Aunt Ruth was one of Daddy’s older sisters, and she was always a special mystery to me. I am the younger son of the youngest of seven siblings, so this may explain why Aunt Ruth seemed almost as old to me as her and Daddy’s parents, who were known to me, my brother Nolen Robert, and my cousins as Pappy and Mammy. I have written about these special grandparents elsewhere, but this is my first attempt to try to explain how I viewed Aunt Ruth. But I must confess right off the bat that I have failed in my attempt.
She was tall and skinny, weighing not much over a hundred pounds, if that. Her manner was to speak in a low voice, in a pleasant and happy manner. When she laughed she demurely put her hand over her mouth, but was unable to conceal her sparkling eyes and her low-pitched giggle. I never saw her in a bad mood, never heard an unkind word from her.
Aunt Ruth adopted the life, basically, of a domestic servant to Pappy and Mammy. She devoted herself completely to their happiness and comfort, and she did this with such a happy countenance that she radiated warmth to all who knew her. But few knew her because, to the best of my knowledge, she never left the property where she was born and raised until the day she died, at age sixty-five, on April 7, 1960.
All of Aunt Ruth’s clothes were handmade, and she made them. She wore long dresses down to the tops of her shoes, wore long-sleeved blouses even on the hottest days, and seemingly always wore a bonnet. I never saw her without the bonnet, indoors or out. To the best of my recollection, I never saw her without an apron over her long dresses.
She did all the cooking, all the gardening, and probably all the house cleaning, but I never saw her doing that. Whenever I was at Pappy, Mammy, and Aunt Ruth’s house, she spent all of her time either in the kitchen or in the garden. She never came into the living room to sit and chat with family.
We had frequent family gatherings of my aunts, uncles, and cousins at my grandparents’ house on Sunday afternoons. The main part of the house was made of hand-hewn logs. The living room had a fireplace along the east wall, and the dining room and kitchen were behind that wall. There was a door between the living room and dining room that was kept closed during family gatherings until the meal was ready. At that point Aunt Ruth knocked on the door to signal that it was time for us to come into the dining room, and on that cue that is what the rest of us did. She never ate with us, but stood off to the side, smiling and chatting quietly as we entered, until she was satisfied that everyone had what they needed to begin the meal. Then she disappeared into the kitchen. I don’t know if she ate at the same time we did, or if she ate later.
In the warm months when Daddy, Nolen Robert, and I came to my grandparents’ house to do work on the surrounding farmland that my parents later bought, we would often see Aunt Ruth out in the garden. She kept a weedless garden and even used a homemade broom made of buckberry branches tied to an old broomstick to sweep the paths leading to and around the garden. I remember talking with her in the garden as she always crossed one arm over her chest with her other elbow resting on that arm while she held her hand near her mouth to talk to us.
She was almost always out of sight in the kitchen. No one in my family, no one, ever explained in my earshot why she lived as she did, and while I often wondered about it, I strangely never asked anyone. Even stranger, until recently I never asked any of my cousins who knew Aunt Ruth considerably longer than I did why she lived as she did.
Did Aunt Ruth suffer some type of traumatic event in her youth?
Did she ever have a friend outside the family?
Did she ever go to school?
Did she ever go on a date?
Did she ever to go to the doctor, or did doctors always come to her?
Shockingly to me, why did I never ask Daddy or any other relative a single one of these questions? The answer strangely lies in the fact that it never occurred to me to ask or, maybe more strangely, that it somehow seemed inappropriate to ask.
But in June 2012, based on a Texas reader’s request, I asked some of my first cousins the above questions. They did not know the answers to all the questions, but they did shed new light on Aunt Ruth. She was the oldest of seven siblings, and in this role she felt an obligation to help raise her younger siblings. She went to school. She packed lunches for two younger brothers and herself into a basket she carried as she walked to school with them. That basket is now over 100 years old, and one of my cousins, Edna Russell Jackson, has it in her home–still in good condition–in Tennessee.
Edna remembered that Aunt Ruth never slept in a bed–except for when she had a broken hip. Instead, she slept in a straight chair with her head resting on her knees and her arms dangling down near her feet. None of them ever heard her explain why she slept that way.
The consensus of my cousins was that Aunt Ruth made a personal choice to stay at home and help care for her six siblings, and later her parents. They believe that her odd life was the life she wanted. My recollection of Aunt Ruth’s perpetual happiness supports that belief. But she remains something of a mystery to all of us. A mystery still.