Collin persisted. After a while, they began dating. Collin’s big break came when Mildred got married.
“The sister I’m so crazy about,” Ernestine says, sitting in her kitchen after another workout, eating plain chicken and brown rice, “she got married a few months ahead of me. I wanted to be married. So I asked him would he marry me.”
“I was quick to go,” Collin says.
“Everything my sister did I had to do,” Ernestine says. “... The only thing we did different is she had two children, and I had one. I said, ‘Shep, don’t do this to me again.’ I don’t know how women have five or six children. I was still trying to get into my clothes. I was so prissy.”
Her kitchen is painted lavender. Inside the refrigerator, her husband has stacked plastic containers filled with bland green beans, scoops of brown rice, pieces of chicken breast. Plain. No salt. Collin, who retired in 1985 from AT&T, does all the meal preparations. “I cook and clean and whatever needs to be done,” he says. “I run errands to help. I don’t mind doing it.”
They have been married 54 years. Ernestine says he is the best husband. Right now, their son, Michael, 53, who lives with them, is upstairs. Her grandson, also named Michael, is 14.
Just then, her cellphone rings with the theme from the movie “Rocky.” Sylvester Stallone is her idol.
When she was working out with her sister, Mildred got to the point where she could do squats with a 135-pound barbell. Their instructor began inviting Mildred and Ernestine to talk about fitness at classes and fashion shows. And people began to notice the stunning sisters with muscles.
Mildred decided she wanted to compete in bodybuilding shows and took on a stage name. She called herself Velvet. Ernestine wanted to call herself Magenta, but Mildred suggested that Magenta didn’t sound right and told her she should just go by Ernie.
One day in 1992, Velvet told Ernie that she had a dream. They would be in the Guinness World Records for being two sister bodybuilders.
Then Mildred mysteriously confided to Ernestine, “If I don’t make this, you have to fulfill this dream,” Shepherd recalls. “ ‘This is something we want to do. Listen to what I’m saying.’ She said: ‘If anything happens to me, you are not to fall to pieces. You are to continue what you started.’ ”
Ernestine recalls looking at her sister and saying, “Vice versa.”
Mildred responded in a serious way: “ ‘I’m not playing.’ ”
The sisters shook pinkies as they did when they were girls.
Ernestine thinks now that her sister felt something was wrong with her but had decided not to tell anyone at that point.