Mae would command, snapping her fingers at running children and waving at friends around the movie collection, “I’ll see you Sunday, you hear?” she would wave at friends and even, relatives, as she cleaned the many areas of the library. Miss Willie Mae was our custodian at the Kirkley County Public Library and had the job for over thirty years. Miss Willie Mae, a childless widow, lived on her family farm with over one hundred acres and had her kinfolk help farm her peanuts and cotton, but her employment with the library enabled her health insurance, a small “nest egg” of retirement to prepare for her “senior years,” although she had, in her seventies, already entered that era.
As months passed, I would work late with an on-going banter with Miss Willie Mae, a witty and avid listener to audio tapes. In time, I began to visit her church and become closer to the black community she was a leader in. I learned to cook Southern by swapping recipes with local women of both races and slowly, became a quiet, but respected community member with everyone. I found myself close to many people of both races and like my head librarian had told me: the Kirkley County Public Library was a neutral ground where everyone got along and co-mingled. Kirkley County became my home. At least twice a week, Miss Willie Mae would check out titles on audio tapes the library bought or had donated. As years passed, Miss Willie Mae and my fellow employees became my substitute family, but not allowed into my secret past, save what I felt comfortable to share. Professionally, Miss Willie Mae and I saw the change of audio books change to CD. One year, my Christmas present to Miss Willie Mae was a pair of headphones and a carry CD player she could put inside her work apron and listen to her books. We closed the library every weekday evening.
“Why is everything so….” I once asked Miss Willie Mae. A person could ask Miss Willie Mae anything and get the truth – or her version – which was usually dead on.
“Segregated – not legally, but by choice?” I asked her.
“People are scared. People are ignorant. It works both way, hon. We – when I say that I mean us black folks – got our rights but we still ain’t got the money or real ways to make the money. Whites – they got their rights and they ain’t money yet. But they still unsure how to intermingle to do things with us, be it church, or talking to each other, or even politics and schooling. Pretty funny, when you think about it! But give things time – we got all the time in the world to fix things in Kirkley County. We get started right here!” she pointed to the ground. “We help folks get good books and we help folks get to interacting with one another. That’s why I’m your best kept secret!”
I laughed: she was right!
On my daughter’s fourteenth birthday, I quietly took out my only picture of her from my purse and gazed at it, longing for her. I remembered the feel of her soft crocheted blanket I had made her. I remembered how her tiny finger had wrapped around mine as I held her. “Never hold the baby!” my mother had yelled at me when I had made the request, breaking my promise to the social worker. I knew I had no choice but to give her the life I could not. I had an hour with Bethany – an hour to keep for eternity – for the road I had taken.
My eyes filled with tears as I returned Bethany’s picture to the hidden part of my wallet, placed the wallet into my purse, and dropped it under the checkout counter. I rotated in my library swivel chair and picked up my barcode wand to finish book return. Night was descending and Miss Willie Mae flipped the closed sign on the library door. She picked up her duster and turned to me, “You looking at her again? It must be November.”
I looked up in shock.
“I see you crying. I see you holding that baby’s picture. Every November, sneaking a peek when you think I am not watching you.”
“I cry because I’m sad,” I told her, putting a book on the shelving cart.
“Who is the baby?” Miss Willie Mae asked. “Because you pull her picture out every November and I’ve seen it for years. Hon, what happened?”
“How many years have I been here, Miss Willie Mae?”
“Ten, sugar. Ten years.”
Miss Willie Mae finished dusting and began to roll up her vacuum cord, “Secrets – all of us got ‘em.”
“Yes, ma’am, we all do,” I agreed.
“Way I see it,” Miss Willie Mae’s brown eyes bore into my blue ones, “One secret of yours for one of mine. I find that fair, don’t you?”
I sighed. I was cornered. What secret could the gregarious and much loved Miss Willie Mae have? What could her secret be?
“The picture is my daughter – I had her at nineteen.”
“Where is she now?” Miss Wilie Mae asked, bringing me more books to check in.
“With her adopted parents – I even got to pick them. They are real nice people. I do not know their names, but I know he is a doctor and she is a teacher. They tried to have a baby for ten years before I had Bethany,” my eyes welled with tears and I wiped them away. “I got pregnant at a frat party. The father did not want to marry me; he was a popular football player and I was a girl who liked to party. We drank too much and got pregnant in our stupidity. I did not want to marry him either. Abortion is not something I believe in.”
“You did right, chile,” Miss Willie Mae came and took my hand, “You are brave, and you are good. I bet your Bethany’s parents are mighty appreciative of your sacrifice.”
“They are. I get a letter every year, through the adoption agency,” I told Miss Willie, “She is already a prima ballerina and wants to become a professional ballerina. She also loves to read. How cool is that?”
“Wondrous,” Miss Willie Mae squeezed my hand and handed me tissues.
“Your turn now, Miss Willie Mae, tell me your secret,” I asked her.
Miss Willie Mae snorted, “You won’t believe me.” She paused as I cocked my eyebrow.
“I can’t read.”
“That’s a load of crap!” my years in the Deep South had acquired local sayings, “ I have seen you read from your Bible in church for years – you dragged me enough – and I have seen you read hymnal books to sing in the choir.”
“I always handed it to you to turn to,” she reminded me.
“I thought that was because I’m a Yankee heathen,” I laughed and then looked up at her. She smiled.
“Coping mechanism?” she laughed, “Fooling folks? I have gotten very good. Often, I just memorize or follow along. Being old, I get to act as if I am butting into people’s business. I ain’t. I am hiding my secret. I can’t read.”
My mind raced over the last decade. Checkouts were twice a week with Miss Willie Mae – all books on audio or CD – no print books – I had seen her tidy and edge shelves, but never had I seen her shelve a book.
“Where best to hide being illiterate in a small town than in a library?” Miss Willie Mae continued.
“Genius,” I told her, “Truly smart. But why can’t you read, Miss Willie Mae?”
“Give me that book,” she pointed at a children’s book on the checkout desk I handed it to her. “That there is the title,” her finger pointed. “That there is the author’s name. That there is where the book goes on the shelf, but I am not so sure where, but it has something to do with the author’s name. The number books are easier for me, because I can count and do math. A person has to know math: I have to pay bills. Outside of signing my name, I’m useless.”
I began to cry again. “Oh, Miss Willie Mae, you aren’t useless. Not one person is ever useless.”
“Darlin’, I’m illiterate. I helped my daddy sharecrop with my brothers because a poor black woman did not have choices growing up in this county. I picked cotton until my fingers bled and I worked in peanut fields from the time I could walk. Then, Mama had more babies and I had to help her at the house. I never got a chance to go to school. When Mama died, I had to raise her young’uns until my daddy remarried. When Mr. Bernard came around, when I was fifteen, he was older nice man and had land. For a black man to own land back then, that was a good choice. I married him – but I learned to love him. I could not give him no children, but he was enough for me. He tried to teach me how to read, but I could not learn. He said I had something wrong, but he got me onto books on the record player and later, I got this job to get books on tape. I love stories – they made my life easier after Mr. Bernard died. I just get my kinfolk to farm the land he left me and I split the money with them. Helps them, helps me.”
I listened in my mind going in one hundred directions. Miss Willie Mae’s syntax and diction were a blend of South Georgia black dialect, general Southern sayings, and my personal observation that listening to audio books had helped her grammar and speech.
“I can teach you to read,” I blurted out before I stopped myself.
“No,” she snapped, “It was a secret for a secret. Not a call for help.”
“It is harder to be illiterate than to become literate,” I snapped back.
She slammed the picture book on the checkout counter and stood on tiptoe to raise her face to glare into mine, “I’m seventy-five. What’s the point?”
“To prove it to you – that you can do it.”
“Not good enough!” she barked, “I’m dead in at least ten years.”
“It will give my life purpose – to let me do something right for the world,” I told her.
Miss Willie Mae’s sense of conviction must have kicked in.
“You feel like you have to justify what you did with your baby? You already did.”
“I need to make right something to me,” I told her, “Because of the roads I’ve taken.”
“You going on that Frost poem kick again, “ she rolled her eyes, “This get out, you are going to be a white goody -goody, teaching a black woman how to read.”
“I am a human being that is a librarian: literacy is my calling. And why not teach my friend?”
She sniffed, “I’m your friend?”
“I told you about Bethany,” I informed her, “Miss Willie Mae, we close the library every week night. We can do it in less than an hour and spend a few hours working on reading. Come on; give me – us – a chance?”
She eyed me wearily, “You know how to teach reading to an old black woman?”
I laughed, “My dear Miss Willie, I don’t know how to teach anyone anything but how to find a library book and a head of useless knowledge. Do you want to learn with me?
“Sure,” she agreed, shaking the hand I put out and pulled me into a hug, “We’re going to screw this up real good.”
“Hey, Miss Willie Mae, Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was a senior citizen,” I informed her.
“I always thought she did good stuff. Just don’t go on me,” she hit the big book near my desk, a paperweight I had from my college years. “I saw the movie,” she once told me.
“Oh, you never know….” I giggled.
Learning how to teach an adult reader was new to me and I embraced the new technology our library had recently added: the Internet. I searched for adult literacy software, but Miss Willie Mae was adamant about technology: there was to be NO technology. Sighing, I consulted with a local adult literacy program in Albany, Georgia to order what I needed. Miss Willie Mae’s adult literacy program focused solely on reading, not writing. I was not pleased with her decision, but I respected it. She only desired literacy, not composition.
Soon, we were rushing through our evening library chores and work to begin her education. “You have a million words in your head but you don’t even realize it,” I told Miss Willie Mae. She shook her head. I had prepared a table of items from the grocery store to prove my point.
“Go find me oatmeal,” I asked her.
Glaring at me, she got up and picked up a box of Quaker oats.
“Huh, I knew that,” she grinned, “Oatmeal. Say, that sounds like two words that is one word. Can that be?”
“Yes, it is called a compound noun, but more on that later, okay? Please go find me tea.”
She returned to the table and brought back Lipton Tea.
“So I can read some?” she took the tea and oatmeal back to the table.
“Bring me Coke.”
“Coca Cola,” she took her finger and underlined the words.
“You have a visual vocabulary, Miss Willie Mae,” I told her.
She nodded, feeling empowered (as the training books had told adult learners would), and we began our lesson. Often, she would throw down the sight words and comment, “The babies read this”, and I would remind her Rome was not built in a day. “But I ain’t Rome,” she muttered and we would continue.
By the end of the first month, Miss Willie read an entire children’s book without flaws. I taught her how to shelve by location and the author’s last name in the Easy section of the library to help me and the ABC 123 concept furthered helped her fluency. Before long, she was using the phone book to find her friends and relatives “to check on them, you know,” and was amazed how things did run in ABC 123 order in life besides a library. “I want to use my reading in my everyday life,” she commented. She continued to listen to her books on CD, but made a point to practice reading the back of the CD book jacket.
By the end of the first year, Miss Willie Mae was reading her Bible, slowly, a bit hesitantly in Bible study. I accompanied her and tried to hold back my grins. “You are like a proud mother,” she patted my leg. “I mean –“
“It is fine, Miss Willie Mae,” I grinned, “I am a proud FRIEND. You are reading. Now, do the begets of Jesus,” I turned to the New Testament. She grinned at me and proceeded to do so.
I lived for Miss Willie Mae’s lessons. She lived for the lessons. Although not officially disowned by my parents, I did my expected Christmas card and phone calls twice a year. The relationship was strained, at best, but Miss Willie Mae would tell me to learn to forgive – “Someday, hon, you’ll want it!” she told me. Yet my mother figure had become Miss Willie Mae. She was also my best friend. She opened the world of reading again to me and eventually, began to do story-time to the children in the library instead of shushing them to hush.
One day, Miss Willie Mae did not come to work. . Worried, I closed the library and went to her farm, located outside of town, and banged on her door. “Willie Mae!” I yelled. I walked around the back of the old farmhouse and banged on her bedroom window. Her blinds were drawn. Calling for her nephew, I found him in the barn, working on the tractor.
“Miss Willie Mae didn’t show up at work today. I want to check on her. Do you have a house key? She normally would call me!”
“Yes ma’am,” he answered, taking the house key out of his pocket, “But Aunt Willie Mae don’t like anyone just barging into her house….”
“She didn’t come in for story-time,” I snapped.
Her nephew grabbed the key back, “Come on! Something must be wrong. Aunt Willie Mae lives for that story-time with those young’uns…”
The two worst days of my life were giving up my daughter and then, finding my best friend dead in her bed. She had died during a nap, preparing for another afternoon and evening at the library, to clean, to read stories to the children after school, and to help shelve books. I held her hand as her nephew called the ambulance and he held my hand when the paramedics loaded Miss Willie Mae into the ambulance and quietly died in her sleep from a heart attack.
Her relatives planned her funeral; a huge event that brought the community into the small black church where she had found Jesus as a child and sang in her choir, pretending to know the words in the hymn book. In her years of literacy, Miss Willie Mae lead the singing, held the hymn book, and with great dignity, teach words to both children and adults any words in a song they didn’t know. Not a single pew had room and I, her friend, had a seat of honor with her family. The preacher commented, “Miss Willie Mae would be delighted at the standing room only.” I was prouder that the church was fully integrated: Miss Willie Mae had brought black and white in our community together in life at the library and they came to bid her goodbye. We could only hope and pray that both communities would eventually become one. Before the funeral began, her nephew placed a letter into my hands.
“This is for you,” he told me.
“From whom?” I queried.
“Aunt Willie Mae,” he looked at me curiously and patted my back, “She gave me the letter a few months ago. She said if she died, you were to read it, privately.”
During the ceremony in the old black church in Kirkley County, I clutched the letter. I knew Miss Willie must have had the letter dictated because she never learned to write, just read. I watched the choir sing, the sermon preached, and an alter call to find Christ as Miss Willie Mae had so embodied. Both black and white individuals stood up to find Jesus – Miss Willie’s goal for everyone in this life: eternal salvation for the next life.
I left quietly, disappearing into the afternoon and opened the library. We had closed it for the day to allow our library family to say goodbye to Miss Willie. Not one single staff member had ever learned of her inability to read and her ability to read from our literacy instruction. She had also taken the secret of my daughter to her grave.
Best friends kept secrets.
I opened the letter and my eyes shot up to see the miniscule penmanship and perhaps only letter ever written by Miss Willie Mae Garrett.
“To my friend:
You are sitting in the library and it is empty. Knowing you, you had the library closed to bury me. A library should always be open. People got books to read.
I love you. I cannot tell you how much I love you. I never had children, but you are my child, my teacher, and crazy enough, my best friend.
I learned to write during the day. I copied books until I got what you use to say would be my voice. This is my voice you are reading. I owe my voice to you. My handwriting isn’t good, but it is legible.
The night we traded secrets, I kept one from you. My man left me over one hundred acres and you know that. Everyone knows I have land. But what folks do not know is that I have some money put back. I use to call it my “nest egg” but the banker man says it is more than a “nest egg.” I am leaving you some of my money.
I watched you grieve for too many years over your daughter, missing her. A good mother gives her child chances. You did. She should be over eighteen, if my math does not fail me, and I want you to take what my lawyer gives to you to find her. Use that Internet you so love in the library and go find your Bethany.
Look upward and think of me when you read.
Love, Willie Mae”
P.S. I read . I found it long and that fancy word you like to use about cleaning the bathroom: “tedious.” The movie, in this regard, was better.
The tears flowed down my cheeks as I laughed over Miss Willie Mae’s sole letter to the world, addressed to me, and looked upward. I would find Bethany, somewhere, out there, thanks to the generosity of Miss Willie Mae.
Six months later, I was back in Ann Arbor, my hometown. My parents and I sat for hours in their living room as I told them the story of Miss Willie Mae and I felt the need to repair my past by finding Bethany. In addition, I needed to make peace with them – and they readily desired peace with me.
“I think of her daily,” my mother sobbed, as I took her into my arms. Years of resentment and anger began to heal during my visit to my parents and concluded the night I bought three tickets for Swan Lake. I had hired a private investigator with the funds Miss Willie Mae had left me. I had run out leads early in my research online and the financial ability to hire a professional had found Bethany. I had been shocked and delighted to know: Bethany wanted to meet me as well and her parents were very receptive and even expressed appreciation for my own sacrifice to give them a child.
My father, mother, and I sat down as the curtain opened and I watched my daughter perform. Bethany had the lead in Swan Lake, and watching her perform would become the highlight of my life next to the first time I heard Miss Willie Mae read without guidance. My daughter was beautiful– and most of all, she was a talented ballerina. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I told my mother. “What if this is a road I am not to take?”
“This is the road not taken,” my father quoted and pointed, “That is your road. Get on it.”
“Great Frost analogy, Dad,” I clutched my bag to my chest and swallowed hard.
“Sweetheart, you made the arrangements with her parents last month – they all are expecting us. Bethany wanted to meet you after you saw her dance. It’s important to her,” my mother read her program and smiled at me, “Do you have the blanket?”
“I kept it on my bed for years,” I whispered, taking it out from my large bag and held it. The softness reminded me of that last moment I had held Bethany. Now, I was watching her.
After the ballet, my parents and I went to my daughter’s dressing room and greeted by a smiling couple. The door to her dressing room unopened, her adopted mother embraced me. “She has your eyes,” she said, taking my shaking hand. “Come – come and meet our daughter. She danced well tonight, but she said she wanted to just look out into the audience to find you.”
She opened the dressing room door. Looking up from the lighted mirror, the reflection of my blue eyes met my own and my daughter smiled shyly at me, with tears, steaking her stage makeup.
“Abby?” she whispered nervously. I answered and I took the one road less traveled by and closed the dressing room door to meet my daughter. Thanks to Miss Willie Mae, that made all the difference.
In 1988, a young librarian escapes her past into South Georgia where her career and personal life change forever when she meets Miss Willie Mae, the library's custodian. Sharing secrets, Miss Willie Mae learns to read and ultimately, will change the librarian's life forever - and help her confront her own secret! A story of secrets, friendship, and literacy, The Reading Of Miss Willie Mae will bring a smile to your face and maybe a tear to your eye!