My aunt Ruth passed away this week, may she rest in peace. We shared no blood ties: she married my mother’s brother. But the last two weeks, as she completed her transit from this world, my thoughts have returned again and again to her influence in my life, stronger than blood.
Growing up in the fifties, Ruth was the only woman I knew who had her own personal tool kit, who rolled up her sleeves to climb a ladder or crawl under the house, ready to fix whatever needed mending. We lived next door, but her attitude was miles from the women of my household, my mother and grandmother, whose sense of how things work, as with so many women of the time, partook of what the anthropologists call “magical thinking.” How does a lamp shed light? The magical thinker answers, “You plug it in and it just goes.” Ruth was the first woman I encountered who sliced off the plug when the lamp broke, splicing a new one in its place.
In recent years, she and I had long phone conversations about nothing in particular: memories, dreams, our deep, mutual unhappiness with President Bush. Often, Ruth would mention something she enjoyed. She’d had so much fun surfing the Web one night, she told me, she lifted her eyes at last from the screen to find the sun had risen while she wasn’t looking. Spotting the pile of mending in the corner awaiting her needle and thread, she realized that if she let herself spend as much time in front of a computer as she wanted, she’d never get it done. So she turned the computer off.
In mystical Jewish understanding, the original vessels of creation were not strong enough to contain Divine light in its fullness, so they shattered. We are born into a broken world of shards and sparks and our task is to repair it. As is written in Pirke Avot (“Sayings of the Fathers,” a compilation of ancient wisdom that appears in many Hebrew prayerbooks), “It is not given to you to complete the task, but neither may you desist from it.” We are always mending, and when our short lives end, a pile of mending remains undone. Ruth and I shared that, an eye for what is broken and a determination to mend, and I thank her for it.
On my last birthday, Ruth left a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday” on my voice mail, giving it a big Ethel Merman finish, as she always did. I’ve been writing a book about art lately, and I thought of something I’d quoted from my friend Liz Leman. She was writing about dance, but I think it applies much more broadly:
For me, an excellent dance performance includes the following: the dancers are 100 percent committed to the movement they are doing; they understand why they are doing what they are doing. And something is being revealed in that moment: something about the dancer or about the subject, about the relationship of the dancers or about the world in which we live.
Ruth had that commitment, a quality of enthusiasm, an embrace of life, that was contagious. I remember years ago, reading Madame de Stael’s defense of enthusiasm and wondering what the fuss was about. But when I think of that birthday phone call from Ruth, I see what Madame de Stael meant when she wrote, “Enthusiasm gives life to what is invisible; and interest to what has no immediate action on our comfort in this world.” To the extent I am able to wrench my attention away from my kvetches and aim it squarely at the world around me, I thank Ruth for her influence.
When we lose someone, we are sad because that person can no longer taste the pleasures of life, sad for that person’s suffering. But we also think of our own loss. Ruth was the last person alive who had known me my whole life, from the day of my birth. As I say goodbye to her, I feel the sadness of a border being crossed, of known territory left behind. May her soul rise to the highest heights and may her memory be a blessing to all who knew her face.