My First Fifty-Five
by Rosie M. Elder
Xulon Press

"I hold the belief that there is a uniting of man through Jesus."

In this lively autobiography, African American writer Elder depicts a life of travel, study, work, and dedicated church involvement. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1948 to a hardworking rural family, she remembers that she had both parents and stepparents and was treated the same by all, trained well in two houses. As a result, she often had two of the same toy and shared the extras with poorer children. She remembers many trips by car and bus to visit relatives near and far from an early age. The family “ate when they were hungry” with meals supplied through the home canning of fruits and vegetables from an extensive garden “with rows farther than the eye could see.” Both domestic birds like chickens and wild game like rabbits, squirrels, and deer—along with fish, both fresh and salted—were available, with trips to the grocery store mainly for staples like flour and sugar. Religion forms many of Elder’s early memories: she had a total immersion baptism in the local pond and joined the choir by age eleven.

Elder pursued higher education and has urged her children to do so. She recalls, without regret, her early physical work life within the family, “chopping cotton and corn.” Determined to use her mental capabilities for advancement, she studied nursing, attaining several levels of credentialing. At first, she lacked the confidence to pursue that career and tried some other lines of work, including marketing, but finally acknowledged the medical field as her true calling, since even as a teenager she was said to “have a way with sick people” and was often called upon to attend to them. She worked for a Chicago VA facility for thirty-five years, during which time she also raised her children, overcame various financial and emotional obstacles, and was a faithful church member, chaplain, and choir leader. Her singing was first recorded when she was nine, and she has composed several poetic songs.

In 2003, Elder challenged herself to begin writing this engaging memoir, which contains a wide range of family lore along with her personal experiences. Interspersed within her short but energetic narrative are several enlightening papers that Elder wrote for theology classes. One stresses the importance of prayer as a Christian ritual. Another one highlights the life story of Jesus. The third is a brief biography of Teresa of Avila, while another is a candid essay focused on her involvement with death and dying. These interesting themes show her strengths as an academic observer and her skills in expository writing. In mild contrast, the family history and intimate recollections she shares with her reader show a love of vernacular, a willingness to disclose some of her heart’s secrets, and an enjoyable sense of humor. Elder is already well into her “second fifty-five,” and it is obvious from her book’s title that she plans to live a further, fulfilling span. She clearly wishes her memoir to be a family legacy, but it will be of interest to other readers because of her vivid memories of a rural upbringing at a time when life in America was very challenging for those of her race. Too, it is a chronicle of one woman’s resolute rise from hardship to the blessings of a sound education, a caring family, and a stable, faith-based lifestyle.

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