It was a dinnertime ritual enacted with gusto whenever my mother’s cousins Alma and Cecelia were in town.
The front door would bang open. My dad would sweep in and declaim:
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea!”
And Alma would reply, from upstairs or down:
“And the hunter home from the hill.”
Cue seven children rolling their eyes. It’s a wonder they didn’t get stuck that way, as my mother was always warning us.
Alma (1897-1981) and Cecelia (“Ceil,” 1898-1980) were Mom’s first cousins, the daughters of my grandfather John Rudroff’s older brother George. Since they were 30 years older than my mom, we gave them the courtesy title “aunt” in a triumph of seniority over genealogical accuracy. Their annual extended visits helped fill the grandparent gap in a family where only Grandpa Rudroff survived into our childhoods.
Aunt Alma was a demon worker, even when she was supposed to be having a nice relaxing family visit. After she whipped through all the laundry and ironing, she attacked the mending basket, then cooked everybody dinner. She thought my mother could use the break from dealing with the seven of us.
Aunt Ceil’s specialty was straightening out my dad’s bookkeeping. Hard to believe in today’s bloated health-care industry, but my dad, a dentist in solo practice, was truly a one-man band. There was always something for Aunt Ceil to straighten out, clucking in impatience at my dad’s handwriting as she sat at the dining-room table, paperwork piled high.
We loved them both to pieces, although Aunt Alma in particular could be gruff. One morning I happened to be alone with her at breakfast. Having an actual one-on-one with an elder was so novel that I began chattering nervously — and mindlessly.
“Tell me,” Aunt Alma said. “Are you planning on becoming a preacher?”
“Because you talk enough for two.”
It wasn’t a visit without Aunt Alma and my dad proclaiming their trademark lines at day’s end. I didn’t realize for years that they were written by Robert Louis Stevenson, in a poem he intended as an epitaph (inspiring a later poem by A.E. Houseman). Alas, unlike Dad and Aunt Alma, I don’t belong to a generation for whom reciting poetry was typical schoolwork.
Here’s the whole thing, in memory of them both.
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
— Robert Louis Stevenson, 1880 • First published in Underwoods, 1887