Heroes All Around Us

David, Daniel, Noah, Moses, Peter, Mary, Martha, Paul and Mary Magdelene.

Fireman, policeman, Mother Teresa, Army, Navy and Marines.

We all have our stories about heroes. Mine goes something like this:

I think I was about 8 years old. My Dad and I were sitting on the side porch waiting for my mother to get home. My mother had recently gone back to college to get a degree in accounting and it was exam season (she obviously did well enough because she ultimately graduated from Clemson University with Honors and went on to become the first female tax partner in South Carolina history). As soon as my mother opened the door, my father and I yelled in unison “what’s for dinner?!” Bad move. My mother looked at us both and made a ground shifting proclamation: “I don’t cook anymore.”

Bessie’s first week working for my parents began just a few days later. That was 35 years ago. My mother has yet to break her promise and Bessie still works for my parents. When Bessie first started, she told my parents that she didn’t know how to cook, but she could clean. She was dead wrong on both counts.  Bessie’s meals are legendary — not necessarily healthy, but definitely legendary. Her cleaning? Not so much. But every day when I came home from school, there was an incredible meal waiting. I usually ate the first evening meal as soon as I walked in the door at 3:00 pm and then a second meal with the family around 6:00 pm.

Bessie raised three boys of her own so not much surprised her. My friend Laurens and I used to spend a fair amount of time in the creek near my house catching salamanders and crayfish. We kept them in the sink and the bathtub most of the time until we discovered how fun it was to freeze salamanders and crayfish and that they could magically be brought back to life if thawed just the right way. Bessie never seemed to mind us taking up room in her freezer.

Bessie lived over on the west side of town with her husband, Otis, and her two sons. I didn’t know Otis all that well but I remember several things. I know he never had a steady job. The word was that Otis was disabled and couldn’t work, but I never saw him limp or anything. I know that Otis often asked to borrow money from my parents but he was not real good about paying it back. And I remember that Otis died suddenly while I was still in high school.

The occasion of Otis’s death sticks with me not because his death was a big deal, but because of a little twist in the Bessie story that later became part of her legend. Otis apparently died of a heart attack in the middle of the night. Despite the fact that my father was an Emergency Room physician and Otis had gone to that very Emergency Room for treatment, Bessie didn’t call my parents that night to see if she could get special treatment for Otis. In fact, my parents didn’t know anything about Otis’ death at all. Until that next day. Bessie got to our house every morning at 9:00 am. Let me repeat that. Bessie got to our house EVERY MORNING at 9:00 am. Never 8:50 and never at 9:01. Bessie arrived at precisely the same time every morning. Except the morning after Otis died. That morning she got to work around 10:00 am. When 9:00 am came and went with no Bessie, my parents started to worry. When 9:30 passed, they were near a panic. Finally Bessie walked in the door. She apologized profusely for being late and then told my parents that she had to handle a few details that morning because her husband had died just hours before. Incredible.

Other than arriving to work about 45 minutes late that morning, I don’t know that Bessie has ever been late to work another single day — and that includes up to this very day. And in 35 years of employment, Bessie has NEVER missed a single days work. Think about that. Thunderstorms, hailstorms, broken alarm clocks, sick children, striking bus workers, broken down cars, bronchitis, back pains or sore throats — nothing has been able to keep Bessie from showing up for work in 35 plus years. I dare say that is a record unmatched by anyone anywhere in any line of work. It blows my mind.

When Bessie was at our house, I generally kept my distance from her. Not because she wanted me to or because I was uncomfortable around her, but because she had things to do and we didn’t have a lot to talk to each other about. But I did like talking politics with her once in awhile. Bessie wasn’t very political and I don’t know how often she actually voted, but I did get the sense that when she did vote, she probably voted Democratic. Or maybe I just hoped she did.  I do think she got a kick out of the fact that my little white self was growing up to be a reliable left leaning Democratic vote. Otherwise, our conversations were generally short and relatively infrequent. Still, in 35 years of being around her, I can honestly say I have never heard her say an angry word or even a negative word about anyone … or anything. Truly incredible.

Bessie rented a fairly large house on West Washington Street. I don’t think she ever invited me in to her house. I think she was embarrassed by it. I think she was particularly embarrassed that her house was often run down and in disrepair. Bessie never complained about her landlord, but it was obvious that he never fixed anything for her and didn’t have much interest in keeping the house looking nice. He was, I’m sure, very interested in collecting Bessie’s rent money every month. And he did that for some 20 odd years. Bessie never missed a single rent payment in 20 something years. I know this for a fact. And that too is part of the legend of Bessie.

After college I got a job working on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings. Less than a year later, I was asked to return to my hometown of Greenville to run his Upstate Senate offices. While working for the Senator, I became aware of a public/private partnership sponsored by the City of Greenville that was designed to make home ownership affordable to lower income families. Under the program, the City purchased a large tract of land. Prospective homeowners had to qualify for a mortgage — just as anyone else would based on their income, assets and credit histories — but the mortgage would be for the construction costs of the house only. The land under the house would be deeded to the homeowner — 1/7 at a time — to promote stability and prevent flipping — until eventually the homeowner owned both the house and the land, the combination of which would provide decent equity. Bessie seemed to be a perfect prospect for the program — a low income but financially responsible renter of a sub standard house.

It took me awhile to convince Bessie that homeownership was a good thing. I had to convince her that she could have bought her rental house many times over and that she was enriching her landlord for no real reason. And I had to convince her that we could get her qualified for a mortgage. And that she could handle the payments if we did.  Finally she agreed to give it a try.

In all the many years that Bessie worked for my parents after Otis died, she never once asked my parents for money. We knew she didn’t make much money, but she always seemed to have enough. Still, I wasn’t sure what I would find when I peeked under the hood of her financial life. What I found was shocking. I learned that Bessie had never missed a single rent payment. Ever. And I found that not only had she never borrowed money from my parents, she had never borrowed money from anyone else. Except once. I learned that Bessie had no credit history except for a single consumer loan that she had taken out to buy my sister a wedding gift. Amazing.

Bessie is now in her mid eighties. After paying in to Social Security for 60 plus years, she is now finally drawing a little out. After saving diligently for many years, she is also drawing from her retirement IRA.  And since she made her regular mortgage payment every month (plus a little extra) she now owns her home outright with no mortgage at all. Still, she shows up at my parents house at 9:00 am, on the nose, every morning, because that’s what she’s always done. Unbelievable.

Our family has tried several times over the years to honor Bessie in some way. We wanted to let her know what an important part she has played in the life of our family. But Bessie is not one for pomp or even circumstance. We tried to send her on a cruise one time. She declined. We offered to hold a celebration of some kind to honor her. She said no. I think my parents even tried to get her to take some paid time off and she said she really wasn’t all that interested. I think we settled on a small plaque posted inside an elevator that my father said he had installed so that Bessie wouldn’t have to walk up three sets of stairs. Not sure that I buy that, but the bottom line is, Bessie doesn’t like attention so honoring her is no easy task.

But here’s what I know.  Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Some are loud and attention seeking; others will do anything to avoid attention. Some are brave and do extraordinary things; some just show up, reliably, every day and do their job. Some heroes are well known and get their names in the newspaper; some can not read the paper but manage just fine anyway. Some heroes are great speakers and motivate us to live better lives; some heroes just live better lives and hope we learn from their example.

And, there’s certainly lots of failed heroes around us these days. But it’s good to know that there are some real ones too.  I am glad I had mine.

Your Turn:  So who’s your hero?  Tell us about them.

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