Ivy Brashear here. If you missed my introduction inf your inbox yesterday, I’m the Appalachian Transition Director at the Mountain Association in Berea, Kentucky.
I am also a writer originally from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Growing up there, near the head of the Left Fork of Maces Creek in Viper, Kentucky, I always loved looking at the stars. We were so far out of town there was very little people-made light to dim their shine, and as a kid I was always looking up to the Milky Way at night.
My parents were stargazers, too. I remember waking up on Sunday mornings to NPR’s “Stardate” letting us know when to see the planets in the sky, or when the next meteor shower would be. When Haley’s Comet made its most recent 70-year pass by Earth, we rode to the nearest high point we could reach by car with my parents – hoping to get the best possible view.
Several times we spread blankets across the yard in front of our house so we could lie down to try and catch a glimpse of meteor showers in the late hours of night. It was during one of these meteor showers that my Aunt Annie and Dad told the story about how their mother, my Granny Hazel, had once thought the world was ending because she and her sister, Anna Lee, witnessed a meteor shower early in the morning while they waited to be picked up and driven to their job at the laundry in Hazard.
“They screamed and ran for cover!” Annie said, laughing with Dad as she recounted the story. Granny and Anna Lee had never seen such a thing, probably because they’d been too busy looking down - tending the garden, keeping the house and working for neighbors - to look up and watch the stars.
Hazel Wooten Brashear died when I was just 6 years old, so I have very few of my own memories of her. I remember that she smelled of starch from washing and pressing clothes. She loved a cat named Brandy, who roamed the hills around the homeplace for years after Granny died.
I sat on the porch with Granny Hazel, swinging in her porch swing, listening to the way her ceramic wind chimes tinkled in the wind. She only ever wore housedresses, and she kept chickens in her yard. She once taught me how to get the dried corn kernels off the cob and throw them in the yard for the chickens to eat. I have a very clear memory of seeing her bathed in the light of her kitchen skylight as she set a plate of scrambled eggs and buttered toast on the table in front of me. She always had whipped honey in her cabinet.
Other memories of her are fuzzy, and as is the way with memory, I’m sometimes not even sure if they are my own memories or an amalgamation of things my brother, cousins, aunts and parents have told me about her. But one thing is abundantly clear about my Granny Hazel: she was a kind and gentle soul. Quiet but strong in her silence, and who taught her children – either explicitly or through the way she lived – to treat and care for others with kindness.
Granny grew up in Fort Branch on the North Fork of the Kentucky River, just a few miles from Big Branch, where she lived as an adult. She and her siblings helped their parents maintain their subsistence farm, which meant a lot of tending the garden and the animals. For the girls, it also meant cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and caring for younger siblings.
Her father, Bill Wooten, contracted tuberculosis, so he was largely unable to work outside the home. The disease later took his life when he was in his 40s. It was left to the children, then, to work jobs that helped support the family.
This is how Granny met her husband, my Pa Earl. She worked for his family cleaning house and washing clothes. She once told my mom as they looked at a photo of him in his army uniform that Earl was the prettiest man she’d ever seen.
Granny had six children with Earl – my dad, plus his three sisters and two brothers – and they built their house, where she lived and cared for her family, until she died. I remember Sunday dinners at the homeplace, where me and the cousins would spend time playing hide and seek outside so we’d be out of the way of the cooking. I used to hide in the old smokehouse, underneath hanging hams and shanks, and later we’d eat Granny’s fried chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes and green beans. And, of course, dessert – there was always desert.
We’d catch June bugs in the yard, and Dad would help us tie string to their legs. Then we’d watch them fly circles around our heads into the evening hours. I don’t know where Granny was in all this, except that she was in the kitchen when the food was being cooked. I like to think she was sitting in the swing on her second-story porch, watching the proceedings with a quiet joy while we kids played.
Maybe she felt the warmth of her family then. Maybe she felt tired from a long day of housework. Maybe she never would have complained about that because as I know from others, she never complained.
I once wrote a poem about Granny Hazel called “Appalachian Saint,” in which I tried to capture the duality of her life as a kind and gentle soul who also had to kill the chickens she kept in her yard to feed her family.
Granny Hazel was a saint.
But nobody ever said saint couldn’t ring a chicken’s neck.
Pluck a fat one out of the yard and kill it dead quicker than you could blink.
Her slight frame a contradiction of physical strength.
Boney’s not supposed to kill.
But there were seven mouths to feed, plus Pa.
Timber was on its way out.
The truck business was dry.
The deed had to be done.
This was the circumstance of so many mountain women. They lived hard lives – lives in which all societal power was kept from them. They weren’t taught to drive. They couldn’t have bank accounts or be elected to political office. They only got jobs outside the home if they absolutely had to – and even then, those jobs were largely domestic work that kept them in someone else’s home. Their power manifested itself in other ways that often went unrecognized.
For Granny Hazel, that power was in the way she cared for others – man, woman, child and beast. She never harmed a soul unless she had to, and even then it was in service of caring for her family. But to me, her most powerful act was in service to herself.
She was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in her 60s. She saw all the doctors she could. Dad took her to see a specialist at Johns Hopkins Eye Institute in Baltimore, driving the entire way – 9 hours up and back – to try and find a way to end the attack on her body. He took my brother and me and we made a stop in Washington, D.C., on the way. I remember only chasing pigeons with my brother Justin in a park. I have never been back to D.C.
Despite the family’s best efforts, Granny’s cancer spread. It became ocular melanoma, and she lost an eye. My aunts, Annie and Yolande, were in the room when the doctor told Granny there was nothing more they could do. The cancer was terminal. They offered her treatments that could make her more comfortable. She refused them all and told my aunts to take her home so she could die there – her final and bravest act.
My final memory of being in her orbit is of her bedroom door. I was in her living room with its massive wood-framed TV that always had a solid black panther nutcracker on top, and 1970s couches with patterns of brown ducks flying across tan skies and wooden arms that stuck out in angles that would bruise your knees if you bumped into them.
My brother and I were not allowed in the room, though our aunts let us stand in the doorway to see Granny. At 12 and 6, we were deemed too young still to watch the passing of life into death. Granny died peacefully, as she lived, and in the way she wanted.
My Dad told me a story just a few years ago that I’d never known before. Granny used to hang her clothes on an outside line to dry, and she kept a bag of clothespins hanging on the line for easy access to them. One day, she went to hang clothes, and noticed that a wren had built its nest in her clothespin bag. She left it there and ordered her children to leave it alone. It was only after the wren had had her babies, seen them fly off on their own, and left the bag as silently as she came, for other nests in other close spaces, that she would use the clothespins from the bag again.
It is my favorite story about her.