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.
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, 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.
A few years later, they got engaged. They were married in 1941.
They loved squaredancing and boats. They loved family, and created one of their own: one girl and three boys.
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.
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
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
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 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 measures a man he puts the tape around the heart — not the head.”