Millie Hollingsworth knew first hand the difference between functioning alcoholic and dysfunctional drunk. Her father, Bertram Edwards, had been both. Bertie, as he was called, lived in the mill village with his wife, Gail and their daughter, Millie. He was a mechanic at the textile mill. His manner was as rough as his features and he didn’t think twice about telling the boss in no uncertain terms what he thought about the mill’s rules. His temper got the best of him on the job more than once. The last time he was fired, Gail had to take a job at the mill doing piecework on the night shift just to keep the lights on.
Gail was the stereotype of a woman who confuses dreams with ambition. She had made no plan for her life other than to get married, and to make it worse, she had no inkling of self-worth. Just a fairy tale version of how life was supposed to turn out for people who had hope. Hope the bills would get paid, hope there’d be food on the table, hope the sun would come up. Hope was all she passed on to Millie. Well, that and a wooden box with angels carved into the lid. She called it a hope chest, but it was only a small box with a hinged lid that held a Bible and a couple of cotton handkerchiefs; one pink, one blue. Gail embroidered puppies and the initials M.E. on them when Millie was a baby. It was this inheritance that Millie took with her when she was thrust into a life she would ultimately grow to despise.
Life in the mill village wasn’t easy for anyone. Everyone was poor, but after her mother died, for Millie it was one misery after another. Gail’s death left the family with no income and another mouth to feed. Witnessing her mother’s death after childbirth, often deadly for women who didn’t get proper medical treatment, was the first in a long list of traumas Millie endured. Being taken from the only home she’d known was the second. With not even a feigned interest in social convention and no self-imposed requirement of any kind to meet his family obligations, Bertie often stayed gone for days, leaving Millie, who was only ten years old herself, to care for the newborn as best she could. Millie made diapers from scraps of cloth intended for a baby quilt that Gail had snuck out of the mill. A neighbor with a goat and a few chickens, Millie had learned, provided their breakfast many mornings because her mother slipped into the neighbor’s yard and helped herself to fresh eggs or a little goat’s milk. “Love your neighbors as yourself,” she’d tell Millie as they sat down to eat. A lesson Millie kept with her all her life.
Mr. Tillman, their neighbor, caught Millie taking eggs like she’d seen her mother do many times. He’d suspected the egg thief was a fox and was surprised to find this skinny, barefoot wild child with her hand in the coop. He spun Millie around on her heels. She screamed and dropped the eggs.
Tillman yelled, “Look what you’ve done you no good, dirty little thief!”
Millie shouted, “Love your neighbors as yourself you stingy old coot!” and ran as fast as she could. Before noon, Millie and her brother became wards of the state. Three days had passed before their father realized they were gone.