February 18, 2005
Mildred Toaz, as I remember her.
Even in the midst of bomb shelters in our backyards, Air Observance Corps,
Sputnik and fear of communism, the '50s were a time of innocence
for me. It was during this period I first met and grew to love
Vaguely I recall hearing she came back to Oklahoma
after living in Wisconsin for a time. I cannot verify that. I do
know she lived with her brother, Harold and his wife, Healon.
They both taught school at Limestone Gap, Atoka County. Mildred,
also a school teacher, taught at Redden, Oklahoma.
were, for the most part, from McGee Valley. I'm sure Mildred
taught at other schools but it is the one-room school at Redden I
recall best. Because, while learning to spot and identify
aircraft, I acquired a far more beneficial skill.
an awesome tool, at least for me. What I see I retain much longer
than what I'm told. And this lesson was by accident not design.
Because, I doubt that childless, middle-aged, spinster
school teacher, would appreciate anyone trumpeting her deeds,
either then or now.
I couldn't have been more than nine or ten
when I first became aware of a situation that so intrigued me I
made a point to keep a watchful eye on it. As it happened, I
blundered into my discovery when I opened the wrong door and
found Mildred in the middle of dressing to join the family for
Christmas dinner. With no false modesty on her part, she asked me
to come in and close the door.
I scooted onto the edge of her bed
and watched. At first fascinated, then in disbelief. When she
pulled her print dress over her head, I saw her underwear. Well,
of course, I'd seen a woman's under pants before but, Mildred
wore boxer shorts. Men's boxer shorts and, they were patched. A
safety pin held her petticoat strap in place.
Now, I don't recall
ever considering my family poor, though looking back I can
truthfully say we were. But back then everyone I knew had no more
than we did though many had less. Still, seeing Mildred in such
obvious hand-me-down undergarments made me uncomfortable. Far
more so than her prior state of undress had done. In my
naiveté, I remember wondering why this lady wore such
pathetic clothing. After all, she was a school teacher. In my
mind that meant money, and lots of it.
Not wanting to overstep
the bounds of good manners or abuse my privileged status, I
remained silent and tucked my questions away. Later I would ask
"Because she spends her money on others," my mother
answered, when I broached the topic of my newest curiosity to
"All of it?"
"If she's wearing her brother's castoff
underwear I suspect she spends it all."
I suppose I could have
ask more questions but the idea of Mildred spending every penny
she made on other people confused and bewildered me. So, instead
of taking someone else's word for her actions, I made it my
business to find out for myself.
It was an occupation that filled
years and told volumes about the woman I watched.
Mildred took from one to three children to town and bought jeans,
dresses or coats for each as their need dictated. Shoes were more
often than not taken to the cobbler for repair. After all, I soon
realized, even school teachers weren't made of money. But when
the re-soled shoes grew too thin to hold another patch, Mildred
replaced them with new ones. Often, she bought & brought boxes of
groceries to school: buckets of Mrs. Tucker's Lard, sacks of
flour, corn meal and sugar. These staples were sent to the
neediest of families in the valley. Now and then there was even a
pair of man-sized brogans or a cotton, print dress tucked in the
bottom of a box. Man, woman or child, it didn't matter to her.
When she saw a need, she did her best to meet it.
Even with the
passage of time her deeds still inspire me. Yet I've wondered too
about what her life was like before Redden and the families in
the valley. What prompted her to give so generously to those less
fortunate than herself? Had she ever known the love of a man? If
so, what happened?
Perhaps it's the romantic in me but, I like to
think there was someone special in her past. Someone so special
that when she lost him she dedicated herself to others rather
than settle for less. All I'm certain of is she taught me meaning
of selfless love. Much more productive than aircraft watching,
don't you think?