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On Aunt Ruth: Or Why I am Me

It’s book review Tuesday again (seriously, where does the week go?!  Not that I mind writing book reviews again – I quite enjoy them – but eek already with how quickly seven days seem to go by!), and today’s topic is brought to you courtesy of Aunt Ruth.  A lucky few of you will have known her; several of you will have heard about her.  For those, you will know what I’m talking about and how much this post means to me as a result.  For those who did not, I will give you a brief synopsis: Aunt Ruth was amazing.  She was my mother’s aunt and basically served as a fill-in grandmother for my sister and me (her sister, Grandma Evie, died when I was little and unfortunately Amy never knew her).  She was a college professor in a time when a lot of women did not attend universities, let alone teach in them.  She never married or had children. I once interviewed her for a school project (topic: a woman I admired); when I asked her if she had ever wanted to get married or come close she told me (and yes, I do recall this verbatim): “There was this one boy I was simply mad about, but…” and then she laughed her fabulous musical laugh and changed the subject.  She loved reading and art and theater and music and history and travel and food – not necessarily in that order.  And she is the reason I am who I am today.

(I will get to the book review part of today’s post, promise, just bear with me a little longer in my paean to an amazing woman, please.)

Aunt Ruth is the reason I love to read and love to read great books (she actually belonged to a book group called Great Books, which I always thought was a truly fabulous name).  She always gave all of the great-nieces/-nephews books for Christmas – each one selected with care to either match a current interest of ours or to develop/promote an interest she believed we needed (always correctly, I might add).  She took me to art galleries and theatrical productions; introduced me to classical music and the wonders of faraway lands.  She always sent postcards when she traveled. We traded letters regularly full of details of books we were reading, movies we had seen, places we had been, and things we were thinking.  She let the small-child version of me dress up in her jewelry, dresses and high heels and never laughed at how ridiculous I looked as I paraded around her apartment pretending to be “fancy.”  She invited me to stay with her on vacations, but never for more than three days at a time: “Fish and houseguests, Jill, stink after three days” she would quote; it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I learned this was actually Ben Franklin’s line and not hers.  She took me to lunch at “grown-up” restaurants (long before I was anywhere near grown-up) and insisted on treating (even long after I was).  She was, in a word, fabulous.

She passed away a couple of years ago.  I was, needless to say, devastated – as was everyone who knew her.  There would be no more letters coming or going.  No more postcards from every continent except Antarctica.  No more book or movie recommendations, reviews of gallery exhibits, or lunches.  It was rough-going for a while, I assure you.

I was fortunate enough to “inherit” a number of her books though.  And recently, pulled one off the shelf to read.  (At last, she said, here is the book review – and only a few paragraphs in…)

The book was The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder.  It is a beautifully-written story about the meaning of a life.  It begins with the collapse of the eponymous bridge (an Incan relic); five individuals fell to their death as a result and a local priest who witnessed the event subsequently investigates the lives of these five individuals in an attempt to make sense of the tragedy.  The life stories of these five people are described in artful and artistic prose; many a line or description begs to be read aloud, some simply for their musicality and lyric qualities and some for the magnitude of the seemingly-simple truths they espouse.  A few of my favorite examples:

  • “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”
  • “Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.”
  • “Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely read could be said to know that they were unhappy.”
  • “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Not surprisingly, I loved the story – I always enjoy good writing and usually enjoy stories about the quest for meaning in seemingly random events.  But what I loved most was actually not the writing, the plot, the characters, or the depth of thought these things evoked.  What I loved most was that Aunt Ruth’s reading group notes were written in pencil on small sheets of notepaper tucked inside the book.  It was like talking to her all over again – for the duration of the book, I could look at her distinctive handwriting, hear her voice reading the comments, and picture the look on her face as she read and then discussed the book.  It was an incredible and precious gift, all the more so for being completely unexpected – when I picked the book up I had no idea the notes were there.  I can only hope that I will discover similar surprises in other of her books that currently live in my library.  So once again I find myself saying “Thank You” to Aunt Ruth for changing my life…

 

 

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10 comments to On Aunt Ruth: Or Why I am Me

  • Sharon Franclemont

    Thank you. I am going to download that book hopefully, I only wish I had an Aunt Ruth living in me 🙂

  • wendy krug

    Hi Jill – Beautifully written and a reminder of wonderful memories. Someday, I would like to compile a list of the books we all received as children so that I have good books to choose for my children! I have Aunt Ruth’s bible and occasionally find a few notes as well. Such a blessing to have known her.

  • Lynn

    Aunt Ruth, continuing to inspire and amaze, even after death. Only great spirits can do that. I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet her, and doubly thankful that she left a little bit of herself in you. Through you, we all get to meet Aunt Ruth every day!

    “Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely read could be said to know that they were unhappy.” Hmm, I have NO idea why you’d like THAT line, Jilla.

  • amy

    awww…i started to cry when I read that. Aunt Ruth really was an amazing person and the most kick ass matriarch for our family

  • Brian Castner

    Jill – I have had a book idea for a couple years now about Aunt Ruth – email me so we can talk about it when you get a chance.

    BTW, I got my own stack of Aunt Ruth books after she died, but I have not yet opened them. I’m about to get up from the computer now to see if there are any hand written notes in them.

  • Beth

    A very classy memoir to a very classy woman. You hit the nail on the head with this one Jill. I am glad we are keeping her alive each in our own ways.

  • First of all, thank you so much to everyone for the thoughtful and heartfelt comments and expressions about Aunt Ruth. She WAS amazing, and I love that she lives on in all of us. This is not, I assure you, the last you will see/hear about her… 🙂

  • Lisa Franclemont

    Hey Jill,
    Beautifully written endearments for Aunt Ruth, undoubtedly she was very special and has a huge place in your heart where she dwells.
    The book sounds great, Id like to read it too.
    Lisa

  • […] great aunt (the fabulous Aunt Ruth) used to do that on New Year’s Eve – she’d spend the evening alone in her […]

  • […] Ruth (aka Ruth Seitz) – I’ve said it before and I’ll cheerfully say it again, I would not be the person I am today without you.  You […]

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