Remember this photo from the other day? My Great-aunt Nora, my grandmother, and my Great-aunt Ruth in the middle dressed in white. Christmas 1917.
Now we have this — taken same day, same location, when Ruth’s daughter Myrl was around two years old and my Uncle Ed maybe seven or eight and already missing his right eye. Until my dad came along several years later, they would be the only children of their family generation. There were eleven years between the two brothers, so they didn’t become friends until they were adults.
Ruth’s life took twists and turns from early on, and at no time did she adopt the quiet lifestyle of her two sisters. She instead embraced the 1920s, transitioning quickly from the chaste white dress to flapper gear more suited to The Party, wherever it happened to be. A happy Ruth …
My grandma, who lived past 95, told me endless stories about life in the late 1800s and on, but I don’t remember her going into detail about why Myrl was raised by her Aunt Nora instead of her mother. There are bits and pieces we could combine in formulating answers, but as in all things there are nuances to be taken into account. Fortunately I have an inside track and a fact or two at my disposal. 1) As far as I could discern, not having really known them until they were what I thought of as old, my grandma and Great-aunt Nora, having been raised in challenging circumstances brought about primarily by their alcoholic father, were straight-laced to the max. 2) I heard mention of drinking when Grandma did talk about Aunt Ruth’s life, which would probably have required the equivalent of endless come-to-Jesus talks, but their objections to her lifestyle tell us nothing about Ruth’s feelings or her capacity for maternalism. My guess is that Grandma and Aunt Nora offered to keep Myrl at every opportunity and gradually made that a permanent arrangement, Nora thus getting the child she never had despite two marriages (more stories, kids), and Ruth getting what she, maybe, wanted in the first place, which was simply the freedom to be. That’s the trouble with photographs … they can tell us only so much. Ruth was the baby, spoiled and indulged by her older sisters, and she came along just as social mores were evolving ahead of the more devil-may-care attitudes of the Roaring 20s. The comparative drudgery and boredom of her growing-up years no doubt quickly lost out and fell away in the face of NEW, FUN, HAPPY, EXCITING! By the time I was conscious that I had a Great-aunt Ruth, she was older, ill, married to the last of a series of hard-drinking men, although Uncle Erv did treat her like she was made of glass. Her laugh, which she never lost, sounded like that same glass breaking, and I instinctively loved her. Life ended up costing her dearly … but that’s a story for another day.
Mesa, Arizona, in the late 1990s. Me holding Merle’s dog Su-Ming, my dad, and feisty Merle, who at some point shed the old Myrl and moved on under her own terms. She was a party girl like her mama, but smarter about it, turning the discovery that her husband was a serial cheater into a flush retirement. By this time Uncle Ed had passed away, so Daddy and Merle were the only remaining direct connections to my grandparents and their era. Merle loved to laugh, she loved people, she loved family, she loved her little dog … and everything was “Oh, kid!” followed by delighted laughter. My favorite story was about the times a neighbor would pick her up from Aunt Nora’s house and then go get her mother. As Aunt Ruth was walking to the car, dark-haired little Myrl would giggle and shout at her “You tan’t fit, Roofie, you got too big a BUTT!!”
There are a million ways to make life work and it’s a bonus to come from hardy people who knew about some of those ways. I’m in their debt but that isn’t how they saw it — they were simply surviving, in the end doing as well as anybody at that and hanging onto a healthy sense of humor through it all. They’d be genuinely happy to know they left a mark.