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My maternal line. From left: Nettie Stacey Combs, my great-grandmother; Della Combs Brashear, my grandmother; Pam Brashear, my mother, who is holding me at about 6 months old. Photo: Provided.

Hello everyone,

When I think of the mountains, I think of being held. The way they tower above you when you’re standing in the bottom of a holler, how they shield you from the sun until late in the morning and after the early evening, the way they look blanketed by a soft green overcoat in the summer – they make me feel safe and warm, even in the coldest months. 

This was true as a child, a time when their size felt even larger. It was true when I went away to college and would round the curve on the Mountain Parkway just before Red River Gorge, the distant ridgeline welcoming me back. It’s true even now, when I return to the hills after being away at the home and life I share with my wife in Lexington. No matter where I go or how far away from them I am, the mountains hold me and keep me.

I wonder how the women ancestors in my family felt about them when they were living and surviving in these same hollers? I know, for instance, that Granny Della wished more than anything to move beyond them. She wanted to travel around the curvy roads and out into the all-encompassing sunlight of flat land, toward a life in the city where she would be far away from the hard work and gendered expectations of the culture from which she came. 

I feel like Granny Hazel, though, likely wanted to be nowhere else than on Big Branch – close to where she grew up and near her children and grandchildren. I heard somewhere once that where you choose to die is the place you love the most. As y’all read, Granny Hazel chose home in the mountains as the last place she’d see on this earth. 

Further back in my family, it’s less clear what the women thought about the hills that held them. Did they feel embraced, as I do, by the lush greens and closeness of tight hollers? Or did the hills, with their shadow-making and their weight bearing down on them, make it hard to breathe? 

We valorize our women ancestors as hard workers who could till the fields, milk the cows, cook the supper and wash the clothes all before the day was done. We talk about their strength and their willpower and their spitfire personalities. We honor them because life was not easy for mountain women. 

Nor was it fair. The deeds to the land that they worked so diligently could not legally be in their names. They could not open bank accounts or have credit cards in their names. They were expected to not get their driver’s licenses, and often, to not need a high school diploma. The only agency women of these generations had was to get tough and strong and exist in a world that gave them little room to do so. And still, they lived their lives with purpose and joy, finding ways to pass on these things to their daughters, too. 

I think often about my place among these women who had to be strong to survive. I think about the sheer force of will that kept my great-grandmother, Nettie Stacey, with an abusive husband who came back from World War I with a penchant for alcohol that made him violent. I wonder about why she still insisted my Granny Della marry a man she did not want to marry. 

In turn, I think about how Granny Della spent time in a mental hospital when my mom was young because she’d had a mental breakdown – like so many other women bearing the weight of the culture in the 1950s. I think of my own struggles with anxiety, and I sense that it's written on the same strand of DNA that carries the sequence of my maternal haplogroup.

I know that Appalachia is held up and supported by generations of women doing their caregiving labor to keep the culture and the community afloat. I know that this place has given its women very little to show for it in return. But I also know that it’s not the place that makes it what it is, but the people who call it home who shape the place. If women here have lived hard lives, then they have lived them – knowingly or not – so future generations of women could have it just a little bit better. 

I know that’s true in my family. I have told you stories this month about four women in my life. My grannies, Della and Hazel; my Aunt Yo; my mom. All four have shaped my life in ways impossible to quantify. They made it possible for me to exist as a wild, towheaded tomboy who grew up climbing mountains and playing in the muddy creek bed and who someday would diverge from all that those women knew by falling in love with another woman. 

Me with my wife, Courtney, in Lexington, Kentucky, where we now live. Photo: Courtney Daniel/Provided.

There are dozens of other women, both in and out of my family, who have influenced me. I could have written an essay about a different woman every day of this month, and I still would have needed more time and space to tell you about all of them. Women like my Aunt Deliliah Sue, for instance, who was among the first generation to benefit from Title IX. She became a PE teacher, and later a principal, who gave her active love freely to her students – especially those who grew up very poor or that grew up in unsafe home situations and needed that love the most. It’s her voice I hear telling me to always be proud of where I come from when I see denigrating stories or comments about Eastern Kentucky. 

There’s also my great-grandmother, Attie Wooten, who used to sell eggs in the coal camps for extra money. Her granddaughter – my Aunt Annie – still calls me “Baby Girl,” always remembers to send me a birthday card and cares for the sick or elderly in the community without any expectation of reward for it. She does it because she cares and because it matters to her that we take care of one another. We talk about the Olympics and gardening when we see each other. I always leave her feeling a bit closer to the earth.

It was my mom’s family friend, Sis Cornett, who said once that she felt like the open sky away from the mountains was suffocating her. She loved John Bedwell but was not allowed to marry him when she was young. She could not read or write, so after her disabled brother and mother died, it was Mom she called on to write a letter to Mr. Bedwell. He was ill, but she paid to move him back home to Perry County so they could spend the remainder of his life together. She died of COVID last year and is now buried next to him. 

I see these women – with all their struggle, joy, heartache and love – as if they exist in a sort of quilt, stitched together in a complex pattern that would be impossible to make twice. And I know that their stories are woven into the very fabric of this mountain homeplace. Without them and the lives they lived, the loves they had and the experiences they helped foster, this place we love so deeply would be missing an essential ingredient, like a cake wherein you forgot to put the eggs. 

Mountain women have given us a keen sense of how to be rooted and free, how to hold and let go, how to survive and thrive and contain multitudes of complexity that sometimes can seem incongruous. They showed us how to do it all with an eye on the daughters and granddaughters of tomorrow, so they might know what it means to be a little freer with every passing generation. I certainly feel the weight of them all, and I know that weight isn’t always a burden to bear, but can be something that keeps me grounded, and helps move me forward. 

What people often overlook in the haze of nostalgia and in the distance that time creates is that these women are just the same as we are now. They were strong because they had to be, tough because there was no other option, home and not working because they weren’t allowed to leave. They were just as subject to shifts and changes and booms and busts, and they had to deal with the fallout just like anyone else. 

But they lived and loved in this place. They had wants and desires and worked and played in this place. And their lives ripple outward – to me, yes, but also into others who knew and loved them. Their ordinary lives with all their complexities and dualities extend well beyond their living days. The landscape is dotted with scores of people who speak their names and call them back into the present, ensuring in that way that they are never really gone from us.

There is a memory of my Granny Della I hold dear. She’s in her kitchen, slicing peaches to be frozen for winter. I’m sitting at the island, watching. I don’t remember a single word she said to me about how to preserve those peaches. But I do remember watching her move about the room, slicing, stirring, boiling water, opening Ziplocs and filling them with the sweet fruit. She was investing in tomorrow then, in the promise of sweetness in the darkest and coldest of days. 

I don’t have her peaches to remind me of warmer days and sweeter things. I do have her, though. That is more than enough. 

Thank you all for letting me share with you about some of the women who have shaped my life. As I bid farewell to this newsletter series, and as we collectively end another Women’s History Month, I hope you will reflect on the women in your own lives – the ordinary women of Appalachia who with tenacity and sheer grit carved out a place for themselves and their daughters in this mountain place. 

Sincerely,

Ivy Brashear

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