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  • Writer's pictureJane Leder

My Great Aunt Ruth: What a Hoot

Ruth, the second youngest of six children, was born in 1897 in Sault St. Marie, Michigan. She was forty-eight by the time I arrived less than two months before the end of World War II. I'm not sure how long it took for me to reach for her dyed, bright red hair verging on orange. And I'm uncertain how old I was when I sat in her bedroom as she raided her closet one outfit at a time and put on an impromptu fashion show with an audience of one.

My Great Aunt Ruth standing above her older sister, my grandmother Bert

My Great Aunt Ruth (standing) with Her Sister, my grandmother

My great Aunt Ruth was different from any other woman I'd ever met. She swept into a room with such pazazz, wearing, let's say, a smart green suit to complement her fiery red hair and gold earrings and a broach to match or, as in this photo, a flowered dress, a modern hairdo, and a smile as big as the flower in the center of her dress. Ruth made quite a splash.

My grandmother--seated in front of Ruth-- was five years older and as dour and emotionally distant as Ruth was sweet and loving. True, my grandmother had had her share of disappointments; she wanted to be a painter at a time when women were expected to cherish their roles as wives and mothers. Even though she had three children, my mother being the oldest, I don't think my grandmother was parenting material. She was the happiest sitting on the shore overlooking the Atlantic, painting flowers or barns or seashells.

Ruth was seventy-four when I turned twenty-six. As a young, married adult, I didn't think much about getting old but, like most young women my age, I imagined people in their seventies to be on their last legs, settled into a life of shuffleboard and miniature golf. Becoming an older woman--the challenges and joys that I'd face--was as distant as menopause, wrinkles, and brittle bones.

My great aunt Ruth has been dead for thirty-eight years. Why I thought of her while taking a shower this morning is one of those fortuitous but completely mysterious occurrences. I felt her presence there with me in the shower and was reminded how, in many ways, Ruth was the kind of older woman I strive to be--energetic, enthusiastic, au courant. She shattered stereotypes, particularly at a time when the women's movement had passed her by. Still, I discovered just this morning that Ruth had been a kindergarten teacher before she married. Knowing that she had pursued a profession, albeit one of the few open to women at the time, bolstered my admiration and respect.

Ruth's husband--as I remember, an electric supplies salesman--was as quiet and unassuming as she was, as we say, "out there." We never know the intricacies of a relationship when it's not our own, but my view is that this husband and wife team complemented each other. They had one son who is now a retired physician. Why they had only one child at a time when many families (like hers) depended on a large stable of children to help with everything from tilling the land to working outside of the home, remains one of those questions that will forever remain unanswered. Anyone who might have had an explanation has been dead for at least a decade.

But according to family lore, as recorded in a two-volume tome commissioned by my mother that weighs at least two pounds, Ruth moved to Los Angeles to be closer to her son and grandchildren and died there in 1981. I'm sure my mother flew across the country and attended her funeral. She never missed a family event--a funeral, a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday, a bar or bat mitzvah . . . At the time of Ruth's death, I was in my mid-thirties at the with an eight-year-old son, a full-time job, and a second husband. I was too busy.

I'm not too busy now. My great aunt Ruth was a hoot; I wish we could pull off one of those impromptu fashion shows one more time.


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