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What She Was Like

Before Aunt Ruth’s service, the funeral director asked what kind of person she had been—what she was like. He said that he thought she had been the kind of woman who didn’t say much, but when she did, people listened.

That wasn’t her. Not at all. Not even close. But there was really no way to grasp what she was in describing her.

She was elves in the sunset; fairies dancing on the pot of gold at the base of the rainbow; Santa Claus; diamonds sparkling in the dew.

My first memory of her was when I was not yet three years old. I was crying and told my father that my older brother had hit me. My father didn’t like tattletales and told me that since I was crying, I must be tired and had to go to bed. He felt that siblings were going to fight, and as long as we didn’t bite or scratch, it was ok. He refused to intervene in children’s squabbles. That’s how, roughly a decade later, I found out what it felt like to be punched in the solar plexus and fall to the ground hunched over your knees unable to breathe. My brother was always bigger and stronger than I so he had free range with sibling rivalry—but there’s no parent who doesn’t make some mistake. After I was told that I had to go to bed—being punished for being hit—I was crying for the hopelessness of the situation, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time. Aunt Ruth found me and asked why I was crying, and I told her that Daddy said I had to go to bed because I was crying. She made me laugh and showed my father that I was laughing.

Another memory which is just a snapshot, at about the same age, is of Aunt Ruth and Grandma coming up to my room and putting a bathrobe and slippers on me and taking me downstairs where everyone else was. Since I’d been alone in my room, I must have been sick.

When I was about four years old, Aunt Ruth was on the back stairs with my brother and me and our baby sister. Again, a snapshot: we were talking about how cute the baby was, and I said, “Why don’t you get one. You can get them at the hospital. That’s where we got her.” It was probably the twinkle in her eye that made the scene memorable and let me know that things must be different from what I had thought.

She was always the one who got the perfect birthday present and on the two occasions when we were there for Christmas, the perfect decorations and gifts. She had found candy cherries for the tree that looked just like Bing cherries and had a wonderful flavor. When I asked about them years later, she said that Gimbels and all the stores had them. She would have been going to the displays looking for just the right thing.

She loved gadgets. She got a toaster that automatically lowered the one or two pieces of bread placed in it and sent them gliding up when finished, perfectly toasted depending upon the setting: Lighter/Darker. Sixty years later, it still works better than anything else for toast.

She bought a Polaroid Land Camera /SX-70. The salesman took a picture of her, and she was hooked, but she gave it away soon afterward. One of the reasons she got it was probably to help out the young clerk.

Maybe her love for gadgets was the springboard for her love of children and her ability to connect with all of them. She could perceive the novelty in their character and enable their distinct personalities.

One thing she hated was gossip and she refused to participate in it even if it were about celebrities who are generally considered to be fodder for idle ruminations in tabloids. She had the gentlest way of making fun of someone who was trashing a public figure that rebuked without conveying any sense of shame but making the point.

When I was in college, I spent vacations with her when there wasn’t enough time to go from college in Wisconsin to home in Maryland. There was the twenty-mile shared taxi ride to Oshkosh followed by the bus to Milwaukee where I window-shopped until it was time to meet Aunt Ruth. There was a jewelry store displaying fire opals and turquoise with colors mirrored by the sky as the sun set west of the city.

The four-lane highway to Delafield was smooth and straight for all thirty miles. We’d stop at a diner where they provided free crackers and cheddar cheese dip (it was Wisconsin, after all). We’d usually order fried clams, then drive the rest of the way home, park the car in the garage and crunch across the stone driveway and enter through the hall where coats were hung and large cooking and baking pots were stored. On rare occasions I can still capture the memory of the distinct scent of that entrance to the kitchen.

We’d talk for awhile and then go upstairs, Aunt Ruth to the room that was always hers except one time when I was very little and slept there. She had a china cabinet with dolls in it. One doll was about three inches high with yellow braided yarn for hair. I’d wanted my hair braided and asked my mother to braid it, but my mother replied that my hair was too short to braid. I pointed to the doll and said that her hair was shorter than mine but was braided. After that, my grandmother showed my mother how to braid my hair.

I slept in the room next to hers that had been my grandparents. It had two wrought iron single beds, and there was a door to a porch that over-looked the farm and revealed a magnificent night sky of stars that looked close enough to touch.

Aunt Ruth was always up first so the fragrance of coffee would awaken me. The bed was warm and the floor very cold. The joy of going downstairs and listening to Aunt Ruth share family history returns in golden memory.

The stove was gas with a section for burning logs. Aunt Ruth always cooked complete meals even when I was the only other person there, and we’d eat in the dining room on the mahogany table. The built-in china cabinet was always stocked with candy from the time we were little kids. My grandfather designed the house, so there were clever novelties such as a bookcase built into the wall—like the china cabinet, an ironing board that pulled out of the wall in the den. There were cabinets in the sunroom that held archery sets and games, and underneath the sunroom floor there was a cistern that held rainwater in case of emergency. In the basement of the house, in addition to a shop, were several back cellars for jars of canned food, a root cellar, and a greenhouse with overhead windows where Aunt Ruth grew cacti. Along the south wall of the dining room was a shelf by the windows where she grew African violets and kept a figurine of the bluebird that I had given her, and that I now have.

The kitchen cabinets had glass doors, and Aunt Ruth wanted curtains made for the inside of them. I used the sewing machine and materials from the large cupboard opposite the stairs that also held bandages and medicines and gave off a pleasant whiff of iodine.

One time when I was helping her clean out the closets, we were going through a box of things from her beloved mother who died when I was seven. The hair style in Grandma’s time was the Gibson girl style. Young women had hair receiver boxes which could be quite fancy—gold with beveled glass tops. When women combed their hair, they would put the loose hair in the hair receiver and use it to make rolls to fold their hair around. There were some of Grandma’s hair rolls, and Aunt Ruth was going to keep them. I was greatly relieved when she decided not to because there were maggots in them. I didn’t want to tell her but would have had to if she hadn’t decided to throw them out.

After she retired from her job in Milwaukee to the farm in Delafield, she became somewhat reclusive. Her true nature returned when my father and mother took her and their brother, Uncle Ted, on a river boat trip along the Rhine. She shone on occasions like that.

After Uncle Ted died, she became withdrawn until my parents, her youngest brother and sister-in-law, moved out to Wisconsin, but even with them next door, she fell too often to stay in her home.

It was my mother who discovered Tudor Oaks, a retirement village, near Milwaukee for her. There, once again, she became outgoing and engaged in exuberant conversation with many friends.

There was a charcoal drawing of her as a young woman that always hung in her bedroom. It was in a simple frame with glass yellowed by tobacco from years of Aunt Ruth’s smoking. Simple though it looked, I wanted that picture.

Once when my husband, children, and I were visiting, I said, “When you no longer want it…” I saw her stiffen, not knowing what I was going to ask for… “can I have that picture of you in your bedroom?” She had given me a lot of things, but I had never before asked for anything.

An expression of absolute joy flowed over her. She insisted that I take the picture right then; I demurred but am glad that I took it because things like that often disappear. I cleaned away the tobacco film and several years later had it professionally framed. The artwork by Dwight Logan bloomed just as Aunt Ruth had done in the right surroundings.

 

What was she like? She was love—nothing but—nothing less. She was Love.

 

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Winter 2020 Column: Born in the 1800's                         Spring 2020:The Seymours

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