Etha Mae

Etha Mae

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Years ago—decades ago—there was a poor farm family eking out a living on a government-regulated tobacco farm in the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky. The amount of tobacco raised on any given farm was government controlled, and there were frequent flights by small government aircraft over these farms, taking photos of the land being tilled, to certify that the regulations regarding land under tillage were being honored.

There was one such farm, barely eking out a living, with the husband badly crippled, and the wife forced to do much of the heavy work, including the tilling of the land, to make ends meet. There was, at the time, a child in this family, out of wedlock from an earlier liaison. Her name was Etha Mae.

There was an extended family involved in this scenario—a large one—and among this group were two boys, cousins of one another, and of Etha Mae. Both of them were from “the city”, up north, but would spend some time each summer “down in the country”, to maintain contact with the relatives down there, and to get a taste of how the other half lived.

The boys were the same age, though themselves from different parts of the Midwest. They weren’t enthralled by the relatively primitive way of life lived in this part of Kentucky—no electricity, no running water—but there was Etha Mae. Etha Mae was 6 years or so older than they, but a fascinating figure for these boys, on the verge of adolescence. She was a pretty girl, with long blond hair, and would move about on the rugged terrain, roads and pathways running barefoot through the abundant woods bordering the small farms. She ran like a deer, her hair blowing in the wind, over rocky terrain, with facility and ease. And she fascinated her two cousins. She made an indelible impression, so different from the city girls they knew, with no pretense at all about her.

She lived just long enough to leave an indelible memory with them. Unfortunately, she became pregnant out of wedlock, and totally unaware in those days of what abortion was all about, died in childbirth (the child lived into adulthood). She and her family attended a small Methodist church, with a cemetery attached, and her grave is there, looking out over the woods so familiar to her, some seventy years later, but periodically visited, each in their own separate ways, by her two admiring cousins, who wonder: whatever happened to Etha Mae?

The question that arises is: did she live and die in vain? A virtual unknown, with little or no viable future ahead of her, has her short life any meaning whatsoever? Well, it certainly does for her two male city-bred cousins who periodically, and separately, each in his own way, after all these years, stands at the foot of her headstone some seventy years later, remembering her as a symbol of simplicity, primitive beauty, and unselfish giving of her life for a child whom she would never live to see.

Etha Mae, in her own unsophisticated way, is a replica of the One Whose saving act of unselfish generosity we recall this Holy Week. For Jesus too died at a young age, in a way designed to save us all. He had a choice in doing this. He didn’t have to die; He did it for others, not Himself. He underwent suffering that we might learn how to live. And He did this a long time ago, in a remote and insignificant part of the word: tiny Israel. Yet people such as ourselves remember Him. We haven’t forgotten this act of His, so far away and so long ago. And He did it for us, whom He didn’t know. He did this for us, that we might live.

To the extent that we can interpret what happened to Etha Mae as something beautiful and life-affirming, we do so on the eve of a memory that blends with the memory of Christ Crucified that refuses to regard His premature ending as a waste or a tragedy, but as the prelude to another phase or level of life that someone like Etha Mae now likely enjoys, and which we celebrate as Easter.


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