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Words skitter as I plumb my depths. None seem to hang around for my use—as if they, too, were stunned by what happened.

It had stormed that evening, like being thrashed about in a washing machine, with no turn-off switch. An explosive crack sounded; then, the thud and splatter upon the street compelled me to my front window streaming with rain. Barely could I make out what happened. Shuddering seized me—It was my sweet gum tree.

Only at daybreak did I learn the full extent of the damage: the uppermost limb had been twisted off like a corkscrew; its lustrous leaves already crimping around the edges. With such an injury, the tree could no longer grow. The rest of it would have to come down.

Over fifteen years I had benefited from the sweet gum’s shade, its radiant greens and red-golds, its lofty branches, its symmetry enhancing my bungalow, even its gumballs I raked each March until I was unable.

The sweet gum’s demise accentuates the impermanence of life, including my own. Yet, its welcoming limbs, in all seasons, had heartened me, and I am grateful.

There will be another tree to replace the sweet gum, and eventually there will be shade, symbol of God’s protection and care.

Life is like a bend in the road, each turn challenging our mettle: from learning to suckle at the breast to inhaling our last breath.

It’s arduous work living within the approach of the bend, not fully knowing, but still trudging ahead. Met with welcomes and rejections, with health and sickness, with creative work and drudgery, wounds scrape encrusted barnacles from our dishonesty. We learn about humility, and serving others becomes more important than living within self-imposed limits. We learn that we are not God.

To our amazement, decades of life pass. Resilience orchestrates a lightshow upon these accomplished risk-takers who developed their full birthright. Such live within our midst and fill us with gladness, despite their slow footfalls and vintage clothing from another age.

For them, the bend in the road has become nearly full circle; their joy, deep as they make their life review, embroidered by multiple life-turns. Their transition toward the last turn follows, a cinch. 

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.

Available on Amazon

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