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 or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315