Life of a Poet

Vassar Miller is broke, hospitalized and facing an uncertain future. Doesn't one of Texas' most esteemed writers deserve better?

Nancy Evans has worked as an in-home caregiver assisting the elderly and disabled for more than 30 years, so she's accustomed to dealing with human frailties in their most personal and physical form. But the scene she walked into when Adult Protective Services dispatched her to a modest home in Montrose on July 1 was memorable.

Evans found the 69-year-old woman she'd been sent to help disheveled and disoriented.

"She was shaky, sweaty and didn't know she was in the world," Evans recalls, "but she knew something was going on wrong."

What Evans didn't know when she walked in the door that morning was that the elderly woman was the acclaimed author of eight volumes of poetry, had once been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is, by any informed estimation, one of the finest writers the state of Texas has ever produced. But not a whole lot of people in her hometown do know of Vassar Miller and her work. And those who do would, like Nancy Evans, have been shocked if they had seen her that day last summer.

"It was awful," says Evans. "The house was dirty. People were in and out trying to buy the house and Vassar was screaming and hollering. They were in there trying to sell off books and stuff, trying to sell anything they could sell. What I should have done was walk back out and get in my van and leave, but I looked at Vassar, and this poor little lady is distressed."

The chaotic scene also left an indelible impression on a prospective buyer who visited the house that day. As he later described it, "Mrs. (sic) Miller was screaming at the top of her lungs the entire time we were there -- there were about eight large black women and one tall skinny black woman in the house all sitting in the living room and dining room complaining about not being paid. Several women asked me if I wanted to buy any of Mrs. Miller's belongings or her books off her shelves in order to raise money. They proceeded to tell me that Mrs. Miller was completely wiped out and they couldn't take care of her any longer without being paid .... You can imagine how I felt when I left there -- knowing that Mrs. Miller was out of money to take care of her with all these people like a pack of wolves waiting to get paid and no one to pay them."

Vassar Miller was indeed almost "wiped out," although she didn't fully realize it. Nor did she know that the house she had lived in since 1968 was for sale. She had long ago prepared a living will stating clearly that she wished to die in that home on Vassar Street, a street named after her mother. But Vassar Miller, who by her own admission has never much cared to deal with money, had invested her power of attorney in other people for more than 30 years, and legally she was not required to know that her house was for sale.

Nancy Evans worked her shift that first day from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m., and when it was time to leave she found that there was no one present to relieve her. She says she called a worker at Adult Protective Services, who instructed her that it was not her responsibility to remain past the hours for which she was being paid. She had already overstayed her shift, but finally, at about 2:30, the women who had been trying to hawk Vassar's home and belongings that morning returned. Evans asked who was coming in to relieve her and was told by one of the woman, "Oh you just go ahead, don't worry about it."

Evans left, but when she showed up for her shift the next morning, she found the front door unlocked and the house abandoned, except for Vassar, trembling and soaked in sweat.

In the four and a half months since Evans first laid eyes on her, life has changed for Vassar -- somewhat for the better, although her future is an open question. Her house, at least for now, has been taken off the market. A probate judge has named Harris County as guardian of Vassar's estate, of which the house is the only major asset. Longtime family friend Sallie Wright has, as the only person to step forward and request the responsibility, been appointed guardian of Vassar's person. Wright has also assumed Vassar's power of attorney from Johanna Williams -- the "tall skinny black woman" singled out by the prospective buyer of Vassar's home -- who had acted as the poet's secretary and unofficial guardian for three years, ending with her unsuccessful attempt to sell her house. Williams continues about her life at a wary distance from Vassar, having been advised by her lawyer to steer well clear of the woman who once entrusted herself totally to Williams' care.

A virtually penniless Vassar Miller, meanwhile, is biding her time in Methodist Hospital, nursing a leg that she fractured in a fall from her wheelchair, her future in the hands of other people and institutions who all claim to have her best interests at heart. The object of their concern remains uncertain when she'll be released from the hospital room she loathes, and uncertain, when she is released, whether she'll end up back at the house in Montrose or in a nursing home.

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