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