Water colors were her favorite. I grew up with her paintings of trees and hills on the walls of all the family houses. I have one in my house now, a picture of the lawn in front of Earlham Hall, where my mother and my aunts and I all lived while we went to college.
My Aunt Ruth was an artist. I used to hear people say, usually when she was not in the room, that she had shown great promise as an artist and her teacher had wanted her to go to New York after college and pursue her painting, but, of course, she had not.
Of course? Well, she never seemed to me to be a person who was inclined to wonder too long about what might have been. Of course, there was The War, that broke out when she was a freshman at Earlham College, and all but one of the young men in her class left school to go participate. Some, like her boyfriend, went as conscientious objectors, and some went to fight. She told me on one of our road trips that she was disillusioned with this boyfriend because of his choice. It seemed to her that, Quaker college or not, the patriotic thing to do was to join the military. He disagreed. Perhaps that was just as well, for she soon met the man who became Uncle Gene, who joined the army, served in danger, and came home to marry her.
And, of course, marriage at that time and in that place meant that she helped put him through dental school. There was no room in the plan for art school in New York. As near as I can tell, she had few regrets. Maybe none. Which is more than some of us can say.
But she was always an artist to me. She sewed overcoats and suit coats for Uncle Gene. She made ties, hats. She made a dress for me to wear to a college dance. She baked grated apple pies that would make Martha Stewart weep. She reupholstered furniture. She decorated her bathroom with apricot colors way back when most people counted themselves lucky to have one full bathroom of any color. Her shoes matched her dress. She always had a floral centerpiece when we went there for dinner—something she had hastily put together out of whatever she had on hand, but it looked elegant anyway. And when she had to move to a dreary apartment on the third floor of a run-down building, she painted the walls and used her good china.
When she was eighty, and handicapped with pretty bad macular degeneration, I asked if she would like to drive up to Prince Edward Island with me to visit my daughter and her family. For my grandson's third birthday. "Oh, yes," she said. "When do we leave?"
It was an 18-hour drive from Pennsylvania, so we had plenty of time to talk. "It's so nice of you to take me along," Aunt Ruth said.
"Well, it was nice of you to be a second mother to me all these years," I said. "As far back as I can remember, you were there."
"We all enjoyed you," she said.
My memory swirled. "Remember how Grandma used to take me downtown Indianapolis on the trolley and we would go to Ayers Tearoom for lunch and there would be linen table cloths and napkins and little finger bowls for us to wash in and you would come out in your white uniform and tell us that the chicken salad with pecans was good that day and to be sure to save room for something special for dessert? You were the dietician there, I think."
"Yes," Aunt Ruth said. "I loved that job. I tried to send you the meringues just out of the oven. Do you remember them?"
I did. In fact, as I told her, I have felt guilty about enjoying that time of my life so much. There I was, while a terrible war was raging in Europe, while my father and my uncles were in grave danger, while many families were being exterminated, there I was being doted on by my mother and my aunts and my grandparents in our little house on Audubon Road with the catalpa tree in front. Meringues, yes.
We drove north, the long way through New England and Maine and endless New Brunswick. We talked about our children and our grandchildren. About her parents and sisters. About how she taught me to make black raspberry jelly. About cranky husbands who are really worth the trouble. Until finally we reached the great arching bridge that carried us over the churning water to the lovely, pastoral island of PEI.
Except it was not looking so lovely, I thought, this time. We drove through snow and low clouds and I was disappointed to find that spring had not yet arrived. Knowing Aunt Ruth was an artist, I had wanted to show her spring crops growing green in the red soil, daffodils blooming by the farmhouse, buds on the trees, waves lashing the pink beaches. Instead, we found patches of snow, muddy driveways, and beaches buried in ice.
"I'm sorry," I said, "but usually it's very beautiful here." We stopped the car by a cliff, where I knew a few months later we could see the stretches of beach, the vast water, the red rocks. Instead, there was only a blanket of ice.
But there was a thrill of excitement in her voice. "Oh, no," she said. "It's so very beautiful right now. My eyes don't let me see everything, but I can see enough to know that it is breathtaking."
I wondered if we were looking at the same things. "What do you see?" I asked.
"So many, many shades of gray," she said. "I never realized before how rich and beautiful the grays can be. And the evergreens contrast so wonderfully. I just want to sit here a while and try to take it all in. The light, the shadows. It makes me want to go home and get my watercolors out. I never thought I could use them again, but maybe now I can."
And she did. With her limited vision, she painted again.
And, for sure, I never looked at bleak wintry landscapes the same way again. She had opened my eyes.
This is the way Aunt Ruth was to me. She showed me things. My mother would blurt out something she thought I should do and my Aunt Bea would spare no words for someone who had hurt me—both quite good styles also. But Aunt Ruth would look at something that bothered the rest of us and gently say that maybe, just maybe, there was also beauty here.
One day a couple years after our PEI trip, I was trying to sew a Santa suit. Now only an adored grandchild could get me to sew anything. I should have known I would get in over my head, but I plunged in anyway. I cut out the pattern pieces, growing cocky almost with how fast it was going. But then I tried to follow the sewing directions. Ohmygosh. In tearful frustration, I desperately dialed Aunt Ruth.
"Oh, yes," she said (this person who could sew an entire wardrobe for King Kong out of mere scraps at the end of a long day), "they don't write those directions clearly at all. But do you have a piece that looks like a sleeve?" And she talked me through it. "Just sew those two together and don't worry about the rest yet. Call me back when you are ready for the next part." And I did it, phone call after phone call, Aunt Ruth translating and offering bits of encouragement.
She was a good teacher. I learned a lot from being with her. I learned that looking for the beautiful is a good rule of thumb. And when it's hard to see the beautiful, I think she might say, just keep on going and have a good lunch.
Well, Aunt Ruth is gone now. Moved on last week after a third stroke that left her unable to talk or swallow or muster any strength at all. My son Kurt visited her just before she died and held up his cell phone to her ear for me to talk. I wanted to say eloquent paragraphs about how much I have always loved and admired her and how grateful I am for her and how much I will miss her always. But all I could do was cry.
Kurt said her eyes twinkled. Knowing Aunt Ruth, she probably thought it was beautiful having Kurt right there and me on the phone. I think it was.
Aunt Ruth was the last surviving of the three sisters. My grandma on the right.
My mama with her Aunt Ruth.