Western North Carolina Woman

in retrospect
by millie cowan

Today, 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 ELDER!

The 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.

I 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.

My 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.

Living 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.

I 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.

Although 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.

Although 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.

Although 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.

What 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 own way.


Millie Cowan 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.


After 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 Cowan


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