I could tell by the tone of my mother’s voice that something had happened–even over the phone I sensed the gentle sadness–and I knew with a pang of kindred sorrow what it was. Aunt Ruth had died.
Quietly, my mother told me, in her sleep. 104 years old and the last of my grandmother’s sisters. The last of a generation that was mighty upon the earth.
I never thought the Aunts would die. It never seriously occurred to me to fear it—they were too foundational to the proper functioning of the world in general and my life in particular: like Corinthian columns fluted and lovely and made to bear the enormous weight of life with seemingly effortless grace, especially in such a precision of placement as these five sisters had aligned themselves. Even frail little Aunt Ruth, an invalid these forty years, had borne her load manfully, with a core of iron and steel beneath her thin housecoat. Out of all these mighty pillars only she had remained, her faded, almost transparent little body but thinly veiling the light and fire of a still-vibrant mind within.
And now she was gone, too.
The last time I saw her was on a broiling day in late August, nearly as stifling indoors as out in typical Deep South fashion. But it was a warmth that enveloped me like an embrace and distilled with it the essence of summer days long-ago but not lost. We came in through the kitchen and the scent assailed me even more potently than the heat had done, for it was precisely the smell of every other Aunt’s kitchen, a kind-of incense of sausage and cornmeal and Wesson oil, with simmering field peas thrown into the mix. (Grandma’s kitchen always seemed heavier on the sausage-side for some reason, and Aunt Tiny’s, of course, was imbued with the perfume of caramel icing.) Though there were no field peas simmering that day, nor any other indication of domestic activity, there had been enough over the years, I imagine, to steep the very walls with nourishing aromas so that they exuded a collective memorial of the sovereigns in print aprons that had presided there for so long.
Aunt Ruth was lost in a recliner and a pale green afghan and her eyes wandered listlessly while the conversation went on because she could hear so little of it and see nothing at all. But the minute my mother asked for a tale or a reminiscence from the past those eyes came to life. They sparkled; they shone like a girl’s in the first headiness of youth. The little hands worked excitedly and the honey-sweet voice droned on and on about the old days with a lilting that was like music. She told us about the first automobiles that they saw down on the river roads, and how every time a car went past their old farmhouse it would honk for sheer neighborliness and all the children would come running out to see it and wave. How the first time she drove a car herself she was twelve years old and her mother was sick and she had to go and get her daddy. How on her honeymoon in ’29, she and Uncle Bugg drove to Washington D.C. in a red Ford Roadster and went up for a tour in an airplane.
She spun a magic that afternoon in her simple words so fraught with happy remembrance, so that the steamboats on the Altamaha wavered into existence once more and plied their course through the murky waters. And the live oaks that arched over the deep tram road down in the swamp rang with the voices of children long-since departed, swinging across the chasm like so many monkeys. Even the terror of the stunt flier that crashed into the Number One bridge before their very eyes when they were picnicking on the river as a family had a certain conjuring of grotesquerie about it, like something one might encounter within the pages of Flannery O’Connor. Her manner changed with the telling of that tale, her voice dropped low and the bright eyes were hooded with an unforgotten horror. A dark thread amid the brighter ones, throwing color and joy and light and goodness into sharp relief.
Philip fed her just the right sort of questions, shouting politely across the room, and the glances he and I exchanged expressed our mutual enjoyment. How often, after all, does one have the opportunity to spend the afternoon with someone who can boast of over 100 years’ worth of experience in this world? And yet, as we sat in Aunt Ruth’s parlor that day we could have been in the ‘Front Room’ of any of the Aunts. There were the same 1950’s-era portraits of her girls on the wall, the same best furniture, the same aura of gentility and dignity. Each of the sisters’ homes had their own unique stamp, but some indefinable likeness in Aunt Ruth’s parlor invoked all of them at once. From this distance they all seem to have been painted the same pale, limey green, though I know they were not: Aunt Tiny’s was splashed with the color of her bold and vivid oil paintings, and Aunt Babe’s had pale carpet which was stiff on bare legs and religiously unsoiled. Grandma’s had marble-topped tables and a beautiful antique lamp dangling with crystal prisms which was the absolute only thing in her house she ever worried about us breaking. Nevertheless a uniform impression of coolness reigned on those sultry afternoons when we’d sit in state in one or another of them and give an account for ourselves: our grades–first in preeminence–and then our music and perhaps our ballet recitals or tennis matches. (Too many ‘extracurriculars’ were somewhat suspect, the general consensus being summed up in my grandmother’s fear that we might be ‘jack of all trades; master of none’.) And they wanted to know about our friends, which says the world of their genuine interest in our lives. My grandmother knew every one of my friends by name, though she’d never met most of them, and she kept such a detailed mental account of them that whenever we talked she could ask me if Jenifer was still in the marching band or where Ann was going to school or if Amanda and her new husband had bought a house, a fact which, naturally, I took for granted at the time, as we do some of the most precious and genuine things in life, but which strikes me now with a sweet stab of belated gratitude.
(We didn’t always sit in the Front Room, of course. Only on such calls of ceremonial reckoning. On other occasions we’d settle comfortably in rockers and recliners under the ceiling fan in the den, or in aluminum folding chairs in the back yard. But no matter where you ended up, you always came in through the kitchen. No one ever entered an Aunt’s house any other way. And no one ever knocked—a bang of the screened door and a trilling “Yoo-hoo!” was the only announcement a visitor required.)
I was in a state of resolute bliss that August afternoon at Aunt Ruth’s, overwhelmed alike with her memories and my own, and every sense sated with time-erasing impressions. I clung to the moments almost desperately, dreading the time when we had to go, back on the highway, back to the city and the present age and the noise and confusion and hurry. I wanted to be a little girl again with a new piece to perform on Aunt Ruth’s piano—always a bit trying as I was constantly reminded that Aunt Ruth had done the very elegant and appropriate thing of going to Conservatory. (Though I really think as a child that I had some nebulous notion of Aunt Ruth sitting in a starched white dress in a room full of palms and tall windows.) It would have been wildly inappropriate for any of her sisters to have done something so purely ornamental; but for Aunt Ruth it fit her personality like a fine, kid-leather glove.
The whole afternoon was a gift, a window opened mercifully, if briefly, upon my past, granting me glimpses of things I thought vanished forever. Aunt Ruth was enough like my grandmother, in voice, in appearance, even—though so shrunken and tiny—to make me believe for one sweet moment that a beneficent Providence had brought her before me once more. I wanted to throw my arms around Aunt Ruth’s neck that afternoon, and kiss her wrinkled cheek in tearful greeting, for Grandma’s sake, and for her own self-effacement in looking so much like her to me. That’s what I was doing inside as I knelt beside her chair and pressed the beautiful claw-like hands that were once so proficient in Chopin and Schubert in my own young ones.
For even now, so many years after Grandma’s death, it’s only the sight of her tombstone that makes me realize she’s really gone. And Aunt Babe just down the way. Aunt Mary Mac nearby and Aunt Tiny over the hill. And now, at the last, little Aunt Ruth, laid to rest beside her parents. It just cannot be. These were the Immortals; these were the Amazons, these diminutive ladies with their cool fresh front parlors and their very decided opinions on the cut of a roast and the year’s crop of mustard greens and the dispensations of the young lives in their charges–lives loved better than their own.
They are the stuff of legend, and fittingly so. For the world will not see their kind again.