The Registered Nurse


About a quarter of the way into January Jinx, the first book in my calendar mystery series, my heroine Minty Wilcox and the mysterious Daniel Price, who boards at her house, visit a cigar factory in the West Bottoms of Kansas City. It’s a very short scene in which “the deftness of the young girls rolling aromatic tobacco into smooth cylinders impressed [Minty]. A half hour later and clutching a newly made cigar in a glass tube . . . , she emerged to find Daniel Price waiting for her.”

Though brief, it’s in the book for a very special reason. You see, when my mother, Melicent Perkins Smith Willman, was a teenager in the mid-1920’s, she worked in a cigar factory. Her mother, Juliet Perkins Smith, a widow with several young children still at home, needed my mother’s help to make ends meet. Because my mother was so good at making cigars, her mother wanted her to continue doing that work after she graduated from high school. My mom resented this, especially after her mother took the five dollars my mom had saved for new shoes to buy the younger kids in the family shoes instead.

So when my mom was seventeen, she left school and moved out of her mother’s house and into the boarding house run by her maternal grandmother, Laura Wilcox Perkins. (I regularly look to my family tree for character names, so it’s absolutely no accident that Minty’s mother’s name is Laura Girard Wilcox.) Soon after that, my mother started nurses’ training at Middlesex Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. She graduated in June of 1932, at age 21, and became a registered nurse the next year. My mother was very proud of being an R. N., and for years, up into her 80’s, she always bragged that she let her registration lapse “just last year.”

Besides wanting to be independent, my mother chose to become a nurse for another practical reason. Back then, nurses’ training included room and board in exchange for working in the hospital. This was very welcome to a widow’s kid, especially after the stock market crash of October 1929.

But I’m certain my mom also wanted to become a nurse for a reason much closer to her heart. You see, in June 1921, when my mother was ten years old, her father Miles Smith was walking by the side of a road on his way to his club when a truck hit a car and the car spun out and hit him. He died two weeks or so later, not of his injuries, but of pneumonia. Once when Mom and I were talking about the manner of his death, I said, “You know, these days they could have saved him.” And then she said, quite grimly as she probably thought of losing her father when she was still a child, “I know it.”

My mother practiced nursing for several years until, on a summer vacation with a friend to Mingo County, WV, she met my dad. They married the next year on what my dad always called his lucky day, July 11, 1937.

Once she married my dad, my mother didn’t practice nursing very often outside of the home. But she did nurse my father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., through eleven surgeries and illnesses, including a serious bout of flu when he was in his late forties, his first heart attack when he was about fifty-one, and the partial removal of a kidney when he was in his early sixties. In spite of his illnesses and thanks to my mom, my dad lived to be eighty-seven.

I wasn’t sick much, but I was an active kid. So Mom patched up my scrapes and tended to me the year I had blisters from poison ivy so bad that I couldn’t walk for ten days.

I also have my mother to thank for a healthy diet throughout my childhood and beyond since, back when she went through training, nurses studied all aspects of the field including dietetics, so they could properly feed their patients. Also she did without a new winter coat most years, so that I could take ballet and other dancing lessons from the age of seven. Because of the healthy diet and plentiful exercise I had during my youth and have sustained into my seventies, I credit my mother for the good health I have enjoyed throughout my life.

She also gave me excellent advice on childcare after I too became a mother.

And so, belatedly not just for the most recent Mother’s Day but many others as well, I’d like to salute my mother, Melicent Perkins Smith Willman, dubbed “Middie” for midget by her dad and “Susie” by mine, as in “if you knew Susie like I knew Susie, oh oh oh what a girl.” Thank you, Mom, for everything.