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A statue of Mary Breckinridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, in Hyden, Kentucky. Photo: Jimmy Emerson (used under a creative commons license).

Hey y’all,

March is the beginning of two of my favorite times of year – spring being one of them! The daffodils are already blooming here in East Tennessee, bringing with them the promise of milder temperatures and sunnier days.

As we say goodbye to February, we also say goodbye to Emily Jones Hudson. She did a fantastic job sharing with us her work at the Southeast Kentucky African-American History Museum and Cultural Center and teaching us what she knows about Black Appalachian History.

As mentioned, though, March brings two of my favorite times of year. In addition to the beginning of spring, March is also Women’s History Month! In honor of this, we will be turning the Creators & Innovators series over to someone I am very excited to introduce y’all to.

I’ve known of Ivy Brashear for many years. Like myself, she hails from southeastern Kentucky, where she grew up in the hills and hollows of Perry County. Her essay in “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy’” is one of my favorite pieces of writing by any Appalachian author. She introduced us to her fiery Granny Della, reflecting on the sheer grit and determination of Appalachian women.

All month, Ivy will be sharing with us essays about those women – the matriarchs of our region whose stories too often go untold. I know you will find her writing as powerful and profound as I do. With that, I turn it over to Ivy!

Y’all be blessed,

Skylar

 

Ivy Brashear’s grandmother, Della Combs Brashear, pictured in the early 1950s. She wore this waitress uniform while working in the diner at her family’s drive-in theater. Photo: Provided.

Hello,

I am Ivy Brashear, and I’m the Appalachian Transition Director at the Mountain Association in Berea, Kentucky. My work there includes storytelling, policy education and media relations and is focused on shifting the narrative of Appalachia as a critical aspect of just economic transition in Eastern Kentucky.

I am also a writer, and my work has almost always focused on Eastern Kentucky and rural America. I’m from the Left Fork of Maces Creek in Viper, Kentucky, where my family has lived for five generations. That doesn’t mean I have any more claim to this region than anyone else; just that my roots run very deep here, and as such, I care deeply about its past, present and future. And that’s why I write about this place, to try and help make our collective story just a bit more complex and nuanced to foster more understanding.

For now, I’d like to introduce you to my Granny Della, who would have been 90 last week.

As it is, though, she died at 75. She lived a life that many mountain women of her generation lived. Housewife, mother, church on Sundays, feeding hungry children even if they weren’t her own. Those many years of physical and emotional labor took a toll on her body and mind. Yet, she gave willingly, and I have no doubt would do it again. 

Jessica Wilkerson writes in her book, “To Live Here, You Have To Fight” that it was this work – so-called “women’s work” – that allowed Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia to sustain itself. Without the care of women in these hills to hold the family and community together, they might have fallen apart, leaving the region itself to crumble under the weight of the coal industry. It was this essential caregiving that mountain women provided to their husbands, their children and their communities that made it possible for the economy of Appalachia to exist at all. 

Granny Della’s passing left a hole for my family at holidays and in the front row of church, right behind the piano she so loved to play. I would have liked for her to have lived to see 90, and to see all the family events in between. To meet more of her great-grandchildren, to get to know them, to see how her sacrifices were paying off in the babies that had her eyes and sense of humor.

Deeper than her influence on me or anyone else in my family, her life – and the fact that she lived it – is important for me to talk about, ensuring it doesn’t die along with her. Her standing hair appointments at Dascum’s Beauty Shop in Vicco, and her keen strategic mind when she played Canasta; her laugh and her hugs, and the way she liked to sit on the porch when it rained in summer; her pain and trauma, and the way she tended the many flowers she surrounded herself with; her love of boxing, music and true crime stories – it all meant something to her and were the pieces that made her who she was.

 

 
 
 
 

Granny Della, left, standing on her porch with Ivy, left, in the mid- to late-1990s. Photo: Pam Brashear/Provided.

There are Appalachian women whose names we know: Jean Ritchie, Dolly Parton, the widow Ollie Combs, Hazel Dickens, Eula Hall. Their contributions are immense. But there are so many other mountain women whose names we only know because we knew them ourselves, or because we’ve been told the stories about them. Stories like those I know of my great-grandmother, Ora Halcomb, who knew she loved my great-grandfather the moment she saw him; or how my great aunt, Rachel, kept the family farm going by herself while her husband was working in town all week. 

Those women, and so many others like them, held this patchwork place together – sometimes with nothing more than a prayer that the rain would come to water the fields, or that their husbands would return home at the end of their shifts. And so often, their stories are sidelined or ignored as being not important to understanding this place. 

The fact is, though, without generations of mountain women piecing and holding it all together, there might not have been people remaining in Appalachia to whom we can tell these stories. In my time as the host for the Creators and Innovators newsletter series, and for this Women’s History Month, I will tell you stories of the women in my family. They are all mountain women from many generations deep in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, and they are all complex individuals, whose lives mattered – to me, yes, but also to the fabric of this place, and the collective story about it. 

Their stories are a part of Appalachia as much as any other story about this place. My hope is that by telling you about them, you get to know some of the women who have made it possible for me to exist, and that have contributed in myriad ways to the place that Appalachia has become. 

The stories of the women in my family help me better understand myself, and this place I love more than any other place. May you also gain a deeper understanding by reading about them. And more than anything, may they live on through my stories, as they should, because they lived and that matters. 

Sincerely,

Ivy Brashear

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