I had been expecting the message for almost two years now. I still cried when it came. As soon as I heard Jane Hardman Alexander’s name on my answering machine, I instinctively knew the nature of her call. Her aunt, Mae Hardman, had passed away. She was 89.
“Miss Mae,” as she was known to a generation of school children in Porterdale and another generation of young people at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, had such a profound impact on my life that it would be almost impossible to describe that impact, and yet, decency and the dignity of her passing require that I try.
She was so many things to so many people — teacher, social worker, librarian, sister in Christ, leader of the Girl Reserves, ambassador of goodwill, and a shining example of a life well-lived. Those are just for starters. The best word to describe her, for me, is mentor. The next best is friend.
I lived next door to Miss Mae and her mother, Hardy, during my formative years, and I would sit in her living room for hours, talking about places and things that most people in Porterdale didn’t seem to find time to talk about. She was one of the first people to open my eyes to the possibility that I might one day experience many of the things and visit many of the places that, until then, had only been accessible to me in books.
Speaking of books, one of Mae’s many, many duties as sole social worker in the Bibb mill town of Porterdale, was to maintain the town library in the Anderson Building. In addition to the hours I spent visiting with my friend, and her mother, in her home, I spent countless additional hours in “her” library, and she would help me pick out a wide variety of books on numerous subjects. She encouraged me to move beyond the realm of sports books and juvenile fiction into the world of adult literature and biographies of great people and travelogues, as well as the literary classics. When she had extra money to order new books, she always kept me in mind and when I had exhausted the supply of appropriate reading materials on the shelves of the city library, she invited me to make selections from her personal treasury.
Pat Conroy once wrote a book about his “reading life.” My reading life has been heavily influenced by Miss Mae Hardman.
Another of Mae’s duties was to edit and write the Porterdale contributions to the Bibb Recorder — a newspaper with tidbits from all the towns in which Bibb Manufacturing Company had holdings, and the Covington News, our county’s weekly newspaper. I always enjoyed reading the things she wrote, and proudly showing her byline to my friends. “My next door neighbor wrote that,” I would proudly proclaim. I especially enjoyed her work when I was the subject matter, which I frequently was. She always encouraged me to write, and my very first byline in print was a direct result of her tutelage and encouragement.
Mae was a devout Presbyterian but would always accompany Annie Lee Day, our iconic town nurse, and me to the Methodist Church on Easter morning for sunrise service. Many times our talks turned to spiritual matters. “Joy to the World,” was her favorite hymn and she often pondered why we only sang it at Christmas because, as she liked to point out, Christ brings joy to this world every single day.
Mae never married, thus the endearment, “Miss Mae” and never had children of her own, but she couldn’t have loved her nephew, Jim, or her nieces, Jane and Dorothy, more if they were her very own. Our conversations, throughout her life, were filled with stories about them and their lives.
When I went away to college, textiles were dying in the North Georgia Piedmont. Bibb Manufacturing was divesting itself of most of its holdings in Porterdale and no longer needed the services of a town social worker, even one that wore so many hats, and so stylishly, so to speak, as Mae Hardman. She found herself having to start over, in the North Georgia village of Dillard.
She went to work at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School and was soon just as beloved in that community as she had been in her hometown of Porterdale. She never looked back and loved her mountain home, as her visits to Newton County became less and less frequent. Her cards and letters didn’t stop, however, until a year or so ago. I would often receive large packages of photographs and news clippings and books that she had ferreted away — photographs and clippings about my many activities over the years. They spoke volumes about the fact that she had become as proud of me as I had always been of her.
She would always include a note, when she sent such packages, assuring me that “I’m not getting ready to die, understand, just trying to clear out some things.”
On the table beside my desk I keep a collection of poems that Mae gave me on my birthday, in 1968. I turn to it frequently for entertainment and inspiration. After talking to Jane Alexander about her aunt’s death, I sat down in my chair and picked up that book and read a poem by Lord Byron that spoke of “a mind at peace with all below.”
That poem speaks of Mae Hardman today. I rejoice that she has found eternal peace.