Tag Archives: Family

The Post In Which I Tell The Secret I Found Out About My Aunt Westa

I have promised myself that I will get this post up in September, my Aunt Westa’s birthday month. She’s my mom’s younger sister, and you wouldn’t accuse either of these sisters of being a shrinking violet (and I’m so glad). If I were to go all Biblical about it, I’d say both of them are the best of Martha and Mary with some Queen Esther, and occasionally Lucille Ball, thrown in for good measure. Recently, a cousin recounted how on a long trip to Florida in 1967, Aunt Westa had thrown her legs over the back of the seat and put her head down at the floorboard in an attempt to get comfortable. In the language of the young, “That’s just how she rolls,” not one to stand, or sit, on convention.

My Aunt Westa might have been Beyonce’s model for “Run the World.” She was always working and caring and making stuff happen. In her younger days, limited by the world’s definition of jobs for women, she became a secretary…the sort of secretary that is really the person in charge. She worked for the president of Sampson Tech long before it became Sampson Community College. She ended her career as an executive secretary at The International Pentecostal Holiness Church Headquarters in Falcon, North Carolina. At the same time, she also organized church camps and camp meetings and just about everything else you can think of.

She loved my Uncle Noah and kept him in the road, metaphorically and literally, and her steadfastness allowed him to be the man of music that so many people knew and loved.

She worked outside the home and raised three children, Noah, Jr., Bonita, and Dawn, and was multitasking long before people bragged about doing it. For example, she read my first book Angel’s Aura by putting it above the steering wheel of the car as she drove to and from work on windy country roads, a strategy which makes you think twice about that Carrie Underwood song “Jesus Take the Wheel.”

The Barefoot bunch in the 70s

Sunday mornings were no less hectic at the Barefoot house. My Aunt Westa and Uncle Noah would hop into separate cars and drive Sampson County roads picking up children, young people, and the elderly to bring them to church. When I was a child, I rode with one or the other of them on more than one Sunday morning, and I have to say those cars were a cross between Noah’s Ark and a circus car. The car doors would pop open in the yard of Peniel Pentecostal Holiness Church, and the multitude of occupants would spill out onto the church grounds.

As is the case in life, Aunt Westa’s not been without her share of sorrows: She buried her oldest child when he was in his forties, my Uncle Noah died in December 2013, and Aunt Westa’s started to have some trouble with memory. Up or down, her solid faith and her two girls see her through.

Last June, Mom and Dad stayed with her for the weekend and I joined them for dinner.

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Dad, Mom, and Aunt Westa at Salem Pizza, a restaurant where ironically we ate seafood.

At her house, I found out something that I never knew, that my mom and dad didn’t know, and that, best I can tell, hardly anyone knew. Things in the house have been rearranged and on the kitchen wall, a framed certificate now hangs. It’s the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the highest honors that a North Carolina governor can award to one of the state’s citizens, and it’s Aunt Westa’s.

Aunt Westa’s award

Here’s the second amazing, but not surprising thing: how young Aunt Westa was when she got this award. Unless, you’re a celebrity, this award is usually given later in life, near the end of one’s time of service to the community or the state, or possibly at retirement. Aunt Westa’s certificate is signed by Governor Robert Scott, and according to the very helpful Phillip T. Fisher at The Order of the Long Leaf Pine Society, Governor Scott didn’t date his award certificates. However, Bob Scott was North Carolina’s governor from 1969 to 1974, so we know Aunt Westa was at most thirty-four years old when she received this award for her work on a special project to get the Sampson Tech nursing program accredited.  

Had I been given this award, probably fifty percent of my conversations from that point on would have started, “Back when Governor Scott gave me The Order of the Long Leaf Pine,” but I’ve never heard my aunt mention it. However, after dinner that night when my dad teased her about talking a lot, I was pleased that she told him, “Got a lot of work done with this talking.”

Can I get a witness?

Of course, when I asked about the certificate, she just flapped her hand at me and said something like, “Oh, it wasn’t that big a deal.”

That’s just how she rolls.

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Aunt Westa is the youngest child of my grandparents and the smallest subject in this picture.

The North Carolina State Toast

Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,

The summer land where the sun doth shine,

Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,

Here’s to “Down Home,” the Old North State!

Here’s to the land of the cotton bloom white,

Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night,

Where the soft southern moss and jessamine mate,

‘Neath the murmuring pines of the Old North State!

Here’s to the land where the galax grows,

Where the rhododendron’s rosette glows,

Where soars Mount Mitchell’s summit great,

In the “Land of the Sky,” in the Old North State!

Here’s to the land where maidens are fair,

Where friends are true and cold hearts rare,

The near land, the dear land, whatever fate,

The blessed land, the best land, the Old North State!

(from http://ncpedia.org/symbols/toast)

Wearing My Mother’s Dress: Cherished Life Fabric

Wedged in a closet tight with clothes, the green linen dress hung on a paper-covered hanger. It was sandwiched between a blue-and-white floral bathrobe from my junior high years, a robe made from the sort of early polyester that will survive the annihilation of the planet, and a granny (maxi) dress that my mother made me sometime in the 1970s.


With just weeks to go before my daughter’s wedding, my mother, sister, and I had come to the closet seeking dresses of weddings past. We’d come to the right place. Artifacts of the decade before I left home were pressed together in my old bedroom’s closet: bridesmaids’ dresses, a prom gown or two, the dresses that my mother wore to both my wedding and my sister’s wedding, and that junior high bathrobe and its classmates.

But there in the middle was a dress I didn’t ever remember seeing–not quite avocado green linen with a matching short sleeve jacket and fabric-covered skinny belt, at once very current and also very Jackie Kennedy and the ’60s.

“Mama made that for me after your brother was born,” my mother said as I reached past her to grab the hanger. I held it up, flipping the jacket onto the bed so that I could size up the dress. My brother was born in February 1962.

“She never used a pattern,” Mama said. “Just looked at a dress and then went home and made it.” So without pattern or live body to fit, my grandmother had created the dress. I’d been looking for something to wear to my daughter’s rehearsal dinner and despite a bit of snugness, the dress was it.

I imagined my grandmother in North Carolina fifty-three years earlier, packing the dress in tissue and mailing it, and my mother in the postwar tract house we lived in in Missouri opening the package–the sight of the dress bridging the 983 miles from one home to the other.


The amount of handwork in the dress and the fabric belt gave me pause. Granny Hawley would have created the dress in her “spare time” after she had worked a forty-hour week at the cotton mill where she was a spooler, combining thread from ten to fifteen bobbins into one. She’d created the dress during the evenings or Saturdays when she would have sewn. For even after she couldn’t regularly attend church and sing in the choir, she honored that seventh day. Not by resting comfortably, but by doing only that which must be done—cooking and dishes and the like (unless her ox was in a ditch).

The dress was likely among the last things that she made this way. In June 1964, my grandmother suffered a stroke and had to be carried from the mill that she’d worked in for close to forty years. I wasn’t quite five years old. We’d lived halfway across the country for a few years, and the only clear image I have of my grandmother walking comes from a short clip in a family home movie. The stroke paralyzed her left side, and she became wheelchair-bound until her death twenty-nine years later. She persevered despite setbacks that would have stalled a lesser person, and I’m so thankful that I knew her.

I cherish this dress. I cherish the fact that at the rehearsal dinner, my grandmother’s gift and ingenuity became part of that special time. I cherish the memory of the woman who made it and honor the woman who wore it first and who herself made many clothes for me and for my children.

Even though my idea of sewing is reattaching buttons, and I’ve been known to scotch tape up the hem of a pair of pants, I hope that I’m cut from the same cloth as my grandmother Mary Lena Hudson Hawley. That among other things I’m steadfast and kind—two ways that my grandmother will always be remembered. I hope that somewhere in my stitching her DNA is strong.

My grandfather and grandmother–Alonzo and Mary Hawley

The dress in action–

My mom, my sister Becky, me, my brother Doug–slightly older than the dress, and my daughter, Katherine.
Here I am chatting with the waiter at The Pit. Those shoes belong to my sister-in-law. You’ll never see me in them IRL.