The Folklore Project
Aunt Minnie and the Scoundrel
By Brenda Rayman
For Miss Minnie Hamilton, 1886-1986
. . . an unmarried woman was an old maid at twenty, at forty everyone’s servant . . . she was expected, as a matter of course, to take upon herself the most tedious and uninteresting part of the household labors . . . .
Even as a girl, she had been clever with her needle . . . She could really do that as well as anyone else.
-from “The Bedquilt” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Minnie Hamilton, my grandmother’s older sister and the third of 11 children born to Sam and Minerva Hamilton, was known for her cooking ability, her needlework, and her attention to household tasks. Having no children of her own, she showered love on her nieces and nephews (my father and his cousins).
Aunt Minnie was cook, laundress, housekeeper, and gardener for her widowed mother (my great-grandmother, Minerva Lee Hamilton) and her two bachelor brothers who lived at home until they died.
Additionally, for nearly 20 years of that time, Aunt Minnie also worked outside the home as a switchboard operator for the Central Office of the telephone company in New Albany, Mississippi. She would answer the buzz, then skillfully put through calls to doctors, hospitals, the Fire or Police Departments, or go through a complicated procedure to put through a long-distance call. Aunt Minnie knew what was going on everywhere, because she was “Central.” Being in control of all calls, she was in a position to listen to private conversations. Later, two of her nieces and one of her nephews grew up to be reporters, and they often commented that Aunt Minnie would have been the best of them all. She had better sources.
Aunt Minnie had a green thumb and planted a garden until she was past 90, spading, raking, and preparing the ground herself before planting corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and onions. Then, she would can or preserve the produce and help sew the quilts made from the squares her mother (my great-grandmother) had sewn together by hand.
Aunt Minnie kept a “swept yard,” a bare dirt area denuded of any grass, kept clean by sweeping. The hard, red-clay dirt eventually became almost stone-like. She had no use for grass. She did have several rose bushes scattered throughout the yard, but most of the flowers were in pots on the front porch. Aunt Minnie swept her yard as regularly as she swept her house (daily). At one point, New Albany city officials complained she had swept so much dirt from under the city sidewalk that it was about to collapse.
With all that work, Aunt Minnie had a limited a social life. People often pitied her, saying, “Poor Minnie never married.”
Well, she almost married. In the early 1920s, she fell in love with a man (who, according to my father and his cousins, was either an itinerant construction worker, or a traveling salesman, or a worker on a dredge boat on the Tallahatchie River, or a railroad worker). The “scoundrel” (as he is referred to in our family when we tell the story) gave her a small diamond ring, which she cherished even after she learned he was already married to another woman. She learned this when the other woman had him jailed for bigamy. How many other women had this scoundrel “married” or proposed to?
For many years afterward, Aunt Minnie wore that ring, until one day tragedy struck. She realized she had lost it. She called two of her young nieces, and told them she would give them a quarter if they could find it.
After the nieces were unable to find the ring, Aunt Minnie consulted the local fortune-teller. The fortune-teller read her palm and predicted that the next time it rained, she would find the ring. Sure enough, when it rained, Aunt Minnie opened her umbrella and the ring fell out. I can just hear her saying, “They lawwww!”—an expression she always used to show surprise.
Aunt Minnie Hamilton outlived her 10 siblings — never venturing far from her home — the little white house on Cleveland Street in New Albany, Mississippi.
The story of Aunt Minnie and the “scoundrel” has been told in our family for several generations. Though the original storytellers (her nieces and nephews) often disagreed on the occupation of the “scoundrel,” there is one thing on which they all agreed. Aunt Minnie’s teacakes were special! If she were with us today, you can be certain that she would tell us, in great detail, how to make these treats.
Aunt Minnie’s Teacakes
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup shortening
2 tablespoons buttermilk
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream shortening and sugar. Add egg. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk. Add vanilla. Chill dough. Roll into balls about the size of a walnut. Place balls on greased cookie sheet. Flatten out with the bottom of a glass. Bake at 325 degrees until lightly browned around edges.
I am grateful to my father, E.J. Ledbetter, and his cousins, Edith Hamilton Haynie Robertson (of blessed memory) and Norma Lee Hamilton Fields (of blessed memory), for sharing this family story with me.