Objections to the year 2020, including the passing of eminent persons, have become social media feedstock. Future retrospectives will likely reveal little difference in the death rate of notables. Ordinary people continue to depart without widespread notice, mourned only by friends and family. Many of them are dying before their “natural” time during a global pandemic.
I am compelled to write this memorial as homage to someone lesser known, but still loved. It’s about another “ordinary” passing, but extraordinary for its details.
Aunt Zettie Martin died at age 87 on Monday, October 26, after just over seven months in a southwest Virginia nursing home. Zettie was a living embodiment of independence, having thrived solo for years after the passing of her mother and husband. When the novel coronavirus struck with shocking speed in March, 2020, I was finishing out my teaching semester remotely in Arizona, where I had gotten stuck after traveling during my university’s spring break. You’ll recall how rapidly everything shut down during that first wave of the pandemic.
I spent a lot of psychic capital convincing Zettie that it was finally time to move into assisted care. Although she remained mobile, increasing falls sometimes left her unable to rise unassisted. We could not continue to depend on neighbors or EMS for that service. COVID-19 was the breakpoint. It was no longer safe or reasonable to ask others to deliver supplies and services into her home. After convincing her that I had secured care arrangements for her cat, she reluctantly left home — for the last time.
This is a remembrance of a remarkable life, a celebration of mostly unacknowledged triumphs.
Zettie Lorene Helms was born on June 12, 1933, to John Thomas Helms and Annie Edith Jones Helms, in the rural southwest Virginia landscape of Floyd County, near the Patrick County line. She was the penultimate child, preceded by five brothers, one of whom died aged 2 of dysentery. Her last sibling, Reva Dell, was my mother. Zettie survived all of them, the last being Reva, who died in March, 2014.
That year saw the beginning of a gradual recovery from the Great Depression that would take another decade to complete. The economic crash mattered little for people in the area, as in much of the southern highlands. Growing up for Zettie meant the hardscrabble existence of small plot farming in early to mid-century Appalachia. Most families made a living by literally scratching it out of the ground, with the assistance of draft animals, producing grains, vegetables, milk, butter, lard, and animal protein. Internal combustion farm machinery, first steam- and later hydrocarbon-powered, was already on the scene in the United States, but still not in widespread local use. There were scattered small country stores, such as Beulah Edwards’s store at the entrance to nearby Rock Castle Gorge, that offered supplemental staples and a few other necessities, but families still produced much of their own food.
Wood for building materials was hand hewn, assisted first by water-powered sawmills, and later by steam mills that also increased employment. Blacksmithing produced farming implements and tools. Despite the arrival of more advanced farm machinery in Zettie’s time, many people of southern Appalachia still relied heavily on the energy of water, fire, horses, mules, oxen, and human muscle for construction, grain milling, tillage and harvest. These traditional methods were gradually supplemented by more commercial machinery.
Those traditional farming methods continued through mid-20th century. They remain the foundational setting for rolling pasture and woodlot landscapes along the southern Virginia Blue Ridge Parkway, constructed as part of FDR’s public works programs, right alongside Zettie’s homeplace in the late 1930s and 40s. Today’s Parkway scenery and cultural displays were designed to showcase the mountain culture and technology still common in Zettie’s youth.
Zettie’s greatest role model, perhaps unsurprisingly, was her mother, my grandmother Edith, who toiled for decades with childcare, nurturing, healing, foraging, provisioning, and farming. Displays at Rocky Knob Park memorialize these local life ways, as Appalachia remained behind the curve of other regional development. I recall stories of Edith and Zettie stomping down summer hay shocks, with the attendant stem and briar leg scratches, along with other daily farm and home tasks, followed by bone weariness.
Work began at or before sunup and continued all day. When Blue Ridge Parkway construction arrived, Edith boarded CCC workers as they built the scenic highway. I can remember her typical routine myself, from watching her during summer visits by uncles and cousins. Breakfast started early, followed immediately by cleanup and transition to “dinner” (the mountain term for lunch). The same sequence followed with supper, the last meal of the day. It was an all-day commitment that she somehow adroitly squeezed other tasks in between.
Zettie adopted this ethic and made it her own.
Childhood and adolescence are not necessarily a bed of roses for anyone, and that was certainly true for Edith, Zettie and the other children. Troubles and grief are unavoidable, and without dredging many details, they included a violently abusive husband that whipsawed Edith between relative normalcy and terror for herself and her children. I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect that my grandfather, who died in 1956 before I was born, suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, the very same that passed to my mother — another fundamental thread in Zettie’s story, and mine.
Edith walked her children to the “rock church,” as locals called Slate Mountain Presbyterian, one of several built from native stones during the ministry of Reverend Robert Childress. His story is memorialized in the book, The Man Who Moved A Mountain, by Richard C. Davids. Bob Childress was himself a virtual deity to my grandmother. He ferried her by car for occasional trips to distant urgent medical care or other serious family business. My grandmother repeated a story about him often. After one such trip, she pulled out her meager budget of cash to pay him for the transport, upon which Childress said, “Now, if you don’t want to make me mad, put that away.” His death in 1956 left a hole in many mountain people’s lives, including Zettie’s family.
After a divorce, Edith married Zelotes Boyd, whereupon Zettie and her siblings gained a new stepfather and stepsiblings after moving to his place. Their farming life continued much as it had before.
Zettie’s mother had learned to read, write, and do basic arithmetic over a few short years at the now long-vanished, one-room Gum Swamp School. I’ve never known its location. Zettie and her brothers and sister first attended Mountain View School (also gone). Attendance was episodic, with delays imposed by family necessities. After Mountain View, she matriculated to Meadows of Dan High School, built when Zettie was five, where she graduated in 1954.
During high school, Zettie was a member of the Glee Club. She loved to sing throughout life, from church to small gatherings of friends and family. She was also something of a star athlete as shortstop on the girls’ softball team. She became a GOAT after knocking in a bases-loaded, grand slam homer to defeat rivals Floyd County High. I don’t know whether Zettie got hoisted into the air to the sound of a tiny crowd going wild, but I like to think that happened.
Zettie’s first job after the farm life, acquired through the connections of a family friend, was at the old Huff Cannery in Floyd County. Her task was gluing closed boxes of canned produce. For years that cannery produced locally raised vegetables and fruits marketed under the Old Dominion label. Local people would bring in the bounty of their gardens and larger acreage crops, from beans to tomatoes, for canning. That job prepared Zettie for a life of production line work through the zenith of post-WWII industry.
Soon after graduating from high school, Zettie married Grover Theodore (“Ted”) Martin from Patrick County. Another life tragedy ensued when Ted and Zettie’s daughter, Sharon Kay, arrived stillborn in 1956. Zettie showed me and my brother Sharon Kay’s gravesite occasionally when we were growing up. Thanks to my brother correcting my faulty location memory, I was recently able to relocate it. I imagined talking with Sharon Kay in the shadow of that church down “below the mountain,” telling her about the wonderful mother she never knew. Afterward, Zettie was unable to bear another child due to complications from an ovarian endometrioma, or chocolate cyst.
That tragic but signal event resulted in Zettie becoming a central figure in the lives of me and my brother Bradley.
After the cannery, Zettie worked in “the elastic plant” (United Elastic Fabrics, later J. P. Stevens & Co.) in Stuart for a short period, before moving to her longest continuous employment at the E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company nylon production factory in Martinsville. Eleanor Roosevelt received the first pair of nylon stockings from that plant, at the time the largest nylon production facility in the world. It retooled for producing wartime products, including parachutes, during WWII.
Zettie and Ted purchased a house in Patrick Springs where she lived for years while working “swing shift” at DuPont, while Ted worked as a long-haul truck driver. The physical and mental stress of rotating between first, second, and “graveyard” shifts seems unimaginable. Anyone who has experienced jet lag after a long-haul flight knows how long it takes to retrain your circadian clock. Imaging trying to do that for years, over and over.
Despite work stress, Zettie continued her avocation with plants. In addition to her work ethic, she also retained her mother’s love of house and garden flowers. Her jalousie window sunroom was filled with African violets, begonias, gloxinias, Impatiens and many others. One of her greatest sources of pride was her spectacular annual circular display of red canna lilies. Travelers would stop along US highway 58 to photograph it.
Pets were another obsession. Through her middle years she owned mostly small breed dogs. The earliest one I can remember was a Pekingese named Mitzi, who traveled with Zettie everywhere wrapped up in a small basket. A succession of furry friends followed, starting with Frisky, a mix-breed terrier, then Lady, a blonde cocker spaniel. Cats later became part of the mix when Zettie moved in to assist her mother and adopted her cat, Meowzer. Her last two cats were Goldie and Patches.
DuPont employed thousands of regional workers like Zettie in its heyday through the 1960s and 70s. She took an early retirement in the late 80s to care for her aging mother at home, just as the textile industry that had employed so many across southside Virginia began to collapse in response to international trade agreements and cheap foreign labor. She had earned and saved enough, along with her pension, to live a comfortable but not extravagant life thereafter.
Zettie’s marriage had its own trials and sorrows that don’t bear repeating here. Let’s just jump to the point, which was her remarkable perseverance and energy in not only surviving hardship, but thriving in spite of it.
During the 1950s, Zettie’s stepfather and mother moved to a new farm, building a new cinder block house on Concord Road in Meadows of Dan. By the late 50s, more development and farming technology had changed farming practices to some degree, although many traditional approaches remained. In addition to providing family food, excess livestock were transported for sale to market in Christiansburg. That same house is where I began life, in June, 1960.
During my childhood, mental illness struck my immediate family hard. My mother Reva suffered chronic schizophrenia and repeated institutionalization, from the 1960s through the 80s. In those days, mental health treatment was ignorant and crude, with state mental institutions being the default care option. I probably don’t need to explain the immense stress imposed by such scenarios on families.
My parents also separated very early, so both I and my younger brother were mostly raised by our grandmother Edith. She never learned to drive, and remained restricted to the local three-county area, traveling with her husband and later, our mother. Edith continued her familiar, if grueling, life pattern of raising us, solely on supplemental Social Security income.
My earliest childhood memories include growing up on Zelotes and Edith’s new farm on Concord Road in Meadows of Dan, with its autumn hog-killing and salt curing; still used outhouses; a yard full of chickens with cackle-signaled eggs; hog lots and feed pens; gigantic gardens with late summer and fall canning; rich milk from Guernsey cows and home-churned butter; and small game meals (mostly squirrel, quail, and fish) provided by uncles and friends. Those meals were prepared on the same kind of wood cook stove familiar to Zettie, giving me my early, indelible memories of a rapidly vanishing Appalachian culture. Edith continued to use that wood stove for years, even after the installation of an electric range.
Zettie stepped into my and my brother’s life at the beginning, and sustained her involvement ever after. Despite her own work at DuPont, she would visit frequently, driving 45 minutes west from Patrick Springs to assist. She served as our second surrogate mother, remaining a stalwart presence, celebrating holidays and school milestones with us. She also served as family photojournalist, starting with a single flash bulb Kodak Brownie, eventually trading up to a Polaroid, which seemed like utter magic. Most of the photos I have from my childhood, other than formal school sittings, are Zettie’s, which I mined for this remembrance.
The first car I remember Zettie driving was a big Chevy Impala, but she was equally adept at driving her husband’s Ford pickup — like a boss! It had a standard three gear, steering column straight transmission. Power steering wasn’t even a dream. Zettie could back that truck and muscle it through three-point turns like nobody’s business. Soon after the Impala, though, Zettie acquired the car that heralded her distinctive arrival for many years: A white 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. I learned to drive a stick-shift transmission in that car, killing the engine repeatedly at hilly stoplights in Martinsville, before mastering proper clutch technique.
I was a chronic asthmatic, and it was Zettie who ferried me to an allergist in Roanoke for tests, leading to seven years of shot immunotherapy. That kept the worst symptoms at bay until I “grew out of it.” Zettie was present for every ceremony, cheering me on from elementary through high school.
After I got accepted into college at Wake Forest, Zettie and Ted dropped me off at my freshman dorm in August, 1978, along with my shoddy bicycle and meager personal belongings, ferried in the back of that black Ford pickup. Annual tuition and fees then amounted to $3,000. Even adjusted for inflation, that may not seem like much today, especially in light of current Wake Forest tuition of $57,760 (!). But it still represented a fortune to an economically disadvantaged Appalachian kid. Thanks to a patchwork of assistance including the GI Bill (my father had served in Korea), Wake’s “need blind” acceptance policy, and other scholarships, I was able to afford most of it, but not all. There was always a residual due, and Zettie was the one who stepped in to pay it.
I’m now approaching the end of a fulfilling career of teaching college-level biology, largely thanks to an irreparable debt to Aunt Zettie.
If the human introvert-extrovert personality spectrum were somehow scaled to celestial energy sources, Zettie would fall out around level Quasar. Her presence transformed a room. Zettie loved to tell stories and jokes, and generally “carry on” or “act foolish,” accompanied by peals of laughter. By contrast, I am the introverted polar opposite. I think Zettie was always puzzled by my failure to get into her game, but I just didn’t have the constitution or energy to fake it for very long. I was just along for the ride, along with almost everyone else. But it never really bothered her, she went right on carrying on.
And talk about a committed conversationalist! I believe that Zettie would have talked for as long as anyone returned the favor, even passing up on meals or sleep. Her approach to others was high octane; it didn’t matter whether it was an old friend or rank stranger. She never failed to strike up a conversation. I never saw her turn away from anyone, no matter how old they were, where they came from, the color of their skin, of which religion or no religion. As long as a person engaged, they were IN with Zettie. And the more they reciprocated carrying on, the longer it would last.
Humor was a default force used by the women in my family against hardship. I often heard my grandmother say, “I’d a whole lot ‘druther laugh than cry.” I witnessed her and Zettie, or sometimes both of them along with my mother, start discussing some situation or foe they decided needed a treatment. It was one of the world’s greatest positive feedback shows, leaving them in tears and barely able to breathe from uncontrolled laughter. Zettie was usually the prime instigator of such laugh sessions.
I’ll offer a minor example, one that’s repeatable in public. One of my grandmother’s favorite verses was a little off-color rhyme:
Robin redbreast, a-settin’ on a pole,
Zig-zag went his tail, POOT went his hole.
Whereas granny would only recite that one in a close family circle, Zettie repeated it publicly, ad libitum, followed by more uproarious laughter. She would have told it to Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, or Queen Elizabeth II if she’d ever met them — along with a lot else, of course. Zettie didn’t shy away from any topic, be it horticulture, music, bargain shopping, politics or religion.
It wasn’t always humor that fired Zettie’s furnace. She had a legendary sharp tongue, and she wasn’t afraid to use it if she perceived wrongdoing or threat to herself, loved ones, children, or animals. Anyone who rubbed her the wrong way was in for a double barrel blast and could only hope to remain upright after the smoke cleared. I know this because I was a deserving recipient on a few occasions.
She was an uninhibited, expressive empath, laughing, whooping with joy, or openly weeping tears of commiseration, as she judged the situation called for. She could also be uber mule stubborn. Here’s another vintage Zettie story. Several years ago, I went with her to select a headstone for her burial plot. She got into carrying on as usual with the owner, but something went off track when he evinced a tad too much smartass for her liking. She decided that he was prying about her age when he asked for details about the stone engraving, so when he inquired her birth date, she would only say, “June twelve.” She refused to divulge the year, closing the conversation with “just put flowers on it.” She also requested the word “Darling” be added, because one of the boys in high school had nicknamed her “Zettie darlin’” (no terminal “g” in the original, of course).
And that was the end of it! I’m surprised that guy was even able to sell her the stone. Here you see the results, a perfect signifier of Zettie’s persona. But now, I have to say, “Sorry, Aunt Zettie, we’re going to have them add your birth year anyway.” Lord, I hope she forgives me. If she happens to ask you, tell her I didn’t let that monument store owner know how old she was.
After losing her mother in 1996 and husband in 2012, and later the ability to drive, Zettie became increasingly isolated at home, a harsh outcome for someone so gregarious. The void was only partially filled by her beloved pets. Age-related suspicions and isolation, along with normal increasing memory deficits, would sometimes cause her to lash out without justification. I hope that anyone on the receiving end knew that she would never knowingly falsely accuse, and that she never intended to harm anyone. Zettie’s fundamental core always remained sweet and welcoming.
That was Zettie in a nutshell. She was born with an on-off switch, all or none. No one ever doubted for more than a few seconds where they stood with Zettie. She didn’t have time for social niceties or saccharine deception. BOOM, done. Facility staff and others who met Zettie for the first time regularly described her as “the life of the party,” “a force of nature,” and the like. In more refined southern cultural traditions, candor, blunt assessment, overfriendliness, or unsolicited conversation may come across as shocking or untoward, but that was Zettie: A unique internal fire melded to older mountain ways. “Refreshing” doesn’t begin to explain how much I loved it, even though I lack that constitution myself.
A late life gift I am pleased to have given Zettie was a 2011 trip to celebrate her birthday with my brother Stewart in Arizona — by flying. Other than a young adult car tour with Reva to Niagara Falls organized by her oldest brother Leonard, I don’t think Zettie traveled much outside a narrow circle in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina (she and Ted honeymooned at Great Smoky Mountains National Park), and extreme northeast Tennessee, where Leonard lived in Bristol. Most of her annual ambit was confined to the same four counties as her mother: Patrick, Henry, Carroll and Floyd. Infrequent and, for her, distant trips included Roanoke, Greensboro or Winston-Salem.
I thought for a while that the Arizona trip was doomed. Zettie nearly backed out after failing to secure boarding for both of her cats, Goldie and Patches. Getting Goldie into a carrier was a piece of cake, but Patches had a wilder personality — not unlike Zettie’s. Patches escaped her arms at the carrier door and darted upstairs to an inaccessible back corner recess of a bedroom box spring. After setting up an auto-waterer, fresh litter box, and abundant dry food, I finally convinced Zettie to pack up and leave for a few days. We headed down the mountain to Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro.
The plane trip itself represented an unfamiliar and sometimes off-putting experience, especially such procedures as the security screening. Both takeoff and landing were punctuated by exclamation-filled outbursts, to the obvious amusement of fellow passengers. Deplaning was a challenge, because on top of Zettie’s slowing gait, she wanted to stop and talk to every passenger, entirely oblivious to the line of people waiting to deplane behind us. Somehow, I coaxed her off the plane.
Zettie seemed totally captivated by the unfamiliar desert landscapes in southern Arizona, with a mixture of awe and a twinge of open space phobia at those sweeping brown vistas, totally unlike the close green hills of home. But she reveled in the details of a visit to the Desert Museum, where as a house plant aficionado she fell in love with cacti in the botanical garden, as well as the close-up views of hummingbirds inside the aviary. We celebrated her birthday at P.F. Chang’s, because years earlier in Martinsville, one of her food favorites had unexpectedly become a Chinese buffet. The staff treated her to a one-candle dessert (no prying about age!) and sang happy birthday. She relished every second of attention.
On the return flight home, as we slowly floated gently down through still air into PTI, a full moon hung just above the horizon. Zettie was getting sleepy in the window seat, but she looked out and remarked in a pensive voice, “Would you just look at that? It seems like we’re up over the moon.”
Like many residents of nursing homes nationwide, Zettie contracted COVID-19 in late August. Despite her home’s attention to state control guidelines, the virus made its way in and spread. Zettie lost her appetite and sense of taste and smell, and after her SpO2 saturation dropped she was transferred to Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem. After six days she recovered enough to be discharged back to the nursing home, and she seemed to fight her way back to normal, at least for her age and circumstances.
It seemed that she had beaten the virus, like so many other challenges in life. And she may have. But she continued to fall when attempting to rise and walk, with a recent bad spill causing a spinal compression fracture and a lot of pain. Over the last two weeks or so, she became increasingly lethargic, losing the ability to dial us on her phone. She had to ask staff to do it for her. Her rapid decline ended suddenly, and I received the call that she had passed just before 8:00 a.m. on October 26.
Zettie knew it was coming. Discussing her legs “giving out” with me during one of our last phone conversations, she conceded, “I’m an old person, and my legs and joints is plumb wore out. I just have to accept it.”
When I went to the nursing home on November 2 to pick up her belongings, the box included a note from a staff member, who had found a folded stack of a few dollar bills and this hand-written note in Zettie’s nightstand:
Some reading this piece may recognize it as a fragment of a funeral poem, widely shared on the web and printed programs. Despite growing infirmity, her hand was nearly as steady and distinctive as I remember from her 40s. There are enough word substitutions to make me think she had committed it to memory. It was clearly a message to us that we should not grieve her passing.
We grieve your loss anyway, Aunt Zettie. Now we send you off, over the moon, one last time, as befits a life as full and generous as yours.