In the 1960’s, Mildred Johnson lived with her family at the northern most part of Bonita Springs in a place called simply, “Coconut”. Their modest home, elevated on posts, was surrounded by other Johnson and Weeks family homes and as far as I could tell at 10 years old, little else but commercial fishing nets, mangroves and fiddler crabs. It wasn’t the easiest place to live… but “Coconut” was their home and they loved it.
The Johnson’s children were my friends and school mates growing up, but there was an especially strong, respectful connection and friendship between my parents and Mildred. I had no idea at the time how our family’s had become so close, but my dad and mom were always “Uncle Ben” and “Aunt D” to Grady, Bobby and Joseph Johnson and to my brother, sister and me, Mildred was always “Aunt Mildred”.
As the years passed, I began to realize that there was something very special about their family. Although the Johnson boys were rugged young men, they were amazingly genuine, kind, polite individuals. But then, they came about it honestly. Aunt Mildred was a strong and confident individual with a giant heart that cared for and watched over everyone. It wasn’t until my parents 50th wedding anniversary party that I discovered the source of our families bond and how Aunt Mildred’s courage and kindness had likely saved my fathers life. It was at the end of that party when, with tears in her eyes, she took my hand and with her beautiful southern accent said “Benny… Sit down here youngin’. I want to tell you ’bout your daddy.”
Years ago, Mildred went to school with my father and lived about four miles away. Mildred’s mother and my dad’s father had passed away within a year of each other, leaving Mildred to take care of her dad and all her younger brothers and sisters. My father’s brothers on the other hand, had all enlisted in the service, leaving him alone with his new step dads constant mistreatment and his mothers neglect. “That poor boy had nothin’!” Mildred cried. “Benny, they was so mean to him. It broke my heart! When his daddy died, his momma and step daddy gave him nothin’ but rags to wear.”
She looked around and leaned forward. “Why one time, they left your daddy out there on Pine Island all by himself for six weeks while they went out west.” She leaned back away from me and shook her head. “Son, that ain’t no way to do nobody! They left that poor boy with no money or food. He ’bout starved to death.” She wiped her eyes and sat up straight and proud. “So I told him to ride his horse on by our house in the evenings and I’d sneak him some table scraps out the window from our dinner.” She shook her head and laughed. “If my daddy had caught a boy hanging around outside my window, he would have whipped us both, but I couldn’t let him go hungry.” She looked over where my dad was sitting to be sure he wasn’t listening. She smiled and put one hand to the side of her mouth. “One evenin’ your daddy got into his step daddy’s whiskey. Well, he’d never had a drink before in his life and after a while he got to feelin’ real sorry for himself. So he got on that old horse of his and tried to ride it to my house in the middle of the night. I looked out my window and there he was just sittin’ there cryin’, covered in sand spurs and mud. He’d fell off his horse so many times that the horse had got tired and trotted off back home. I handed him some food out the window and then sat there while he cried and picked sand spurs off himself until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told him “Benny, you stop that carryin’ on! You’re gonna be just fine! But you gotta learn to take care of yourself!” Aunt Mildred leaned to one side and looked past me; then took me by the arm and turned me gently towards my father. He had his arm around my mom and was surrounded by dozens of family members and friends. “Your daddy… he done alright.”
I travel to the end of Coconut Road quite often these days and despite how much it has changed my thoughts always return to Aunt Mildred and the Johnson family. Time and people pass on, places may change, but the strong connections born of simple innocent friendships and the compassion, kindness and encouragement of extraordinary people are with us, always.