Four more years and she would have lived to be one hundred. Of course, Mabel Davis Hines Martin wasn’t quite that age when I first met her—but then, I wouldn’t have remembered that, anyhow. I was still a baby.
My mother used to tell me that, when I was a newborn, her Aunt Mabel would come to visit us and provide home remedies for my “condition,” massaging my spindly arms and legs and, no doubt, advising my newbie mom from her vast store of mountain-folk wisdom. Surely insecure and lacking experience in her new parenting role, my mother nevertheless thankfully balanced Mabel’s sage advice with the more newfangled ways of modern medicine.
As I grew up, I was quite aware of Aunt Mabel despite the rarity of her visits. While I always thought of her as my mother’s aunt from Tennessee, she actually lived not far from our New York home when I was still in grade school. Once, she even came for an overnight visit, arriving (of course) by train from her home in New Jersey—the only time I recall seeing her in our home.
I remember a woman tall, erect, thin, but not quite as stern as all that sounds. I remember being so curious about her, wanting to get to know more about this stranger who claimed to be a relative. I probably asked more pesky questions than the lady cared to answer.
When it came time for all obedient, darling children to retire in the evening, I remember taking that inopportune moment, bounding into the guest bedroom, only to find the elderly woman already getting ready for bed. She had let down her long, long hair and was brushing it out so she could braid it for the night. I found that to be quite a backwards approach—thinking, “Why braid it at the end of the day? Shouldn’t that be what you do first thing in the morning?”
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered she likely adhered to the old-fashioned custom of never cutting her hair, putting it up, as married women of that time did, in an understated bun at the back of her neck—or, if she were feeling particularly elegant, in a French roll. What a contrast to my grandmother—Mabel’s sister-in-law—who bobbed her own hair and knew every dance step in vogue in the 1920s. No wonder my grandmother never saw eye to eye with the Davis family.
As conservative as that may sound, Mabel was no less a career woman than her older sister, Lummie. Along with the letters from Mabel, full of recipes and domestic advice, that I found saved in my mother’s belongings after she died, I also found articles and details of Mabel’s life tucked into my aunt’s files as well. Like fragments of a shattered portrait re-assembled into a mosaic, these few slivers of information I’ll piece together to see if we can catch a better glimpse of who this woman was—and perhaps discover why she chose such a different life path.