Imagine a young woman named Ruby Riley, queen of the rodeo in 1940, a trick rider on a pretty paint mare in flashy cowgirl clothes that her mother sewed for her. In my next life I want to come back as a woman from East Texas named Ruby Riley. But I’ll pass on the rodeo and come back as a 21st century version of Ruby Riley who’s more like Patsy Cline or Memphis Minnie. I’ll have flaming red hair, a full bosom, and a voice that will break hearts. It wouldn’t help to change my name to Ruby Riley now. You have to be born into a name like that.
I’m not inventing the real Ruby—she was my aunt. Ruby Riley fit her brassy name, like something out of a dime-store Western novel. She was the wife of my father’s brother, Francis. No one called my uncle Francis with the exception of my grandmother. Everyone either called him Freck or Bones. Ruby grew up hard and near-poor in Silsbee, a small town near Beaumont. Fresh out of Silsbee, Aunt Ruby met and married Uncle Bones during the war—she was a member of the Women’s Army Corps and he was an enlisted man in the Army.
One summer I got a taste of life in Silsbee when my cousin Linda and I spent a month with Ruby’s parents, Mama and Papa Riley. They lived in a ramshackle little house where Mama Riley milked the cow and butchered chickens in the yard. My most vivid memory of Silsbee is the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and nothing to do. Linda and I occupied ourselves day after day by lusting after the fashions in the Spiegel catalog and counting our mosquito bites. My personal record was 72 bites. (Why do I remember that I had 72 mosquito bites in 1959 and now I can’t remember my PIN number to use the ATM?) Papa Riley shot ‘possums and armadillos and worked the oil rigs in East Texas. Mama Riley sewed us skirts from feed sacks. I have an old black and white photo of Linda and me, standing in front of Papa Riley’s beat-up truck, wearing the feed sack skirts with our hair tied up in bandanas.
Aunt Ruby and Uncle Bones had two children, my cousins Linda and Bruce. Ruby was never in the running to be mother of the year. She seemed too busy playing cards or bowling to pay much attention to her kids, more neglectful than abusive, often leaving Bruce in the playpen for hours wearing a dirty diaper. And she could yell the spots off a Dalmatian. I was scared to death of her. My first memory of Ruby was when I was not more than five years old. She served repulsive canned peas for dinner and tongue-lashed me for sliding the peas under the table to avoid eating them. How silly I was to think she wouldn’t notice that I had put the peas on the floor.
My parents rarely left me and my siblings. However, one summer they took a brief trip to visit old friends in Buffalo, and they left us at the beach house in the care of the dreaded Aunt Ruby. When my brother Mark peed on the floor, she screamed, “I’m not cleaning this up. He’s your brother—you clean it up. Now!” My fear meter went into overdrive and my imagination spun out of control. I was certain my parents were going to die in a plane crash and I, the oldest, would be responsible for protecting the four younger children from our wicked aunt for the remainder of our natural lives.
With age Ruby became a sweet, docile old woman with an infectious laugh, not the shrew I feared when I was a kid. And she did not escape this life without a huge dose of heartache. Her only son Bruce got leukemia and died just after his 11th birthday. Uncle Bones smoked too many cigarettes, got lung cancer, and left her a widow in her early 50s.
I don’t know that there’s any real lesson to learn from the life of the original Ruby Riley. She lived her life, had her heart broken, and died. Still I remember that wonderful cackling endless laugh of hers and wonder what kept her laughing through it all.
Linda says that everyone associated her mother with her pecan pralines. I don’t remember Ruby cooking much, but I do remember those famous pralines.
Ruby’s Pecan Pralines
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon butter
2 to 3 cups pecan halves
1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine all ingredients, except butter, pecans, and vanilla in a good-sized heavy saucepan and cook for 5 minutes. Add the butter and pecans and cook until a soft ball is formed or 250 degrees on a candy thermometer. Cool for 2 minutes and then add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and beat until no longer glossy. Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper coated with cooking spray. Let harden and remove.
Donna Xander is a writer who lives in McLean, Virginia. She is completing her latest non-fiction book, Learning to Pray, a collection of personal essays and recipes.