Growing up on ‘Holt Hill’ in Vendor, Arkansas, I was truly blessed. I had a touch of the ‘Old South’ that I now have oft read of; a true, closed community of my own people who endured hardship, drought and war, and came out stronger as a result.
Of the many giants who walked through my childhood, there is one I feel I have neglected to mention in my past scribblings, one who held the family together through loss and gain, through thick and thin, through hardship and privation and good times and excellent years: my great-grandmother. But I just always called her grandma.
Hilpie Edna Middleton (but don’t ever call her Hilpie) was born in Newton County, Arkansas on December 25, 1919. A Christmas day baby she was. She truly was a gift not only to her parents, Dave and Dulcina (‘Dullie’) Middleton, but to all of us. She grew up and often remembered her childhood in later years, telling stories of how the Log Hall Church bell could be heard in the Limestone valley (no short ways off) on a ‘clear Sunday.’ She referred to her grandfather, Jiles, as ‘Poppy’, though he had died sixteen years before she was born. She breathed life into the characters that I saw in her black and white photographs, she gave life to so many that were only names to a child like me. In her presence she could, in a turn of phrase or short explanation, bring those people back as if they had just died last week. I owe so much of my own love of family and place to her. She was truly an amazing woman.
She married Wayne Holt on December 20, 1936, about a mile from where she and grandpa now rest in Smith Cemetery at Vendor. They were married by Rev. Cain Bolin, whose chimney still stands as a monument to man’s arrogance against nature, to some. But it also serves as a reminder that what we do in our lives may have a profound effect on those after, when we are gone. This was definitely the case with my grandmother.
Edna was a prolific gardener and reader, a compiler of family history. Grandpa built her tiered flower beds in the front yard that she filled with beautiful flowers. Her vegetable garden overflowed and fed her children and grandchildren. Hard times meant nothing to her, as that was life. She grew up poor and promised herself to leave her children something better. Her hardened determination and will left her children just that, along with an added bonus: they saw what true love was. She was dedicated to her family.
The death of her eldest son, Stanley Wayne, in an auto accident on December 20, 1968, was a devastating blow to her and grandpa. She kept on and looked after her children and kept working. She put her faith in God and the soil. We could all learn from her example. Hard work was not a task, it was existence. She became the rock that the family could cling to in times of trouble.
I came along in December of 1987. I was the first great-grandchild, and she was sure to look after me. I remember lying in front of the ‘Warm Morning’ stove in the living room and her looking after me as I ran wild through the yard that seemed to be bigger than the world to a young child. She would often talk to me in the direct, almost old worldy talk of the hills as she relayed people and places to me.
After my great-grandfather died on June 19, 1998, I remember going up to clean out their house, removing all the things that might remind her of him and his declining health. I remember helping stack up boxes of Red Man chewing tobacco and assorted items. We could’ve cleaned the whole house out and it not mattered. Grandpa was the love of her life, and she spent the rest of her days thinking of him. I doubt not a day went by that she didn’t sit by the wood stove, reading the paper and thinking ‘Well, Wayne would sure get a kick out of this’, though she never complained.
Her boys took care of her. They cut the grass and brought her wood. They looked after her. Out of the five children they had, she, sadly, outlived all the boys. Another family member once said ‘Them boys was her world.’ And truer words were never spoken. Stanley was first, in 1937, followed by Dennis in 1939, and Glen in 1941, who would go on to become my grandfather. Her two girls came later (and whom she loved not a bit less, lest you get the feeling that’s my drift), and were also special to her.
I remember coming up to check on her, walking up the hill after school one day, and finding her mopping sweat as she refinished the hardwood floor in her house. I was awestruck as the living room was covered in carpet the day before. When I asked what she was doing, she calmly replied she had got tired of ‘that old nasty carpet’ and decided to completely tear it out. She cut out the whole living room carpet, burnt it, and was in the act of waxing it when I walked in. The woman was a force of nature. It would’ve taken me a week to do it!
She continued that way. Sadly, I didn’t get into genealogy until after she passed. I remember asking her about certain folks and hearing her photographic memory kick into gear: ‘Well, he was borned in July of 1938, at that little house there by Log Hall church house. It was hot that day, and I went to see that baby in a white dress and Lord, it was so hot!’ She could recall it all, good times and bad.
Looking back, I sometimes question why God has blessed me so richly. He gifted me a life around people who were a generation or so back, and who helped tie me to the land in a time where so many accept being rootless and thinking of the almighty dollar. I can still see in my mind’s eye my great-grandmother coming out of the rows of green corn by her house, then in her 80s, with a gardening hoe in hand and a hard day’s work nearly behind her.
She finished life that way, working ’til nearly the end. Looking back, I think that finally becoming unable to work was what finished her. She died a couple months after a bad fall on February 19, 2009 in Harrison, Arkansas. I went and saw her shortly before she passed. I refuse to remember her as she was in that hospital bed. She outlived her sons, her parents, and her husband. She was always a force in our lives, a rock to cling and latch to. She never forgot a name, place or person. She could home cook to feed an army every Sunday and still be in good spirits to talk as we ate, as she made her way around, making sure everyone had enough (or more) to eat. Her fried apple pies were phenomenal.
My great-grandmother was Edna Holt. She was one of the hundreds of thousands of such grandmothers across the South who took care of and saw after her family, both in infancy and adulthood, and never stopped until she passed. She was worthy of remembrance, just as all of them were.
This short essay has went over my usual allotted amount of jargon, but even that does no justice to her. She was our matriarch. She was strong, tough and resourceful. The Depression merely taught her lessons. She passed them on to us and made us all better. She was a rose amongst thorns, a tough hill climber who farmed and raised all she ate and put back all she made to give her kids a better life. She was a force, an unbending one. She held us when we were sad and embraced us when we were happy. Her nearly 90 years on this earth was far too short, but it would’ve never been enough if she lived to be 200 years old.
She was my grandma.