The first memory I can conjure up of my aunt, Mildred Jenkins, is when I was maybe 2 years old, my daddy holding me, and Mama holding my 4-year-old brother’s hand, all of us standing on the tarmac at Love Field. The stairs unfolded from the silver plane’s body and finally Aunt Mildred, cousins Robert and Charles, and Uncle Herman coming out toward us.
They had been living in Africa, and they had come home.
And maybe it’s not an exactly-how-it-happened memory. There’s a chance I’ve let pictures and stories boost the actual recollection. But joy like that, of sisters hugging, my grandma and grandpa wiping away a tear or two of happiness is not something you forget — ever.
So, when the news came Friday that Aunt Mildred had died, finally letting go of every earthly trial and embraceable joy this life could hold, one of the first thoughts to come to mind was that day 62 or more years ago. Hundreds – maybe thousands – more followed.
My Aunt Mildred was wise, well-read, industrious and energetic. She was funny and quick-witted, loving, as tough-as-nails and soft-as-cotton. She could make you feel like the most important person around, and you knew — just knew — hers was a high standard, someone you didn’t ever want to disappoint.
As a side note, the only person I ever knew who could effectively explain an irritation as something that “hacks my lettuce” is gone, just – I think – when this world needs more people who can face a lettuce hacking situations without coming apart.
Aunt Mildred understood things. Things you’d think would need more explaining. She offered a standard advice. You pray, and you keep on a’keepin’ on. You do all that you can, as much as you can, for as long as you can. Not all things could be fixed, she knew, but she was ready and willing to offer coffee, cookies, ice cream, and cake — and often all at the same sitting — to help make them better.
Not long after the Jenkins’ return from Africa, our families went for a week’s vacation in Arkansas. My brother and Robert and Charles got to ride in the car with Dad and Uncle Herman. I, along with my then baby sister Billie, rode with Mom and Aunt Mildred. I felt slighted and assured myself I was not getting to ride in the fun car, but changed my mind after Aunt Mildred sang “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” with me about 2,000 times.
Aunt Mildred and Uncle Herman always offered a “good” bed for the night and insisted you stay and eat a good breakfast the next morning. My Aunt Mildred loved dishes, and confided once the house she and Uncle Herman built on Jenkins’ family’s farm between Zephyr and Mullin in the late 1970s had cabinets ample enough — she thought — to hold plenty of dishes.
Aunt Mildred did all that she did well. It’s impossible to define her by a single role. She was a great wife and companion, a devoted mother and a more devoted grandmother, beloved mother-in-law, an exceptional aunt, a fine daughter and loving sister. In addition to any primary role she had, “dear friend” can be added.
Once, after getting in a squabble with my sister, Aunt Mildred told us we needed to make up because we would grow up and one day be best friends. She and my mom were sisters who became best friends, after all. We didn’t believe her then, but are convinced now.
Mildred was a teacher. English was her specialty. I am pretty sure she was tough in the classroom, but I know she was fair and I know she cared about much more just grammar skills. She earned “favorite teacher” status from many former students. She has the distinction of being the first Zephyr High School alumna to return to the school as a teacher.
Thanks to Aunt Mildred, I have a deeper understanding of subjunctive mood and superlatives, the knowledge of when to use “more than” and when to use “over.” She must have given up on my comma usage years ago. Some things, she would acknowledge, “You just have to look the other way.”
Uncle Herman’s deathbed advice to Aunt Mildred in 1999 was not to sit home and grieve. “Get on with it,” he told her and she minded him to the very letter. Countless people, places and Central Texas spaces are improved by Mildred Mills Jenkins’ presence and efforts.
She earned her reward. Rest in peace Aunt Mildred.
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.