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A sad fate for some Southern women

In one Virginia town, where there are more churches than bars and hush puppies are served with lunch, women are likely to die nearly a decade earlier than their counterparts less than 200 miles away. Smoking and obesity are largely to blame.

August 03, 2011|By Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times
  • Mary Baird, center, rests for a second between clients at her salon, the Hair Station. She gave up fried chicken, fried potatoes and greens cooked with ham hocks when her mothers heart gave out.
Mary Baird, center, rests for a second between clients at her salon, the… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Emporia, Va. — Every one of the 13 chairs at the Hair Station is occupied this afternoon by women getting a wash and set or soaking their tired feet. Their chatter is louder than the bubble-top dryers. Miss Janie has decided to eat a slice of mixed berry pie with ice cream and call it lunch; the bridesmaids at Mary Baird's daughter's wedding will be wearing short yellow dresses and cowboy boots.

You wouldn't know it from the cheerful talk, but this little Southern town has lately acquired a sad distinction: Women here are likely to die nearly a decade sooner than their counterparts less than 200 miles away.

A headline on an earlier version of this article implied that Fairfax County and Greensville County are next-door counties in Virginia. They are about 200 miles apart.

Virginia has the widest longevity gap of any state: In Fairfax County, an upscale exurb of Washington, a woman on average can expect to live to age 84. Here in Greensville County, a three-hour drive down Interstate 95, she can expect to die by 75, according to research conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Photos: Women ofEmporia

Smoking and obesity are greatly to blame, twin culprits with deep roots in rural Southern towns like this one, where about 5,000 people are served by two McDonald's and just one YMCA. (The Curves exercise salon across from the diner closed.)

People smoke and gain too much weight all across America; childhood obesity is First Lady Michelle Obama's signature cause. But here, the cost of a nation's bad habits is in evidence around every corner.

You'll find it in Mary Baird's bustling shop on Main Street and in her family legacy. One of the regulars in today is battling cancer. Most of the others have high blood pressure or diabetes, or are related to someone who does. Mary's brother, two sisters and her mother needed heart surgery before they hit 60.

"I'm 56 and holdin' my breath," she says in the back room mixing the color for Miss Janie's hair between bites of a tossed salad. She gave up fried chicken, fried potatoes and greens cooked with ham hocks when her mother's heart gave out. "I have never cooked food for my children with fat-backed meats and all that stuff."

"But that's the stuff that makes it good!" protests Miss Janie, 86, scraping the last of her berry pie lunch and declining to provide her last name because her feet hurt too much.

"Yeah," Mary agrees. "That's also the stuff that'll kill ya."

The health and prosperity boom that lifted northern Virginia bypassed parts of the rural South, leaving towns likeEmporia with the charm of Mayberry and the challenges of Appalachia.

The cocktail peanut, a staple crop, is hailed with an annual festival. Some local ladies still start their sentences with, "I declare …" So many Emporians turned out for hot dogs and lemonade at Circuit Court Clerk Bobby Wrenn's annual Fourth of July party, they clogged up the sewer.

Yet for all of its quaint traditions, much here has changed in recent years and most of it has been stressful. Small farms and factories vanished, pushing unemployment to double digits well before the rest of the country crashed. The tobacco fields that were once the South's economic base are mostly gone, but not the habit; the smoking rate in this region is well above the rest of the state and nation. Deaths from cancer exceed the national average; lung cancer is the deadliest.

The numbers came as some surprise to many of the women interviewed on a sticky Friday afternoon as they lunched at the diner, waited tables or sat for a comb-out. Emporia, which has far more churches than bars and a high school where everybody knows everybody else, is a friendly place to live. But none of these women — comfortable or poor, black or white, insured or not — quarreled with the message the data carried: The very conventions that have defined them as Southern are costing some their golden years.

Outside Logan's Diner, four rocking chairs sit empty under a yellow-striped awning. It's too hot even to rock. Inside, the lunch special is fried trout with hush puppies and the bologna burger comes with a guaranteed 5-ounce slice.

Shirley Doyle, 75, and Jean Moss, 72, are at a table by the window. They are sisters who grew up on a farm in this county. Their mother was Jean's age when she died of diabetes; both women were diagnosed 15 years ago — it's hereditary. They put away the fry pan and lost more than 100 pounds between them. Jean cut her cigarettes to three a day.

"The only thing we fry anymore is chicken tenders. We broil and bake," Shirley says, pushing aside the rest of the BLT she ordered, mayo oozing out the edges. Jean left her hush puppies — deep-fried fingers of corn meal — on the plate.

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