An ordinary extraordinary life

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Ruth.  She was born in 1919 in Brooklyn; when she was seven, her family  moved cross-country for her father’s job (he was a cinematographer for early Hollywood).

Ruthie on the left, with her father, mother, and sister Jessamyn, 1926

Ruthie on the left, with her father, mother, and sister Jessamyn, 1926.

It was a job that involved travel but also risk.  He died when Ruth was eleven, of illness contracted while filming a movie in Borneo.

Though Ruthie grew up without a father, she had a devoted mother and sister, and many happy childhood memories.  As a teenager, she met a fellow student, Baxter, and they became high school sweethearts.

baxter&ruth@switzers

Baxter, a gifted artist, taught himself how to make cameos so he could make one of Ruth’s profile (I will pause while you swoon).  He wanted to give it to her as a ring but her mother thought a high school girl was too young to accept a ring from a boy, so he made it into a necklace for her instead.

IMAG9212

A few years later, they got engaged.  They were married in 1941.

baxter&ruthwedding

They loved squaredancing and boats.  They loved family, and created one of their own:  one girl and three boys.

Squaredancing, 1950

Squaredancing, 1950

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

wolffamily1958

1958

Eventually they settled in Santa Barbara, in a small tract home.  Their two older children married; grandchildren came into their lives.  Then, in 1973, Baxter died suddenly of a heart attack while on a Boy Scout hike with his two youngest sons.  In her early fifties, Ruth was a widow, navigating life without her beloved soulmate.  Always a homemaker, she suddenly had to enter the workforce (she worked as a baker in the  local junior high school cafeteria) while raising two teenage boys.

And that was what she was doing when I first was old enough to know her: Ruth Elizabeth Stuart Adams Wolf, my grandmother.

Grandma and me, March 2016.

Grandma and me, March 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been wanting to write this post for the past two weeks, ever since Grandma died on April 13th.  It’s felt a bit daunting, though, because I want more than anything to do my grandma justice.  And since she passed away, I’ve spent so much time reviewing her life and my experiences of it, and trying to put into words just why she was such a special lady, beloved by many.

In the process, I’ve been thinking about what just it means to live a meaningful life.  What sort of impact do we leave on the world?  When we die, what is taken out of the world?   When we go, what do people remember and miss?

By one measure, my grandma’s life wasn’t  notable.  She never had more than a high school education.  She did not have an impressive resume.  She never made a large salary.  Her world was very small; it was a big, BIG deal when we took her on a trip to England in 1996 (her ancestral homeland).  But she was perfectly happy with what she did have.  Few things gave her more pleasure than her little house, surrounded by garden. She was a fantastic baker and an accomplished seamstress and knitter.  I have homemade scarves, needlepoint, dolls that she has made for me over the years.

As small as her world was, though, her death has been felt like an earthquake by her family.  We all feel like the ground has come out from underneath us.

Because Grandma was always there: a rock that didn’t move even when everything around her did.  Her home, the home in which she was still living at the age of ninety-seven, was the place you went back to for holidays or for family get-togethers.  She’d have the Snickerdoodles baked for you, would serve you tamale pie.  For breakfast she’d have these Swedish coffeecakes that were like heaven in your mouth.  She was always glad to see you.

Grandma's snickerdoodle recipe

Grandma’s snickerdoodle recipe

At various points over the years, when family members were in transition or crisis of one kind or another, she’d give up the spare room and welcome them home.  Coming home was like entering a museum of your own life; the walls of her home were plasted with framed photos, and she created volume upon volume of photo albums, carefully documenting the lives of her four kids and grandkids and great-grandkids.    And in her own quiet, understated way, she had your back – always.  It was a family joke that if you said anything critical of Grandma’s kids, she would never forget. Her kids and their kids were her raison  d’être.  She believed in them – us – fiercely, always seeing potential.

Grandma and her kids, 2008

Grandma and her kids, 2008

Others were the recipient of her kindness, too.  Every Christmas, she’d put together baggies of homemade cookies for the Arrowhead water delivery man, the postal carrier, the men who picked up her garbage.  At her celebration of life last weekend, I met her next door neighbors, who moved in last year from out-of-state.  They told me that Grandma had come over and said she wanted to host a coffee for them, so they could get to know the neighbors.   “We were so touched,” said the wife.  “No one does that kind of thing anymore, but your grandmother did.”   At age ninety-six, she was still spreading the welcome in the way she knew best: with homemade cookies and an open door.

And Grandma had a great sense of humor too.  She was a huge fan of the Martha Stewart show years ago and watched it religiously.  When Martha was arrested for insider trading, Grandma was indignant.  She proudly wore an apron my uncle had bought her:   FREE MARTHA it said on the front.  Seeing that slogan on my gray-haired eighty-something grandmother was a sight that will always make me smile.

But though Grandma was so many things to so many people, she was the most modest person you can imagine.  And I’ve been thinking about how she represented the polar opposite of the selfie culture of today, in which we put ourselves out there constantly, hungry for recognition and approval and likes.  Grandma didn’t need recognition and approval and likes. The doing of a thing was its own reward.  She lived quietly, happy with her home and garden and family.  She didn’t need or want anything more.  It strikes me that this is an increasingly rare quality.

Moving into the house, 1961

Moving into her new house, 1961

To see everyone who gathered last weekend was quite something.  More than eighty-five people came to her home, the small happy home in which she lived for fifty-five years, the home in which she died.  We shared food and stories and memories and laughs and tears.  And Grandma’s spirit was so very much there; alive, actually, in all the people who were shaped by her example and absorbed the lessons she quietly taught.

So no: she didn’t make a lot of money or have an impressive degree or a long resume.  But she did make a home that, for decades, has been a place of peace and welcome.   She had four children whose devotion to her knew no bounds and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who loved her more than they could put into words.  And in a changing world where image is often valued over substance, she showed everyone the power of quiet dignity and concrete acts of kindness, done simply because they are the right thing to do.

I love you, Grandma.  Thank you.

On Grandma's fridge, in her writing: "When God measure a man he puts the tape around the heart not the head."

On Grandma’s fridge, in her writing: “When God measures a man he puts the tape around the heart —  not the head.”

 

7 Responses to An ordinary extraordinary life

  1. Carole Cameron

    I am in your mom’s book group and am always touched by your postings. Never more so than today, reading this about your GRANDma. I am sorry for your loss, but I know you are grateful for the wonderful influence she had in your life, and your mom’s. It spoke volumes to me about your family how your GRANDma was cared for in her final year. Just amazing. Blessings to you all.

    Carole Cameron

  2. Linda Larish

    What a beautiful, beautiful tribute to a remarkable lady who did touch so many lives. Her love is reflected in all of you so she left a wonderful legacy. You are all on our prayers as we can only imagine the hole she has left in your lives.

  3. What a beautiful post! I’m so sorry for your loss. Your grandmother sounds like a remarkable person and it seems that you have many of her qualities, for your writing reflects many of the positive attributes that you use to describe her.

    I am re-reading Jane Eyre for a mother-daughter book club and it strikes me that what that story captures is the human desire to feel terribly important to and unconditionally loved by someone else. It sounds like your grandmother gave many people that gift, which makes her world and her influence both huge and everlasting, uniquely impressive.

    We will keep your family in our prayers! Thank you for sharing her life.

  4. Susan Leask

    Dear Ginny,

    There is a goodness and a sweetness that radiates from you, your mother and your sister. I have always wondered how that little light was lit, and now I know.

    Thank you for sharing your grandmother with us via this beautifully written tribute.
    love,
    Susan

  5. Ginny, you captured the essence of your grandmother very well in this piece. No words better distill the essential Ruth than those you chose for her page in your co-authored book, “Daily Inspiration for Women” (page 87): “The ordinary arts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest” – Thomas More. It is a wonderful providence, the way those words fittingly found their way to the front page of Ruth’s burial dedication, along with her picture. Love, Dad.

  6. A lovely tribute, Gin-Gin! Mom always enjoyed what you wrote — would tell me about your latest effort whenever your mom sent a copy to her. I know she’d like this one very much!
    Love,
    Rick

  7. Ginny, I will treasure your grandmother, even though I never met her. and I never even see you, except for on the WWW. It warms my heart to read your words and it reminds me of my own grandmothers. Soon, I will be a grandmother and I hope that I can be half of the wonder that yours was. God bless her and your family… carrying on her goodness in the world.