Tuesday, January 07, 2014
Losing a Force of Nature
After I ran through any of my behavior that might cause the head of the school to pull me out of playhouse time and determined I should be clear, I felt pretty special. I mean, Mrs. Miller needed my help with something. So I go out into the hall with her, and she sits down in a little chair. "Mary, I want you to pull out any gray hairs you see." Whaaaat?? Well, of course I didn't say that. I was a little kid and a grown up friend and teacher told me to do something, so, OK. I spent several minutes eyeing any gray hair in her side-part (I don't think there were very many) and yanking them out. Mission accomplished. Then I went back to my classroom.
Now, why Mrs. Miller had asked me to perform this particular honor, I'll never know. Maybe because she knew I needed to be rescued from Mrs. Jones' class or maybe because my family and hers were such good friends that she knew I could be trusted. Whatever. I was asked to do a task, and I completed it to her satisfaction. That's my earliest definable memory of this incredible woman, who'd known me since birth.
She started one of the first modern kindergartens in Chattanooga, Tennessee, pulling together creative, loving teachers (including my mother) and drawing a rather large number of 4- and 5-year-olds for her half-day school.
Summer of '63 - I was 12 - she hired my sister Cindy and me to 1) help organize/cut out/assemble all the artwork projects for the upcoming kindergarten year, and 2) babysit for 2-year-old Star (you were a handful, Star). So in the midst of "Blowin' in the Wind" and Martin Luther King's March on Washington, we were camped out at the Millers cutting out circus animal patterns, chasing a 2-year-old, and eating our weight in Campbell's tomato soup (made with milk, not water). I know many of my famous organizing skills were birthed during the summer of '63.
The summer I left for college, we sold our house on South Moore Road and moved - guess where? - next door to our good friends the Millers. Now we really were like one big combined happy family. The Fraziers and the Millers.
I'm writing this rambling little memoir because Fonza Miller Barkley died on Sunday at age 93. If I had to sum her up in one word, I'd say "Enthusiasm!!" (complete with exclamation marks). She was tall and had impeccable posture. When someone with her physical stature is enthusiastic, then - wow - that energy just fills the universe.
My last memory of her was sharing brunch with her and son Glenn last spring when I was in Chattanooga for a weekend reunion. Though older and frailer (too many gray hairs to pull out now!), that famous enthusiasm was still there. We laughed and hugged tight before saying our goodbyes. I'm so glad I got to share one more tiny slice of my life with her.
Farewell, Fonza. It's a hap-hap-happy day in Heaven. There'll certainly never be a dull moment up there, dear lady. And no more gray hairs!