“Just believe,” I implored my Auntie Ruthe. We were religious people – mostly of Finnish descent. Growing up Laestadian Lutheran in Phoenix, Arizona was my culture of origin. Church was our world, and our families all belonged to ‘the church.’ Church life meant not only attending regularly, but also abiding by social codes that were instructed to us in both Finnish and English. I knew no different, and our faith discouraged questioning, or ‘doubting’ its teachings. So when my Auntie Ruthe ‘gave up her faith,’ I was sad. I wanted her to belong to the community with the rest of us, not be an outsider. It wasn’t her disability that made her an outsider in my mind; it was her opting out of the church. So it meant a lot to me, as her admiring niece, to know that she was one of us.
But she was one of us. She never wasn’t. And when she rejoined the church eventually, it didn’t validate her as a person. Her membership was not needed to grant her some status of belonging to the community, or our hearts. She was, and always be, with us always. We love you, Auntie Ruthe!
My remaining images of my beloved Auntie Ruthe are the way her face looked when she smiled at me, her elegant, arthritic hands that wove and stitched wonderful jewelry, her graceful poise as she sat in church, her gentle presence that radiated peace toward all, and the way she never complained about anything, so I always saw her as more than her struggles – but as a beautiful, smiling, loving transcendent spirit.
I still have a piece of jewelry that she made me. It is an owl macramé, kept in my jewelry box. It has escorted me on every move and been in my belongings through every part of my life since it was gifted to me. It is in the good company of the lovely letters I opened joyfully right from the mailbox, written on good stationary with artistic handwriting. Besides this photo and hymn book covers, they are the only tangible things left. But there are many more keepsakes that make up a collage of many splendid colors in my soul. My Auntie Ruthe loved me so much that she made life seem magical.
When she was at the end of her journey with Rheumatoid Arthritis, her kidneys shut down. I saw her for the last time in her hospital bed in Michigan. Unconscious and still, but exuding the same grace, she slipped away from us in physical form. I knew it was in vain when I talked about what we would do when she recovered. Maybe we would sing together or laugh about life. Go out for lunch or explore a museum. Amuse ourselves waiting for paratransit to finally show up for us. Sit by a duck pond. Anything as long as we were together. I kissed her forehead and soaked in the feeling of being with her. And without saying goodbye, I exited the room.
The little girl who met you when very small is a child anew when I think of you…..I shall not wish to bid you farewell, when you are so near me forever – in every song, smile, and bit of human elegance….