Last week, my college friend Henry Holcomb asked, “Any regrets?” when we spent the day together in Pennsylvania. He referred to my big dreams of a New York journalism career, which I walked away from when I met Lev.
“No,” I replied without hesitation.
“Why not?” he persisted.
I told him about my Aunt Ruby and her Bible.
When I visualized my mother, the first image that always came to mind was of her with her worn Bible across her knees, index cards and pencil at hand, preparing her Sunday School lesson—in her chair in the den at night while Daddy read the evening paper and listened to the radio (and later watched television), at the Laundromat while she waited for her washing to be done, or at the kitchen counter when she took a break from her household chores.
Her old King James Version Bible was falling apart, the spine of its cheap leatherette cover peeling off, pages spilling out. But she treasured it because it had belonged to her beloved Aunt Ruby, a spinster who spent her entire life on the family farm. On the flyleaf of her Bible Aunt Ruby had written,
“Whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. Philippians 4:11”
When she died in 1945, her bachelor brother Rod, who lived on the farm with her, gave Mama her Bible.
Mama must have introduced me to that verse and to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi shortly afterwards, because it was a verse, a family story, and a lesson that I could not remember ever not knowing. It was the verse that has made widowhood bearable, even good.
Aunt Ruby’s page-one obituary in the Magnolia, Mississippi, newspaper on February 22, 1945, provided a succinct summary of her life.
Miss Ruby Roberts,
Passes Mon. Evening
The death angel visited the Roberts home just east of Magnolia on Monday evening at 6:30 and bore away the gentle spirit of Miss Ruby Roberts, one of the community’s most beloved Christian women….
She was 73 years old, and was the daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Roberts, a devout Christian couple who came to this community about fifty years ago. Miss Ruby was born in St. Helena Parish in Louisiana before coming to this vicinity. The family lived a few miles west of Magnolia on what later became the Lenoir place for ten years, and then moved just east of Magnolia and established a home, where Mr. and Mrs. Roberts lived with their large family until their deaths. There Miss Ruby and her brother, Mr. Rod Roberts, have lived ever since.
Miss Ruby was a fine Christian character, and it can truthfully be said that a Good Woman has gone to her reward. She was a devout member of the Magnolia Baptist church, which she joined about fifty years ago. She had a quiet and unassuming manner, but she accomplished much good by her ministrations to her family and friends….
Ruby was the oldest of thirteen children, the one ordained to stay home and help her mother in the house and garden and chicken yard. She helped tend the younger children from a very early age. Only four married. She cooked, cleaned, washed, and cared for the rest of them and her aging parents until her death.
Mama loved the farm and spent as much time there as possible when she was growing up. I have vague memories of our last visit after Aunt Ruby’s death. The old, unpainted house finally had electricity, and Uncle Rod was proud of the new modern stove. But the house still had no indoor plumbing, and I was introduced to the outdoor privy and taught to pump water.
Mama described Aunt Ruby as an intelligent, competent, loving woman. That single verse written on the flyleaf—“Whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content”—summed up her life. Through faith and focusing on others, she was able to accept her circumstances with grace and dignity. She was able to find a purpose, perhaps even a calling for her life. While she did not write the other key verse from Philippians 4 on the flyleaf, her life was evidence that she absorbed its meaning: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Aunt Ruby did not claim to accept her narrow circumstances on her own strength. She understood that her contentment was a gift of God. In her faith she found the strength to keep on keeping on.
These were our family roots. Our parents absorbed the values lived out on that hardscrabble acreage, and—in the Southern tradition of storytelling—they taught us our family history and transmitted those values. In the way they lived their lives, in their calm acceptance of their modest circumstances, in their strength, and in their faith, they were unforgettable role models.
Excerpt from Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows
Photo: Aunt Ruby, kneeling, left, with a niece and sister, at the family farm near Magnolia, MS, ~1910.