I attended a small college in Ohio, one historically affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC). As part of the school’s mission, students were encouraged to demonstrate engagement with the local community in order to improve understanding of diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles. We had opportunities to do this through clubs, Greek life, and with our dorms under the direction of our dorm councils. There were no co-ed dorms, and all women’s dormitories had “house mothers.” Sophomore year, my housemother was Phyllis Millspaugh, a perfect combination of friend and grandmother, who brought out the best in everyone. I am not sure if it was because of Mrs. Millspaugh, but that year my dorm “adopted” a family who lived on the outskirts of town.
The dorm was paired with the family through the college, the UCC, and the town social services department. Mostly, we collected money for food and then shopped for groceries for the family, which were delivered by various women of the dorm and Mrs. Millspaugh, who drove out to the country in her ten-year-old sedan. The family was poor: a single mother and four kids, the oldest being an eight-year-old named Bonnie, and the youngest, a four-month-old named, interestingly, Hope. The mother would accept the groceries with thanks, but it was clear that she didn’t want a real relationship, and no one ever hung around for more than a few minutes.
I am not sure how involved I was in this, but I vaguely remember that we bought the family some special things for Christmas, including, I believe, a canned ham and some toys. In the spring, the dorm council had the idea of maybe inviting the oldest child, Bonnie, to spend a night with us at the dorm. The plan would be to deliver groceries, pick up Bonnie, and take her back to campus with us. We might buy her some clothes, play games with her, and maybe pick up some extra treats. With a solid plan made, we secured permission in all the necessary places, and Mrs. Millspaugh agreed to do the transporting. As it turned out, Bonnie was to stay in my room with me and my roommate, Linda.
I had grown up in the city, and I went to an inner city high school. We weren’t poor, but I did go to school with kids who lived in poverty. My roommate lived in a university town in Michigan. I still remember how she didn’t believe that my stepfather drove me to the junior prom because my date’s family didn’t have a car. She lived near the motor city, after all, and had never heard of such a thing. I was pretty sure she didn’t know much about real city living. In all fairness, I really didn’t know a thing about suburban or rural life. As it turned out, we both had a lot to learn.
Bonnie and her family were rural poor. They lived in a run-down house in Northwestern Ohio. People who lived out that way were farmers. They grew soybeans or tomatoes that were sent out to Hunts for canning. I was to learn, in my senior year while student teaching, that kids who lived on the farms got out of school early during certain times of the year so they could go home to help with the harvest. When you drove out into the countryside, you could see shacks and even chicken coops that were occupied by humans. Bonnie’s place was a real house, though it was dilapidated: peeling paint, sagging windows, and what can only be described as a hen-scratched front yard.
On the day of Bonnie’s planned overnight, Mrs. Millspaugh drove Linda and me all the way out of town onto a winding rural route whose number I do not remember. We traded multiple bags of groceries for a cute little girl named Bonnie. She had a paper bag with her. Inside she had tossed a dingy undershirt and a pair of underwear. When we walked out to the car, Bonnie grasped a faded, plastic geranium in her hand. She held it out, an offering.
“Pretty,” Linda commented. “Where did you get it?”
“Oh, we get them from the graves, over the road there,” she said, gesturing towards a small cemetery.
Silence followed. No one knew what to say.
I honestly don’t remember a lot about the rest of that day or the ride back to the dorm. But I think we ate with Bonnie in the dining hall, and I remember that when it was time to go to bed, Linda and I suggested that Bonnie take a shower. She was excited because we had lotion and powder and hair ribbons and she was going to get to use them. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that she had never taken a shower before. Right. No running water at her house.
My dorm had community bathrooms, and I distinctly recall that as we walked down the long hall, the closer we got to the bathrooms, the more slowly Bonnie walked. She waited patiently as I fiddled with the water, trying to get it to the perfect temperature for her. Then, when I encouraged her to step in, she just wouldn’t budge. Bonnie was afraid of that splashing torrent of water that was about to rain down on her head. She wouldn’t get into the shower.
I cajoled. I coaxed. I told her how great it would feel. But as it turned out, I had to strip down and shower with Bonnie, remarking all the while how nice and soothing and warm the water was. Bonnie finally relaxed and enjoyed the experience. She liked my shampoo and the smooth bar of Ivory soap. When we got back to the room she told me she was happy to have me wash and comb through her hair because the kids at school always called her “Cootie Kid.”
That night, Bonnie told my roommate and me that if she could have anything in the world, it would be a pair of bell bottoms. While I am not altogether sure about this, I think we bought them for her, although I am not sure when or where. We brought her home the next day, transported once again by Mrs. Millspaugh. We brought more bags of groceries along, too. Bonnie’s mother blandly thanked us and then shouted to Bonnie, “You’ve had your fun, now, so go get some wood. RIGHT. NOW.”
Having told this story on numerous occasions in the past, I have always focused on how naïve I was or how one can find poverty in various forms and places in a land of great abundance. But now, many years later, it is in the writing of the story that I see that Mrs. Millspaugh is one of its main characters. I may have forgotten many of the details of her involvement, but I know that she drove, she shopped, and she quietly guided us. If she ever felt inconvenienced by the project, she certainly never showed it, and she always modeled caring beyond self. In this telling, I realize that whatever good came out of the relationship between Bonnie’s family and the young women in my dorm would not have happened without Mrs. Millspaugh, and I have a much greater sense of appreciation for all that she did for all of us.
Author’s note: Bonnie’s name has been changed
Artwork: “Torn Screen,” by Mariana Palmer