Big Mommy: Mountain Matriarch

This is my Big Mommy. Her name was Emma Wilson Hensley and she was from Oneida, KY. (Her name was pronounced "Emmer", for those of you who didn't grow up speaking mountain!) She was my Granny's second cousin by marriage and one of her closest friends. She was my second grandmother. Like my grandmother, most of her children had moved to Ohio, so as the lucky Kentucky girl I soaked up all the extra grandmother energy from her AND my Granny Ollie. I followed them around like a chick, I asked them a zillion questions, I begged them for stories, and I eagerly turned my hand to every old-timey chore they were doing. Big Mommy made soap in her yard in an iron kettle, sometimes thriftily using out-of-date commodity cheese from Big Creek School instead of taller (tallow). We would cut cabbage for kraut on her old formica table with the metal rim, using cream cans as cutters. We'd make pickled corn cut off the cob, which my mother would eat until she foundered. Sometime we'd pickle spicy red chiles, and just one on a bowl of soup beans added a great kick! I would fight her mean old hen to collect eggs, ride her little pony, Missy (bareback with just a bridle), and sit by her fire and try to make good stitches in the quilt pieces she gave me. We would walk down by the river and she'd show me the yellow root, the cohosh and the wild yam. She had the biggest collection of quilts she had made, and would get them out to show me so I could learn all the pattern names. (Drunkard's Path was my favorite, and she told me drinking would make your path in life crooked like the quilt. I also liked Flower Garden.) I'd help her wash the dishes in the tin dishpan which sat on the dry sink, learning to use as little water as possible since they didn't have running water. She would fry big pans of cushaw sprinkled with brown sugar, and like all good grannies, she was a regular biscuits-and-gravy factory. When I got older, every day at 4 we would stop whatever we were doing to watch Oprah, which she called "Oh-pree". She LOVED her Oh-pree! Her grandson, my cousin Tim Hensley, was one of the best pickers I ever met. He played every instrument. He got a job picking with Patti Loveless, and then Ricky Skaggs. He would come on TV sometimes and she would be so happy. We'd watch him and her face would shine, and she'd say, "There's my baby boy!" Of course, I would play and sing for her all the time. I have precious memories from my whole life on this porch, first with her and Granny Ollie, and later, just with her. I wouldn't take anything in the world for my time with all of the powerful, beautiful mountain women who loved me and shaped me. Especially my two badass Clay County grandmas! I miss you so much, Big Mommy.

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