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She nests upon a branch of my viburnum shrub. We wait with her.

Poverty with its multi-faceted violence scours psyches of survivors eking out a living—but not all are left in dust-pommeled gangways—throughways for rats—as recounted in Vivian Gibson’s memoir, The Last Children of Mill Creek (2020).

As a pre-teen, she witnessed the 1959 demolition of the historic four-hundred-square-foot neighborhood of twenty thousand underpaid African American workers in St. Louis, Missouri; its benign neglect, for decades, had contributed to the Mill Creek’s “blightedness” that green-lighted government funding for another Interstate for suburban workers, needing faster access to their city jobs. After the quick work of the medicine balls and tractors, Mill Creek’s bombed-out landscape became known as “Hiroshima Flats.”

What could have been a scorching account of disrupted families, churches, and businesses—a viable through invisible community to the world around it—it was told with honesty, humor, replete with wisdom. Life inside those cold-water flats, heated by coal and wood-burning stoves, many with no indoor plumbing, was not without its rules and consequences. Unique patterns of communication developed among families, bonding them for life.

Such experiences had unfolded within the Ross’s 800-square-foot flat in the 2600 block of Bernard Avenue where lived the author’s seven siblings and her parents, their teachers of positive self-regard, resourcefulness, and the value of education and hard work. All moved through daunting hardships—at times—with ease. Detailed accounts jumped off the pages: their Saturday morning “shopping” at Soulard Market, returning home on the streetcar with bags of bruised fruits and vegetables, left on the ground by the farmers. No one was ever hungry in the Ross household.

Vivian Gibson’s unflinching acceptance of her hardscrabble beginnings contributed to the accomplished woman she has become: author, fashion designer, cook, wife, and mother. She has much to teach us in her memoir, The Last Children of Mill Creek.

His eyes studied his sneaker foot, with scarring on his calf resembling vanilla ice cream oozing through a chocolate bar. Red shorts concealed the stump of his other leg as he crutch-walked toward his van parked in the handicapped zone of the YMCA; with each step, the swim bag around his neck rolled across his meaty chest. Contentment flooded his persona like sunset-sky, having accomplished yet another challenge, this day.

Seated in the all-weather armchair outside the entrance of the YMCA smiled a silver-haired windblown senior, her eyes alive with spirit as she waited for Call-a-Ride. Next to her edematous legs stood her collapsible stool. A blue dressing on her right forearm suggested the placement of a shunt, used for dialysis patients. No television-watcher, is she.

And during a rest break in the lobby, I watched a purposeful young woman glide through the opened doors of the entrance, her brunette curls bouncing upon narrow shoulders, wearing an ankle-length cotton dress that concealed her missing leg. Also well practiced in crutch-walking, she thought little of her limits—there was life to be lived, to the fullest, as noted by the tan briefcase slung across her back.

And pumping away on the NuStep machine in the gym was Lou, a great-grandfatherly type with sparse white hair meandering across his lined forehead. His rumpled T-shirt and shirts mirrored his relaxed speech. A smile for everyone, he continues teaching whoever is willing to learn. 

These encounters at the YMCA obliterated my earlier self-pity. We all have our limits, visible and invisible. I’m so grateful for mine.

Available on Amazon

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