Pondering the Pavement

January 10, 2015

Ruth’s Rainbow

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18410007_mMy mother saves pretty much everything. Asking her to part with a pack of shoestrings or a mismatched handful of thumbtacks is the equivalent of spontaneously listing the highlights of the presidential administration of Millard Fillmore: It’s a noble and even challenging endeavor but it’s just not gonna happen. “I’ll be able to use that one of these days,” she’ll say. So the item is filed away again until some yet undetermined later date when a use can be found. While not proven, I am fairly confident that Amelia Earhart’s plane is tucked away somewhere in the back of my mother’s hall closet.

While rummaging through a few boxes my mother had tucked away for some future archeologist, I recently found the remnants of one of my first grade art projects. It was a large sheet of manila paper, now yellowed and brittle with age (much like myself, whereas I’ve gotten fatter and the sheet of paper seems to be the same size). I had cut two pictures of a car, front and rear views, from some long forgotten magazine and glued them on the piece. The front view, over the years, had fallen off and gone on its merry way, leaving only an ancient dried glue Rorschach test in its place. A band of blue sky was scribbled in crayon across the top of the sheet, a blazing yellow sun beaming from one corner. The empty space between the blue sky and the cars was dotted with a healthy dose of “M” birds in a rainbow of Crayola colors. Beneath it, in black crayon, I scrawled:

RainbowGraphic

Dorothy Parker moved down a chair as I laid claim to my rightful place at the Algonquin Roundtable.

Ruth&CAF

My first photo op with Aunt Ruth, August 1961.

“Her graham cracker pie is the best.” There’s a sentence that’s simplistic in both structure and truth. The truth is always simple. It’s just the way things are. Trust me when I tell you her graham cracker pie was truly the best, hands down. And it, too, was very simple. It consisted of a homemade graham cracker crust which was finely crumbled and held together with melted butter. The pie shell was then packed with a rich, sugary vanilla pudding filling. This round batch of gooey goodness was then topped with a billowing mile-high mound of homemade meringue light enough to host a communal congregation of cherubs. The meringue was browned oh-so-slightly and speckled with little beads of vanilla. My aunt told me the vanilla was “little dots of heaven” and I had no reason to disbelieve her. Everything she created included a little dash of heaven.

Aunt Ruth’s kitchen was an odd vortex, a window into another realm. It was a tiny room, so small you had to look at it twice to make sure you saw it. But whatever she conjured up in that small space was large enough to nourish a Kingdom and its surrounding territories…and, honestly, it often did. Her sugar cookies danced like the Rockettes on your tongue. Each and every one tasted of sheer synchronized perfection. Her chicken pot pie was so astonishingly good that, after years without it, I finally broke down and asked her to send me the recipe. She was tickled pink that I asked and promptly popped it out in the mail. When I opened the envelope I discovered it neatly written on a white index card that boasted a heading across the top: “From the Kitchen of Aunt Ruth.” That was so her. Things had to be done a certain way, the right way, and everything with a little flourish.

My favorite culinary nirvana that emitted from Aunt Ruth’s kitchen (other than her graham cracker pie, of course, which was so good it deserved its own “best of” list on which it was the only entry) was a delectable little morsel she simply called “brown noodles.” What’s that, you ask? Egg noodles cooked in beef broth. That’s it. Seriously, that’s all there was to it. Just egg noodles and broth. But you know what? Only she could make it right. My grandmother made them for me once and it just wasn’t the same. I don’t know HOW one can screw up cooking noodles in beef broth but it happened. My grandmother cooked it and it was “meh.” My aunt cooked it and my tummy petitioned to have a national holiday named in her honor. She had a knack, a special touch perhaps, that defies description.

Again, Aunt Ruth always wanted things to be done in a very specific way. She was always striving to make something lovely even more so. And not just in the kitchen. No, her abilities expanded well beyond the boundaries of the kitchen. While a lone flower can enhance a vase on a table just imagine what a handful of carefully arranged flowers would do! If you gave her a few strands of hay, some sticks and a bucket she would walk away with a beautiful bouquet while anyone else would just have a mound of mangy mulch. A new pair of shoes can accent an outfit but toss in a purse and matching earrings and you’ve got a fashion statement! The lady had style. She had a certain look about her and it spread to anything and everything she enhanced along her way. She could have marked her handiwork by posting a sign reading “RUTH WAS HERE” but it wasn’t necessary. You just knew.

If my aunt and uncle’s home was a living, breathing entity, then the kitchen was the heart. Its pulse could be felt, sensed, in every nook and cranny of the house. There’s a seemingly endless stream of photos of family meals. Countless celebrations recounted and collected via Kodak. The flipping of photos gives an astonishing timeline of fashion, family and mashed potato presentation through the decades. While the faces age and styles change, the look of satisfied happiness does not. And, at the center of it all, was the flawless handiwork of my Aunt Ruth.

Everything had to be done just so. Nothing could or would be discarded or dismissed. Just like her sister, everything was useful. And everything had to look a certain way. From table presentation to personal appearance to the placement of refrigerator magnets. There was no escaping it. She herself often admitted her own concern over what others—strangers included—thought about, well, everything that she did, cooked, cleaned or wore. But, with her distinctive style, the only thing anyone could honestly think was, “Wow! That’ the best!”

AuntRuthBirthday_smAunt Ruth was my partner in crime as I was growing up. She would help me sneak surprise holiday gifts for my mom into the house right under Mom’s nose. Mom was often mystified how her 13-year-old son was able to attain items only available from a store 20 miles away. Clearly, I was already flexing my telekinetic muscles. Aunt Ruth would encourage me to try new selections on a menu. She planted the seeds of my odd love of obnoxiously loud shirts. She encouraged my art, my writing, my theater work in high school and college and, eventually, my own mediumship. After seeing me give a mediumship group demonstration for the first time, she said, “You were born to do that, you know? You were just born to do that.” Yup, she got me. I could be myself around her, eccentric faults and all, and never be questioned. She would encourage me to push the envelope in order to pursue my anything-but-normal dreams. Like a home away from home, she was my Mom away from Mom.

My aunt and uncle’s home was the first family home I entered when I was adopted. I was in their living room before the one I would be sharing with my (NEW & IMPROVED!) Mom and Dad. Hers was the second phone number I ever memorized. Some of my fondest memories growing up were when I was allowed to spend a few days with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bill without my mother or grandparents! Oh, the juvenile nirvana! My stays there always had a particular formula: a visit to Hill’s Department Store and Ace Hardware because they had the best toy departments in town. Mom would give me a spending allowance of $3 for these mad shopping binges. Yes, kiddies, you could get some pretty cool stuff for three bucks back in the pre-Amazon days. This venture would be followed by lunch at either a burger joint or pizza place. This was long before ordering mass produced chemically enhanced food through a flashing marquee from the coziness of your SUV. Then we’d go home where we would play whatever game I bought. She would then make dinner while I read a comic book or watched cartoon animals parade across the TV screen (clearly a precursor to what was lurking down the road for me).

UncleBillBirthday_1971smMy uncle, a local truck driver, often worked late. Sometimes he’d have dinner with us, sometimes not. When he’d come home after I had gone to bed, he’d make a point to come into the room I had commandeered, sit on the bed and talk with me about my day, his day and everything in between. I’d enthusiastically gush over all we’d done that day and he was seemingly hanging on my every blabbering word. He, too, always made me feel not just welcome, but one of his own family.

What seemed like such mundane things then now have such great significance. Funny how that happens, huh?

I always loved watching my aunt and uncle together. My parents divorced when I was very young so I didn’t have the experience of growing up in a two-parent household. Although I grew up in my grandparent’s home and saw them together every day, it just wasn’t the same. Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bill were of my mom’s generation so they gave me clearer idea of just how Team Parent worked. My mother had to pull double duty as both mom and dad so I found my aunt and uncle quite intriguing. I often ogled them as if they were my own little science experiment or a set of sea monkeys I could order from an ad in a comic book. They coordinated and worked together as a team with some duties overlapping and others being separate. The raising of the children was, of course, a team effort, as was care of the home. Uncle Bill handled the mind-numbing task of mowing the world’s biggest backyard from my adolescent point of view (I swear it was so big it could have had its own representative in the senate!). While he took great care in keeping a neatly trimmed yard, Aunt Ruth made a point to doll up the interior. The beauty of the home they shared was only enhanced by the same grace and love they had for one another. Sure, they squabbled like any couple, but their love was always evident no matter what the situation. She often referred to him as her sweetheart both before and after his death. She had each and every love letter my uncle had written to her while stationed overseas during WWII. Each one ended longingly with, “PS I Love You.” Even at 95 she would blush like a lovelorn teenager when talking about him.

Uncle Bill left us in 1985. Twenty-nine years later I watched his wife draw her last breath in order to rejoin the sweetheart she’d had since she was 15. A love for the ages if there ever was one.

It was fitting that she left us within the cozy confines of the home she established and ran with such love. It is where she wanted to be and, therefore, we did, too. She was surrounded by those she loved—her son & daughter-in-law, her baby sister, one of her six granddaughters & her husband, and an uncharacteristically quiet nephew donning an Hawaiian shirt that could be heard across the street. She was always one to think of others. She would place the comfort and wants of another ahead of her own. That’s why it is particularly fitting that her final act of coherence was to tell each of us, “I love you.” Once again, she did it her own way. The best way.

Her funeral service was held two days before Christmas in the church she loved nearly as much as her own home. Again, her command of doing things “just so” was fully evident. The sanctuary was decked out in full Christmas Pageantry. The serenity and beauty literally defied description. Rows of red and white poinsettia’s lined the alter. Every single petal was perfectly poised and positioned. The lights twinkled in a silent chorus from upon high. Sunshine glistened brightly through the stain glass windows illuminating the church interior as well as its inhabitants. Everyone was bathed in 61 degree sunlight. Yes, 61 degrees in late December. Unheard of in West Virginia. Leave it to my aunt to arrange the best weather! The service and surroundings were, as she often said, “a picture… it’s just a picture.”

Admittedly, I did not focus on the service itself but, instead, the energies joining us. I know she was there — I cannot tell you how often the guest of honor will give me a review of their own funeral — so I did my best to “listen.” It was, of course, difficult. It’s hard to take a clinical approach to a passing when you have such an emotional investment. At one point, I thought, assumedly to myself, “I wonder what it’s like for her right now…”

As clear as a bell, I “heard” Aunt Ruth’s all too familiar voice. In a tone of absolute awe, she simply said, “It’s a rainbow!” I was so stunned at the clarity that I believe I actually gasped. And then I smiled. Leave it to her to give the best answer.

So, like her graham cracker pie, her attire & attitude, her outlook & outreach, Aunt Ruth is, and shall always be, the best.

Copyright © 2015, Charles A. Filius

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