Much is made of the tale of Rip Van Winkle, but you barely hear mention of his sister Ruby.
The twenty years that he was gone, she was raising children. The first two were to be all, she imagined, as she fully planned to have a life of some sorts, at least a little time for her own pursuits. Just enough, perhaps, to educate the children that the joys of a good hobby and good friends were beneficial to more than one sex.
Sadly Ruby's first husband was a layabout and a cad, who soon ran away for a young thing in the next village, whose delight was luring married men. Poor girl, it seems this game gave the other woman the sense of personal value that she obviously felt she lacked, from some or other dark cruelty or lack of affection in her childhood. However, this bright young thing was horrified at the idea of receiving him for very long, as settling down was not part of the plan; only notching up marks on her pretty little belt.
Ruby, meanwhile, was courted too fast and too soon by a good and capable soul, as men go; one so attractive to her love starved children, that they asked to call him father before she had made any answer to his proposals. In time and for his sake, more children came along.
As Rip returned home, his sister felt that at last there would be someone to understand her regret. She had lived those twenty years whilst he had slept them, but her time had been taken up with laundry and teaching, with juggling the money and nights indoors; not a life so much as faithful service.
Still she had her own reawakening of a sort when the youngest of her brood showed signs of independance. At once all her old plans and hopes and fancies returned, only to be dashed by the sight of her reflection in the mirror and the feel of the ache in her back. The years had done their damage as if by magic, and the hopes she once deferred for love, were now dashed completely. How she cried, feeling as she did just twenty or so years old, yet looking and feeling older than many of her own age now.
Darling Rip, she felt certain, would also mourn the loss of his years; would understand the torment of being trapped inside an ageing skin; but no. He was happy as a sandboy, regaling younger people with his tales, spending his days wandering or drinking; content to do nothing, grateful to have missed the years where effort might have been expected of him.
A woman, she realised, goes through a sleep of sorts, a disappearance from life, but instead we silly things work hard and true out of love for others, putting our hearts and goals to one side; planning to finally spend time on more energetic pursuits than lazing about, but only when everyone else has been faithfully served.
Man reaches what he hoped for all along, but woman never does. Where Rip was blessed by his absence from life, Ruby was cursed by hers. So she waited another decade, saw her youngest child married and happy and settled, and then went into decline. It was her health, they said, her age, or her hard life and no-one was surprised. It was of course none of these things; she simply couldn't bear the site of all she desired so much, but was now too old, too frumpy, too late to embrace; so she turned her back on the life she never had and the one that remained, also.
And that is why little is made of the story of Ruby; because facing it would involve too much shuffling of feet and discomfort, and, heaven forbid, actually having to get organised and change things.
Men look forward too earnestly to chair and slippers, to really think about fair exchange.