A little bit about Auntie Ruthie, who died in 2006.
The youngest of all the great-aunts, Ruthie was also the smallest – very petite, and never seemed to struggle with her weight. Of all the time I spent sitting around her kitchen table listening to her talk with my mother, I don’t remember her ever actually eating. The only time I remember Ruthie eating was in the car, where she kept a can of Pringles potato chips to nibble on as she drove – a cigarette in her left hand that also clutched the steering wheel, the right hand grabbing chips or reaching for the ubiquitous coffee cup. Ruthie was always in perpetual motion; even when she was lounging by the pool out back or on the dock at her camp, it wasn’t long before she jumped out of the chair for something – another cup of coffee, another cigarette, a telephone ringing somewhere.
She always had a side project. For awhile it was playing golf, and she had all these jaunty golfing outfits she wore everywhere that showed off her tan. She added a greenhouse right off the living room, and then turned to planting black tulips in the small front garden. She square danced. She sold Mary Kay for awhile, and the shelves in the upstairs hallway were lined with the pink boxes of lipstick and face cream. Off and on she’d embark on sewing projects, once making me a beautiful quilted jacket. When dial-up internet made its way toWaterford she started trading stocks online, tying up the phone line for hours. Whatever she did, she did with full gusto until the next thing grabbed her attention.
One of Ruthie’s favorite places was camp – a small house on one of the ponds that were just a short drive down theFive Kezars Road. Even though it was at most ten minutes away from her house, it seemed like a different world. “Let’s go to camp” was one of our favorite things to hear from her, even though there were leeches in the pond water. We called them blood suckers and they terrified us, despite the big block of salt in the water near the dock to keep them away. There was a pedal boat there, and we’d take turns driving back and forth across the short end of the pond while listening to the loons call across the water to us. Sometimes she took us on a hike out through the woods to see the waterfalls, grand chasms formed by glaciers a millennia ago.
After the business closed, Ruthie got a job a few towns over at the Wal-Mart. You’d hear her before you saw her, generally because she’d seen you from behind and was hollering your name. She was both a talker and a hugger; whenever I picture her in my mind, she’s coming towards me with arms outstretched shrieking “There’s LAAAAAU-REEEEEE”. She was also always, always happy to see you, her eyes twinkling under her short brown curls. No matter how little sleep I had and no matter how much weight I had gained, Ruthie always welcomed me with open arms and told me how wonderful I looked. I might miss that most of all.
Years ago she became a born-again Christian, leaving her cigarettes and lighter on the altar to surrender her vice to God. The family consensus is she never went back to church after that. I don’t think anyone was really surprised when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. We were frightened, of course, and sad, but not surprised. I don’t think even Ruthie herself was surprised; as long as I could remember she had said she would die young. What did surprise us was that she died so quickly; even as sick as she was, Ruthie maintained a certain joie de vivre, a life force that belied her illness and placated us into thinking she’d never actually do such a thing as die. It was completely unthinkable that someone with that much energy could just stop. The last time I saw her she was in the hospital after a particularly bad scare. I was apprehensive about visiting her, my mother having warned me how serious things were. What I found was her holding court with the town sheriff, the latest in a series of visitors that had been in and out that day, and while she was a bit wheezy at times there was nothing about her presence that indicated death was nearby.
The funeral was held at the church across the road from her house, the same church where my parents got married and I was baptized. As people filtered into the church a cat found its way into the sanctuary, and for some reason I took it upon myself to help catch it. I personally thought Ruthie would have found it hysterically funny for the cat to jump into the casket with her, but it was a solemn occasion and the minister had other ideas. He was in the entry hall wringing his hands in despair as one of the funeral directors and I chased the cat down the aisles of the church. I finally caught it, and as I walked outside the minister wagged his finger at the cat saying, “Bad kitty!”
“She just wanted to say goodbye to Auntie Ruthie”, I said, depositing the cat on the church lawn.
“Don’t say that!” the minister wailed. I wasn’t quite sure if he was just getting a bit emotional, or I had violated some church doctrine about animals. But he finally let the service progress, with Ruthie lying there in her casket looking for all the world like she’d just fallen asleep at the edge of the pool, a tiny smile at one corner of her face.