Watching Mildred

By Suzy Beal

“Give it back to me! I won’t burn myself, I know how to do it.”

“Mildred, let me do this for you.

“No, give it to me, NOW”

Her gnarled fingers are gripping the curling iron so tightly I can’t get back control of it, short of prying off her fingers.

“OK, I will give it back to you so you can do the front, but you must let me to the back.” We reach a compromise, but she refuses to give it back to me even though she is finished curling her front bangs and sides. Her jaw is set, her eyes challenging me. I see in them the new bride in 1942 standing on the docks in New York City waving good-bye to her husband as he goes off to war in Europe.

The phone rings and I pick it up. “Mildred, your son is on the phone.” She has to let go of the curling iron if she wants to take the phone. Indecision races across her face – she will lose control of one more thing if she gives up the curling iron, but she wants to hear her son’s voice. Her eyes tighten and she squints at me and I see the young pregnant mother leaving with three small children her family and friends to cross the country by train to join her husband as they begin a new life together on the Oregon coast. She chooses the phone. I unplug the curling iron and put it out of sight. I feel like a traitor.

At seventy-one, am I watching my future unfolding? Mildred is a friend I have been visiting every week for two years at her assisted-care facility.   This past week she was moved from her assisted-living home to a transitional care facility because she appears to have lost the use of her left leg. Since I’m not family, I’ve not been given the details of her diagnosis. However, I can tell she is unhappy to be here and she is taking out her anger on me today. Only two weeks ago we were stringing beads and making necklaces in her “home.” Now she has lost so much, she is struggling.

Our battle is over for now, but I feel as though there is so much more at stake here. I can see her standing on the bluff over- looking the Pacific Ocean for the first time, terrified of it and the sound it makes. At ninety-seven she can curl her own hair, after all she raised five children helping each one reach a successful and meaningful life. Each day she loses something important to her. She has a smile, when she uses it, that melts the heart, but if she feels that she is being crossed or talked down to, the smile disappears and she clinches her teeth tightly together and just like her gnarled fingers holding onto the curling iron, there is no opening her up, unless I hand her a chocolate.

She is so much more than this old lady tied to her wheelchair. She has the right to be angry, unhappy and sad that her current situation prohibits her from any choices. Her choices have been taken away along with her freedom, but most days she has a smile for me when I show up and when she clutches my hand I know that that strength comes from her heart.

© Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal has been writing her life story and personal essays for years, but in 2016 started studying with Sheila Bender at  “She has given me the courage to begin to submit pieces for publication,” says Suzy. I’m 72 years old and live in Bend, Oregon.  I was born on the Oregon Coast in Newport.  In 1961 when I was a teenager my parents took all seven of us siblings to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca.  There my dad and brothers built a sailing boat onto which we moved and sailed the Mediterranean.  We later moved to the Caribbean and lived and sailed from St. Croix.”

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to Watching Mildred

  1. Liz Main says:

    What a wonderful story, filled with details of Mildred’s life at different stages. Suzy Beal is a gifted writer.


  2. Liz Main says:

    Suzy Beal is a gifted writer. Weaving together salient details from various stages in Mildred’s life reveals her personality without a wasted word. Powerful.


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