She moved to Cleveland about seven years ago from Albany, Ga. Her niece Melissa Wilson and sister Simerly Hortense, 79, had already established residence in Cleveland.
Melissa’s husband, David, works at M&M Mars and they were fortunate to find a house within blocks of where he worked, already set up for an extended family. “We came and they followed,” Wilson said. Speaking of her widowed aunt, “She just called one day ... and here we are.”
When her aunt first moved to Cleveland, it was initially to assisted living facilities before the Wilsons found a suitable house. “But I wanted to be with my family,” Willis said.
The oldest child, she was born in Chula, Ga., (which some call the peanut capital of the world) she was raised on a farm — milked the cows, fed the horses, cooked and cleaned. Her sister Simerly said she was a “cleaning nut,” and she and her brother Sam tried to thwart her cleaning efforts by “slopping” on in the house. She said her sister kept such a spotless house, she would “sweep people’s tracks out.”
Laundry was her job, also. “I prayed Monday would be a pretty day,” Mildred said. That was when she would boil the white clothes and then iron for the family — “even the long handles,” she said.
Not only was Mildred a “cleaning nut,” she was also smart. “She got the intelligence of the family,” her sister said, “and did two grades in one year.” And since it was a time when teachers were scarce, Mildred served as a sixth-grade teacher, also.
She met her husband at a party. He had finished school and college and volunteered for the military — “that was during the draft,” she said. He immediately asked her to marry him.
She was ready for that. She said she had a job and already had things ready to move out on her own as soon as she was 21.
So she told her mother she was getting married. “Mother had a triple fit,” she said. But two weeks later, Mildred took a bus to New York and she and Kenyon C. “Butch” Willis were married in Long Island. (She noted that her mother ended up thinking more of him than anyone.) The “farm girl turned city girl,” said she loved living in New York.
The couple lived two years on Long Island before “coming back home.” On the trip back South, she remembered having to stop twice and buy tires. “That was when tires were rationed,” she added.
Her husband had developed asthma, which no doubt began, she said, as a little boy, and was never taken to the doctor. So they moved around for a time trying to find a place better for his health. He died 10 years ago.
Willis worked as a motel housekeeping supervisor for 20 years. While working and living in Albany, Ga., she broke her leg.
Although that healed, she began to have severe pain in her leg again, so when she arrived in Cleveland, her niece took her to the doctor to see what was wrong. The doctor told them, “She’s over 80 — what do you expect?” And so Willis ended up in pain management without knowing what was wrong.
When the pain continued, they continued the search for a doctor and “we found a wonderful orthopedic doctor, who recognizes that seniors still deserve quality of life and mobility,” Wilson said. He found that the femur of her right leg was broken again.
In the meantime, she struggled with a form of pneumonia (something like COPD, although she had never smoked). And last year, it was back to the doctor, again with leg pain. She was in the hospital two or three times and was diagnosed with phlebitis, but she wasn’t getting any better and she was going to be sent home. Wilson and her mother begged them not to send her home without knowing what was wrong.
Finally after three days, they were able to reach the orthopedist who had initially found the fractured leg. “When he came into her room, he looked like an angel,” Wilson said. He discovered she had a fracture of the tibia — this time on the left leg.
“She is a conqueror,” Wilson said. “It’s amazing to see her and know the journey she has taken. She’s a precious and determined lady.”
Willis said she’s happy with her living situation now, but in her younger years, there was a time when she had dreams and ambitions that went unfulfilled. “I wanted to go to California,” she said, “to be an actress — I just wanted to be one.”
Now, she said, she thinks more about the important things in life and that would be her advice to young people. “If you plan to be married,” she advised, “start looking for a nice young man and meet his family. She said she could not have found a better one — “they don’t make them any better,” she added. “He loved me the first time he saw me and put into getting me.”
Although she has her own little apartment, she’s very much “at home” with the family. Her place is handicapped accessible and she can maneuver with her walker or wheelchair. She has her stereo and CDs — a collection of her favorites — country music.
And Willis and her sister get to spend time together. Among other things, they play a lot of rummy and “she wins most of the time,” Hortense said.