Jane Brannon Little Mahaley
She was a pioneer. What do we mean by ‘pioneer’? A pioneer is a person that is brave. A pioneer is a person who is curious and driven. A pioneer is a person who gets things done. A person who readily gives up convention for discovery of something new. A pioneer has courage, stamina, grit. A pioneer is willing to go it alone, but makes way for others.
Mom was a pioneer.
She saw no boundaries to what she could do, her fierce independence stemming from a childhood that, while guided by a loving mother, was punctuated by the sudden death of her father.
But in the way that life provides us with cycles and parallels, she was to meet a young man who shared that pain, having lost his own mother when he was just a boy. That young man would become her husband, and together they would have 5 children.
Life in Mom’s household – for it was hers more than anyone’s – was an experience of continued guidance and sometimes forced learning: how to sew buttons on shirts; how to make a salad; how to hoe a row; how to identify plants and animals; how to grind wheat; and the many potential uses of a wooden kitchen spoon.
We all grew up in her light, occasionally bearing the brunt of her sly humor as she rousted us from bed in the early hours of an early April day to ‘come quick! There’s a cow in the back yard!’. As we all clamored to be the first to the window – peering out in anticipation of such an outlandish sight – mom giggled to herself and then more loudly as we turned, realizing that it was in fact April 1st.
Brave, curious, driven. A pioneer, Mom became curious about the skies and saw no reason why she shouldn’t be able to fly an airplane up into it. As a member of the Petticoat Pilots in North Carolina, she trained and flew a rented Cessna 152 out of the then regional airport called Raleigh Durham. I have memories of being inside that tin can with an engine and wing as mom called for clearance…. Taxiing… taking off… bouncing into the blue.
Self-sufficiency, a hallmark of pioneers – Mom engrained that value and expectation in all of us. Why pay for something you could just as easily – perhaps even more easily and certainly more cheaply – do for yourself? Among the many many examples –
- Sewing our clothes
- Making rugs out of our worn clothes
- Grinding wheat at home to make our own bread
- Driving to the local dairy to get the milk ‘first hand’
- Getting chickens to have our own eggs
- Canning and freezing things we grew, or bought from local farmers
- Taking a class, buying the tools, and becoming the mechanic to our family car
- Taking another class (MUCH later in life) and learning how to repair small engines so she could keep her weedeater going
- Taking a class and then ordering a full-sized loom (for those rugs she was going to make)
Mom served for many years as a camp host up at Balsam Mountain, and for some years would appear at the local visitor’s center dressed in period farmer / pioneer dress – demonstrating the early ways of invention, production, self-sufficiency and survival…
And, in the tragic way that life can deal us devastating parallels – much as she lost her father just as a child, she lost her husband just as they were beginning a golden chapter of togetherness. Robbed. Cheated by illness that took her life partner from her, just as she finally got time with him.
So, she started over and built a solo life for herself, especially after her own mother’s passing, connecting to and relying on that inner curiosity, drive, and disregard for convention. She heated with wood, kept her favorite cat in good health, locked the hubs and chained the tires in winters, and stayed on the mountain she and her life partner chose together. Perhaps strengthened by her early experience with loss, but certainly lifted up by her children and friends – she succeeded – receiving multiple recognitions and awards for her service as a park volunteer, and becoming more and more of a grandmother as we all brought new kids into the world.
She went it alone for much of this time; but made way for all of us.
A pioneer – with courage, stamina and grit.
And now. The fuel for her stamina finally spent, she has left this earth, making as one of her wishes a gift of her own body to science, so that others may learn – she is *still* teaching us – and so that others may not know the struggle of the inner loss she has experienced over the past few years.
The love we all have for her is immeasurable, and now it is up to us to determine, for ourselves, perhaps even risking convention, what new challenge we will set for ourselves. What new skies we will fly into. And how we too may be pioneers, like our amazing mother.
May she rest in peace.