August 21, 2013

'All each other had:' Childhood friends reunited after 69 years

Rachel Brown
rachelbrown@daltoncitizen.com

— Carlene Collins was nervous, but she wasn’t about to back down. She’d already waited 69 years.

So the Dalton resident picked up her phone and dialed the listing she’d found for the woman who was once her dearest childhood friend.

“I called her, and she answered,” Collins said, “and I said, ‘Are you Mildred Chadwick Swinney?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You may not remember me, but I’m Carlene, and I lived across the road from you at Prater’s Mill,’ and she said, ‘Oh, my goodness!”

Moments earlier, Swinney was looking at the caller ID on her telephone and debating whether to take the call. She didn’t recognize the name and began to turn away. Then curiosity got the better of her, and she’s glad it did.

The two soon discovered they were each other’s long-lost childhood friends, friends who lived across the road from one another while Collins’ grandfather, John Ledford, ran Prater’s Mill for a short time in 1944.

Nearly every day saw them in one another’s company. Collins was about 6 at the time, Swinney about 5. There were a few boys in the neighborhood who were sometimes Swinney’s playmates, and there were several-years-younger cousins who sometimes visited Collins, but there were no other little girls near their age they could see on a daily basis.

“We played with our dolls. We would play house and make playhouses,” Collins recalled.

The women have married, raised families and had careers. They’ve suffered loss — Collins thought to reconnect with Swinney when she saw Swinney’s husband’s obituary in the newspaper and suspected the widow was her long-lost friend. They’ve lived through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam conflict and 9/11.

When they were little girls playing house together, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. World War II was what eventually separated them. Collins said she was raised by her grandfather after her mother died when she was young, and her grandfather moved back to Dalton less than a year after taking the Prater’s Mill job to help take care of his daughter and her children. Uncle Sam needed his son-in-law back in the Navy.

Thus ended the short-lived and memorable friendship the two little girls had kindled at Prater’s Mill. They were unable to keep in touch. Both moved several times. Both said they thought of each other often. They wonder how they never knowingly ran into each other over the years.

They had attended school in Varnell as children and would later attend North Whitfield High School. They suspect they passed each other in grocery stores many times. Collins married and had two children, one of whom she lost. Swinney also married and had four children.

They held various jobs over the decades. For about 17 years, Swinney drove a school bus for Whitfield County Schools. For about 20 years during that same time, she managed the Burger Den restaurant in Varnell.

Collins marvels that she never noticed when any of Swinney’s children were born. As a secretary in charge of birth certificates at Hamilton Medical Center for 29 years, Collins said she now thinks she must have been out of the office on the days when Swinney’s children were born, because she doesn’t recall recording any of their names.

Once Collins and Swinney reconnected on the phone, they decided to meet at the Chick-fil-A at Walnut Square Mall. A store employee took their picture, and after workers there learned of their story, they invited them back for a free meal to celebrate the occasion.

The women plan to stay in touch now that they’ve found each other again, and they’re still tickled that the friendship they forged so long ago has re-emerged.

“We were all each other had,” Swinney recalled. “There weren’t any more kids there.”

“I never did have another friend like Mildred,” Collins said.