Mon 17 Jul 2006
Dr. G’s grandmother Ruth liked to say she had lived three lives, and she’d be hard pressed to pick which one was best.
Her first life began on a farm in Northern California, where as a teenager she’d get up before dark to get breakfast for the ranch hands. She cooked on a wood stove and stirred huge, bubbling vats of oatmeal, plopping it into bowls for the men who stumbled down sleepily from the loft. One of her neighbors installed the first flush toilet she had ever seen, though back then it was separate from the house and was called a water closet. All the neighbors lined up to try it out; Ruth once told me about the excitement she felt, hearing the water run down through those pipes the first time.
Ruth finished high school by the time she was sixteen, and there wasn’t much happening in Fall River Mills that interested her. She wanted to meet new people and see some sights, so she did the obvious thing– got a job playing piano in traveling revival meetings. She liked to play loud and with feeling, and though she didn’t have much money, she kept herself busy for many years. She fetched up in Salem, Oregon, where a passionate preacher took a liking to her. Her family advised her to go for it– she was 26 years old after all, no spring chicken! And what else was likely to come along? She’d only known the man a few weeks, but she sized him up and thought he’d do just fine.
It was the Depression. They had a simple wedding and only one worldly possession– an old car– to get them started in their new life, but they went on to raise five lively children together in Oregon, he working in churches or on the railroad, she at home with the kids. Her oldest son, Stan, used to terrify her by blithely jumping off of high places, such as the spiral staircase in the church sanctuary, when he was a very small boy. Years later Stan’s son (the future Dr. G) terrified his own mother in the exact same way.
Ruth’s husband died in 1984, after 45 years of marriage, and thus she began her third life as an independent single woman and the family matriarch. She visited Paris; she kept her subscription to the National Geographic. She drove a Ford Thunderbird and hugged her great-grandchildren at family gatherings. Once, in her nineties, she fell in the bathroom and broke a rib. She spent the whole morning creeping the length of her house to reach the phone and call for help. Afterwards she said it hadn’t been so bad, and she liked living alone, and she continued to do so for a few years afterward. That’s when her “forgetter would get to working” on her, as she described it, though her lively intelligence still came to her aid. “So you’re Stan’s boy?” she’d ask. “And you, (pointing at me)– you were in Africa?” Then she’d use the bits and pieces of information to reconstruct our relationship. “You must be married, you must have been in Africa together, you’re my grandson and his wife.”
Ruth died on Friday at age 95, surrounded by her children. Her descendants include five children, eleven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. Her legacy is one of kindess, spiritual faithfulness, and adventure. May her family continue to carry it on. She will be missed.