Herald-Leader article

Published Wednesday, August 16, 2000, in the Herald-Leader

The quiet heroism of the Cox women has been captured in a film that will be on TV tonight


By Heather Svokos

To look at them, with their salt-and-pepper hair and similar features, it's plain that the Cox women are sisters.

But it takes only a few minutes for each of their personalities to emerge, distinct as snowflakes. And when you hear their quiet but moving stories in Seven Sisters tonight on KET, you'll wish you knew them all.

Old sepia photographs, home movies and current-day interviews weave the sisters' story, through the gaze of producer/director and first-generation descendant Patrick Donohew.

The film revisits the lives of the sisters, all born to Roy and Serena Cox between 1923 and 1942, on a farm near West Liberty in Morgan County.

Together they toted coal and stripped tobacco, and harmonized to mountain music while they did the dishes. They played, fought, nurtured, sacrificed and grieved.

``This is a story of heroism,'' Donohew said, ``not in a grandiose, earth-shaking way, but through a collection of small acts of sacrifice, courage and generosity.''

And in a time when stereotypes are still rampant, it's also a fresh portrait of Eastern Kentucky, one that shows the effects of unshakable family bonds.

The sisters

The girls' mother, a former schoolteacher, was quiet and kind, and lived largely in the shadow of her husband.

Their father worshiped his wife and was quick to lavish praise on his girls.

``Before he knew that you were supposed to give positive reinforcement to build self-esteem, he was doing it,'' said Ethel Donohew, the filmmaker's mother. ``He would say: `Brag on her! Brag on her!'

``And he would've loved to keep us all home, really, he didn't care if any of us married. He would've been totally happy to have us with him all the time.''

That wasn't to be.

Scarlette. Born in 1922, her given name was Hazel. She hated it. She changed it to Scarlette, after the Gone With the Wind character, whose straight-talking ways better suited the independent-minded young woman. Young Scarlette loved her mother, but she watched disapprovingly as her mother stayed pregnant, and in the background. ``I resented her subservience from the beginning,'' Scarlette, now 76, says in the film.

Cora. The first round of sibling rivalry was born with the next daughter, pretty Cora. ``I still have the scars when (Scarlette) tried to cut my throat,'' says Cora, 73, recalling a memorable incident with a broken cream pitcher. Cora, who has an ever-present tissue on camera, might be described as ``the misty one.'' The first time she saw Scarlette's new husband, she burst into tears. ``Yeah, she started crying,'' fourth sister Dorothy recalls with a grin. ``Cora could cry if you looked at her.''

Ethel. Their father had always wanted boys, so by the time Ethel came along, ``Daddy decided I would be his boy. I idolized my father, I guess,'' said Ethel, 71. ``I wanted so bad to please him I would like to have been a boy.''

Dorothy. The next rivalry sprung up between Ethel and Dorothy, the self-proclaimed ``least emotional'' of the sisters. Dorothy quit Cumberland College to move back home to tend to their mother, who contracted tuberculosis in 1949. ``I think the way we were brought up might have been the best thing that ever happened to us,'' says Dorothy, who turned 69 yesterday.

Glenna. Her quiet belies a pure directness. Glenna was born a month premature, which might have contributed to her learning disability. When she didn't fare well in school, she left her studies and lived with her parents until they died. She always loved home in West Liberty: ``You could go down the street, and you know everybody,'' says Glenna, 64. ``You speak to everybody.''

Charlotte. Suffering through earaches, rheumatic fever and tuberculosis, Charlotte nevertheless remembers the beauty and thrill of growing up in the country. ``We were so free,'' says Charlotte, 61, who considered Dorothy her role model. ``We had the creek that we played in, we had all the woods that we could roam in and could go on trails and adventures. I don't ever remember staying in the house.''

Carole. Mama was 42 when she had Carole, who inherited her caring nature. Carole, who is no longer living, is pictured, and discussed by the other sisters, existing in the film as an almost mythical presence as the sisters grow older. It's not until the film's end that we learn of her fate.

The documentary

The original story brewing in Donohew's head was more like One Grandfather than Seven Sisters.

``I originally started thinking about it to make a film about my grandfather, sort of on the urging of my mom,'' said Donohew, 34, who lives in San Francisco.

But the more he interviewed his mother and his aunts, the more he realized they were the story.

``They were the ones that had the most influence on me, and their stories were all very fascinating,'' he said. ``And that's when the arc hit me, that it was really when they each moved off the family farm, that's really when they came of age. And while each of those were seven individual stories, they all wove tightly together in the growing up of the family because of the way they supported one another in the process.''

Today, Cora lives on a farm in Scott County, Dorothy lives in Somerset, and the other sisters live in Lexington.

The sisters figured the film was going to be a glorified home movie. But the Lexington-born filmmaker ended up obtaining grants, and ultimately an air date on KET.

``I was drawn into this story,'' said KET program director Dick Hoffman. ``It kind of gets you into this family.''

With a mother's unavoidable bias, Ethel agreed.

``He did a really excellent job of showing that we really did love each other, and that sort of superseded any of the other little things, the shortcomings we had, and lack of money and those things that weren't important to us. That's probably a time that is never going to come back, but it was great fun for us.''

Donohew also had another goal in mind: painting a more complete picture of Appalachian life. Films like Rory Kennedy's American Hollow, which followed a poor Eastern Kentucky family, present only part of the picture, he said.

``I think that it's important for us to recognize the problems in any community, and exposing those problems in the media is a very important way to get those problems solved,'' he said. ``But I think that by not (showing) the complete composition of the community, it can also disempower a region.

``It can make it seem like the region needs to be taken care of by outside help, and it ignores the structures that are already there the communities and the families themselves.''

A second chapter

There's a sad postscript to Seven Sisters. After Donohew shot the interviews, his Aunt Charlotte was diagnosed with leukemia.

He kept any such mention out of the film, but he thinks it's a poignant next chapter in the sisters' story.

After they all watched the film together July 4, Donohew said, Charlotte stood up and said: ``I just want everybody to know that this family is still pulling together for one another and that they've all pulled together for me. And we're going to lick this thing.''

Moments like those have helped Donohew realize how special it was to grow up in such a bevy of aunties.

``I always enjoyed it,'' he said. ``But it never struck me as remarkable until I got older. I started realizing that not everybody had these experiences.

``It's a great village to have been raised by.''

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