Emily, a full life, complete

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 1, 2016:

emily-cumming-head-shotEmily Wright Cumming, a multi-talented, dynamic fourth-generation Atlantan, died Nov. 27 at age 90 after a brief illness.

She is survived by her husband of 68 years, Joseph B. Cumming, Jr.; four children; seven grandchildren, and three great-granddaughters. Together, Emily and Joe Cumming set in motion circles of friends who joined them across the decades in a creative life of work and play in Augusta, Atlanta, and Carrollton.

She was a longtime member of the Habersham Garden Club, which her mother Gertrude Wright helped start in the 1920s, and wrote its “Modest History and Apocrypha.” A passionate environmentalist, she was also active in projects of the Georgia Conservancy and helped start a recycling program and tree-plantings in Carrollton. She was a member of the Colonial Dames, the Junior League of Atlanta, and the Episcopal Church Women of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.

She was born in Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1926, the second of five children of Gertrude (Whittier) and Douglas Berry Wright. As she wrote to her namesake, her one-month-old great-granddaughter Emily Beckley, in 2014: “How lucky I was, from the beginning. First, to have two smart, shy parents, who were gifted, artistic, and really serious about raising healthy, unspoiled children. Second, to be raised in a deep forest in a big stone house, with plenty of room for playing or hiding, or privacy for reading, and great spaces for big dinners or dances when we were teenagers.”

Emily was a competitive child athlete, winning state awards in diving and badminton. She was educated at St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines, Washington Seminary, Hollins College, and Agnes Scott College. In 1948, she married Joe Cumming and they moved to his ancestral home, Augusta, where all four children, Bryan, Doug, Walter, and Anne, were born. In 1956, the family moved to Atlanta. Joe worked there for 22 years reporting on the South for Newsweek magazine.

Emily, through those years, managed a vibrant family life of jazz-band parties, literary house parties in a vacation home in North Georgia, and environmental activism. She worked in public relations for a clean-energy company and campaigned in Wisconsin for Jimmy Carter. In these years, “I discovered I could write,” she wrote to little Emily. She had an essay in Newsweek and Reader’s Digest, and wrote several privately printed histories, including one about the family tree of her great-grandfather Maxwell Rufus Berry (1823-1909).

She and her husband were an energy-generating unit, in a marriage that Joe Cumming wrote about in Esquire magazine in 1977 proposing a new verb, “monog-ing,”  for the “dark magic practiced by certain married folk.” From that article:

“. . .let me describe Emily as I see her: a broad-browed and smiling brunette with short, often unmanageable hair, as lithe and light of step as when I first met her in World War II (I won’t ask you to believe under the Biltmore clock, but it’s true), cool as a schoolgirl lit with mischief, yet warm in the womanly ways of a world-famed mistress. I could go on and mention qualities from the likes of Julie Andrews, Erma Bombeck and Annie Dillard, but it would embarrass her and make you suspicious.”

Her surviving brother is Jim Wright (Emily), of Dixon Cove, Tenn. Siblings who preceded her in death were Whittier Wright (Sena), Oliver Wright (Mary Semmes), and Miriam Kiser (John). Besides her husband, she is survived by her children and their spouses, Joseph Bryan Cumming III (Holly) of Nashville; Douglas O. Cumming (Elizabeth) of Lexington, Va.; Walter W. Cumming of Holly Springs; Anne Cumming Preston (Clay) of Decatur. Also, grandchildren Anna (Cumming) Beckley (Gary), Alston Cumming (Julie), Helen Preston, Paul Preston, Daniel Cumming, William Cumming, and Sarah Rose Cumming; and great-grandchildren Ella, Katharine, and Emily Beckley.

A memorial service will be held at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, 3098 St. Annes Lane, Atlanta 30327, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3. Interment of cremated remains will be at Summerville Cemetery, Augusta, at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Mountain Conservation Trust (P.O. Box 35, Jasper, GA 30143).


About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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