Writing my memoir taught me to abandon shame and brokenness, ignore those with judgmental tendencies, and heal from past hurts. And if my words do nothing else, they will help others to grow and heal.
Scripting a book about one’s life is not for the faint of heart. Are you willing to open yourself up to scrutiny across the globe? Share life's most painful and embarrassing moments and potentially expose family secrets? What if your friends, loved ones, and strangers question your truth? Those are some of the fears and downsides of letting the world in. Yet, the writing journey has many upsides. My book, “Daddy’s House: A Daughter’s Memoir of Setbacks, Triumphs & Rising Above Her Roots,” will be available on December 12, 2023. After reliving some of my most spectacular and horrific moments, I feel like I have grown a new skin.
Completing my story freed me of many feelings I did not realize I held. But once I began writing, pleasant and unpleasant memories and some long buried and forgotten pranced across the page like debutantes as I experienced laughter, tears, joy, and pain. Still, when your story covers 65 years, every remembrance won’t make the cut.
One of those forsaken stories, “Christmas Heartbreak,” came to mind when I thought of releasing my book in December. I waxed nostalgic about the holy season and its impact on me as a child and remembered that while there was much joy during this season, there was the occasional heartbreak. I have found comfort in sharing both, for that is how I heal.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town was one of the most frightening songs I heard as a child. The thought of an omnipresent invisible person with knowledge of my movements shook me to my core and tossed my insides like fruit in a juicer. I stuffed my fingers in my ears to avoid hearing how the invisible “He” knew when I was sleeping, awake, good, or bad. The song reminded me of my father’s trickery and how quickly he could snatch the belt with the silver buckle from the loops of his pants and turn a good day bad.
I thought, what if Santa wrongly believed I was terrible, promised to give me presents, and then took them away? Some nights leading up to Christmas, I tossed and turned and could hardly sleep, worrying about such things. I decided I didn’t trust Santa Claus.
But I’ll never forget how Mama created a whirlwind of smells in our home every Christmas morning that was enough to send a child into hysterics. She baked German chocolate, lane, and lemon-frosted cakes weeks earlier, wrapped them in aluminum foil, and placed them on a tall buffet just out of our reach. The aroma of cornbread dressing with chicken broth, celery, onions, and butter baking in the oven sliced through my nostrils like a razor blade. Even my least favorite dish, turkey as dry as driftwood, was a vision with its golden-brown breast and a cavity filled with juicy stuffing.
Fire crackling in a potbellied stove cast warmth throughout the house, enhancing the pine needle fragrance from a scrawny pine tree chopped from our woods and decked with silver garland, shimmering like a hula skirt. The citrus smell of a crate of oranges and red apples around the tree was warm and inviting. Little Topsy raisins in a box with the picture of a black girl, skinny-legged with plaits standing on her head, tasted like pure sugar. Mama bustled in the kitchen, rattling dishes and pans as steam whistled beneath boiling pots on the stove.
Every year when I was a little girl, Daddy tiptoed into our bedroom on Christmas morning. “Better come see what Santa Claus brought ya’.” I threw the covers back, and my bare feet hit the wooden planks, racing to the living room to look beneath the tree. The sole gift I wanted was the fruit, which we only received at Christmas. With an apple individually wrapped in thin purple paper and smelling like heaven, the juice from an orange sliding down my arm, and a stem of Little Topsy raisins, I didn’t need any presents. I have bad memories of the few occasions we received gifts other than clothing.
Christmas morning, 1957, the year before I started holding real babies, Mama placed my first doll in my arms. I was six. I gazed into her black eyes and felt the softness of her rubber legs, brown like mine. She had five toes melded together on each foot and wore no shoes. I had never seen anything so precious, and she was all mine. That morning, I dragged her to breakfast, to the outhouse, and everywhere else I went. Later that day, I put her in my bed for a nap. “Betsy, don’t be scared,” I told her. “I will wake you up for dinner.”
At dinner, I raced to my room and pulled back the covers. Betsy was gone. I searched under the bed and pillows but could not find my baby. I crept into the kitchen, my chest hitching and tears sliding down my cheeks. I looked up at Mama, standing near the Hotpoint, a stack of empty plates on one side of her and others piled with piping hot food lined up on the counter. “Mama, somebody took Betsy.”
Steam swirled around plates she was dishing turkey and dressing onto. “Did you look under the bed and in the dresser drawers?”
“Yes, Ma’am. But, I didn’t put her under the bed or in no drawer, Mama. I laid her on the bed.” I trudged into the dining room and struggled to open the buffet drawer. I screamed in horror as Betsy stared blank-eyed, her head at one end of the box and limp body at the other, lying like a tiny corpse on the shredded stuffing ripped from her rubber body.
Daddy looked at the destroyed doll and yelled at my little brother. “Boy, get in here.” He slid off the couch and strode to the dining room. “Did you tear up that doll?” Sonny, a curious four-year-old who loved to figure out how things worked, lowered his head. Daddy grabbed him by one arm. His tiny body spun like a rotisserie chicken while Daddy spanked his butt so rapidly it crackled like Fourth of July fireworks.
The following Christmas, there was a new tricycle for Sonny, Rachel, and me to share. Sonny, the adventurer, said, “I wonder what would happen if we tied the cat to the back of our trike.” I held the squirming Tomcat while Sonny tied a rope around his backside and hitched him backward behind the tricycle. “Mildred, since you the biggest, you drive first, and I’ll see what the cat do when you drag ’em.”
The cat was screaming before I climbed on the seat and gripped the handlebars, thrilled to try out the new toy. I pumped my legs like a marathon runner over the bumpy dirt road with Sonny racing alongside me, yelling, “Go, Millie, go!” The cat yowled and clawed the ground until its front paws bled. Daddy rushed out the back door like a black tornado, untied the cat, snatched off his belt, and spanked Sonny and me. I never saw the tricycle after that day.
The rocking horse was a 1959 Christmas present. I hopped out of bed, pulled on my no-name shoes and brown corduroy dress, and ran to the living room. Daddy tossed logs on the fireplace; a case of apples and oranges was snuggled close to the skinny pine tree with missing needles. He smiled and said, “Santa Claus came last night. He left you something outside.” Although there was frost on the ground, and I wasn’t wearing a coat, I followed him outdoors, untrusting that this would turn out well but also guardedly excited to see my surprise.
When I saw the sleek brown and tan Wonder horse on a metal frame suspended by four large silver springs, I raced through the yard, screaming. The pony stood alone across the road from the house in a wide-open space where the garden grew in springtime. Daddy watched, grinning, as I climbed up and touched the caramel-colored hard plastic and curly mane. I bounced up and down until I was too dizzy to stand. Then, I rocked gently back and forth, holding on to white handles stuck on the side of the horse’s head until pea gravel crunching beneath car tires caught my attention.
The car eased to a stop beneath the pecan tree. I recognized Mama and Daddy’s high school classmates from the city and their five children coming for a Christmas visit. The man was stuffed behind the steering wheel dressed in a white shirt and tie. His wife sat primly in the passenger seat, wearing a fancy red dress and lipstick. The rear doors popped open. Their four husky and tow-headed boys jumped from the back seat and darted across the dirt road to the open field, heading straight for me and the rocking horse.
The oldest one said, “Move, girl. Lemme have that hoss.” I was eight. He must have been eleven. I clenched my jaw and slid to the ground. The boy grabbed the handles and stood on the plastic stirrups, bucking and jumping like he was demon-possessed. He jumped off, and another brother hopped on and snatched the horse around. Rachel, Sonny, and I looked on dull-eyed with our arms hanging helplessly at our sides, afraid to confront the boys. We would have been feverishly sucking our fingers if Daddy had not broken the habit the previous year by sticking our fingers in a sock full of hot sauce.
The last boy was roughing up the rocking horse when suddenly, with a loud pop, the front springs snapped loose, dumping him in the dirt. The horse collapsed.
After the city folks were gone, I ran into the living room, where Daddy sat on the sofa talking to Mama and crunching on a Washington apple. “Daddy, those boys tore up the rocking horse.” He stopped chewing and frowned.
“What do you mean they tore it up?”
“That boy told me to get off. Then they kept jerking and snatching the horse ’til it broke.”
Daddy walked outside, surveyed the damage, picked up the wreck, and tossed it in the burn pile. “That’ll teach you not to stand up to somebody taking your stuff. There won’t be no more Christmas gifts.” For years, I enjoyed the smells, tastes, and colors Mama created, absent anything in a box or wrapped in shiny paper with a bow for Christmas. And that was just fine with me. One less heartbreak at Christmas.
Storytelling is one of the most freeing things I have ever done. Whether it is a tale of woe or joy, I am fulfilled, for the telling takes me to a place of healing, serenity, and peace.
Mildred J Mills is the third of seventeen children born and raised on a sixty-acre farm in Wetumpka, Alabama, where she grew up picking cotton. She is a retired IT executive and holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in creative writing/nonfiction. Her essay, “Daddy’s House,” won the 2022 Etruscan Prize and is published in The Etruscan Press. She authored “Amazing Grace,” an essay which was published in the anthology, A Journey into Art, in 2023. Daddy’s House: A Daughter’s Memoir of Setbacks, Triumphs & Rising Above Her Roots is her first book. Mildred lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and enjoys tennis and travel. Follow Mildred on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.