Ruth was born in 1905 in a mid-size city in Iowa. She was the youngest of four sisters, daughter to Julia, an Iowa girl, and to Louis, a Bohemian immigrant who worked as a carpenter and a contractor. Ruth and her sisters all went to college, and she and one of her sisters continued to work in education until they retired, both remaining unmarried and passionate about their work with students. Ruth had a degree in French and a 2 year degree from Chicago Normal School of Physical Education, a small women’s college. In college she participated and excelled in almost every sport that was open to her, with field hockey and dance taking center stage. After graduating she went directly into work at a private college within a mile or two of her home (and my childhood home right next door) on Grande Avenue, where she was assistant director then director of women’s physical education a post she would continue until her retirement 30 and some years later.
I didn’t learn any of this from Ruth herself, and didn’t know any of this until she was long past the age I am now as I write this, after she had gone from living with her widowed mother and their lodgers to living with 2 of her older sisters, one retired and one widowed with grown children. I knew Ruth when she was the woman next door with the cheerful smile, who always wanted to hear all my stories or the news of the day, hear me read or watch me build. She was always ready to play and she was always happy to see me. She was thin and wiry, with wavy white hair and horn rimmed glasses. I lived next door to Ruth from the time I was born until we moved to another smaller town about 5 years later. My sister and my two older brothers were my playmates, as were my mother and my father in their ways, but Ruth was the first friend I made, the first friend that I was drawn to by virtue of whatever invisible thread pulls strangers to each other to bond and play and smile and talk as one soul to another.
My mother tells me that when she first brought me home from the hospital after I was born, Ruth wanted to hold me. My mother tells me that when I was an older baby and a toddler, she would change my diaper on a table near a window that faced Ruth’s kitchen window, and that I would stand up in the middle of being changed to press my face and hands to the window, looking for Ruth’s face in the window across the way, happy each time I saw it. As I got older I have memories of my own: I was invited over to have lunch with Ruth and her sister Esther, and we sat in the living room, our lunch of Chef Boyardee ravioli served on plates atop TV trays, and we watched The Family Feud on their large console television. After our visit I was sent home (as I think I always was) with a large ziplock full of cheese puffs and M&Ms, the best treat in existence to my mind. I remember my mother teaching me how to crochet yarn into a chain, and being so excited that I needed to show Ruth what I could do. I asked my mother, then walked with my ball of yarn and my crochet hook down the front walk, across the sidewalk, and up Ruth’s front walk, to ring her doorbell. After being ushered inside, the dark wooden door pushed shut behind me, and seated in my favorite chair, I clutched, unable to get back in the pattern of wrap, pull through, wrap, pull through. I ran back down the walk, across the sidewalk, up the walk and back to my mother, who showed me how to make the chain again so that I could return to Ruth and show her what I could do, to bask in her smile and loving attention.
Ruth as far as I recall is the one who introduced me to ballet. I recall lying on the floor on my stomach, chin in hands, right in front of her television completely entranced by the movement and the music of classical ballet. I wanted so much to be the beauty I saw on that screen, to be able to move to the music the way these men and women did with such perfection, such grace. Later, when I went to my first ballet lesson, I went directly to Ruth to demonstrate all I had learned that day. She was excited for me the way any good friend would be, seeing me practice what I had been longing to learn. I wouldn’t find out (or didn’t remember at any rate) until much later, 20 years after she had passed away, that Ruth had been a dancer herself, dancing through her 4 years of college in recitals and galas, and later in her role in the physical education department designing and organizing those same recitals and galas and choreographing the student dances. A handful of photographs of Ruth in her student dancer days still exist, and looking at them is looking at my friend in another life, a life I knew nothing about, a life I regret not hearing about while I still had the chance to talk to her as a teenager or as an (albeit young) adult. I was 24 years old when Ruth died, after she had been moved to a nursing home in another city, and in the same year I gave birth to my first child. I had lost track of Ruth sometime in my teen years, busy with school, dance, and music, busy with a self-absorption to which only a teenager can truly do justice.
I have scattered memories of the 5 years when I lived in that house on Grande Avenue next door to Ruth and her sisters. I remember: the changing color of the bruises on my shins each day of the summer, building an impossibly tall tower of wooden blocks in the living room; reading a book on my own for the first time and realizing as I was reading it that oh my gosh this is it, I am reading a book; standing in the backyard on a warm sunny day smelling flowers, watching a bee also interested in the flowers and getting stung on my cheek; running out the door from the kitchen into the backyard in such a hurry that the middle finger on my right hand didn’t quite clear the jamb, and the tip of my finger exploded with a pain like I hadn’t felt before, screaming in an almost out of body way, and seeing the expression on my father’s face when he came running, looking like I had never seen him look, scared and anxious; jumping on the couch, waiting for my brother and sister to come home from school so they could play with me; sitting backwards on the couch looking out the living room window onto a dark, cloudy, and rainy morning; slipping while going down the basement steps and falling sideways under the rail to the concrete floor, waking up in the emergency room, a small white sheet over my face while the doctor used a needle and thread to close the gash in my cheek. Ruth was the friend I got to tell all of this to. Not being part of the family I had a chance to make each story mine, to tell what fresh marvel I had discovered or pain endured, to define my place in the world. She always wanted to know, she always had questions to ask so she could fully comprehend just how amazing each story was. And she always made sure I had a snack for the walk home.
Ruth came to my mind a few weeks ago, and I realized that she was my first friend, and that I had abandoned her without thought. She had faded from my awareness as people sometimes do. I recall only once sending her a note, when I graduated from high school. Something about the time-marking quality of that event made me think of all the people that helped me grow up, people whose presence had been a pleasure or a balm, who made me feel a better person for having known them. By that time she was in the nursing home, and for all I know she may not have remembered who I was, may not have been able to write me back, may not have known what to say to me after several years of not having seen each other. Maybe I had the wrong address, maybe my note never got to her. I don’t know, but I never heard back from her, and never saw her again in person, only in my memory, and in a few photographs. I had only known Ruth as an older woman, and I don’t remember ever seeing photographs of her in her house. It was well-decorated, especially over the holidays, but I don’t remember photographs. Maybe I was too young to notice or appreciate any photographs I might have seen. So to me, when I found photographs of Ruth as a college student and young employee of her college, I was truly looking at a woman I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have known it was her without the caption. And now, well, she had no children or grandchildren to tell her stories to, so I have no one left to ask about her, no one that can answer all the questions I have about Ruth and her life, both before and after I knew her, no one to tell me Ruth’s stories of how she defined her place in the world. So Ruth remains as she was in my world: my introduction to friendship, my fun-loving, happy, kind, playful neighbor that I am happy and proud and thankful to have known.