Sunday, September 6, 2015

9/7/15—Being Millie

Growing up in a military family and moving every two years, a lot of people breeze in and out of your life. But one of those people, in the short time we knew her, made an indelible impression on me. 

She was a friend of my mother's. My mother didn't really count many people as a friend in the 21 years I knew her. And of the friends she did have, none of them were people that particularly interested me. But then there was Millie. 

We came across Millie in St. Louis. Nobody's really sure how my mom met her, but it was probably at an event that they both attended. My dad and her husband were in the same industry, but her husband wasn't currently in the military. And, since when you live on a military base your life is kind of insular, and seeing as how half the people on base worked for my father, Millie was probably the only person my mother could be really candid with at the time. 

Another thing that set Millie apart was that, when my mom hung out with her, she frequently brought me along. Sometimes my siblings would come, too. With most of the people we would encounter over the years, our job was to "make an appearance", then disappear as if we didn't exist. My parents entertained a lot, so there was a lot of "appearance making". But not with Millie. We were there because we wanted to be and because she wanted us there. 

What really set her apart, though, was that she was wacky—and completely unselfconscious about her wackiness. "Colorful" is too dull a word for Millie. But it's a good word, because when you were with her, you lived in color. 

The story is that Millie was one of the country's first weather girls—pretty girls they put on TV to read the weather. By the time we knew Millie, though, she was pretty round and had aged somewhat. She dressed eccentrically in designer eccentric designers. She was also very rich. The story's not clear, but she apparently owned radio stations and beauty supply stores. So she lived in a big house in a very nice part of St. Louis. One of my sisters remembers that she had a runway in her basement and she would get all these designer samples and make my sister put them on and walk the runway. 

My mom told me a story that Millie, who didn't "look rich", once went into a tony store downtown—the kind where the salespeople work on commission—and nobody would wait on her. When someone finally came over to her and was nice, she bought 24 place settings of expensive silverware and, for good measure, had them wrap up the store display she waited next to for so long. She thought it was cute. A few salespeople learned some lessons about profiling prospects that day, I imagine. 

Another Millie story is a painting I have hanging in my house, and which is featured above. My mom admired it, thinking Millie painted it. After all, Millie had SAID she had painted it. So the next thing you know, the painting arrives at our house and, down at the bottom, the real artist's name was scratched out and, on top, in paint that doesn't even really match the painting, you see Millie's signature. The painting never matched the decor of our home, but it always hung in a prominent location. It made me smile. And I'm guessing it did the same for my mom. 

As a young teenager, I was, at once, intimidated by Millie's eccentricity and drawn to it. There was probably a part of me that knew I was gravitating toward oddness myself, so Millie was a role model, of sorts. Part of me also thinks my mom knew this and brought me along for all the "ladies lunches" with Millie because of it. My mom was pretty open minded and creative, but much of my life I've kind of oozed extra right-brainedness...enough that I wasn't going to blend innocuously into society. So Millie, while beyond my own comfort zone in that arena, was nonetheless an example of someone who was "out there" that was still endearing to someone creatively conservative like my mom. 

When I think back on my upbringing, much of it renders in black and white. But when Millie was around, things were vibrant. I googled her recently to find she died in her sleep two years ago at the age of 87. Her husband and all 12 of her siblings pre-deceased her. Her obituary reads, "Millie truly had a passion for life and was an accomplished TV anchor woman, fashion designer, hair stylist and host of the International Beauty Show in NYC. Besides professional accomplishments, Millie loved to host dinner parties and she was a wonderful cook."

The other day I found myself thinking about Millie and how our brief encounter with her influenced my life. I don't have Millie's money, but I know I go around looking like someone with far more money woes than I actually have...haha. I often think about how I wouldn't fit into my parent's world, with all its social mores and protocol. I don't even fit into mainstream society very well. And then the energy of Millie washes over me and I remember I don't have to fit into a mold in order to "be". 

I'm not sure there's a moral to today's story or not. I suppose it could be that Millie never had any idea what an influence she had on my life, nor that my siblings would always remember her. Because she stood out. I'm always afraid people never remember me, but I've got a weird name and I stand out. So maybe I'm not so forgettable, after all. And maybe I've inspired some young girl to feel OK about being a little eccentric. 

But there's also the thing about all the loss she's had in her life and how she kept shining her light. I didn't know it then, but I know now...not everyone loves "an original". In the conservative government circles her husband walked in, she was likely a topic of discussion. And yet she never stopped being Millie. So many of the ladies of that time and place pulled back on who they were to fit into the mold. I saw my mother gravitate toward things outside of the mold from time to time...not enough to arouse suspicion, but enough for a friend like Millie to seem uncharacteristic. 

I think both paths are hard...homogenizing yourself and letting yourself run free. But I'll bet pretty much everyone struggles with that on some level from time to time. The older I get, the more like Millie I become. And I kind of like the thought of that. 

To see a picture of Millie from her broadcasting days, visit this post at