OXFORD – A painting of a service station hangs in Kaye Bryant’s den. It’s the business that helped move her hard-working parents from just above poverty, eventually, to wealth.
They left Thaxton for Oxford in 1939 with just $2.50 to their name.
“My father was one of the most honorable and honest men I have ever known,” she said. “My mother worked right alongside of my dad until they both retired. She was the kindest, most loving little lady.”
So, what’s with the painting?
“When people walk into my house, they say, ‘Why do you have a service station hanging in your house?’” Bryant said.
“But when I was growing up and leaving the house to go anywhere, my dad always said to me, ‘Don’t forget who you are and where you came from.’ This is kind of a reminder to me of his words.”
Who she is, is hard to define: Bryant is a mother, grandmother, community activist, political supporter, neighbor, friend, widow, investment manager and, thanks to her father’s foresight, a tree farmer.
“My mother used to say that Daddy ‘didn’t want much land; he only wanted what joined him,’” Bryant said, laughing. He bought gullied Hill Country property and planted pine trees, and she has managed timber ever since.
“He started me with my first tree farm when I was 8,” she said. “At Ole Miss I was the only girl that took timber economics, and … when the professor found out I knew that naval stores (pine tars used to waterproof wooden ships) had nothing to do with belly buttons, he thought I was really smart.”
Now 72 and widowed for more than a decade, Bryant finds joy in a host of sources – especially family.
Her son, Col. Bobby Towery, is the rising deputy commandant at the Army’s War College in Carlisle, Pa., and her daughter, Julie Kaye Fanton, is an Emmy-winning Hollywood set designer. She also has three grandsons, two of whom will be college freshmen this fall.
Friends, an interest in historic preservation and an insatiable curiosity are some of the other things that wind her spring.
“I am grateful to be 72 years old,” she said. “I don’t color my hair; I earned every one of these gray hairs. I am proud of my family – especially my grandsons – of my friends, of my community.
Bryant exercises by walking 10-15 miles per week through the streets of Oxford.
“Every morning when I walk, I count the blessings that I have and the people in my life,” she said. “A couple of days a week, my walk will take me through the cemetery. That may seem morbid to some people, but for me, remembering those people who are gone but who have affected my life positively is important.”
Quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson, she added, “‘I am a part of all I have met.’”
Bryant’s life is not all sunshine and roses.
“Lest I sound like a paragon of virtue, which I am not, I do have my pity parties,” she confessed.
Many people would in her situation: Bryant has spent most of this year recovering from breast cancer surgery and then in radiation treatments.
“I do not hesitate to speak about cancer,” she said. “If any one woman that might possibly read this takes the time to go and have herself examined and prevent her own death, then it is worth it for me to share this experience.”
Numerous people have been part of her recovery: Kathryn Elliott, her nurse practitioner, found the lump. Surgeon Mickey King “has been a rock for me through this,” she said. Several friends – Sue Gobert, Jo Dale Mistilis, Jeanna Harris, Bobbi Chehardy and cousin Robin Street, among many – have given practical and moral support. Bryant’s church family at St. Peter’s Episcopal “have been just that: family,” she said.
“The rest of the names are just legion,” she said. “This community is just made up of some of the most compassionate, caring people in the world.”
Joie de vivre
One other driving force for Bryant is humor.
When Michael Feldman brought his Public Radio International radio show, “Whad’Ya Know,” to the University of Mississippi on her birthday two years ago, Bryant was determined to meet him.
One of the highlights of Feldman’s show is his humorous interviews of “normal” people based on questions they submit in advance. Bryant gave her quirk up front: “How’d you like to talk to a 70-year-old former Hooker?” she asked.
Feldman bit. The joke, of course, was on him: Far from being a past profession, Hooker is Bryant’s maiden name. The audience roared as Feldman backpedaled.
Counting the memory as one of her best, she said, “I was really tickled.”
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal