The Other Ruth Pennebaker

My husband’s Aunt Ruth — that would be Ruth Pennebaker — died last week. Like so many of her generation (she was 88), her death was reported by younger family members on Facebook.

Aunt Ruth, who never married, spent the middle and later years of her life in New Orleans. As one of the two unmarried sisters of her generation, she cared for her mother, Grandmother Pennebaker. (Did anyone ever really ask these “maiden” women whether they minded sacrificing their lives and ambitions to take care of older family members? I have no idea. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered that the question had been asked — since the answer was already clear: No, of course, an unmarried daughter wouldn’t have had anything better to do than care for others. Why would you even bother to ask?)

Grandmother P was fierce, strong-willed, indomitable, overbearing. She and Ruth lived in a small house crowded with rickety antiques in the Garden District, where they entertained any family members passing through town. Once, my husband and I sat on their patio for hours in the swelter of a summer night, waiting for some legendary flower to bloom. Every few minutes, Grandmother P would blast the darkness with her megawatt flashlight to check on the flower’s progress. We all made idle conversation while we sweated and worked off the indigestion from Grandmother P’s latest culinary disaster. I can’t remember whether the damned flower ever bloomed; Grandmother P only controlled other people, not all of nature.

Whenever Ruth left New Orleans for visits with her brothers and sisters, she drank heavily. No one thought too much about it. The general attitude was, Well, wouldn’t you drink a lot, too, if you had to spend your life with Grandmother Pennebaker? Yes, we all agreed, we’d be passing out under the table.

After Grandmother P died in 1989, just a year short of her 100th birthday, Ruth stayed on in the little house in the Garden District. Around her, houses decayed and crime soared. Every time we talked to her, she complained about social changes that had ruined her city.

When Hurricane Katrina threatened, a nephew tried to spirit Ruth out of town. She refused to budge. The nephew left her with a bathtub full of fresh water, a bottle of gin, and a revolver (this was a woman who wouldn’t have minded shooting someone, I always thought). She survived, along with the house.

Time passed and Ruth declined, losing her memory. The family sold the house and moved her to a retirement home, where she died several days ago.

After Ruth’s death was reported on Facebook, one of her nephews emailed the rest of the family two long papers Ruth had written when she was a beginning nursing student at a big university in the Midwest. She wrote about her childhood in a family of seven children, her parents, her schooling, her strengths, her weaknesses, her dreams.

A part of a life opened up briefly, a glimpse of the young woman Ruth had once been. I don’t think it was a time when everything seemed possible to her — that kind of youth and promise would have belonged to a different kind of person, a different era. But still, you can see she’s at the threshold of something — a career, an adult life, the potential for love. The world was still unfolding in front of her, like the flower Grandmother Pennebaker had commanded to blossom.

In short, we knew so little about her. To the rest of us, she had always been old and alone, she had drunk too much, she had turned cantankerous and forgetful. But once, decades ago, she’d been someone with plans and enthusiasms, trying to plot an independent life for herself.

Henry James famously said we should all seek to be people who observe life so fiercely that nothing is lost on us. But you look around at others’ unknowability and your own blithe and chirpy ignorance — and realize whole lives get lost every day and we never even notice.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about ghosts waiting, cafeteria closed

21 comments… add one
  • It’s always fascinating to learn about people through their writings or photos after they’ve passed away. I mean, people always say, oh, we should get to know people before they die – sit down and listen to their stories and learn about their rich history. But there’s more to it than that. You might live on opposite sides of the country. The other person might not be a great storyteller. It might be tough to carve out time and sit down and then either take notes or record it or remember what they said. I think finding these old notes and letters and papers is a real gift.

    Of course, then that brings up the conundrum of whether to keep our deeply personal journals and diaries for all to see after we perish. Maybe you could write up some thoughts on that, Ruth. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. Should I just start a bonfire with those embarrassing first 50 years of my life?

  • This final paragraph brought a lump to my throat. I can remember, visiting family in Europe at 17 and wondering why in the world a distant cousin, in her forties or fifties, had decided to care for her elderly parents. She had never married, like your Aunt. The post also reminded me of looking at photos of my mother’s aunts and uncles, when I was caring for Mom four years ago. They were young in the photo and had their lives before them at the beginning of the last century. I looked in their faces and wondered what their lives had been like. Oh, we really need to remember to enjoy the moment, don’t we? Thanks for writing these thought-provoking posts …

  • Sheryl Link

    This reminds me of the fact that there is so much that lies beneath the surface. I often look at very elderly people and realize that they once had fulfilling, active lives – certainly not what we are seeing when we look at them now.

  • Craig Link

    I’m sorry to hear of Ruth’s death. When I met her she didn’t seem the maiden aunt, but full of energy and some pretty whacky notions. Now that I’ve become a maiden aunt I can see it’s all a matter of perspective. I recall a dinner at Grandmother P’s when I was served my very first artichoke. I still don’t know how to eat one yet.
    Very nice elegy Ruth.

  • Such an interesting post. I’ve often wondered about family elders life choices, just get snippets here and there. Worked for a time in a retirement facility and so enjoyed the tales the residents would tell me. Some had no family left and so the stories died with them.
    Now that people don’t write on paper or much at all, what will become of their stories?

  • Marie Link

    Wow. Thank you.

  • ” . . . whole lives get lost every day and we never even notice.”

    Wow. I’ll be turning that around in my mind for the rest of the day. This is true, of course, but unsettling to think of all we miss.

  • Cindy A Link

    So true, Ruth. Fifteen years ago, my aunt mentioned that my grandmother had family letters from the Civil War. I had never seen them, but OMG they were amazing, especially the love letters from my Confederate great great grandfather to the target of his affections, my great great grandmother. At any rate, one of the best things I ever did was offer to do a family history for my grandmother (she was in her nineties then). You have never seen a happier old woman to be able to tell about all the things we never knew happened to her. I don’t know about her, but those hours interviewing her were precious to me, and when she died two years later, I was thankful to have spent that time with her. And I learned all kinds of stuff — like all about “going Kodaking” in the 1920s. That’s what a lot of people did on dates — they took Kodak cameras and posed for pictures. All I can say is, based on the dozen pictures of grandma with dapper young men, is that she was way more popular than I ever was!

  • My mother had a couple aunts that sound much like yours. I researched them awhile back and it was so interesting to try to glimpse the world through their eyes. One wanted to marry a young man but he had to move West. He sent for her but her mother wouldn’t allow her to go. I can’t remember all of the details, other than that she was quite a beauty but never married after that. I was watching Fiddler on the Roof the other day and I thought of her and how things have changed.

  • this beautiful post made me ache! My longest-lived relatives were childless women: a spinster (97 yrs. and counting), a widow (96) and a nun (96). What to make of that? A letter was found after my paternal grandmother died in which her brother, a Roman Catholic priest, pleaded with her to visit him by describing his incredibly lonely life. No letters of mine will be discovered. Destroyed my old journals and now journal by writing three lines atop one another. Only Hubby knows I blog and he doesn’t know its name (newspaper-only kinda guy). Ha, my guilty confession: I am a closet-case-writer!

  • Terry Link

    wow…great post.

  • That was wonderful. Life is such a balance — of trying to live out our dreams — and at same time, honoring the choices that we’ve made like having children who need our attention and caring for a spouse. Whatever choices we make, whatever choices are made for us — life is rather short when you look back. I wish Ruth peace in the hereafter.

  • Paige Link

    Another wow…and thank you.

  • I enjoyed reading this very much. I also had an Aunt Ruth (really a great-great aunt), who died when I was a child. I always think of Aunt Ruth as the woman who could wring a chicken’s neck while talking to you nothing was happening. She was from a different time and place and I was just old enough to get to know her during the end of her life.

  • Your aunt Ruth and my husband’s aunt Grace lived almost identical lives. It gave me a shiver to read her story, they are so closely aligned. Grace also never married, she lived in the same house her entire life, she quit her job to care for her mother as she aged. Her two brothers seemed to assume that was her role. Grace loved to travel in her younger years, and talked often of trips taken many many decades earlier. In her later years, she did discover writing in a “scribblers” class she took through a seniors community center. She passed away last July. I have always wondered if any of the family knew the real person.
    Thanks for putting it all into words. Again, you seem to know my thoughts and are able to put them on paper (or computer).

  • I was just thinking about someone who I really want to see who is really getting old, and how out of touch we’ve been lately. I realized this morning that I don’t want to see him again at his funeral. Those lugubrious thoughts and this post make me want to recommit to paying attention to people while they are alive (though the other Ruth sounds like she would have been a hard one to spend much time with). It also makes me think of how in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE they had a “funeral” while Morrie was living so everyone could say the things to him he would not have a chance to hear once he was dead. I sobbed through that book, and the last graph of this post brought a lump to my throat, just like to Alexandra’s.

  • You’ve done your namesake proud, Ruth, and honored and valued her in death in a way it sounds like she never was during her life.

    You remind us all that there may well be a story behind those cantankerous, crotchety, old folks in all our lives.

    And you give a nod to the next generation by noting that they acknowledge such passings on their social media pages.

  • Merr Link

    A lovely post. There is always a “person” behind the “face.” Sometimes it take time to discover that very essence, and sometimes it is a challenge to do so.

  • Ruth, what a lovely tribute. It sounds as though these were not exactly happy women. I’m sure it was very interesting to have a chance to read words written by the other Ruth during her younger years. Thanks for sharing (and making me laugh with your description of Grandmother!).

  • bonehead Link

    Welcome to planet earth.

  • Hello Ruth – I met Lynn Meredith on Friday at the LiveStrong Big C event, and she mentioned this post to me. She thought that you might be interested in knowing about Weeva. We are a place to collect precious family histories and then turn them into gorgeous keepsake books. I’m proud to say that everyone who gets one, loves them! Any chance I could entice you to have a look? You can find us at

    Best – Kim

Leave a Comment