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Ruth, remembered

Like most of my family, my aunt Ruth was a contrarian. The word my mother always used was difficult, which was a nice way of saying Ruth wasn’t always nice.

When I was in my early 20’s, she sold her home and moved into an apartment. After a pre-purchase inspection revealed some the walls were moldy, I was dispatched to spend the week priming and painting all of the interior walls. Ruth spent most of the day “supervising” me. When she wasn’t reading from one of the large print romance novels she favored, she’d constantly admonish me to avoid spilling the paint.

I’d expected to volunteer my time, so I was surprised at the end of the week when she told me she wanted to pay me for the work I’d done. Standing in her kitchen, surrounded by moving boxes, Ruth pressed two crisp $20 bills into my hand. The money wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of the expensive primer I’d used.

At her funeral my mother pointed out she’d never once heard Ruth say please or thank you.

A noted cook, she and her first husband ran a lunch stand for years, the sort of business that’s all but disappeared now, overrun by franchise fast food places. I’d like to think running her lunch counter, dealing with difficult customers and suppliers day in and day out, while standing on her feet all day, might have toughened her up, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Ruth was an excellent cook, and an ever tougher critic. She’d make her annual appearances at Thanksgiving and Christmas, where she’d hover expectantly in the kitchen, unwilling to help but always willing to offer her pointed observations. Ruth had a tongue sharp enough to cut the toughest steak. She always brought my dad’s favorite Watergate salad, but even that had its limit. She took the leftovers home every year, no matter how much my dad pleaded with her.

It’s tough to memorialize someone like Ruth. She may not have liked us much more than we liked her, but genetics had stuck us together for generations. We didn’t have much to tell Andy, the young, gap-toothed minister who offered to do the service. Andy was unfazed; a veteran of indigent funerals, Andy had already made game plan, right down to the laminated sheets in his binder.

“If I don’t know much about the deceased I usually just go to God’s playbook and talk about Jesus,” Andy said, tapping the bible in front of him.

If anyone knew much about Ruth, it would have been Linda, her near constant companion for the last decade. In the waning years of her life it was Linda who took care of Ruth, driving her to the store, bathing her and helping prepare her meals. When Ruth got tired of spending the holidays at our house, it was Linda who’d pick her up every year and bring her across town for a home cooked meal.

Naturally, Linda bore the brunt of Ruth’s abuse.

The rest of us might have been able to avoid Ruth most of the year, but Linda was stuck with her, so she learned to make the best of it. A tough assignment, but Linda had a secret weapon — humor.

As we worked to clean out Ruth’s apartment in Urbandale, Linda and mom passed the time by “selling” Ruth’s stuff. A voracious Home Shopping Network aficionado, Ruth had a gadget for every use. A mandolin slicer specifically for cutting canned meat? Check. A “magic bullet” blender? Check. Most of these kitchen gadgets were still carefully packed in their original boxes, some had never been opened.  

“You know, out of all the stuff she bought, she only ever returned one thing,” Linda said as she sorted through a box of kitchen gadgets. “She bought a pair of slacks that had a little tiny crease on them, and she was so angry, she sent them back.”

After a blissfully short funeral, we went out for breakfast as a family last week. We never were a big family, and like the Mohicans, there’s only a few of us left. Like Linda, we’ve learned to laugh about it now, too. If you can’t laugh, you’d probably cry.

Contact David Dolmage at

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