My widowed mother took a job in a town 50 miles from the subsistence farm we lived on and moved us there when I was three. I still remember the trip up there in Mr. Parnell’s old hissing and popping farm truck. A good crowd had gathered to welcome us: one of my cousins, some neighbors of various complexions, a widow that lived on the wooded hill behind our rent house and her reclusive artist sister, whose studio was visible from our back porch.
Mother left me with the other widow fairly often when she went to work until she was able to employ Modine both to keep house and baby sit. When I was at the other widow’s house, I gravitated to her sister the artist’s studio as often as possible because she was an interesting person who made few demands on a kid and genuinely enjoyed my company. She wore a large hearing aid that did little good and chain smoked cigarettes, seldom removing them from her lips. She would sketch and talk and laugh and satirize church people (the way they dressed with “their little bonnets,” the way they avoided her and they way they were hearers only and not doers). Of course, I didn’t know the word “hypocrisy” at the time, but I understood her point completely.
The summer after first grade, my artist friend asked me if I knew Miss Dyer, who taught music at the school.
“Yes, m’am, she came to our room and taught us “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “Are You Sleeping.”
“I’m going to walk to her house. Will you come with me?”
“Where does she live?”
“Over on Quaker Street.”
“Yes, m’am. I’ll go with you.”
So she lit a smoke and we set out on our rather long journey. She laughed and talked the whole trek, making jokes about the big houses and manicured lawns on Madison Street. Of course, I didn’t know the word “ostentatious” at the time, but I understood her point completely.
Quaker Street was just a gravel road back then, and Mrs. Dyer lived way out there. I remember stopping at a little grocery store, where my artist friend bought me an RC and one of those little cans of peanuts with money in it as a prize. It looked like a snuff can. We had a lovely time sitting on the porch of that little store, she smoking and talking and I giggling and deeply enjoying the unexpected repast.
When we got to Miss Dyer’s house, she greeted us, called me by name and brought out a tray of cookies and a pitcher of water. The two gifted ladies had a wonderful visit while I petted a cat named Mozart under the Chinaberry tree. I don’t remember the trip home.
Thoreau said he didn’t want to come to the end of his life and discover he had not lived. Both these ladies have long since passed on. I am sure they truly lived. I am sure they live. Of course, I didn’t know the word “mentor” at the time, but my life was enriched by more than one.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.