Today is Aunt Ruth’s 81st birthday. There is no woman – dead or alive, black or white, famed or forgotten – whom I admire more. That includes my own mother – who loved Aunt Ruth like a sister for more than 50 years. Mama understood my love for Aunt Ruth and shared that admiration. She admitted with awe that she doubted she had the courage or strength to survive tragedy and disappointment with the grace and dignity that Aunt Ruth had.
The more I walk, stumble and crawl along in my journey of faith, the more I understand and realize what a woman of God that Aunt Ruth has always been. I have always appreciated and respected her loving nature and her kindness, only now do I fully understand how she has worn and lived her Christian faith softly like a cloak.
She’s buried a husband, two children, her beloved mother and a grandchild. For years, she has endured a strained relationship with her surviving son and his family. The pain they all suffered from those losses left them too vanquished to comfort one another when they needed to the most.
Aunt Ruth is the earliest link to the core of my childhood. Many family memories are tied to her. My mother met her when Ruth was just a teenager. Mama liked her so much that she set her up on a date with her favorite brother, Robert. The two married after a quick romance. Mama and Aunt Ruth were pregnant with their first children at the same time. Ruth’s son, Bobby, was due in January, but came early on Christmas Day. I was due in December, but was born eight days later on January 2. Bobby and I were genetically cousins and spiritually twins. We were “peas and carrots” and followed each other through adulthood until he died. Our mothers learned to parent together. My mother had two girls, Ruth had three boys. Our families (along with their later children and our extended families) all grew up together.
Aunt Ruth was a “hum-dinger.” She was always a sharp dresser; even today, I steal her clothes when I can. She was the life of the party, had a crazy whooping laugh, could really rattle some pots in the kitchen and spoiled everyone’s children. She was a third-grade teacher, so she knew instinctively knew how to connect with kids. She usually had little gifts, and she always talked to you as though you were an adult. And while I’m sure she did, I don’t ever remember hearing her raise her voice to anyone.
Then the world changed forever. Her husband Robert died. His death had a massive ripple effect that he could not have anticipated. The son who found his body and the son who felt responsible for his death both self-destructed and followed him to the other side too soon. And Aunt Ruth’s laughter died with them for a long, long time.
I’m going to see her next month. We hang out and do girly things as we bounce around Brooklyn: getting our nails done, shopping, checking out a play. She indulges me while I gorge on West Indian food or she cooks her specialty dishes.
We kids used to make jokes about her staying in church all day on Sundays and she’s still doing that 60 years later. But she was never the proverbial “church lady.” Aunt Ruth was never been preachy, never “lectured” about getting saved or attending church and her talks about life or her advice didn’t sound like sermons nor were they smeared with Biblical scriptures and references. She’s not a zealot, she’s a soldier. She walked the walk, not talked the talk.
Almost without our noticing, she has been a model of faith and pure love. It’s rare that she talks about people, and even then it’s with little judgment, just a statement of facts. She’d just as soon change the subject. She’s generous to a fault and kind, even when she suspects she will be taken advantage of. That angered me then: what I thought was willing victimhood was really patience and longsuffering, and the essence how Christians are to treat others. She’s shown us all how to lean on God during the worst that life has to offer without breaking and how to rejoice through your victories with praise and humility.
A few years ago (in church), she introduced us as “my husband’s nieces.” My sister nearly “lost her religion,” as they say. Michele made it clear: “You were in the family before we were born, and you are our aunt, period.” All the nieces and nephews love her that way. Others may claim it, but she is our matriarch, whether she was born into the tribe or married into it.
We are so blessed to have her with us, and we all take our turns sitting at her knee. Today is her son’s time. He came back to Brooklyn for the weekend, and he is spoiling his mother on her day. I get my turn in a few weeks. So for now I say: Happy Birthday, Aunt Ruth.