At 95, she’s still a rebel

Savannah Morning News

March 20, 2016

Underneath it all, Mildred White Greear is a poet. She sees things in metaphor. The sound of black families during a lynching? Think of the lowest note a pipe organ can register, she said. Think of a whistle blowing at midnight sending shift workers back to work.

Greear, who lives in Helen, Ga., is 95. She grew up in Mississippi, where lynchings were not uncommon; neither, she added, were the morning-after burnt smells of a cross in the neighborhood, photographs of Klansmen in parades or, as she writes in her collection of poems, “Going into Mississippi Dark, “seeing one white shroud enter my mother’s room and dissolve into my father.”

After saying that, she stops, her long grey hair pulled back into a ponytail, resting on one shoulder, and looks out the large window that faces horses and hills. She’s wearing tight yoga pants and a pink v-neck short-sleeved shirt over some white quilted long underwear. “It’s a heavy memory to have lived through. I know the secret Klan greeting too but I’m not going to say it. No, no. I won’t repeat it.”

Greear is also a newspaper columnist, first at the Gainesville Times, now at the White County News in Cleveland, Ga. That happened by default. In 1953, when a group of reporters came to her door in the country asking about chickens she gave such a long-winded answer – and then after deriding them for not having any women on staff – they gave her the job. The name of her column back then? Chicken copy.

Greear is a fighter and a thinker. “I don’t know when one wakes up or when one’s consciousness starts,” she says, without finishing the thought. But it’s something she ponders.

“I was born in Mississippi but I was born to be a rebel,” she says. “The Chattahoochee outside here used to flow nine feet high; now it’s one foot. The river is not respected, especially when 30,000 people come here on a weekend. Someone flushes in Atlanta and we feel it. I want to tell every tourist to go home, except maybe if they look interesting. Then I might invite them in to have a cup of coffee.”

Which reminds her of something else.

“Have you had a tomato sandwich?” she asks her brown eyes bright and challenging.

The trim woman, surrounded by books, stacks of papers, art, flowers and relatives down the road, is intense but not without a sense of humor or a sense of irony. She hated when loggers “raped the forest” of the long-leafed pine in her home state but not when the timber was used to build the state’s first free library, “which meant I could go there on Sundays to read.”

The classic E.B. White and William Strunk, Jr., book, “The Elements of Style,” sits turned to a page on a footstool.

“Every other year I would give that book to a student,” she said. “The other year it was Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet.’”

Through her husband Philip, a botanist and professor at Shorter College who died in 2012, Mildred learned of Ossabaw Island. “Philip said I must go. We might have a project there. So there I am, at lunch, seated between Sandy West and Alan Patton.”

For years, Philip took students from Shorter College to Ossabaw. By the time he died he was blind and deaf, Mildred said. “He wanted to resign. The board wouldn’t let him. It’s not your eyes or ears we value, it’s your vision.”

Greear herself wears no glasses but her hearing is a challenge.

“If I could hear as well as I can see I’d be perfect,” she said.

For years she taught language arts, in Georgia and in Japan, “but I’m fascinated with math. I love prime numbers and Fibonacci. Once I had to take a physics class. I was so scared but the teacher said, ‘You ask the right questions and I can teach you,’ Now I adore physics. Everything is connected,” which made her think of a column she was writing, one that included the “Sevenfold Amen.” When I inquired she started singing it and tapping her long shapely fingers on the table.

To be sure of the hymn – “when you write for the public you better be right” – she called a Presbyterian minister she knows. And that reminded her of another story involving the same person.

“It was years ago after a horrific earthquake in Pakistan and when I went to bed I said to Philip, ‘What can one person do?’ That night I work up in the middle of the floor and heard the words, ‘Send coats.’ The next morning Philip said, ‘Sounds good to me.’”

So that’s what she did. One month later she and others and the minister collected and sent an 18-wheeler full of coats to Pakistan.

“And do you know, the day before yesterday I got a note from a woman who helped load coats for Pakistan?” she said. “Everything is all tied together. Life is so mysterious. It goes in circles.”






Looking at Savannah through fresh eyes

Savannah Morning News column

March 13, 2016

The worry is over. Nothing untoward happened. No purse snatching. No flashing guns (or raincoats). No threatened words. No tire slashing assaults or hold-ups. A ridiculous and annoying mix-up with a vacation rental property, yes, along with some bad art in the place, some bad coffee at a nearby coffee shop and a hall ceiling that collapsed from an upstairs leak, but even that didn’t bother them. “Hey,” my friend said, “at least it wasn’t in my house.”

There’s always plenty to do in Savannah – almost too much. Everyone was nice. Eventually they got the code to go online.

Even if you don’t host out of town friends in your own home for a month away from icy sidewalks, black ice and vicious wind, you worry. You pace. You want things to be perfect. Even if it’s things you have no control over. Like the weather. If it rains, you fret. If the temperature dips, you agonize. Like a cab. If a taxi doesn’t come in a timely manner you stew. This is a lot of pressure you put on yourself. You don’t want to feel that way. There’s nothing you can do about these intangibles. But you worry anyway.

Until you carve out a little time and go visit them in the middle of day. That’s when you remember what it’s like to be on vacation in a strange town where you don’t know anyone, where everything is half-full. Everything is chill. It’s sweet. It’s dope. There they are in the middle of the afternoon, watching “Rake,” an Australian series with a dreamy male lead on Netflix. Not watching. No. Binging. I could never do that in my own town, I tell them. I’d be afraid someone would come over and catch me being slack. There they are, taking an afternoon siesta. There they are out for lunch, having a beer, a glass of wine.

They act as if they’re in Paris or something, as if Savannah is a café society.

Quite the opposite, as it turns out. What are they most happy about in their downtown eastside rental apartment? How close they are to Kroger, that multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-class store with everything you could possibly want. And what’s not there can be found across the street.

“Family Dollar!” Nicole says. “My favorite.”

Full confession: I’ve never been inside Family Dollar, that one or any other one. I was not a fan when it moved in. I was one of many who thought it was tacky when it showed up. What? In our precious historic district? A discount chain store? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Everyone loves a deal. My friends sure do.

They loved Forsyth Park, those pretty blooming bushes (“what are they again? Azaleas? Never heard of ‘em”), some kind of trolley that picks them up, lunch at the Mansion. The creeping green tripped them up. Then I explained. St. Patrick’s Day.

When I went to visit them I loved everything too. We sat in a postage-size, covered back porch, our knees almost touching, and looked out at a lane (not an alley; I had to correct them about that), a wooden fence (not particularly attractive), some electrical wires and the tops of buildings on the next block and schmoozed. And when a stray dog came up, followed by its owner (another vacation rental resident, also in la-la land, so happy was she to be away from the Northeast) we did a little more schmoozing. It felt as if the whole block was on vacation and who could be happier than people on vacation? It doesn’t hurt that the city is beautiful. I guarantee you: my friends were not worrying about the city’s 26 percent poverty rate or the crime wave. Neither were they watching the new City Council on the government channel. They had no opinion about the demise of a horse stable in Parkside, the end of a glorious swatch of open green space so we can get – hold on to your seats – a huge suburban-like shopping complex. They were not fretting about a made-up traffic study (it has to be made-up) saying the new gazillion-acre project down from Whole Foods will not affect our beloved Victory Drive or traffic one little bit. They were not upset that their alderman voted for the project because he thought it was politically expedient.

Their needs were simple. Ribs, seafood, good coffee, occasional company, old friends (me!), a guided tour (not a ghost tour), an invitation to a Shabbat dinner, the fabulous Starlandia with new and used art supplies, a friendly post office (I’m not kidding here).

Where is this town? Sign me up.