As we enter the Christmas season, with all the commercial focus, I would like to talk to you about the greatest gift of all, not only to receive, but to give. The gift of oneself. This is a story about my Aunt Ruth.
We have a big family reunion every year in Jewett, Ill., which none of you have ever heard of, but it is a small town in southern Ill. The family reunion has been going on there annually for about 70 years, give or take. My grandmother had it in the early days, and as she was nearing death, she passed the baton to Aunt Ruth, her daughter, who was one of her twelve chldren. Aunt Ruth promised never to let the family reunion die. It hasn’t. Now Aunt Ruth is gone, and we are fortunate to have all the memories of her, who she was, what she was, how she lived, gave, persevered, and triumphed over each challenge and tragedy of her life.
What I got from Aunt Ruth cannot be measured in monetary terms, but in human terms. The gifts I got from her were lessons in life. Not because she was one to sit and lecture, for I never remember her ever doing this, but by example.
She married young, and during the early part of her marriage her husband went blind. It happened over a very short period of time. Since Uncle Oscar was a farmer, and they were to eventually have 8 children, the staggering weight to provide for the family fell to Aunt Ruth. The boys farmed, and the girls worked the gardens, the house, the meals, etc. Aunt Ruth took in ironing to make a little extra money. I remember she would iron a whole heaping basket of clothes for a dollar. They grew most of their food and livestock. My memories are memories of observation. When we went to visit, Aunt Ruth would go out in the chicken yard, wring a chicken’s neck, come in and scald it to get the feathers loose, pluck it, gut it, cut it up and cook it. So it went from one alive hen to the table in the course of an hour or so. I never saw her use a cookbook or labor over how to do anything. Her hands flew. There was much work to do, and she never ceased. Her sunup to sundown work was her life and she never questioned it.
One morning, she got up and was holding her little boy, Huey, plus tending the youngest baby when she noticed Huey coughing. He seemed to be having respiratory problems, which she attributed to the fireplace smoke. Uncle Oscar held little Huey in the afternoon and evening until he died in his arms. He died of Diptheria. It was a story that I had thought of many times, and one day, set out and drove the 4 HOURS to her house just to talk to her about little Huey and to hear her first-hand account. So many years had passed. I thought that it would not be too intrusive to ask. When we were alone, I told her I wanted to talk to her about something, and I asked her about Huey. She was sitting in a rocker with her sewing across her lap, and she explained it to me. “Well,: she said, “I just kept going.” Those four words have never left me. It seemed to me that all the problems in life are usually taken care of by the act of just keeping going. A little later on, she said to me, ” I had other children and a husband to take care of. I could not stop”. So that was the result of what I thought would be a lengthy, perhaps tearful evening, of talking about the baby dying. How wise and brief it all turned out to be.
She never accepted government money of any kind to assist her with her large family and blind husband. She did it on her own, with the help of her children. There was a great deal of respect shown in that household. I never saw anyone have to be disciplined. The “decor” was of whatever could be found, and I remember so well the prizes her sons won at the fair, decorating her tables. You know, those cupie dolls and such? Those were her fond things to be displayed. There was no inside bathroom for many years, and she made her own quilts for bed coverings.
Uncle Oscar finally had to be put in a nursing home about 5 miles from Jewett. Aunt Ruth made her daily journey to visit Uncle Oscar every day. She found time to go and be with him long after he failed to recognize her or anyone else. She patiently fed him and patted him and bathed him. She loved him. He lived for many years with her quiet attendance. One time I went with her to the nursing home, and I wondered in my heart what kept her going back when there was no return of her affections. Then, as we walked through the halls, towards Uncle Oscar’s room, I noted that every face of every patient in the hallway, in wheelchairs, on sofas, or in rooms, brightened when she passed. She would hand each a little something that she had baked, patted a shoulder, would smile, and gave encouragement to each one. The staff looked forward to her coming. It was another “lesson” I learned from her that day.
There are so many things that I could say about this kind, humble, steadfast woman. She gave the greatest gift of all. She gave herself. Just to be around her, and watch her, and learn from her, were the gifts she gave me. I am grateful to have known her and to have been able to have observed her, for she taught by example, although she didn’t realize it. It would never have occurred to her that she was a teacher.
The last time I saw her was at a family reunion. She came to me and said, ” You will not see me again. I will die before the next reunion.” This took me so by surprise because she wasn’t sick. It’s true that she was in her 80’s, perhaps early 90’s, but was not infirm. I held my tongue from dismissing what she had told me, and listened. She told me her time was almost gone, and that she wanted to tell me good-bye. I reached to her and hugged her closely, and then she moved on, to tell the next person good-bye.
Aunt Ruth died a few months later. She was such an inspiration for me my whole life and her simple truths were blessings to me. Money and power, and position meant nothing to her. She was doing God’s work. It was as simple as that to her.
As we go about our shopping and our rush to Christmas, please take a moment to think of Aunt Ruth and put into perspective what is really important. Consider what your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews will learn from you. Aunt Ruth gave the greatest of all gifts, for she gave the gift of herself.
Blessings to all my Waynedale friends,