Dipping Into the Diaries Of an Unappreciated Aunt

I did not much care for my Great Aunt Ruth as a child and I made little effort to know her in my adult years, despite her status as the Wunder family matriarch. My objections to Aunt Ruth were inarticulate and had no clear or rational foundation. Our cousin Greer remembers loving her visits, especially an evening when her long white hair, loosed from its myriad pins and clasps, begged combing.

Aunt Ruth's arrival at our home for Thanksgiving or Christmas never delighted me. She would come by bus and stay a few days - days in which I could never quite relax. Her small, but brilliantly black eyes flashed like obsidian diamonds, always, in my mind, asking the same question: Why was I so satisfied with myself? I never found an answer that could content those eyes, and so I kept my distance until she boarded that bus back to Niagara Falls and I could lapse back into grateful complacency with my child's life.

Sometimes certain personalities within families simply off-put others, and my mother seemed to understand this. She tolerated my childish aversion so long as I wasn't rude.

Great Aunt Ruth died when I was in my twenties. I only vaguely remember the news coming to me. Swept up with my own family and career, it seemed of no consequence. And after years of no contact between us, my old discomfort with her had shriveled to an ancient memory.

But I was to meet her again, 16 years later as I curled up in a chair this past holiday season with her diaries. I was visiting my father's sister and family (I am Marylin's niece as she was Ruth's). The diaries came out in a great heavy cardboard box, some 35 years of daily notations up to a half page each, largely written after her retirement as a public school teacher in upstate New York.

I did not expect to find much of interest, but I was wrong. In fact, I spent more time with Ruth over the next couple of days than I had in all the years our lives overlapped. I bent over the pages hour after hour, only half aware of my son's chattering passages across the room.

Ruth's diaries captivated me, lulling in their regularity as she moved from day to day without complaint, apology, or explanation. Something about her measured, matter-of-fact life struck a cord with me now - in part because of the occasional references to myself and my immediate family. To appreciate pattern you have to live one, and as a dairy farmer, I do. As regularly as I milk the cows, Great Aunt Ruth tended her own chores, within and without the second-story apartment in her quiet residential neighborhood.

From this small domain she could keep watch over the local birds, dogs, and children, the weather and her own garden plot, and she kept meticulous track of all but the wide-roving children. Her daily spreading of seed, plucking of beans from the vine, hand washing, mail in and letters out, all entered her diary each night. I felt a rush of gratitude to my mother for her strict rules regarding thank-yous. Aunt Ruth recorded receiving a note after each of my childhood birthdays, thanking her ''for the $2.'' I must have balked at their writing, but it was strangely gratifying to see them acknowledged in the diary year after year.

If she sensed my distaste for her, she never reveals it in these pages, and sometimes refers to me fondly as Susie-Q. I've always disliked that pet name, but here it is welcome evidence that she hadn't read my innermost thoughts - or, if she had, did not nurse a grudge.

The absence of analysis, judgment, or even much curiosity regarding any of us within her family, despite ripe and fertile materials for all three, lend the diaries a quaint, distant air. They breathe the innocence of an untroubled and not unwelcomed solitude, almost wholly devoted to uncomplicated minutiae.

Once, she came to cook and care for my father, my sister, and myself, while my mother and younger brother made a trip to visit her parents in another state. These days, like all others, would be chronicled in Ruth's diary. An old image bubbled up from that time.

I had just come up the stairs to my room and saw the bathroom door open. Great Aunt Ruth was bent over the sink, washing underwear. As she lifted and squeezed the garments, I saw they were my sister's and mine! Horrified and embarrassed, I quickly sidled into the bedroom Barb and I shared and closed the door. ''Do you know what she's doing?'' I hissed. ''Doesn't she know we have a machine?''

I telephoned my mother from my aunt and uncle's home to confirm the year and month that Great Aunt Ruth had been left in charge. Armed with dates, I quickly found the memory-affirming words in the diary: ''Washed girls' underwear.''

Epochal events for my immediate family enter the diary, intruding among Ruth's habitual rituals, but not disrupting them. Ruth did not skirt, sugarcoat, or dramatize any experience; she simply laid it out.

I have tried to keep a personal diary at times, but always quit after a few pages, dissatisfied. Either I slipped into a puffed-up analysis of happenings, or left blank page after page when nothing seemed to be happening. Great Aunt Ruth bequeathed me nothing in her will but belatedly leaves me this - the assurance that stitching a daily pattern of simple, forthright words becomes a great act of creation over time. Aunt Ruth's diaries evoke her life.

If it was not a remarkable one, neither was it one her kin can lightly dismiss, as I once did. The diaries do not permit it.

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