My mother developed breast cancer while pregnant with me in 1939. I do not know any details of the discovery and diagnosis of the cancer, but as a physician I know the high concentration of hormones present during pregnancy greatly accelerates the growth and spread of breast cancer. In most patients diagnosed with breast cancer during early pregnancy the recommendation of many physicians is termination of the pregnancy in order to save the mother’s life. My mother literally sacrificed her life to give birth to me. Despite aggressive treatment following my birth she only lived a short time and died at age 37 when I was one and a half years old. My brother was thirteen and my sister was five years old at her death.
Our grief-stricken Dad was left with the daunting task of trying to raise three small children while maintaining his very busy medical practice. There was an additional burden on the medical personnel in our town, because this was near the beginning of our country’s involvement in World War II. All the doctors left at home were working at high-stress levels. Fortunately my dad had lots of physical and emotional support from family and friends, but still had to hire several ladies to do the cooking and cleaning in our home. Unfortunately for me I don’t remember any of the people or events until I was five or six years old.
One of the ladies I do recall is Lillian Singleton. The reason I remember her so well is she worked intermittently for our family for the next eight to ten years. She would later tell me stories of my childhood; of things I had said and done and how she had “fallen in love with my brother, my sister and me from the very beginning.” Lillian was only fifty-five years old at the time of her employment, but seemed to be a very old but sweet lady to me. She and her husband Will lived in a modest home in the “colored quarters” across town. These were the years of racial segregation all across the South. Will and Lillian had no children, and I’m certain some of her attraction and affection for us was related to her mothering instincts.
Lillian wore a starched white uniform with a black apron which was typical for domestic help at the time. I remember her uniform was always spot-less despite the many things she did including cooking meals and cleaning the house. Her graying hair was pulled back and neatly pinned. Most often she had a wide smile revealing teeth which appeared a bit too large for her mouth. Her upper teeth were so white and perfectly formed they had to be dentures. I never asked her.
When Lillian spoke her lips didn’t seem to move much, but I had no trouble understanding her, because she talked slowly while emphasizing many of her words. I don’t remember her ever scolding me even though I was spoiled and like all children needed to be scolded and occasionally spanked. Lillian knew all the foods I enjoyed, and I could depend on her to prepare whatever I asked. There were very few things Lillian withheld from me. She would occasionally tell me, “Now don’t let on all the things I let you have, because the Doctor doesn’t want me to spoil you.” She told me later after I was grown she “always felt sorry for us children because we didn’t have a mother.” I remember she hugged me a lot, and frequently kissed me on the cheek with what seemed like “big, juicy kisses.” During my pre-teen and teen-aged years those expressions of affection were always embarrassing when any of my buddies were present.
Dad re-married when I was six years old, and our step-mother, “Mom,” raised my brother, sister and me and loved us as her own. She and Pop never had children together, so I always considered Mom made an exceptional sacrifice to provide a loving and caring home for children of whom she had not given birth. After Mom assumed her role Lillian continued working but much less often. I never knew the reason and never asked, but suspected there was tension between the two of them. I didn’t see Lillian very often after I left home to begin college and the years of training as a physician. Many years passed and I would only see Lillian once a year for a brief visit.
Upon completing my training my wife Cathy and I returned to El Dorado to establish our life and raise our children. It wasn’t long before Lillian re-entered our life. Her husband Will had died earlier of heart failure, and she was living alone. She had retired from domestic work, and once every few weeks would drive to our home for a visit to establish a relationship with Cathy and our three children. She especially loved telling them what I was like as a little boy, and particularly how she had spoiled me in spite of “what the Doctor had said.” Our children loved hearing her stories, and each one hoped Lillian might somehow spoil them in the same way. Before she left our home she would hug each one and kiss them on the cheek as she had done for me. Our daughters remembered how “wet and juicy” were the kisses that Lillian planted on their cheeks.
When Lillian became physically unable to drive her auto we would go to her home for visits, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Her eyesight had become so poor her usually spotless house became more and more cluttered and dirty. Cockroaches took advantage of her disabilities, but we never told her about them thinking it would hurt her feelings. On a number of occasions Cathy and the girls would dust and clean her house as much as possible and especially the kitchen. We had the carpet replaced throughout her house, and in exchange Lillian insisted on giving us her antique RCA radio console, which we had always admired. All of us remember during the winter months how hot she kept her house, and to visit with her for more than an hour was extremely uncomfortable. With each visit we carried food and something sweet like cake or pie, and she was always grateful. At the end of each visit there was always the “big hug and the juicy kiss on the cheek.”
In remembering the past I am confident God sent special angels to watch over three little children who had lost their mother. One of the brightest and most loving of those angels was Lillian Singleton, who instead of having wings had long and strong arms capable of tireless work. They were also agents of love expressed by huge hugs which were not common from domestic help in a segregated South. As one of the children so blessed I thank God for Lillian Singleton. Her life and love reminds me I should live out Jesus’ words when He said, “As ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me (juicy kisses and all).”