By Daniel Silliman
Evie Childers thinks this is funny: She used to play in the creek in her clean clothes, and it made her grandmother so mad.
She's sitting on her couch, almost 90 years old, and it still makes her laugh. She laughs like a bird. She opens her mouth and sits up, and it comes out surprised and sprightly, each syllable sort of taking off, "ha-ha-ha!"
"I remember playing in the creek," Childers says. "Ha-ha-ha! And getting a whipping! Ha-ha-ha! Every time she'd get me in clean clothes, I'd go through the creek."
Asked about her childhood, Childers only shares a couple of things. She remembers peach orchards on the acres her father owned in Roswell. She remembers she had two uncles, and she's pretty sure she was spoiled -- an only child and the only girl born into the family for 10 years. She tells the story about playing in the creek, and another one about hiding from her father.
"I had a certain plate I ate off of at the table," she says. "And they used to keep them upside-down on the table. Well, I turned my plate over and it wasn't my regular plate -- ha-ha-ha! -- and I ran and hid under the house, until my father crawled under to come and get me."
In both stories, Childers, now a small woman with tight, white curls, is expressing her fierce independence. She's strong, in the stories, and doing what she wants to do, not what anybody tells her to. She turns 90 on Friday, and when she's asked to say something about her life, something that describes it, she says, "I had to take care of myself." Or she says, "I did my own work."
On Aug. 15, 1918, Childers was born and named Evie Fairlena Stroup. ("They were out of all the other names," she says.) Five months later, in the winter of that year, her mother died. She went to live with her grandmother, who had a house down the street from her father. Then, when Evie was 9, in the late 1920s, her grandmother died, too.
"It was rough back then," Childers says. "I had to take care of myself."
She married young, but she doesn't want to talk about it, except to say her husband wouldn't work and she "put him on the road." That makes her laugh and she lets it loose like it surprises even her: "Ha-ha-ha!"
There weren't any divorces that she knew of, back then, not, at least, among the people she knew. But the young Evie was independent, strong and maybe even a little stubborn, so she moved back in with her father for a while, and then got a job as a professional seamstress, supporting herself through World War II, and well into the 1950s.
"We made those Army khakis," Childers says. "Those khaki pants. You learned to run any type of machine."
She supported herself until she married Joseph Elmer Childers in 1954. She has the marriage certificate in a frame, tucked under her couch, and she pulls it out to show. She was married by a judge in Decatur, a Judge Brown, and it was in October. There's a little picture, stuck onto the certificate by the fancy scroll border, and the newly married bride has her hair in a halo of curls, and Joe Childers tilts his head toward hers.
She doesn't remember where she met him, any more. It must of been through friends, but she doesn't remember. He died on December 5, but she doesn't remember the year, just that he died, and she buried him and the whole thing still seems like a nightmare she can't quite recall.
"I had a stroke three years ago," Childers says. "After that stroke, you just can't think. After that stroke, you're just not yourself anymore."
But she is still herself. Weaker maybe, but still strong. Needing a little help, maybe, but still aggressively independent. She says she can pretty much keep up her house in Forest Park, but she has someone do her grocery shopping, and she hasn't been able to re-paint, or re-do the carpets.
"I did all my own work, but I had that stroke three years ago," she says.
Linda Lord, a city councilwoman visiting Childers for her birthday, says the woman's a model of what it means to be a Southern woman.
"Southern women are strong," Lord says. "I don't know about Northern women, I've never been up North, but Southern women are strong. They're stronger than they think. And they'll never say, 'no,' but they'll find a way to do what they were always going to."
That makes Childers laugh, and the-almost 90-year-old woman sits up, smiles out the side of her face, and let's it go: "Ha-ha-ha!"