Aunt Erma was the last one – the last sister. She was the baby.
She was ninety when she died last week.
Erma was my grandmother’s sister, and her husband of seventy-two years, Jack Hamblin, Jr., was my grandfather’s nephew. So, uncle and nephew married sisters three quarters of a century ago, and the resulting two descendant branches from great-grandparents Mark Lafayette Rutherford and Mary Emma Copeland were eternally double-dipped in kinship.
Aunt Erma’s and Jack Jr.’s daughters Becky and Christi are both my second- and third-cousins. That’s Mississippi closeness.
Erma Jean, born in 1928, was a child of the Great Depression and the last of nine Rutherford children – four boys and five girls. Times were very hard early in the Rutherford family. In fact, Aunt Erma was only ten when her father Mark was killed by a train on the M & O Railroad. It’s unclear whether Mark Rutherford’s death was a suicide or an accident. Without exception, Aunt Erma always proclaimed her father’s death accidental, fiercely. I suspect that if the determination and concrete composition found in the Rutherford sisters was evident in my great-grandfather, in any small part, then my Aunt Erma’s assessment was the correct one.
Ruby, Edna, Delia Mae, Geneva and Erma Jean – those were the sisters. They laughed and loved one another, and visited, and fed each other, and fed each other’s children and grandchildren. They each one represented the epitome of a well-defined type of Southern woman from their generation. Not the ones who began life with means. No, their starting point on this earth – from a purely financial perspective – was essentially void of any reason to retain even a basic hope for the future that was about to unfold on each of them in the back half of the twentieth century. But they, and their brothers, had fight in them. The Rutherford’s didn’t quit in 1938 when their father was hit by a train. They dug their fingers into Mississippi dirt and climbed. And every living soul that exists at the tips of the smallest, newest limbs of their unbowed family tree is the beneficiary of the unyielding will and tenacity exhibited in those brothers and sisters.
I can’t tell their stories with specific detail. I’ll get them wrong.
I know they all had gardens when I was a boy. Not because they enjoyed gardening as a pastime, but because they developed the habit back when they had to insure they had plenty to eat.
Aunt Erma fell out of a knotty pear tree on my grandparents’ place one time, and she hurt herself badly. Each year, the sisters put up pear preserves. Truly, Aunt Erma was well settled and secure enough in life, by the year she fell, to buy ten rooms of pear preserves at Big Star or Cunningham’s Grocery. But she climbed up in that pear tree anyway that summer – because that’s what she and her siblings did. They didn’t rest. They worked to secure life for their families, in every way they knew how.
I contend today that the stuff that Aunt Erma was made of is a foreign substance in modern life, extinct. Who routinely cooks for twenty people these days? No one. She did.
My mother told me that she remembered when Aunt Erma and my grandmother wrung the necks of a hundred chickens by hand, dressed those chickens, and put them in a deep freeze to use later in that year. She remembered the plucking. And frankly, she remembered it as it would probably be perceived today – a bizarre, surreal scene, a squawking feather tornado, and the children running and screaming through the carnage. It’s practically impossible for that event to occur any other way.
When I consider that archaic moment now, I come to the quick realization that my grandmother’s and my Aunt Erma’s task on that day was no more palatable than it would be on this day. Yet, there stood two wives and mothers, in feathers and beaks, two Southern women who would do anything for their families – for their comfort, to sustain them, because they loved them. And because of the fight that resided at their cores. As God is my witness.
All the Rutherford brothers were gone by 1991.
My grandmother Delia Mae died of cancer in 1998. It seems like yesterday. Aunt Edna died in 2001, Aunt Ruby in 2008, and Aunt Gen in 2011.
Erma Jean Rutherford Hamblin – Mother, Gran, Aunt Erma – died on June 26, 2018. She was something else. She was the last one.