CHOLAME, California. June 8. Great Aunt Ruth tells me she remembers meeting me the one and only time we had seen each other before — at the farm where she and her family lived in Arkansas. “I looked down at you, and you looked up at me,” she said, “and I said to myself: ‘now here’s a good boy.'”
I was one year old.
43 years later, I meet her for the first time as an adult.
Aunt Ruth is the youngest of eleven children, the only surviving member of my grandmother’s family. She holds court in her rocking chair in the ranch house on the olive orchard where my dad’s cousin Peggy and her husband live. She rocks back and forth, surrounded by family, friends and children, the day after Peggy’s celebration of 50 years of marriage to husband Bud.
I’ve been looking forward to meeting Aunt Ruth for years, and I can tell when I walk in the room, that she is also excited to meet me.
I kneel down to her and sit next to her in the rocking chair, speaking in one ear, telling her how nice it is to see her. She grins, pulls my face close to hers, touches her forehead to mine. As a camera clicks, she puts a hand on my cheek.
At 93, and after several health problems, she can’t get around much. A hearing aid in one ear compensates for near deafness, and her radiant and gentle blue eyes only see outlines and shapes. But her spirit is a vibrant force. Peggy (in the photo with us here) and a network of friends and helpers take very good care of her. As I hold her soft hand in mine, I can see she has perfectly manicured nails.
She wears long strands of yellow and red plastic beads over an embroidered sweatshirt.
We reminisce about family. I ask her if she remembers her daughter’s wedding 50 years before. “Sure I do,” she says. “I remember baking the cake.”
I tell her of my fond memories of the German chocolate cakes my grandmother — her sister Lillian — used to make.
She tells me I look like a Weaver, the surname of her clan. She looks very much like my grandmother who passed away when I was about nine.
“I’m 93,” she says. “It’s rough and a little lonely. There’s no one to turn to.”
“Certainly no one who understands what it’s like to be 93,” I say.
She smiles and grips my hand tighter. “Yes,” she says, “that’s it.”
My mom says the trip when I was a year old and met Aunt Ruth (a side trip during a whirlwind to Texas and back) was most memorable because I got car sick and threw up a lot. On mom. In the car.
Mom also said my sister and I were mad because she wouldn’t let us go walking in the fields at Aunt Ruth’s farm in Arkansas — because of the copperhead snakes and the foul-tempered fighting roosters that Uncle Archie used to raise. We didn’t stay long, because, true to form, we had to get on the highway. So I could vomit on mom.
Dad (pictured with me at Peggy & Bud’s 50th) remembers the vomit, too. It’s one of those family stories. Like when my sister, unattended at age four, got scissors and cut off all her pretty curls. Like the time when dad fell asleep while babysitting me, and I was found by a neighbor, diaper-less, walking buck naked near the road.
Guess my wanderlust began early. Though I do manage to keep my clothes on these days.
Tired out from the attention from the children, who I doubt had ever seen someone her age, Aunt Ruth moves to her bedroom, and I go in to say my goodbyes. We chat for several minutes. I tell her I’m going to see my friend who’s a stand-up comic.
“Oh,” she says, “has he heard this one?”
And she proceeds to tell me jokes. She gets winded and has to take her time. The punchlines get lost. But I get the gist and laugh along with her. I tell her one of my favorites:
Why don’t cannibals eat clowns?
Because they taste funny.
She laughs. We sit a while longer. Then it’s time to go.
I drive up the California coast toward San Francisco, awestruck by the scenery, grinning the while, so happy to have met my Great Aunt. Great in so many ways.