On Sunday, September 20th, 2020 my grandmother, Betty Jean Fryman, passed away in Williamsburg, Kentucky. She is survived by generations of Nintendo playing gamers, of people who sit in stillness and long for her guidance at the kitchen table. She is remembered by people who watched parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and friends be eaten up and spit out by any number of terrible calamities (many of their own doing) except for her. It was said of her mother (Hattie) that Hattie was nearer to saint as anyone had ever met on earth. I always felt this described Mamaw as well.
We were close, incredibly so, bonded of course by the magic between grandchildren and grandparents. She was but 45 when I was born, and within four months lost both her parents. Overwhelmed with grief, she poured her energy and her love into her new grandchild.
From her kitchen table she presided over miracles. She kept lights on, made sure school supplies were bought, and made sure our parents knew she was keeping an eye on them, lest their errant ways harm us. She was not always successful.
She was a waitress, she worked, and worked, and worked even more. She grew up dirt poor in the most literal sense - dirt floors in the family home. Brothers fighting in Italy, France, all over Europe. She covered their risque tattoos in Indian Ink, she worked the fields. Betty Fryman was one of 11 children born to the poorest of the poor in Gatliff, Kentucky, and through her work and supernatural willpower she hoisted an entire family on her back for decades.
She came from extreme poverty; her grandson is now a doctor. It would have never happened without her, a kind of female southeastern Kentucky Atlas, holding up planets, acting as the fulcrum for a generational change from simple mountain folk to functioning members of modern society. Unfortunately for her not all of us heeded her wisdom to do better. It pained her when we didn't.
She loved planting flowers, and birds, and birdhouses. I spent many hours with her combing through whatever foliage the local WalMart offered, digging in the dirt, and painting birdhouses. She loved to buy a bunch of those cheap wooden birdhouses at WalMart and bust out her paints for the grandkids (and later great-grandkids) to color. Whenever I hear "Birdhouse in Your Soul" by They Might Be Giants I think of her - she really did have a birdhouse in her soul for all of us. And the nitelite was always on.
One day on a whim I bought a model kit of the Ecto-1 and brought it to her house so I could borrow her paints. Instead, she and I built it and painted it together. I was in my mid-20's at the time. We laughed and had a big time painting this model, just me and her.
She was not an easy woman to please, don't get me wrong. She rode a wave of constant anxiety induced mostly by her oldest and youngest child. It stressed her to the point of losing hair, and unburdening herself with extreme warnings and nagging about how to live your life.
Mamaw bought me my first saxophone. She was the only person who supported me from day one when I said "I want to be a musician." While the other people in the family called me all manner of names and slurs, she stood behind me. In fact, she called Eugene Rousseau at the University of Indiana and kept him on the phone for TWO HOURS talking about buying saxophones. I was appalled, but that was Mamaw in a nutshell. Every Christmas after that I had to get the horn out of its case and do an impromptu a capella version of "In The Mood," her favorite big band tune. It's damn near impossible to play a piece that calls for an 18-member big band by yourself, but I had to do it. For Mamaw. She drove all over and watched me play "In The Mood" everywhere, but the holidays were when she could hear just me. When she could gauge the fruits of her labors.
She would drive the 600+ miles to Maryland from Kentucky to watch me play. She helped me through college. She helped me pay bills as a struggling father and husband. Her only request was that I be trying, that I keep working, and so I did. When I stumbled she redoubled her efforts. Not without a tongue lashing; she had your back, but she never failed to let you know how stupid you could be sometimes. She was whip smart, well-read, and our verbal sparring matches were more about exercising our grey matter than anything else.
She taught me to play cards, and viciously so. She never, ever, not once let us kids win. Years of getting our asses handed to us until we finally got it, and you know what? It made us good card players. Of course if you hit a winning streak she'd keep you up until 3 am sometimes until she won a few hands.
No gambling, though. Mamaw had found God after an aneurysm surgery - she had one on each side of her brain. She asked God to look after her, and they took one aneurysm out only for the other to disappear completely. She believed the Lord had intervened. After that she stopped cursing.
Mamaw had a harshly Puritanical view on flatulence. She used to say to me "One day you're going to be in a room full of diplomats and not be able to control yourself because you've worn out your backside!" I marvel at the levels of thought put into this warning. First it assumes that I would be accomplished enough in life to be in a room full of diplomats, only to embarrassed by my own body, but really because I failed to listen to her. It was an amazing flight of fancy, simultaneously uplifting and chiding.
She also had a litany of phrases and Mamawisms I repeat to this day. If you cursed too much it was "Lord at the talk!" If you told her something outrageous she would say "Well I ain't never seen the beat in my life." If you scoffed at her she'd point her fingers, lit cigarette between them, right at you and say "Now look, I'm a lot smarter than you, you know. I've been around a long time!" She called my Papaw Humphammer - it was not a term of endearment. While discussing childbirth in the 60's with my then-pregnant wife, her eyes got big and she practically shouted "You either had that baby or you DIED!" It was not the thing to say to a pregnant woman, but you had to be there to understand how she spoke. With such confidence and bluster. Her worry was her love language. If Mamaw was fretting over you it might be aggravating, to be sure, but it's how you knew she cared.
I write this through tears because without her my life would be so much worse. She shielded me from the actions of my parents through their divorce. She was safe, her home was a sanctuary. It was always there, you could always get a meal and a bed, and a few games of cards. There was always coffee and cigarettes. I don't smoke, but to this day I cannot drink a cup of coffee without smelling cigarette smoke.
I held her in the highest esteem. When I was little I would tell her that one day I was going to be President of the United States, and she was coming with me to be the White House chef. Her cooking was as nourishing as her presence. We flocked to her kitchen - her split pea soup was as valuable as gold. One of the things I will never forget in my life is sitting at her kitchen table while she showed my then girlfriend how she made this or that dish; it was a telling act of acceptance into the inner chambers of Mamaw's heart.
Over the years I have written a handful of songs dedicated to her. A contrafact on "Along Came Betty," a Billy Joel-esque piano tune about how she had been wronged. But this was a woman that, in my mind, deserved more. That there is no statue of Betty Fryman, with a plaque extolling her virtues, is criminal. She was one of the great women in history, and had she not been born into dirt floors in Gatliff she may have been recognized for that on a much larger scale.
A woman of humble beginnings, no doubt, but the miracles she performed and the forces she worked against require something much more powerful. It was with that in mind that, despite my lack of work in that particular corner of the musical world, I began sketching out something along the lines of a symphony dedicated to her. Because goddamnit we should be writing symphonies about hard-working women from Appalachia; they have done more with less than maybe anyone on earth. I wanted the format to fit the size of her good deeds, and having no real training writing such a work it has been little more than sketches. As her mind started to slip, and her home situation got worse and worse, I began putting these sketches into a score.
I wanted to write something that put to music the feeling of childhood trips to her house. The long car ride taken in the dead of night, looking for recognizable landmarks to gauge progress. The crunch of tires at stop signs in her town, the approaching train that blocked your path just as you were almost there. And finally that turn down Third Street, the drive all the way to the end where she would be waiting at the door, of running up onto her porch and into her arms.
This is so hard to write.
Because I doubt anything in my life will ever feel better. It's not my happiest memory, but it is unencumbered by the strains of adulthood.
I had just started getting them fleshed out when she died. A horrific, preventable death, but I won't sully this with it.
Here is my first scored sketch for Symphony No. 1 - Williamsburg. Dedicated to my grandmother, Betty Fryman, on the occasion of her passing.
I will miss her always.