Goodnight, Tazewell Beauty Queen in honor of Aunt Edith Geneva Smith Mullins March 23, 1926 – July 24, 2020
Thank you very much for your kind letters in response to my recent essay about my Dad and the conversations about life and Heaven that I miss having with him. Earlier in the year, I'm afraid I got behind in my correspondence, so I apologize for not replying to all letters I've had in response to my essays. I do read them all, but sometimes I don't get a chance to reply to everyone. I really do feel tremendous pleasure when reading your letters, so please do write if you'd like!
Today, Friday, August 7, the folks at Bandcamp who host my shop, are again waving their percentage and sending the WHOLE of any SALE to their artists – that's me! So, if you want to expand your Jeni Hankins or Jeni & Billy discography or t-shirt collection OR you need a soft cushion on which to lay your head, then today (or any day) would be a great day to place your order from my shop. Low down gritty ole money-worries times for so many, so please no pressure meant at all. It means bunches to me to sell a record or something made with my own two hands while touring and performing is on hold for me until we are all in much safer circumstances. Prints, totes, t-shirts, postcards, cushions, phone wallets/clutch purses, and records!
If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you will know that my Aunt Edith – Mawmaw's eldest sister – died on the anniversary of Dad's death, 24 July 2020. She was ninety-four and I am so very sad about this. One of my favorite people to visit in all the world was Aunt Edith. I've written a tribute to her which you can read below. Bewildered as to how to slip through the wall of grief that rose up in front of me when I received the news of her death, I turned as I always do to writing and singing. So, in the week after she died I wrote and recorded a song for her with the interweb collaboration of my friend Alfred Hickling from the band King Courgette. And I went through my archive of Smith family photos to create a movie tribute to Aunt Edith. You can see and hear it here. The lyrics are below the film if you click the "more" tab. "Meteors in your hair" – the subject of this email – is one of the lines I wrote about Aunt Edith in Heaven.
Some folks have asked about Edith as the Tazewell Beauty Queen and I've written a little explanation called "Who is the Tazewell Beauty Queen?" below as well.
The Englishman and I are still very much locked down because, thankfully, we can be, and the virus hasn't gone anywhere. So, I continue to take pleasure in the first garden I've ever had all, our walks along the River Keer in Carnforth in Northwest England, carding wool, hand-quilting, journal-making from recycled materials, writing new songs, singing, making videos, learning to mix a record, playing with vintage audio equipment, messing up my room and cleaning it up again and again, reading, and restoring my Georgian writing slope. We do venture out to a few places where we feel safe and yesterday, I got to see the animals at the Red Bank campsite farm for the first time since lockdown. I usually go to see the rabbits, but yesterday, this goat was very interested in being petted. When I was giving the pigs a good scratch, she got jealous and waited patiently for me to pet her again. I think she's having a baby soon! Animals. They are endlessly wonderful and mysterious!
Aunt Edith once went to visit the house of her little girlfriend up on Smith Ridge and they saw the prickly horse chestnuts lying on the ground. The horse chestnuts reminded them of lady’s hair curlers, so both girls wound their flossy blonde hair onto to the sticky prickly balls and ran in to show their mothers how beautiful their hair was going to be. The girls spent several painful hours while their mothers picked the chestnuts out of their hair. Aunt Edith left school after eighth grade because she didn’t have much truck with school and felt she’d had as much of it as she needed. The butcher at the Company Store up on Jewell Ridge had offered her a job. She was beautiful and personable and had a good head for figures. She loved working at the Company Store and waiting on the customers. She had money of her own to buy ready-made clothes and she danced at the Green Fly Cafe downstairs from the butcher shop. All the fellas thought she was a wonder. She met a handsome fella at a hamburger joint in Richlands. His family, though local to Southwest Virginia, was establishing a timber business in Florida. She got married and went all the way to Florida. Eventually, she had three children and a swimming pool. When we were kids, we all thought she was romantic and famous because she lived in Florida and had a swimming pool. And she was romantic and famous with the piercing eyes of Bette Davis and the figure of Marilyn Monroe. Like all of the Smith girls, she came from the coalfields, but she had a certain glamour about her. She and her husband, Doug, visited friends out in Idaho and bought a ranch there as a second home and business. Her family called her Katie because her husband, Doug, said she was like Maureen O’Hara in a movie where she was called Katie. There was a bunk house, there were cowboys. There was an airstrip. Doug learned to fly and one night their plane crashed. He died and she didn’t. They wrote a message in their own blood to their children. Her children saw their Dad buried while she recovered in the hospital out west. She lived with a scar down the center of her face. She never remarried. Her husband left behind a heavy equipment empire and she ran it. She went to the office each day and rented cranes, diggers, and trucks to construction firms all over Florida. She helped to build Miami, Orlando, Daytona, and Fort Lauderdale. She joined groups, sewed and cooked for charity, and decorated her house to the nines for every season and holiday. Her son, who worked with her in the business, died suddenly of cancer. She kept on at the helm with her office cat. Her daughters and grandchildren, and great-grandchild looked to her for her humor, for her straight-talking, and for the alligator on her back porch. She lived through hurricanes and floods. She raised the biggest Staghorn ferns you’ve ever seen. She fed them banana peels. Her one grandson died suddenly this spring. Her daughter – interior decorator, former airplane hostage, with the world’s most glamorous red hair, and a sharp sense of humor – is battling cancer. Her daughter – gourmet chef, rock of her community, with a smile that melts you to pieces – and grandson – writer, sports fan, cigar aficiando – are holding down the fort, walking in her shoes, and feeding the staghorn ferns. They are grieving while physically separated from all of us who love them and who loved Aunt Edith so much. Over the years, I showed Aunt Edith black and white pictures of our family and she told me stories of preachers, miners, shootings, and illegitimate children. I still have many songs to write from the stories she gave to me. She told me about the time she and her little friend thought horse chestnuts would make wonderful curlers for their hair. Her daughters said I was like a little Edith because I looked so much like her. I've always loved that. She was our movie star, the glamorous and tough-as-nails woman who walked across our screens and will be walking through our hearts and our stories forever. Goodnight, Katie. Goodnight, Edith. Goodnight, Tazewell Beauty Queen. How blessed we were to be loved by you. How blessed we were to love you.
Who is the Tazewell Beauty Queen?
As many of you know from my storytelling, originally I wrote the song Tazewell Beauty Queen for Uncle Roy Lee, my grandmother's brother, who told me the story of his summer in the mines and his pink Chevy. In my mind I envisioned his future wife, Phyllis, who was very beautiful as the Tazewell Beauty Queen.
But when it came time to make the lyric booklet for the Jewell Ridge Coal record, I found the photo you see above of Aunt Edith on the car. Once the record came out, she began to embody the idea of the Tazewell Beauty Queen in our family and among some fans. In our family, that was no surprise because she was the oldest sibling of my grandmother and she was very glamorous. And she moved to Florida and had a swimming pool . . .
Once, Billy and I were playing in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and a woman came up to me after the concert and said she was the Tazewell Beauty Queen. She had indeed won the county title back in the 1960s. She was still very movie-star-like!
So, I do think there are a lot of Tazewell Beauty Queens about!