I will remember February 2012 as the month I lost two people who were precious to me. My Aunt Hettie, ninety-one, slipped away, and two days later, Mike Mullins, only sixty-three, died of a heart attack. One death was expected; one was a kick in the teeth.
Aunt Hettie was the oldest of fourteen children and a sister of my eighty-eight-year-old mother. If you lined the siblings up by age, my mother is number three and the last one living of the first six, a fact that weighs heavy on her heart. The first four were girls: Hettie Mae, Elsie, Gladys, and Myrtle Victoria. Why she gave the first and fourth daughter middle names but not the second and third remains a mystery. The longest time between those four births was eighteen months between Gladys and Myrtle, the shortest was ten months between Hettie Mae and Elsie.
On the way home from the funeral, my mother reminisced about her sister. She talked about how Hettie had married at sixteen to a man who was thirty-one, and set about raising eight children while her husband worked in the coal mines. Eventually, they bought a farm in Chilhowie complete with cows and pigs. While her husband worked in the mines and came home on the weekends, Hettie raised tobacco and an enormous vegetable garden. My mother said she had seen her sister get her children to bed and stay up most of the night cleaning her house. Needless to say, it was always spotless.
My Aunt and Mike were buried on the same day, so I didn’t make it to Mike’s funeral, a fact I deeply regret. Without hesitation, I can say there are few people I respect as much as I respected Mike Mullins. His obvious love of Hindman Settlement School tops a long list of reasons why. I remember being intimidated by him the first time I attended the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop. Being a teacher, I recognized the administrator’s, no nonsense, personality. He was the overseer and nothing, and I mean nothing, got past him.
I had the pleasure of being at Hindman for four summers, and I like to think there were times I saw through Mike’s supervisor’s shield. I never heard him talk about the late James Still without tearing up. To Mike he was always “Mr. Still” and I’ll never forget the time Mike arranged for everyone at camp to go to Mr. Still’s house. I’ll also remember, as I’m sure everyone who attended the writer’s workshop will, Mike’s “beware of snakes” tale that was always part of the opening night speech. He also loved to remark how those of us at the workshop “loved to eat” and was fond of saying, “It don’t matter what we put in front of them, they’ll eat it!”
At last year’s workshop, I had the pleasure of sitting one evening in the dining room with Mike and Amy Clark. Mike sat down for a minute and started to leave, when Amy mentioned her children. That was all it took. Mike started talking about his grandchildren, and the stalwart director melted right before my very eyes. There was nothing more important to Mike Mullins than his family, and to say he was a proud grandfather is an understatement. He adored his grandchildren, and recounted tale after tale about them. He especially loved it when they came to stay with him and Frieda.
The loss of these two people has reminded me of what is important in this life – family. It’s the people we love that matters most at the end of the day. All of our achievements in life pale next to the success of our relationships. My Aunt Hettie and Mike Mullins both got it right. It was the people in their lives, family, that mattered most to them. What a wonderful legacy!