• Oct 29 2012 12:00AM It's a Woman's World By Auntroofie

    It’s a Woman’s World

    By: Ruth Wertzberger Carlson

    In memory of Ruth Kuhl Kuhlmann (1917-2012)

    We called her Auntie Mame because our Aunt Ruth reminded us so much of the flamboyant Rosalind Russell in the movie by that name. Ruth Kuhl Kuhlmann had an adventurous spirit, a contagious laugh, an easygoing attitude, and a flair for fashion that inevitably included scarves.

    She was exotic compared to the moms we knew. First of all she worked! In the 1960’s Midwest no mom worked unless her husband had died. Aunt Ruth loved ordering, managing and selling the cosmetics and gift section of the Rexall drug store in Melrose, Minnesota, while her husband Ed was the only pharmacist in this tiny town.

    Her backyard had a French style white iron patio table instead of the regular picnic tables we had in Iowa, a sunken living room and a 60’s style huge round clock surrounded by triangles. She married later in life and had our cousin Edie at age 45... unheard in the 60’s. Even the way she talked was special, “Isn’t this bee-you-tee-full” she’d exclaim often because she never took happy times for granted.

    Ruth grew up in Dubuque, Iowa during the Great Depression and her older brothers worked to support her and her seven siblings. For weeks all the family had to eat was bean soup and peanut butter was a luxury. Sisters Rosie, Ruth (my mom) and Angie all slept in one bed. Ruth, who was eight years older than Rosie, was not happy when her younger sister let her best friend sleep over, making it four girls in a lumpy bed. With their age difference Rosie said Ruth was like her doll. When Dubuque held a contest to choose a girl most resembling Shirley Temple, Ruth twisted rags in mom’s wet hair overnight so she’d have curls in the morning. She dressed Rosie up in one of the few dresses she owned and trotted her out on stage to sing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” My tone deaf, brunette mother did not win, but it was a story Ruth dined on for years.

    Despite tight finances, my grandparents somehow found the money to send their girls to the Immaculate Conception Academy. Nuns ran this Catholic high school for girls and their idea of sex education was advising young ladies not to kiss anyone till they married, to always double date, and if they had to sit on a boys lap in a car to put a telephone book in between them.

    During World War II Ruth dated a soldier so the Clubs in Dubuque gave her the best tables and she lit up the dance floor jitterbugging. Unfortunately there were so many men after her she sent the soldier a Dear John letter. Rosie, who looked up to her big sister, said Ruth could have any man she wanted. A dentist was after her! That was the jackpot in small town Iowa. But Ruth stayed single for a long time, and left her hometown of Dubuque to move to the big city of Minneapolis. She acted in plays and modeled fur coats until the manager hit on her.

    Finally Ruth settled down and married Ed Kuhlman. As she said, “A Kuhl woman married a Kuhlman.” Ed was the kindest, most gentle man you’d ever meet. Together they opened up the Rexall drugstore in Melrose. Ruth loved working so much she quit at age 88. One time the Coen movie director brothers came into her store and left without Ruth realizing who they were. When another customer told her, she was outraged. “They didn’t buy a thing!” she exclaimed.

    Later Ruth and Rosie became best friends and the big sis was always looking out for my mom. When my dad came over to pick Rosie up for a date, Ruth shoved her father in the closet because he was drunk. “Who’s coming over, the Governor of California?” asked Granddaddy. When Rosie married, money was still tight, so Ruth lent her wedding dress.

    Every summer Ed and Ruth were generous enough to let my family of ten children invade their lake cabin in Minnesota. We loved seeing our cousins Paul, Edie and Augie. Uncle Ed’s brother had a cabin next door and we swooned over his son’s, who were tan, fit college students that took us water skiing.

    The adults started drinking the “martoonies” (as they referred to martinis) right at five o’clock and one night, after Ruth had a few, she decided to play a prank on her brother-in-law's son who had experienced some wild times in San Francisco. Ruth ran in the house put on some jeans, a floppy hat, huge sunglasses, a daisy behind one ear and in her bare feet against a large pine tree. “Hello,” she called in a falsetto voice. He looked up nervously. “Come here, don’t you remember me?” Nervously he approached the strange woman while she kept talking. By this time my parents were doing their best not to laugh out loud. “Remember San Francisco? I’ve come to see you.” He stammered and looked scared to death that she was going to tell him she was pregnant. Finally my parents started guffawing and Ruth took off her that and sunglasses. He didn’t think it was too funny, but only Aunt Ruth could pull off playing a 20-year- old when she was middle-aged.

    While the girls dove in the lake from the end of the dock, Rosie and Ruth dangled their feet in the water, wearing shower caps to protect their perfectly coiffed aqua net dos from splashes. They took the opportunity to give us wise advice such as: “Its just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man,” “Why would a man buy the cow when he can get the milk for free,” “Anyone can get married,” and “Go to college so you can work in case your husband dies.” And my favorite, Aunt Ruth’s phrase, “It’s a woman’s world!” It was the start of “women’s lib” and Ruth was already living it, working and taking care of her children.

    Ruth was also different because she traveled…buying a leather (leather!) coat in Spain and visiting Hong Kong when her husband attended a pharmacy convention. Of course with Ruth there was always drama. She accidently set the curtain on fire ironing. The manager came in, saw all of Ed’s asthma medicine and accused them of being drug smugglers. Ruth yelled back that their curtains were flammable and a danger to guests. As usual with men, the manager backed down to Ruth.

    When Ed died, Ruth continued traveling alone, visiting us in San Francisco where she enjoyed tea dancing at the Hyatt, seeing her daughter and her new granddaughter Nicole in London, coming to my sister Carrie’s wedding in Monterey and taking a church led tour of Jerusalem.

    Ruth had a sense of adventure, which my mom did not always appreciate. Once she decided to surprise my mom by showing up unexpectedly at our home in Dubuque. My mom, still in her robe, opened the door, turned around without a word, and went upstairs to her bedroom. She calmed down soon enough but there was nothing Rosie disliked more than having company see a messy house, even though Ruth kept protesting “But I’m your sister, not company!”

    Ruth and Rosie’s favorite activity was bargain shopping…my mom called it entertainment. Sometimes Rosie asked me to help her hide some of the bargains in the closet so my dad didn’t see them. Shopping must be in our genes since my five sisters and cousin Edie recently get together often to scour the Union Square stores on San Francisco for treasures.

    Ruth and Rosie were very religious but when my mom died of cancer at age of 53 Ruth said she was mad at God for a long time. While my mom was a strict Catholic who believed every word in the Bible, Ruth was more relaxed. She said “What’s wrong with gays? They don’t hurt anyone.” And she continued to be friends with the man in Melrose who changed his gender.

    When Ruth finally retired she moved into a nursing home where both of the men were after her and the women were jealous. She picked the dapper dresser who could drive and also had a boat! She and her friend used to sneak out of the home and grab a bus to the bar down the street for a drink. The first time it happened the nursing home was frantic to find her, but after they discovered her, the bartender started posting a sign in his window when she visited, “Ruth’s here.”

    Later she moved to an actual house with five other seniors. She loved her caretaker Alison and it was mutual. Her son Paul lived nearby and visited her everyday for lunch. Allison made sure Ruth got her boxed white wine for dinner and Ruth was known to sneak out in the middle of the night and get another glass. My brother Bill makes Wertzberger wine and he’d send her bottles. Ruth let Allison drink the good stuff and then she’d fill the empty bottles with her boxed wine and declare at the dinner table, “Oh this wine is so good! It’s delicious!”

    She told me she wanted to meet a man, but said, “Where am I going to meet them stuck here in this home?” The last time I saw her she had to have her pacemaker replaced and all she cared about was whether the doctor would be cute. When she came home, Allison wheeled her up the ramp and she shouted “whee!” Her sense of humor remained intact until the end. Ruth loved life, despite the tragedies in her own, breast cancer, growing up during the depression, losing two sons, her husband, and her nine siblings, (two died as infants during the first Pandemic flu epidemic).

    When I was young I hated my name. It sounded like an old lady to me and to this day most Ruth’s are usually around 90 years old. Whenever I acted spacey or said something silly my dad said “We sure named you after the right person.” I laughed and took it as a complement. Now I’m proud to be named Ruth and only hope that I can be as much of an inspiration to my nieces and nephews that Ruth was to us.

  • May 26 2012 12:00AM Mini-me By Lizettalouw

    Right peeps, here's the deal. I live in the South of South Africa, cross country from my only niece. I hardly get enough time off from work to fly in for a visit, and right now I'm on my way to Europe for a three month long business trip. Sounds great?

    Did I mention I'm missing the birth of my first nephew by going on this trip?

    It bites.

    However, my stars aligned (read: my Visa was delayed JUST long enough), and I was able to book a little trip up to Gauteng Province to see my folks before my trip. But wait, there's more: I got word that I'm only expected to fly to Europe in a week's time. Which means that I have a whole week to hang with my fam.

    Landed at O.R. Thambo International Airport, entered the terminal building, and on cue the Airport Radio played Take my breath away.

    Gauteng always makes one feel welcome.

    Le Parents picked me up at drop-and-go (the Louw family are above rules, you know), a myriad of turn-offs on the new Gauteng road system, and *Sigh*, finally home.

    Given, there are certain things that reminds you (in a flash) why you've decided to move so far from home. For me:

    Grandpa's parrot which came into our household after he passed away. Is it a little creepy to hear a bird be, all like, "good night kitty-cat, Nicoooo, you are BAD, *Grandpa’s throaty laugh*, Nicoooo, Sleep tight!, Nicooooo, *pigeon sound*, Birdieeee, *sneeze*"?

    Yes, a little bit creepy, let me tell you. Can totally understand why Nicooooo moved out!

    Then, WTF is it with these little Zhu Zhu animals!?! Why would you buy your kid a robotic hamster/mini rabbit/panda bear, that runs all over the house making LOUD and creepy noises! And why oh why did my little niece have to get two of these possessed animals!?! I came very close to drowning them in the middle of the night...

    At the same time there are things that we LOVE and have missed so much about home:

    A little hors d'oeuvre of meat before supper. Then a main meal consisting mostly of meat. I've almost forgotten what meat is from living in a vegetarian household.

    Then: My gorgeous little niece. Mom arranged for us to baby-sit the two year old missy, and I'm sad (and feel a bit guilty about) saying, that I hardly know the kid. So we got some much needed time to clown around the house, and it was quite quickly that it became clear that little Miss Kara had somehow, inherited all of Auntie Lizette's best characteristics:

    Yes, she showed me where her grandpa/my dad is currently hiding his stash of sweets, dried fruit & nuts. *sound of my heart melting*. My talent lives forth!

    Then she went through my suitcase to explore all the wonderful things in there. AND THEN she discovered my MacBook on the table and we had to take a gazillion PhotoBooth pictures of the two of us. Aaaaah, my own annoying and inappropriate curiosity in other people's stuff... inherited by my little niece! *Sniff-sniff*, *tear-in-my-eye*. I'm so proud!

    Also, she's a little tease. Cutely threatening her grandma that she's on her way to go steal more sweets. And then her mom and grandma teasingly make her say: “I am a naughty girl”. Which she does with a mischievous giggle.

    It was to my disappointment to notice her T-shirt reading "I love shopping". Very unlike me. However, to my great glee her mother asked her to tell auntie Lizette what it is that she loves shopping for, and she answered: "Chocolate".

    Mini-me of her auntie Lizette, I'm telling you. *Tears of pride and joy*

    By the end of the night, this is all I have to say:

    Designer Jeans just ruined by glitter nail-varnish: R500.

    Pair of brown shoes, now sporting glitter polka dots: R200.

    Knowing that I'll have an excuse to whip out a picture of my niece every time someone asks about the glitter stains:


  • Up until now,I've been raving about my nieces and nephew. Well, I'd say my aunt was(still is) my mentor. She's taught me things that I've taught my nieces (& that I can teach my nephew sooner or later) For example,I'm sure a lot of people have heard the "Little Bunny Foo Foo" finger song & play. She taught that to me when I was a kid & I've passed it down to my nieces.. My 10 year old niece LOVED it when she was little and my 3 year old niece loved it too! Can't wait to try it out on my nephew!
    My aunt (she & I are both named Kathy) has a great sense of humor. I wish I could explain how. But it's a case of "You'd have to know us personally" to understand. When I found out I was going to be the godmother of my niece Cindy (not her real name) Aunt Kathy was the FIRST person I called. I started the conversation with, "Do you still have your Fairy Godmother wand handy?" At first she said,"What do you mean?" So THEN I told her I was going to be a godmother! She was THRILLED for me! Several months later was Cindy's baptism. I remember saying to my mom that I wished that Aunt Kathy could be there. But I knew she couldn't. So on the day of the baptism,I saw a couple at the church & casually said hello. Then I did a DOUBLE TAKE! It was AUNT KATHY!She was there with my stepuncle! Oh Myy Gosh!!I was SHOCKED!! And she had a "fairy godmother wand" for me (99 cent store plastic wand that lit up when you turned it on in the back. But hey! She knew I was kidding about the wand!) My family (Mom,brother & sister in law) ALL had told me that my sister in law's cousins were coming.So my brother & s.i.l had to sleep downstairs. It was ACTUALLY Aunt Kathy & my StepUncle Bob that would be sleeping in my brother & s.i.l's room. My family faked me out but GOOD!!LOL!
    Aunt Kathy knows how much of a fan I am of Garfield. So last year,shortly before I turned 40 (yep fellow aunties,I'm over the big 4-0.UGH!) Aunt Kathy had wriiten to Jim Davis telling him about me & the medical things I endured my whole life & that my 40th birthday was coming up in April.If possible,could he please autograph something for me. So the Easter before my birthday (they spent Easter with us) Aunt Kathy presented me with...a comic strip of Garfield matted in a frame & autographed by Jim Davis wishing me a Happy Birthday! I was REALLY surprised!! The picture is hanging in my room above my bed.
    Last summer, Aunt Kathy (and Bob) invited me to spend a few days with them. Both she & I LOVE to play Scrabble. But she's a former English teacher & has a Bachelors'. So she won MOST of the games. Still it was fun to play. We went to Karaoke one night & I dared to sing a couple of songs. I sang"Hopelessly Devoted To You" I did FINE with that. Aunt Kathy told me I could do another. So I did (or should I say TRIED to do) "When I Fall In Love" I started messing up in the middle.So Aunt Kathy (God bless her) ran up the aisle & helped me catch up to the music. Never again am I doing karaoke,ladies! Even though some people told me I did fine!
    I'm just very thankful to have an aunt like Aunt Kathy. She's one heck of a special lady. And I hope that I'm like her to my nieces and nephew.. <3

  • As our second Savvy Auntie Day nears, I keep thinking about the Savvy Aunties in my own life. Unlike my single self, our aunts were married with kids of their own although my siblings and I did get in some quality Auntie and Uncle time.

    I can’t think about Savvy Aunties without thinking about our Great Aunts. They were great by title, and two in particular were great in spirit.

    Each summer, Mom and we three kids trekked to her home state of Kansas to spend a week romping with our cousins. Dad usually had to stay behind to work since construction workers back then didn’t get vacation time.

    During each visit, Mom would take us into Wichita for The Great Aunt Tour. After Mom lost her own mother at age 12, she turned to her aunts to provide that maternal support she needed growing up, and she always wanted to see them when she was in Kansas. These were the days when people had to write letters or make long-distance phone calls to keep in touch. Mom often lamented the fact that we never got to know her mother and told us that we really missed out on having a good grandmother who would love us unconditionally. Our other grandmother, Dad’s mom, was brittle, demanding and placed boundaries on her love.

    The Great-Aunts were ancient by our childlike standards. Their houses were perfectly tidy since no children lived there anymore, and they all had gray hair, glasses, and flowing housecoats or simple dresses. I don’t ever remember seeing my Great Aunts wear pants.

    For us kids, the visits could be boring. Great Aunts didn’t have toys or crayons, and for the most part, most kept hard candy in the house – something most children don’t like. Mom showed us off and gave a rundown of our latest accomplishments as we sat on each hard sofa, trying to be quiet.

    Aunt Lena, a tall, quiet and simple woman, always sat in her favorite chair. We liked it when her son Vincent would come over. As the baby of the family, Vincent was close to seven foot tall. As kids, we thought of him as a giant.

    Aunt Josephine was short and round with curly hair. She lived in a small house, and her daughter was a nun, quite a coup for a Catholic family.

    Two Great Aunts stood out for me because they enriched our lives in many ways. These were the ones we couldn’t wait to see. They were Great Aunts and were great aunts.

    Great Aunt Tracy and Uncle Nick, who were actually my dad’s relatives, lived on Tracy Street in Wichita. Aunt Tracy and Uncle Nick reminded me of that old nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat and his wife who could eat no lean. Nick was tall and skinny and always sported a reddish-gray buzz cut, and Tracy was soft, round, and sturdy. She gave warm, tight hugs that made you melt into her softness following by sloppy kisses and cookies from her kitchen. She and Nick actually asked us questions and talked to us like we were really there, not just pint-size lumps on the couch.

    Tracy often reminded me of the time when I was much smaller and asked her if she and Uncle Nick could be my other grandparents. I only had the one set of grandparents from my Dad, and most of the kids at school, I explained, had two sets of grandparents. Aunt Tracy was tickled pink with the request and said she would be happy to be my surrogate grandmother.

    The other aunt we loved to see was Sister Regis. She was born Martha and was my late grandmother’s twin sister Marie, the ghostly mother my mother still mourned. Martha became a nun back in high school and took the name Sister Regis. She was a teacher and sometimes worked in Catholic hospitals.

    When she worked at one of the hospitals, she would take us to the cafeteria and give us tiny chocolate ice creams in paper cups we ate with wooden spoons. She often let us have two. Now that’s a Savvy Auntie.

    Although I never asked her, I think Sister Regis felt an obligation to be a surrogate grandmother of sorts to not only my siblings and I but to all of my cousins. We were cheated of a grandmother, the kind who would bake cookies, give long warm hugs, and become the biggest cheerleader. Sister Regis always liked to hear how we were doing in school, what our favorite subjects were, and what we were up to in general. She remarked how she enjoyed our letters that we wrote her on a fairly regular basis.

    Sister Regis was a quiet, feisty woman. When the Church moved her to a nursing home for nuns, she was not happy. She was adamant about busting out and returning to her teaching, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. The first time we visited her there, we passed her room up because we saw an elderly woman sitting there with short gray hair and not wearing a habit. Since we had never seen her without her trademark black habit, we didn’t recognize her. It was the first time we saw her hair and her vulnerability.

    As my brother, sister and I grew up and began to take on the world, our Great Aunts became more frail and began to leave us one by one. The passing of Great Aunt Tracy and Sister Regis, the last to leave us, were particularly difficult for us kids. In addition to losing two fabulous Great Aunts and two women who were Savvy Aunties before the time and enriched our lives so deeply, we also lost our grandmothers. Again.