When Ollie was eight years old, she was the second eldest of eight children. And she watched her “daddy” beat and kill her mother, nine months pregnant, in the kitchen. She still doesn’t know why. As she sees it, this was during the days of Jim Crow, so nobody cared about domestic violence in rural Mississippi. Her father was never prosecuted. Soon after, her older sister died, which left Ollie in charge of raising her siblings, even though she was only ten at the time.
A few years later, her father married a woman who saw Ollie as a rival and arranged for Ollie to be sent to her aunt’s home in Miami, Florida, when she was fourteen. She finished high school there, but while still a teenager got pregnant and had two children, whose father didn’t stay around. When Ollie’s father became ill, her stepmother left town, and the family turned to Ollie to take care of her dying—yet still abusive—father. To support herself and her children, Ollie went to work as a maid for a physician.
Years earlier, before she died, Ollie’s mother taught her to make a pound cake. It wasn’t hard, and Ollie developed a knack for it. People liked them, so now whenever anyone did something nice for her, she would make a pound cake as a way of saying thank you.
Ollie was twenty-eight when she married R.C., who worked at an antique furniture store. R.C. developed a gambling addiction and spent every penny Ollie earned. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she divorced him. But six months later, when he had a new job reupholstering furniture, they remarried. Despite promises to change, R.C. returned to his old ways and Ollie divorced him again the next year. Around that time she began working for a man who owned a restaurant and who bought her an old Chevrolet. She says, “I didn’t have anything to give him to thank him, so I started making ten or twelve cakes a year for him.”
Ollie married and divorced R.C. for a third time, but when he developed prostate cancer, she let him move back in. Her friends told her, “I wouldn’t take that nigger back.” But she did, and she cared for him until he died. Two weeks before he died, he told her he had been having sexual relationships with two of her sisters for many years. Ollie was devastated and was never was able to talk with her sisters again.
Ollie became a patient of the Church Health Center and would bring not one, but two, pound cakes to every visit. At first Dr. Mary Braza was her physician, but when Dr. Braza moved to New York, I became Ollie’s doctor—and the beneficiary of the cakes. Usually, I’d eat a piece and put the rest out for the staff. Everyone knew when Ollie had been to the clinic. A few years ago, she developed endometrial cancer and then lung cancer that metastasized.
One Thanksgiving, Ollie brought me two cakes even though she didn’t have an appointment. She told me, “You are the only family I have that loves me.” I couldn’t let go of that comment. I didn’t know what I’d done that Ollie would see me as family, or how she sees my caring for her medical needs as love. But the fact is that I think I do love her, if it is possible to love someone whom I have only seen while being her doctor. I’ve taken to calling her myself with the results of her many tests, even if it is a minor test and everything is normal. I wouldn’t normally do that—the clinic is fully staffed—but somehow it seems like the right thing for Ollie.
Ollie reminds me why I came to Memphis and why I stay. She’s had a complicated, traumatic life, yet she looked for hope, gratitude, and love. Health in the life of an individual—or a community—is so much more than normal or abnormal test results.