Dollie didn’t accomplish much by the world’s standards.
Born on July 10, 1905, she was a widow for the last 50 years of her life; one who proclaimed she “never wanted another man.”
She had no children, save her stillborn first-born in the early 1920s.
She never voted. Born almost a generation before the 19th Amendment she chose not to engage in politics because she new she was equal to any man, like most Appalachian women.
She didn’t drive a car, nor did she care for pants and rarely left home without wearing a headscarf with some sensible shoes.
Beans and “taters” were her staples, always having cooked some variation of the local favorites.
She was an otherwise wiry and small-framed, country woman with snow-white, feather-light and wispy hair, and a no-nonsense wit to match.
She was quite literally among the very last of her generation.
Her penchants were Tube Rose Extra Sweet Snuff, knee-high stockings in basic tan, the local Southern Gospel radio station, and Christmas cards or calendars from the Rev. Billy Graham. She always made sure to write the reverend personally and request an extra for me—an equivalent of asking the Pope for a blessing on her family.
Her only accessories were a black leatherette purse from the 1960s and a recycled tin can she used for a “spit cup” with a couple Kleenex stuffed inside to accommodate the remains of her snuff.
Mandatory kisses on the cheek often came with a little tobacco powder.
For a couple decades before I was born until I was age four, Dollie lived in what my family called “The Little House,” located on my grandparents land. It was the house where my grandmother—Dollie’s sister—and my grandfather “took to housekeeping.” After they built a new home next door, Dollie came to live in The Little House with her mother, Effie, who was born in 1880-something and passed before my time.
Dollie’s “Little House” was a living history museum.
Inside was a place the early 1980s had forgotten—a mashup invented by the Victorians, adapted by the mountain folk, and the old ways of Dollie’s world.
A skeleton key opened the wooden front door. The heavy, creaking screen door that covered it would’ve been the envy of a movie sound effects technician.
Inside, a light smell of coal soot with hints of burnt wood wafted through the living room. A woven, multicolored rug lay flopped in the center of the small space, surrounded by a couch, a chair and a rocking lounger—all were covered in a heavy, orange and brown floral burlap from the 1940s.
A coal-burning stove in the corner kept the room at a paint-peeling 70-plus degrees.
Scattered throughout the room were pieces of Dollie’s past, mostly handmade tables and carved, wooden knick knacks from her late husband, Blaine, who passed away in the 1950s.
On the wall, next to a bedroom door that led to the kitchen, hung an ornately-framed Daguerreotype of Dollie’s mother and two aunts, Neva and Cora, taken around the turn of the 20th Century. They served as a stark reminder of the history that lived there, though visiting my Aunt Dollie was everyday life for me.
To sit on The Little House porch thumbing through picture books, or using my tiny hands to “help” shell some green beans, was a typical day. Sometimes I’d sit in the threshold of the kitchen door out back, staring through the steps at the hen and chicks pecking around beneath it—a homemade apple jelly and butter sandwich in my hand. The fragrance of a wood-burning stove and the biscuits baking inside would always pass my nose as it wafted through the screen door.
The bucolic times I spent at Dollie’s Little House were made easier by the fact my parents and I lived just beyond the adjacent field. I dropped in to see my Aunt Dollie on the daily stroll to my grandparents,’ while my mom and Dollie made sure I arrived without a hitch.
Around 1983, Aunt Dollie decided to leave home for more modern digs, which included the indoor plumbing her Little House never had. At The Little House, water was carried from a spigot attached to the side of my grandparents’ house next door, and the toilet was an outhouse in the pasture.
Her new, smaller apartment was a little closer to town. When I was older I’d walk there from school, just across the railroad and up the hill. The smells were different, newer than before. The old Daguerreotype was put away, but the air was still fragrant with Tube Rose or something cooking on the electric stove.
In the late 1990s, in her ninth decade and sharp as a tack, Dollie took a fall and decided to check herself into the local nursing home.
As a college student, I would often study in her tiny room which was shared by a roommate selection of very grumpy curmudgeons.
Not long after Dollie moved into the nursing home, her hearing was severely affected by some attendant’s malpractice—the thought of which still makes me angry and sad. I still have nightmares about her sitting there; about forgetting to visit with her as if she’s still waiting, although we saw each other most every day.
The dialogue for Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune and the humming of an oxygen tank made for background noise at the nursing home, but in those final couple years Dollie would sit and tell me tales of days long gone. Sometimes we’d get out and ride around the country to see places where she’d lived, overgrown and ghostly. They seemed so far away, in sepia tones to me, but so vivid and colorful to her.
In 2001 my Aunt Dollie passed away. Fortunately, together we documented many of her stories and identified many of the photos in her old albums before her death.
Yesterday would have been her birthday and though she’s been gone for 16 years, she still ranks among the world’s top strong women for me. I’d feel remiss if I didn’t acknowledge what would have been Emma Marie Pannell’s 112th year.
In a new age, when folks today continue to “soar above their ability” as Aunt Dollie would say—in love with forgetting the past—to have had such a living history figure would, or should, be the envy of anyone. I’m thankful it was me who had the opportunity.