One of my favorite relatives, my dad’s older sister, Ruth, was supposed to turn 80 this Friday, and for weeks, a big birthday party was being planned for her this coming weekend. But yesterday morning, I learned that she had died the night before, and everything has been completely upended.
It’s so strange to lose someone you have known your entire life, someone who in a fairly small family, has always been a fixture. She lived about four hours away, but often traveled through the area, as she and her long-time boyfriend and partner had an antiques business together, and would “do shows” in Westchester, Fairfield, and New York City. It was common to suddenly get a call from my dad saying that Ruth was in town, and 18 of us were going to get together that night at City Limits. She just always felt “there.”
When I was college age, I took a bus up to North Norwich, an adorable little town in upstate New York, to visit my aunt and Jim. Their home was one of those places one instantly feels cozy and comfortable. My aunt had extraordinary taste, and being in the business she was, would stop at nothing to get a piece she loved, and find the perfect spot in her house for it to be cherished. Every single possession seemed to have its own story – where she or Jim had found it, a little of its history, how much was paid for it, and very importantly, what a steal it had been and how much it was now worth. I particularly loved her bathroom, as there was an old Victorian style metal stand with a beautiful patina, housing all kinds of eclectic miniatures one could make stories up about while on the toilet, like the little bulldog or the Tiffany’s stack of sterling silver purses.
She and Jim took me to my first and only auction, and I remember her urging me to find something I wanted. Being a student on a limited budget, the bids I heard seemed exorbitant, but Ruth assured me that whatever we got would be worth it. I found a Venetian glass mosaic box with elaborate glass millefiori design that Ruth told me was probably from the 1920s. It probably used to hold powder for a woman’s face, and was beautiful, but completely unnecessary for me. Ruth seized on it, and won the auction, paying far more than I would have, but presented me with it proudly. It remains one of my prized possessions, not only for its beauty, but for how it was acquired, and that visit.
Ruth was an interesting blend of personality – loved by so many, but boy, could she be sharp! She had a smile so huge that it looked like her face would crack, and it was a joy to be around her when she laughed. She was loud, blunt, and not afraid of anything it seemed, especially when it came to expressing her opinions.
When Ruth was younger, she was absolutely stunning – tall, slender, a total fashionista. She gave me a pair of vintage suede Capezio boots that had belonged to her in her twenties, and, being in pretty good shape myself, I could barely squeeze my calves into them. Though the feet are a little too big for me, and way too slippery for cold weather, I like to try to wear them, because they are such the essence of her.
Ruth also loved good food, and would often seize on something, which was inevitably addictive and delicious to me as well. I remember her introducing me to some kind of gourmet mango vinegarette. Salad is one of my two favorite foods (ice cream being the second), and finding a good salad dressing is heavenly. I think she served me about half the bottle on about five separate bowls of greens during one meal with that dressing, and a couple weeks later, I received a jug of it in the mail from her.
She was always spot-on when it came to gifts, and loved snail mail. During my highly contentious divorce (which she’d always check in with me about), she asked what she could do for the kids, who were teenagers, and hard to impress. I gave her a couple of ideas, and within the week, my daughter had a package in the mail from Aunt Ruth’s “magic closet” which included all kinds of shampoo and cosmetic samples, along with some random stuff, like a disposable shower cap, which we got a good laugh out of. Her best presents to them – from when they were little, and throughout the years – were miniature flashlights. And she chose the best cards, especially pop-ups. Hers were some of the few I save.
When I learned yesterday morning that she had unexpectedly died the night before (after hiding a serious illness for nearly four years from almost everyone – probably because she did not want to have people worry about her), I called my cousin to see how he was holding up. I told him how that unforgettable smile of hers was so vivid in my mind. He said that the night before, he had entered her bedroom to find her wearing that very expression. She was sitting in the red leather chair next to her bed, had taken the time to primp and do her hair and makeup, and was just beaming. She was as happy and alive as she could be, in the midst of what she was going through. And then she went to bed for the last time.
What's kind of strange is this: everyone keeps saying how sad this is, but I am actually filled with awe. Here was a woman who, in midlife, met her soulmate, began her own business doing something she loved more than anything, made loads of friends and travelled, was adored by her family, kept active, stayed connected with people and her many passions, and died the best death anyone could hope for after living nearly 80 years - with the very dignity, control, and beauty she maintained throughout her entire life.
Aunt Ruth, you couldn't have left us better.
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- Tags: Affirmation, Antiques, Best Smile, Childhood, Connection, Death of Loved One, Eulogy, Family, Happiness, Love, Relatives, Remembrance