This last Saturday, the family was helping Catherine and me move. I picked up the old Royal typewriter that I'd kept since my childhood and showed it to Kathy. It put me in mind of her practice of letting 2-year-old Kenton type away at an old computer keyboard while she was at work in her home office. This is exactly what I used to do with my great aunt Ruthie, and this was the typewriter she let me use.
That typewriter, that day, became my madeleine. I wept and heaved in my wife's arms. Catherine and I had been living in this duplex for two years, I alone for three years before that. My great aunt and great uncle built it in nineteen sixty-two, to live the rest of their days together, brother and sister. It was only a few feet from where I was standing that I'd sat in Ruthie's entry/office and played. And today, the Brake family would be leaving this place forever. The whole day I was teary-eyed, pondering what these stones mean.
It was like saying goodbye to Ruthie and Howard all over again. They'd died when I was a boy, and Mom and Dad were the age I am now. Small as I was, though, I remember so much so vividly. Often when I pulled into their driveway I remembered pulling in in Ruthie's old sky-blue Cadillac and finishing our ice cream cones and listening to some elevatorish version of "The Alley Cat" on her eight-track player. I remember sitting on Howard's couch, right where Rich sat just the other day playing with his nephew, having a very serious discussion about whether you could hold your breath with your mouth open. Howard was saying you couldn't, but I thought you could, just by closing your glottis. I showed him, and invited him to put his finger in my mouth to test for wind. He did, but his finger jittered over to the side of my mouth and that grossed him out. Somewhere out there in this vast universe, he still doesn't believe me.
They were bachelor and bachelorette. Ruthie had a years-long thing with a leathery old rancher named Carl, but never married him. Howard, as far as I know, never had a romantic attachment. Since a few years after he died I've used his wonderful old four-poster bed, so high you have to crawl up into it; solid as ever, it's the one Catherine and I still use. I remember when I first moved into his old place, putting my Bay Rum right where he'd kept his, moving his bed back to where he'd had it. I'd just broken up with a wonderful woman, continuing a pattern of rejecting seemingly perfect women one after another. I lay in that bed and wondered whether I would become my uncle Howard, smart and peculiar and fun and alone.
But things changed. Just a few months after I moved into that place, I met Catherine. How I wish Ruthie and Howard could have known her! She would know them so well, I think, having already met them through me. I've always felt, for some reason, that I'm their inheritor in a way others in my family aren't. Probably everyone feels that way: it's called personal fable. But there they sit in my memory, living a short distance off society's socioeconomic grid, spontaneous and traveled and poor-but-rich, and getting their hands into a little of everything. I'm conscious of the role they played in my life, and I've tried to play that role for my nieces and nephews.
I remember Howard's "mmmmMellum" as he answered his phone; I remember his favorite introduction to verbal paragraphs, the mock-pompous "Inasmuch as, considering the facts of the case..."; I remember Ruthie's love of Oriental art and design, and of beauty of all kinds; I remember her giving voice to the statues and figurines in her house (the old Chinese man said "Oong-chong, oong-chong, oong-chong-lo," linguistically and politically incorrect, but unforgettable in that rusty merry voice); I remember Howard's jaundiced complexion and his baggy old-man pants.
He was an award-winning horticulturist; she was the first woman in Texas to get a Master's degree. They were just about everything you'd want in an aunt and uncle: open-minded, always loving, eccentric, generous. They made one tiny corner of the world a better place. And for five years I lived with their ghosts. Farewell, Ruthie and Howard.