Cotten Parrott was born into a tobacco family at a time when brightleaf reigned supreme.
Her father, a tobacconist, tendered the commodity for large companies, and hers was a genteel Southern upbringing, complete with debutante balls and formal place settings.
Her family traveled around the South for her father’s job during most of her childhood, but settled in Kinston in the 1960s. Friends and family say Parrott was hard to miss as the new girl. The tall, privileged blond could easily have kept her distance from the locals. She had just two years of high school left.
Instead she threw herself into getting to know everyone – a skill she happily honed, perhaps perfected, for the rest of her life.
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Years later, after a stint as an airline stewardess, after marrying her high-school sweetheart and having their two daughters, she moved back to Kinston. There she settled into a life with her sleeves rolled up at Parrott Brothers, a country store that had been in her husband’s family since the 1940s.
Whether she was selling garden supplies to the mayor’s wife, or chickens and feed to the poorest farmer in Lenoir County, Parrott was inviting and warm.
“It made no difference if it was prince or pauper,” said her husband, Hubert Parrott. “She loved it. She loved all the customers.”
Still, she was always known for her genteel sensibilities, formal place settings, and ability to make people feel welcome.
“Everybody thought that she was their best friend,” said longtime friend Cindy Baysden. “She was just her own person.”
Parrott, 67, died last month from complications following surgery. The cancer diagnosis she was recently handed was not grim, and the surgery was considered routine. Her loved ones were entirely unprepared to face life without her.
“We weren’t ready to say goodbye to her, so she’s definitely broken a lot of hearts,” her oldest daughter, Pleasants Higgs, said with a subdued chuckle. “Apparently she was a heartbreaker for a long time.”
Looking on bright side
Parrott was known to joke about being named after a commodity. Cotten was a family name, one passed on to her youngest daughter, Georgia Cotten Vick, as well as to a granddaughter. While she valued the debutante tradition enough to introduce both her daughters at the Terpsichorean ball following their freshman years of college, she never allowed that experience to set her family apart from anyone else.
“She just absolutely adored the people she adored. It had nothing to do with station, income, anything else,” her friend Ginny Darnell said. “She was the most sincere person I have ever met.”
And Parrott was positive. Following the shock of losing both her parents in a plane crash in the 1970s, her family says, she managed to “look on the bright side,” by noting they did not have to endure a long illness.
Her presence was not lost on her children. Both daughters marveled at not only her natural beauty, but her warmth and support. She was the first to know of their problems, and the first to be of assistance. It didn’t end once they were grown. Parrott helped care for all six of her grandchildren immediately following their births, which meant flying to the Bahamas for three of the infants. They called her GaGa.
“She was a paradox”
Her husband is bereft.
“I can just remember just as clearly as anything in the world the first time I saw her,” he recalled.
Hubert Parrott was known for some wild ways, and he had certainly never been a member of Eastern North Carolina society. Still, the two wed while Hubert Parrott was finishing college at UNC, and were rarely apart thereafter. He says her love likely saved his life, helped him straighten himself up in his late 20s.
“She was a paradox in that she was a privileged child who married a wild-ass in me, and, I’m serious, sometimes I still wonder why,” Hubert Parrott said. “She was a person who had had a whole lot more than I was able to give her, but she was perfectly happy.”
The Parrotts spent much of the last few years at their home in Morehead City. Friends say Parrott was often found sipping a drink on a neighbor’s front porch, as usual, making people feel as if they’d known each other for all their lives.
During the years she ran Parrott Brothers, her reputation spread throughout the rural farming region. She was hard to forget.
“She loved this place,” said Tommy Baysden, another longtime friend. “She loved its fields and flowing rivers, its farm stores and tobacco barns. She loved the salt marshes and bald cypress swamps. But mostly, she loved the good-hearted people who populate the rare natural beauty of this place. Just knowing Cotten left us better than we were.”