Big Mildred: Blue Blood, Just One Flush

by Christopher C. Evans

Hood County News – May 29, 2001

She stalked the halls of this old rock house in big, black orthopedic shoes, White Shoulders perfume, winter, spring, summer and fall, much of the time in an apron but always, she imagined, in a style befitting her prestigious Slocum-Middleton upbringing.

Yet she was so tight that she urged more than one sojourner in her home to flush just once if a flush was necessary at all. And she cared for sick and poor folk with a passion.

With flourish and flash, Mildred Slocum Brothers could bake bread, give an infirm man a vitamin B shot in the rump, tend her garden, cut the flowers for church and teach two piano lessons, all in a single bound, ur, morning.

Big Mildred.

She was my maternal grandmother via adoption, the only maternal grandmother I ever knew, the woman who adopted my mother, her first cousin as blood kin, after my mother’s mother died during or after childbirth.

Big Mildred.

Although my businessman-farmer grandfather, Thomas Lawrence Brothers, was officially the head of the ‘hold, this old house per se was largely the territory of a big woman who stood 5-9 and had large hands, feet and foibles. If the clodhopper black shoes, which could be heard from a distance of 50 yards if the wind was right, were new, Big Mildred wore them with her finery, expensive dresses and suits and accessories from Monnig’s and Striplings and Neiman’s. Yet if the big clompers were not so new, she’d carve a hole in each so her big toes could breath free — then wear them with roll-up, roll-down white socks that looked anything but haute.

Big Mildred: a study in opposites, a prairie paradox, urbane but earthy, cultured but pragmatic?

My own thoughts of her begin at the baby grand piano in the “parlor,” which she never called the living room. It is the late 1950s and her heroes, thus mine, are Van Cliburn, Liberace and Art Linkletter. It is summer in the house where my mother, Naomi Brothers Evans, was raised. The sun has set and Big Mildred has finished her day, including giving free piano lessons to three poor children whose mother had to be convinced they could learn and that the lessons were indeed free.

Big Mildred is especially proud to have won the three recruits. My nose and chest still reek of Vicks rub as she forced on me and my two younger siblings the night before — as a preventive application, not because we had any symptoms. Outside, the katydids and crickets begin their raspy serenades. Inside, Big Mildred sits down at the piano and slides her vocal way up and down, down and up, through “What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” her lifelong musical favorite.

Almost two decades after she died in 1982 the impressions left by Big Mildred, not only to me but to Cresson folk who remember her, remain large and colorful.

For me personally, because I reside where I do, it is as though she is still here, I just don’t see her.

At times, it is as though I hear her clomp, clomp, clomping up the steep stairs to the attic. At others, though the house is totally electric now and has no propane or other natural gas in it, at times I am certain I smell Big Mildred’s old gas stove being lit by a sulfur-tipped wooden match. (How dare you suggest sewer gas?)

Born Myldred Slocum Oct. 10, 1896, on the Charley Martin place just north of Cresson on the west side of the Weatherford Highway, Big Mildred was the second of five children of Ferd Slocum Sr. and Alvaretta Middleton Slocum. Why or when she changed the spelling of her given name to the more familiar form is not clear though from time to time later in life she did reprise the Myldred signature.

Ferd Slocum, her father, came to Texas from West Virginia in 1868 and acquired several thousand acres including parts of what is now Fort Worth’s Arlington Heights plus much of the Alta Mere-Cherry Lane corridor in Fort Worth. He at some point also acquired the acreage that became the Slocum Brothers Ranches here, plus the farm that Mildred Slocum inherited and Thomas Lawrence Brothers operated, after her dad died in 1914.

Her mother, Alvaretta Middleton, was a Baptist preacher’s daughter who had come to Texas with her family in 1873 at age 4. At some point thereafter, their family operated a dress-making establishment at — and Alvaretta became a student at — Add-Ran College at Thorp Spring, which later became TCU.

Though the Slocums were landed and the Middletons were certainly not without means, an early photograph of my grandmother with her father, a large steer and older sister, Mary Belle, reflects a spartan upbringing. In early childhood she was bitten by a spider, causing at least one and possibly as many as three surgical procedures at a time when surgical procedures weren’t exactly rocket science. She came away with a large hole behind one knee. Some folks in the family thought the experience turned her into a hypochondriac. I think it turned her into a nurse.

In 1914, not long before she married my grandfather, her father, Ferd Slocum Sr., died.

Big Mildred told me once of seeing my grandfather, her future husband, for the first time. He had ridden a burro to Cresson from the Parson Station Switch near Annetta, where he was born. She said he was dressed to the nines and was the most handsome man she had ever seen. A box of letters we found in the garage rafters three or four years ago confirm that an incendiary romance followed.

In time, Alvaretta, who was almost 20 years younger than her husband, doled out the Slocum land to her children. The Great Depression came and went. Slocum brothers Ferd, A.W. and Jeff for years operated the Slocum Brothers Cattle Company and ranches, which in 1936 built the familiar rock store known today as Fidler’s Store.

In the teens Thomas Lawrence Brothers finished business college in Weatherford and worked as office manager for prominent Fort Worth merchant H.C. Meacham. About 1920 he left Meacham’s Department Store and returned to Cresson to re-open the First State Bank of Cresson. He did that, as cashier and vice president, from 1921 until 1924, all the time doing stock farming on the land his wife inherited between Cresson and Godley.

“T.L. and Mildred,” as they were known to some folks, bought the frame Lemons house on Broadway in Cresson in the ’20s, then rocked and enlarged it in the 1930s. Once he left the bank the farm was his domain, the house and particularly its inner workings were hers.

Coming to see our grandmother meant going with her to the cemetery almost daily, hearing her tell Bible stories in Sunday School at Cresson Baptist Church, going to Vacation Bible School at same, learning to drive on the cemetery road, having to take piano lessons, being subject to her, uh, lofty standards of decorum no doubt passed down by her mother (though when I remember her mother, Alvaretta, she was a snuff-dipping old lady who got rowdy when Gorgeous George was wrestling).

Big Mildred was what today would be called a licensed vocational nurse, what then could only be described as a community or country nurse. Her blueblood upbringing and imaginings notwithstanding, she physically cared for other people, not only the sick but the poor in and around Cresson, in a manner I can never forget.

She was, however, a sucker for whatever curative panacea was advertised on the radio or in magazines, things we as her grandchildren often experienced first-hand.

Many was the time we sat or lay impassively as she administered her various medical techniques upon us, often with gadgets and elixirs that were not, shall we say, FDA-approved. She gave us potions, from good-tasting granular laxatives, and doctored us with her own poultices, wraps and rubs. Whether our, uh, regularity was of concern to us three kids back in West Texas where we lived, when we got to Cresson we had better by-golly be ready to give an up-to-the-moment report on same.

For many of their latter years together Big Mildred and Grandaddy were heavy into foot massage, bought the book and everything — and could be found evenings with their rockers facing, rubbing each other’s dogs.

She even tried to ingrain in me a few even odder things — the notion that men should shave ‘neath their arms for cleanliness, for instance — that I have pretty much rejected for all time.

Another telling Big Mildred story, related by Geraldine York Robertson, happened in the 1950s, while Mary Belle Grafa, Mildred’s sister, was in Cresson taking care of their mother, Alvaretta, who was dying. Mary Belle, it seems, got into the habit of walking from her mother’s house to a store three blocks away. “Mildred didn’t like that, she didn’t think it looked good for a Slocum to be walking around Cresson,” Geraldine recalled recently. “She’d drive to the store and drive Mary Belle home. Slocums shouldn’t be walking around town like that.”

Even today I squirm in guilt at the thought of the way my grandmother shreiked, “Chrissie, Chrissie, Chrissie” a la peafowl whenst I’d done done something truly wrong or something that rattled her idea of Emily Post convention. Once, she popped me open-handed on the cheek for tonguing a dollop of mayo off my butterknife.

Yet as obsessed with manners and decorum as she was, I remember well how at Lavender’s Cafeteria on Camp Bowie how she’d hold the butterknife by the blade end and bang the heavy end against her water glass to summon waithelp.

Yet if the aristocrat reared its head in her at times, Big Mildred had that, uh, tender side.

Once, after she’d pared a pyrecantha bush, without thinking she dropped the trimmings into an area where a neighbor’s cow was feeding, killing the cow. Later, a neighbor who was a child at the times told me recently, Big Mildred sat down on the back stoop steps and wept into her apron.

Big Mildred taught us, my sister Melanie Summey remembers, that it is important to pay visits to the graves of our forebears, that places are significant because of things that have happened there in the past, that things of value are not necessarily valuable in worldly terms: “I appreciate to this day the fact that as she sensed her memory slipping, Grandmama labeled the family treasures and left notes about the history of certain family things.”

As for my own favorite Big Mildred heirlooms, there are two. One is a small, heart-shaped, hammered-iron stirrup that has little decorative bumps on it. A rolled-up note, scribbled at a time when her mind was waning and fastened to the stirrup with a paper clip, reads, “Stirrup from mama’s side saddle when married Oct. 11, 1893.”

The other is a tribute to my grandmother’s fixation on cures and curative gadgets, things that might have — repeat, might have — helped a country nurse deal with a common or uncommon problem. It is a box of rectal dilators from the 1930s that she no doubt purchased by mail order. If you don’t know what these were/are, don’t ask. I especially cherish this particular memento because my father, who was charged with getting rid of much of her stuff after she died, saw fit to save it for me because he said I was the only person in the family who could fully appreciate it. But, no, it won’t be on the coffee table should you come over.

Big Mildred: The baby grand is gone now from a front corner of the parlor. The large, gnarly loaves of yeast bread, the ones with the big ol’ chewy bubbles in them, are no longer nestled via wax paper and rubber bands in a top drawer.

Or are they?

Could that be the muffled sound of Big Mildred singing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” in the parlor?

If walls could talk, I might move.