Cook: At the fountain of youth, there's a book

Cook: At the fountain of youth, there's a book

May 10th, 2015 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Millie Reis, age 86, reads a book in a recliner in her North Shore apartment on April 28, 2015.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

While she was married, Millie Reis only read catalogs and magazines.

Domestic stuff, like Ladies Home Journal or Family Circle. Sometimes, The Saturday Evening Post.

Her husband would read and read. Two, three books at a time. The newspaper at the dinner table. But Millie?

"Light stuff," she said. "Never a novel."

Millie, who grew up in a 1930s Massachusetts mill town, met her husband at the local dance hall. He was tall, gentle, devoted, with blue eyes that made her flip inside.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

"When I was young, I never felt like I fit in. I never thought I would find somebody who would care for me like he did," she said.

They were married for 61 years. They traveled, once to Hawaii. They retired in Florida, where he continued to read, and she didn't.

Then, around 2000, he got sick. She became his caregiver.

In 2009, Millie's husband died.

And part of her story came to an end.

Three years ago, Millie left Florida for downtown Chattanooga, moving into a North Shore condo just a few doors away from her son, John, and his wife, Shelia. They had dinners together. Long talks. Millie would cook her special apple pie; Shelia and John would guess at her secret ingredient.

It felt like her new home.

But one thing was missing.

"She is an amazing person," said Shelia, "but was never interested in books."

How things would soon change.

In the spring of 2014, Millie went to visit a friend who, knowing how much Millie loves cats, gave her a paperback book. Just casually, a suggestion, a gift as light as a cat's paw.

It was a book about a cat named Norton.

Millie read the first page, then the second, the third. She returned to her North Shore condo, this time bringing a book with her. John and Shelia couldn't believe it. They rushed to buy her more -- passionately, but delicately, as if not wanting to scare away whatever literary part of Millie had suddenly awakened.

They played it safe.

"We got her more animal books," said Shelia.

Like "Following Atticus," a book about a miniature schnauzer named Atticus, who, with his owner, climbs all 48 peaks in New Hampshire.

"It's a true story," said Millie. "In the winter, he hikes in these little booties."

Millie finished it, and asked for more.

They got her a novel about a cat detective. Then, three more novels about cat detectives. At 86, Millie, who spent decades reading Sears catalogs, was now reading a book a week.

Shelia decided to up the ante, introducing Millie to the more literary Barbara Kingsolver novels. She loved them. "Pigs in Heaven." "The Bean Trees." Everything Kingsolver wrote, Millie read.

Then came David Halberstam's biography of the Yankees and Ted Williams. Another about Tim Conway. Elizabeth Berg novels. Kerry Greenwood mysteries. Novels set in Rwanda. World War II. "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series. John and Shelia made weekly trips to the library, then McKay's.

Tables once blank now had piles of books, stacked like cordwood. Millie would be late to dinner. ("Oh, I had to see what happened in the next chapter," she'd apologize.) In her brown leather recliner, sitting by the window, overlooking the green Tennessee River, Millie would read for hours, as if making up for lost time.

As if a new part of her own story had begun.

"Usually the last third of life is a closing, a narrowing," said John. "But my mom's life has opened up."

It's as if reading has transformed her.

It's as if reading has made her ... younger.

Since she began reading, Millie's been going out again. To her first symphony. Her first opera. Her first ballet. The boys choir concert. She took a trip to Pigeon Forge. Stayed up to watch "The Last Waltz," the documentary-concert about The Band. Thought Robbie Robertson was easy on the eyes.

She went to see Black Jacket Symphony. Soon, to Nashville.

"I'm going to see Reba," Millie said.

She'll probably dance, too.

"It's like watching someone who is 86 not get smaller and shrinking down, but actually developing," said Shelia. "It's like she's becoming a new person that wasn't there before. Like she's blooming."

Right now, she's reading another mystery. Next, Jan Karon's Mitford series. Then the Jane Pauley bio. It's as if Millie's reading her way back in time, back to this land of energy and surprise and joy.

All these books? They've been her own fountain of youth.

"Life doesn't end when you're in your 80s. It can be a new beginning. It has been for me," Millie said. "That's my story."

It would be a bestseller.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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