These five Raleigh sisters, all in their 90s, rarely spent a week apart — until the pandemic
by Katherine Snow Smith / photography by Samantha Everette
Over nine decades, the Hayes sisters have rarely gone more than a week without seeing each other. Then the pandemic kept them apart for almost a year. The twins, Alean Chavis and Kathleen Stephenson, are 99. Alease Bobo, the only one who has left Raleigh (for a move to Durham), is 95. Mattie Grissom is 92. Dallie Davis, the baby, is only 91.
They have outlived their husbands and two brothers, John and James. (“Because women have got more sense than men. We understand things better,” Mattie says.) Another sister, Halsie, died at 32 from an illness. Along with their siblings’ offspring, they collectively have 39 children, 76 grandchildren, 98 great-grandchildren, and, so far, 47 great-great grandchildren.
And when they gather in person — whether it’s been days or, more recently, a year since they’ve seen each other, they fall into their same family patterns: Kathleen and Alean sit next to each other, as they have at most every family gathering for almost a century. Mattie talks the most. Alease is very matter-of-fact. Dallie has mischief in her eyes.
While they talked at Mattie’s house recently, the sisters reflected on changes they’ve seen over nine decades in Raleigh. Mattie moved to Creedmoor Road 55 years ago, when it was just two narrow lanes. Now it’s six lanes in some parts with a median where her yard used to end. They went to a plank school down the road that’s long gone now. Their father took the mule and wagon to a coal den to get coal to heat their home.
Their parents, Luther and Bettie Hayes, were sharecroppers on land where Millbrook High School sits today. The family’s main crops were tobacco and cotton, but they also raised pigs, chickens, corn, cabbage, and other vegetables.
“We farmed everything, except some money,” Dallie laughs. The Hayes sisters started working on the farm after school and in summers when they reached about age 12. Well, all the sisters except Dallie. “She got away with not working out in the field,” Mattie says. “Our daddy’s mother lived with us, too. Grandma stayed at the house and liked Dallie to keep her company.”
“There they go putting everything on poor Dallie again,” Dallie chimes in, rolling her eyes.
The women credit their longevity partly to eating the food they raised; hardly anything was store-bought. Decades before farm-to-table became chic and living off what you grew was called “sustainable,” this way of eating was just a way of life. “We ate from the pig we killed and the chickens we killed,” says Alease. They took vegetables to a cannery down the road to be canned and eaten throughout the year.
“We went there in a mule and wagon,” says Mattie. “There was no such thing as a car in our family.”
The Hayes sisters also credit their faith for their many decades of health. They walked to church for Sunday school and the sermon every week as children and young adults. All five sisters said they’ve missed church tremendously during the pandemic.
Alean, Kathleen, and Dallie attend Wake Chapel Church, 2 miles from where they grew up. The twins were honored a few years ago for being the longest living members of the church. Mattie is a 70-year member of Baptist Grove Church on Leesville Road. Alease attends Antioch Baptist Church in Durham. Many of their children and grandchildren attend with them, while others have joined different churches. As the dress codes at congregations across Raleigh have become more relaxed with casual attire, the sisters still wear their Sunday best — always a dress or skirt, with heels, hose, and their favorite jewelry.
The Hayes sisters agree it’s been harder going without church this past year than going without visiting in person. Each lives independently, and while they were homebound over the pandemic, their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews brought them groceries and other necessities. The younger generation also made sure each of the sisters connected to the monthly Hayes family meeting via Facebook.
And they did get to see each other, somewhat: for Kathleen’s and Alean’s 99th birthday, on December 31, 2020, their family organized a drive-by celebration. The twins sat a few feet apart from each other on Kathleen’s front porch, dressed in matching black pants and red hats. Kathleen wore a black wool coat and Alean’s was red. They waved to more than 150 family members and friends in 60 cars that drove by honking and cheering.
Everyone is eager to get back to frequent gatherings with the whole family. They doubt they will hold their annual family reunion this month, but they’re hoping for one in December. For years, the entire extended family has held a three-day annual reunion, often at Pullen Park or the Community Family Center at Lea Funeral Home. Once they all went to Washington, D.C., where everyone wore matching T-shirts that read, “It’s a Hayes thing… you wouldn’t understand.”
Alean is the oldest Hayes, by just a few minutes. When asked if she ever used her elder status to tell her twin what to do, she said “no” just as Kathleen said “yes.” All five sisters laughed.
“Well, maybe once in a while,” Alean says quietly, with a smile. And just like that, after this unusual year apart, they fall into their decades-old rhythm.