It was, ahem, a while back when I was part of a Brownie Scout troop at Landmark Elementary School. In those days, I knew our assistant troop leader -- the mother of one of my classmates and fellow Brownies -- as "Mrs.," followed by her married name at the time. I didn't even know her first name.
Nowadays, after reuniting with her on Facebook, I know her as Melba.
I recently had lunch with Melba, who goes by her maiden name -- Collins -- and still lives in the Landmark community north of East End. She wanted to share the story of her mom and dad, the late Robert and Zerita Harrison of North Little Rock.
I didn't know of the Harrisons until Melba began discussing them on her Facebook page last year, when both passed. Zerita was 93 when she died. Robert, who was nicknamed ''Dutch'' and who passed four months later, was 94. The couple had been married 72 years.
Unfamiliar with Melba's family background, I was probably not the only one squinting at the photos she shared of the Harrisons on Facebook. Melba is white. The Harrisons were black. Theirs was quite the unusual story, especially considering the time it began -- the 1960s, when racial bias in the South was still a lot more blatant than it is now.
Melba's biological parents, Mable and Pete Collins, died when Melba was a teenager.
Meanwhile, Melba and her first husband, Robert Uzzell, eloped when Melba was 14, lying about her age. The two went on to have the first two of Melba's three daughters, but Robert died not long before Melba's father died. Melba had to find a job to support herself and the children. "After losing so many people ... I really wanted to die myself, but I had kids to take care of," Melba says.
She went to work at the Holiday Inn in North Little Rock as a cashier and hostess in the dining room. It was there that she met Zerita, who waited tables there. "She took one look at me -- I know I was pitiful -- and she said, 'Baby, you need a mama,'" Melba recalled. "She would bring me food from home that Dad cooked. And then if I needed something looked at on my car, Dad would look at it. ... Dad was the biggest sweetheart."
The relationship, Melba says, "just developed more and more and more. And I was very blessed."
Melba shared her humorous memories of Zerita's strong will.
"She was like Vince Lombardi," Melba said, referring to the legendary football player and Green Bay Packers coach. "If she told you to sit down, you didn't look for a chair. She was wonderful, kind, loving, but her word was law. Zerita got what Zerita wanted, period.
"Mom ruled. Dad cooked."
Matter of fact, Dutch did all the cooking ... something he actually hated to do. So how did he get stuck with all the culinary duties?
"He said, 'Well, when Mama and I first got married she made something and we were eating and I said, "You know, this is really good, but I think I could make it better." And she said, "Have at it," and she never cooked again.'"
So anytime Melba had a cooking question, she said, "I called Dad. ... He was my go-to guy."
Melba grew misty-eyed as she shared happy memories of life with the Harrisons, and showed me the many photos that offered glimpses into that life: the restaurants and plays they attended together. The Harrison family picnics and get-togethers. Zerita's homemade eggnog, an annual Christmas gift to Melba. Zerita's last birthday party at the nursing home -- "She wanted a crown because she was always Queen Zerita. So we had her a crown." Dutch's 90th birthday party at the River Market's Ottenheimer Market Hall.
"They always introduced me as their daughter, and I always introduced them as my mom and dad. ... It just seemed natural," Melba said. The Harrisons' son, Bobby, who lives in Huntsville, Ala., came to be a brother, while Melba's daughters -- Beth, my classmate; Myra; and youngest daughter Jill -- considered the Harrisons to be grandparents. The grandchildren called them Ma and Pa Harrison. "Even my oldest great-granddaughter got to meet them and she just loved them."
Melba took their departure hard. "I just wish they were still here. I miss them every day," she said.
But she realizes she was blessed in a way more of us would be if we didn't allow our differences from others -- real, perceived, magnified -- to block such blessings.
"I had double love in parents," she said. "I've never not had love."
Style on 10/18/2015