My Aunt Ruby was an excellent cook. And it became her tradition to come to our house on Christmas Eve to help my mother prepare turkey dressing for our dinner the next day. My mother and her older sister enjoyed their holiday time together, cooking, catching up, and reminiscing.
On December 24, 1971, Ruby and my mother stood in our small kitchen and began their work: frying liver mush, browning sausage, and dicing and sautéing onions and celery. They added these ingredients to an herb-seasoned stuffing mix. While Ruby stirred the mix, she smoked a cigarette, its ash dangling dangerously. My mother watched her, fearful the ash would drop into the mixing bowl, but it never did. Ruby knew exactly when to tap her ash into a nearby ashtray.
Ruby was an unpretentious woman who reminded me of Shelley Winters, though photographs from her youth show a stylish dark-haired girl with pretty features. (“Ruby had the most beautiful hazel eyes,” my mother often reflected.) She was a kind aunt, offering me advice about boys and dating, making my costumes for school plays and dresses for special occasions, and rooting for me at talent shows. When I was born, Ruby picked my middle name, Erin, and took an immediate interest in me.
My mother and Ruby, along with their brothers and sisters, grew up in the Clinchfield cotton mill village in Marion, North Carolina. While my mother’s favorite pastime was going to the movies in town, Ruby enjoyed staying home and cleaning their mill house, including scrubbing the wooden toilet seat in their outhouse till it was fresh and spider-free.
“I was a movie freak,” my mother confessed. And she recalled how she collected Dixie Cup ice cream picture lids that featured portraits of Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
“I kept my movie star pictures in a box on a closet shelf,” she said. “One day I noticed all my pictures were gone. Ruby had thrown them out when she was cleaning the house.”
Apparently, Ruby — a meticulous house cleaner — saw the pictures as clutter. And though this incident hurt my mother, it didn’t alter her affection for her older sister. As they grew into adulthood, they continued spending time together, sharing confidences, and supporting each other.
My mother once told me Ruby complained, “I don’t have any talent.” She regretted that she didn’t inherit the artistic abilities of her siblings, who were born musicians and artists.
“You do have talent, Ruby,” my mother said and pointed out her skills as a seamstress, a flower gardener, and a cook. “That’s talent,” my mother assured her. But Ruby wasn’t convinced.
On Christmas Eve, 1971, after the turkey dressing ingredients were well mixed, my mother transferred a portion of the moist mush to a baking pan and slid it into the oven so we could sample it that evening. The rest she saved to stuff the turkey.
While the dressing baked, I sat in the front room at the piano and played “O Holy Night” and the adagio movement from Moonlight Sonata, which I had recently learned and liked to play for my family. My father, who appreciated classical music, sat across the room and listened. Our Christmas tree stood in a corner, its colored lights glowing and tinsel glistening, a faint pine scent tingeing the air.
When my mother removed the dressing from the oven, my father and I smelled its sage-rich savor. We made a beeline for the kitchen, filling our bowls. He and I ate more of Ruby’s tasty turkey dressing that evening than we probably should have, not realizing we would never have such a Christmas Eve opportunity again.
Two months later, at the age of 52, Ruby passed away of a heart attack — heart disease being another common thread in my mother’s family, one that Ruby had inherited. Her death was a shock to us all. When my mother heard the news, she cried in disbelief, “I just talked to her on the phone yesterday.” And she grieved deeply.
Ruby’s death caused a profound sadness in our family for a long time. My mother had lost a sister, a helpmate, and a confidante. I had lost a devoted aunt. And though it’s been 50 years since Ruby’s death, she remains vivid in my memories, especially at Christmastime.
Copyright © 2022 by Julia Nunnally Duncan. All rights reserved. Julia Nunnally Duncan is author of 10 books of prose and poetry. Her Tennessee roots run deep through her father’s family, natives of Newcomb. She enjoys writing about family history and her childhood in a Western North Carolina mill town.