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I thought about Aunt Hazel a lot today. Like her, I crochet. I usually buy cheap yarn at Wal-Mart, but for a special project I bought a skein from Yarnworks, a little shop in Gainesville. This yarn came in a long loop that had to be wound into a ball before I could use it. I remember Aunt Hazel had a contraption, called a yarn swift. You’d stretch a skein on the swift and as you pulled the yarn to wind it into a ball, the swift would turn and let the yarn out in an orderly fashion without tangling. I wish I’d had one today. Having none, I hung the skein over a chair. It worked for a while, but little by little the strands twisted together and before long, I had a tangled mess. It took over an hour to unravel it.

When you grow up with a person you seldom appreciate her accomplishments. Aunt Hazel never married and lived with her parents, Grandma and Grandpa Brown, until they died, then with her sister and brother-in-law, Grandma and Grandpa Rogers, for the rest of her days. Not much to brag about, but looking back on her life, I realize now how much she exceeded expectations for a maiden lady of her time.

With Mutt, October 1964

Aunt Hazel with Mutt, October 1964

Aunt Hazel was born in 1904, the youngest child in her family. Grandma and Grandpa Brown had a daughter and a son who died before my grandmother and Aunt Hazel were born. Such was infant mortality in those days. Grandma must have been healthy—she lived to be 96. Aunt Hazel, however, was “sickly,” suffering from epilepsy as a child. Probably because they’d lost their first two children, her parents sheltered her. She was also near sighted and wore glasses. Boys called her “four-eyes.” No wonder she never married.

In rural America in those days, respectable unmarried women lived with family and seldom worked outside the home. Aunt Hazel went to school and did housework. When the family moved to a farm, she and Grandma helped with farm work.

When Grandpa Brown died, Aunt Hazel and her mother moved in with the Rogers. After Grandma Brown died, Aunt Hazel stayed. Where else was she to go?

She never lived independently, but Aunt Hazel became a career woman. At first, she crocheted. That’s where the yarn swift comes into the picture. I remember as a child watching TV in their living room. Aunt Hazel would take a skein of yarn, loop it around the swift, and keep her hands busy winding the yarn into balls. Then she’d crochet. She made baby sets to sell—matching bonnets, sweaters, and booties of soft pastel yarn. These she’d pack in paper-lined boxes and take to McCrory’s, a five and dime store in Johnson City, where they were sold. Aunt Hazel must have made hundreds of those beautiful baby outfits. Curiously, none of us got one, but she also made baby blankets, and I still have mine. It’s too fragile to use, but a treasure, none the less.

This is close to what I remember Aunt Hazel's looked like.

This is close to what I remember Aunt Hazel’s yarn swift looked like.

Later, she became an Avon Lady. She didn’t earn just pocket money. She was a powerhouse of a sales woman, taking each campaign by the horns, and winning prize after prize for sales. Her route covered Johnson City and Binghamton. When she visited a customer, if the woman wasn’t in the market to buy, they’d just have a friendly chat. Quite often, the lady would remember something she wanted for herself or as a gift, and Aunt Hazel would make a sale, after all.

Few women of her generation drove a car, but Aunt Hazel was different. Since Grandma didn’t drive, Aunt Hazel would take her to deliver butter every Thursday. She owned a series of cars, always a Plymouth. She patronized a certain gas station in town. In those days, filling stations were also auto shops and her mechanic kept her on the road. One time when I accompanied her, I was shocked to hear him call her “Hazel.” How rude! The only people who called her by her first name were my grandparents. People outside the family called her “Miss Brown.”

We lived with my grandparents until I was ten. Aunt Hazel was like a third grandmother in the home. She would rock us, read to us, sing to us. She taught us “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” and “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.”

Sometimes adults can be indiscreet. If he was upset with Aunt Hazel, Dad would call her an “old maid” behind her back. Once I won a prize at school and chose a deck of Old Maid Cards. In all innocence, I proudly showed them to Aunt Hazel and said, “Look, I’ve got Old Maid Cards, just like you.” I distinctly remember the silence that followed. I think Dad watched his tongue afterward.

As she aged, Aunt Hazel developed diabetes. She attributed this to indiscretion while working her Avon route. Instead of eating a proper lunch, she’d grab a pastry. She managed her blood sugar by close watch on her diet, but she slowly declined until she could no longer work. Then she developed dementia. The day she died, I cried all morning, not knowing why, until I got the news. She was only 75, young for our family.

It’s interesting how events shape our lives. In a generation where women were almost exclusively homemakers, Aunt Hazel was a saleswoman and Grandma ran a dairy farm. Had their brother survived, leaving the Browns a son to help work the farm, these ladies may have grown up to fill more traditional feminine roles. The necessity of doing men’s work gave them the gumption to become modern 20th Century women.

I thought about all these things while I untangled that almost impossible knot of yarn. By stubborn persistence, I succeeded and now am prepared to crochet.  I wonder what became of Aunt Haze’s yarn swift? I sure could have used it today.

For more on Grandma’s dairy business, read Binghamton Butter to Texas Kolaches.

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