by millie cowan
while driving, I saw the reflection of an old woman in my rear view
mirror , and I wondered who else was in the car...before I realized
the stranger in my car was ME!How had I matured so quickly? When did
I grow up? How long did it take for that white, white hair to get
there, and when did it start to change? That face...still with the
pug nose and high Russian cheeks...now a bit fuller, and the lips
& chin a bit droopier...but still ME pushing 80...still driving,
still playing tennis, still farming and still loving life in spite
of ( or maybe because of) all the events that rushed into my mind
that very day I realized I am now an old lady, or at very least, an
Russian cheeks came from my mother who, like the characters in Fiddler
on the Roof, left the shtetel (small village) in old Russia with my
father and emigrated to the United States, where they were told the
streets were paved with gold.
was the last of seven children from this loveless, arranged marriage,
and life in their new world was anything but golden. One by one the
kids left their joyless household, with the younger ones sent to foster
homes, to escape the hostility, anger and slapping around we got from
both parents, and they, from each other.
sisters and brothers were incredibly wonderful people. I did not have
the luxury of knowing, or of living in the same house with them for
any length of time during my childhood. The blank in my life is that
I have no memory of my siblings when they were children. It wasn¹t
until they were older and either on their own, or married, that they
were able to reach down to me, the baby, and pull me up into their
own homes and lives and make me realize I really did have family who
cared. Prior to their rescue, I was a wreck of a kid who felt ugly,
unwanted, and I cried myself to sleep every night with very strange,
introspective thoughts that gradually formed a backbone that served
me well as life began to seek me out and put me to the test.
and trying to grow up in South Philly (the home of Mario Lanza and
the great contralto, Marian Anderson) was in itself a test of survival.
The dirt, the poverty, the garbage, the ashes at the sidewalks, the
pushcarts with rotting vegetables, the summer mosquitoes, the multi-ethnic
cultures, the crime, the hits on youngsters, the sirens, the cheap
pot smokers, the numbers runners, formed a minefield wherein we learned
to tread nimbly.
As a kid, I was a perfect numbers runner, because I was so young,
and non-suspect—so innocent, that I didn¹t even know what
I was doing with that little white piece of paper with jottings on
it, as I carried it from designated place to place, and was given
a pat on my tush along with a nickel at the end of my run.
not only survived, but I THRIVED, as I tried to get an education at
night: working at grown-up jobs after lying about my young age; learning
there was a world and a life outside of South Philadelphia; learning
not to have a dress cut too low, or runs in my stockings; to keep
my left hand in my lap while eating, and which fork to use when an
excess of utensils faced me in a fancy setting.
I secretly dreamed of becoming an actress (because I was the lead
in a school play), and alternately thought I'd become an attorney
(because I successfully sued my father for child support.) Or perhaps
a great writer (encouraged by my brother, Phil "not to be another
beautiful dumb one" as he viewed many women.) However, I was
stymied by that old, nagging image of myself as ugly and unworthy
and had a convenient excuse for not reaching for the moon.
the moon of high achievement eluded me because of my own hangups,
I managed to grasp lots of stars along the way. After a bit of a fling
with one of my employers who gave me a peek into the world of the
wealthy, I married my childhood sweetheart, instead...and together,
by some miracle and a lot of hard work, we, ourselves, achieved material
comfort we never could have dreamed as children in South Philly. Together,
by pooling our talents, we built beautiful houses for the rich. We
are now on a 90-acre farm with cows, chickens, dogs, flowers and birds.
It is ironic that I , who knew only a concrete jungle while growing
up, and never saw a tree until I was l6 years old, am now surrounded
by hundreds of trees and mountains and fresh air and and water.
we are no longer counted among the have-nots, I continue to identify
with the powerless. My years of involvement with unpopular causes—the
farmworkers, the ACLU, minority churches, political candidates whorarely
won—brought a richness of friends and purpose to my busy life.
Love is the ingredient that has nurtured and sustained me. A husband
who tells me I am beautiful (even now with my white hair and wrinkles),
a daughter whose respect, wisdom and devotion saw me through the despair
of losing a son to suicide, and friends who were the adhesive that
held us together during dark times.
have I learned about this trip from the cradle to now? That life is
neither all good, nor all bad, but a mosaic of events, opportunities,
successes and failures...days of joy and elation, and weeks of sadness
and helplessness. Would I have chosen to take this journey? Probably
not...but, once here, there is no turning back. The force of life
propels us onward to an end (or new beginning) we each define in our
has spent a lifetime involved in politics and the Civil Liberties
Union. She and her husband of 65 years, Howard, live 6 months of the
year in Florida, and six months on their farm in Burnsville, N.C.
winning a small prize in a third grade composition class, I was encouraged
by the teacher to “play with words”, and I have been doing
just that ever since. I have never submitted anything for publication,
because the words of my brother, my hero, rang in my head. He was
a fabulous writer & when encouraged to continue writing, his answer
was “there is so much trash being written, why should I add
to the heap”. So, fearing to “add to the heap”,
I have been writing when moved to do so, without ever imagining that
anyone else might want to read what I write. Consequently, this will
be my very first published article, for which I thank you. ~ Millie