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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Aunt Ruth, Affectionately

I had the privilege of knowing my great-aunt Ruth for 21 years before she died. Not just knowing her, but becoming friends the older I grew. I plan to write about her in stages, the first being my personal recollections with a little cursory research. I have a lot of sources to read through for further entries in her life story. I wrote a post in here years ago about another “unattached” aunt and had always planned to add Aunt Ruth’s story to that series, but I haven’t done it until now because her story is so much more involved than that of Fannie Ginders.

My great-aunt Ruth was one of my favorite people. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate her until I was older, but at least I grew to appreciate her enough while she was still alive that we became somewhat friends despite the 60+ years between our ages.

Ruth Malona Boedefeld was born in Tacoma, Washington on October 4, 1892, joining her five-year-old sister Beatrice in the family. The two sisters became fast friends.

The little family moved back east to Elkhart, Indiana, when the girls were still small, and there they grew up. They had a wide circle of friends, always headed by Bee, who was the acknowledged leader of all their acquaintance. She was called “Queen Bee,” and Ruth was her first attendant in her court.

They imagined all kinds of games and thought up plays and elaborate costumed scenarios to enact on the long summer days between school years.

Ruth completed her schooling in Elkhart in 1911 or 1912, and then she cast about for something more to do. Her sister was working for the local newspaper, and when she left to spend the summer of 1916 in Yellowstone National Park, Ruth took her place as a substitute reporter. Bee was a gifted writer, but Ruth’s talent filled in very well.

Ruth was always active in the Episcopal Church. She grew up in a musical family, with all the members of the family singing in the church choir. She participated in all the church socials as well, and she taught in the Sunday schools. She played the piano very well, but she didn’t continue with it after she was an adult.

Ruth was an attractive young woman, with naturally curly red hair and sparkling blue eyes, a dimple in her chin and a cute upturned nose. She had a lot of boyfriends, more even than her vivacious sister. But somehow none of them quite worked out permanently.

When the World War came along in 1917, Ruth began training to be a nurse. She joined the Army and went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Nurses were assigned as lower-grade officers to keep them from fraternizing with the enlisted men, but of course human nature got around the rules and the young women were often out on dates with the men.

Ruth was out on a group date with a couple of her fellow nurses and an enlisted man for each of them when she had an accident. They had a jeep, and the roads in those days were mostly not paved yet. We don’t know where they were, but it was likely a moonlight picnic out in the country somewhere, because as they were returning to drop the nurses off at the hospital, they hit an almighty bump at too great a speed, and Ruth was bounced right out of the jeep onto the road! It hurt a great deal, but she didn’t think anything was broken. Her fellow nurses got her into the hospital and treated her as well as they could, but they couldn’t report it or get a doctor to look at her, because then they all would have been facing official punishment, as well as involving the enlisted men, which could have led to pretty serious problems for all of them.

So Ruth suffered and got along as best she could. The accident had life-long consequences for her though. She became lame from arthritis in that hip before she was 40, and for the rest of her life she shuffled with increasing difficulty, relying ever more heavily on her grandfather’s famous Civil War cane for support.

But it didn’t stop her from having plenty of adventures. She was a full-fledged nurse, and after the War was over, she went home and worked in the hospital there.

In 1922 her father died, and as her mother, who had been reared in Oregon, longed to return to her beloved Northwest, Ruth and her mother moved to Portland, Oregon. Bee had married and was living in Wyoming at the time; she had a baby son too, and Ruth and her mother were able to see them on the way to their new home. Bee and her little family soon moved to Portland too.

Ruth and a few of her professional colleagues decided to try starting a Visiting Nurses Association to provide home health care for people who couldn’t get out of their houses. It was a huge success and Ruth was active in the Association until her retirement.

Meanwhile, she and her mother did some traveling every time Ruth had a vacation. They took the train, which at the time could be quite a luxurious way to travel. And they had the money, thanks to Ruth’s earnings and careful handling of their finances, to go in style.

Sadly, Ruth’s sister, Bee, died in 1936, and Bee’s widowed husband remarried within a year. Ruth’s mother was furious. She didn’t consider that he had grieved long enough, and she felt that it was his duty to marry Ruth if he was going to remarry at all. Ruth did not share the feeling--while she liked her brother-in-law, she had no inclination at all to have a romance with him, let alone marry him.

But Ruth’s nephew was another story. She doted on the boy, and he loved his Aunt Ruth and his Grammy very much. His father was a traveling salesman, and he wasn’t at home very much. Ruth and her mother offered to take the boy into their home and see to it that he completed his education. When the father announced that he was going to marry again, the boy was very excited. He liked his father’s girlfriend very much and was happy that his dad was going to be happy again. But when he took his exciting news home to his Grammy and Aunt Ruth, there was a terrible scene. He was told never to mention his father’s name again in that house. There was a further terrible fight between his father and his grandmother, and his grandmother won. The boy remained in her and Aunt Ruth’s household for the rest of his high school career, and beyond.

Ruth did not feel the same way her mother did. She liked her brother-in-law’s new wife, and she made friends as far as was possible. She convinced her mother that the boy must be allowed to visit regularly at his father’s house and to participate in his father’s family.

World War II started, and Ruth’s nephew had graduated from high school and after a few odd jobs started working for Boeing Aircraft. He received a draft notice in Seattle and decided to enlist. Because of his technical high school background and high marks on the tests the Army gave him, he was sent for further training to various colleges, one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then a transfer to New Mexico, and finally he was posted to Point Barrow, Alaska, to work on the communications system for the entire Pacific Theater. Ruth and her mother were extremely proud of their boy. They were also relieved that because of his intelligence and skills, he was not sent into combat.

Ruth’s mother had a stroke just before she turned 80, and she died in January 1945. Ruth sent a telegram to her nephew, but he couldn’t come home yet. Ruth settled her mother’s estate and welcomed her nephew home in the springtime. He was out of the Army and began to use the G.I. Bill to finish his college training in electrical engineering at Oregon State College. So Ruth was alone once more.

She continued nursing and working on community projects.

Her nephew met a young woman in 1947 and married her in the spring of 1948 when the couple both graduated—he with his bachelor’s degree, and she with her high school diploma. They moved immediately to Pennsylvania where he began working in the infant picture-tube industry at the dawn of television.

Ruth and a friend decided to visit the Orient on their next vacation. In the early 1950s they took a cruise to Hawaii and Japan. They were gone several months and brought back wonderful things.

When Ruth’s nephew and his wife had children, Ruth knitted them socks every year. Her argyle socks were always a feature of Christmas morning gifts. She knitted each child a special Christmas stocking, with the child’s name knitted right into the sock at the top, and little Christmas pictures knitted into the sides of the stocking.

Her nephew was transferred to California, and every fall Ruth took the train from Portland south to the Bay Area to visit them for a week or two around her birthday. She loved being around her nephew and his family. The children were certainly a rambunctious, noisy crowd, but she never minded. She had a great sense of humor and laughed a lot.

She had a hard time by then getting around. It hurt her to walk, and she moved with difficulty everywhere she went.

When she would come down to California to visit us, we always spent a day going to see her cousin Clara, who lived north of San Francisco. Clara was actually the widow of her cousin Ralph, who had died in the 1930s. But Clara and Ruth were close friends, and Clara always welcomed us. Well, she welcomed our parents, and my sister and me, who were pretty quiet girls. But our brothers, not so much. Our four older brothers were the noisy, rambunctious ones, and as soon as they were old enough to leave home, our parents left them home. I always loved the drive up to Marin, across the Golden Gate Bridge. When I was little, I thought the tall red towers were giants, standing in the water and holding up the bridge by its cables.

Ruth lived in a beautiful old apartment in downtown Portland. In it she had a lot of old-fashioned furniture, and wonderful old photograph albums to look at. We went to Portland for Christmas in 1967 and spent a lot of the time visiting her at her apartment. I think we went there for Christmas dinner. I spent most of the time behind one of the chairs in the living room, stretched out on the rug, perusing those old photograph albums.

I saw the pictures of her trip to the Orient, and before that, trips to Canada and all around the USA. I saw pictures of when she was young, and of a certain boyfriend who accompanied Ruth and her parents on a picnic out in the woods somewhere in Indiana. Ruth and the boyfriend were holding both their hands and spinning in a circle in one picture, leaning back from each other and laughing. I thought it was the most romantic photograph ever and wanted to know what had happened to the boyfriend. I was most disappointed to hear that she didn’t know what had happened to him and couldn’t remember why they had even parted company. She didn’t even remember his name.

I could hardly believe it. How could she not remember anything about a boyfriend who had been important enough to invite on a family picnic with her parents, and whose photographs had been important enough to save throughout her life? I was sure I would never, ever forget a boyfriend that important, if I ever had one, of course.

I remember that Aunt Ruth had worn one of her green printed silk dresses for that dinner. She always wore pretty silk dresses, and she always had on hose and black heeled court shoes. She generally had on a bead necklace, but nothing expensive.

She let me go through her jewelry and gave me a beautiful, big opal ring that fit on my pinky finger. The opal was big, but the ring was tiny. I had small hands, so that pinky ring really was very small, though the opal itself covered from my knuckle to the joint where my finger started. My sister picked out a carnelian cameo ring. There were some other cameos that she gave us too. There was a gold pendant watch with the letter B engraved in very fancy script on the back that she gave me, and I immediately started wearing it, every day.

She gave me an amber ring that was much too big for any of my fingers. There was also an amber pendant that she gave me, and some other jewelry. Some of the jewelry I have now was first given to my mother, and when I liked it so much, she later gave it to me. I have all of the opal rings that the two sisters had, for both their birthdays were in October. They gave my mother an antique amethyst pendant on a silver chain, with matching amethyst drops attached to screw-type ear cuffs with tiny silver chains. Amethyst was my mother’s birthstone and had been Aunt Ruth’s father’s.

A few years after that Christmas Ruth was struggling on the steps to the basement where the laundry was for her apartment house. She fell and broke her hip.

My father took some days off work to fly to Portland and help her. I was given the grand opportunity to go along and take my first airplane trip. I was saddened to see Aunt Ruth, stuck in a bed and seeming very frail indeed.

My father and I had to go through her things, sort what was needed immediately, and hire a firm to have the rest packed up and shipped to our house in California. We had to see her lawyer, a very formidable and regal-looking old lady, probably one of the first women to become a lawyer in Oregon now that I think about it. She had a set of Dickens books in her office, and I couldn’t resist looking at them, but I didn’t touch anything. I just sat right by the bookcase and read and reread every title. She asked me if I would like to borrow one of the books, and I picked David Copperfield. She said I could borrow it if I promised to read it all, and if I would write to her what I thought. I promised, and that summer fell completely in love with that book.

We took Aunt Ruth on the plane with us to California and moved her into a nursing home near our house. We went every week to see her. Sometimes I thought it was a chore, but I was a teenager, firmly in the selfish, I’m-the-center-of-the-universe stage of life. Or maybe not so much, because I really liked Aunt Ruth’s stories. I had by then discovered my grandmother’s diaries, those of Ruth’s sister, Bee, in which she detailed all their youthful adventures. Aunt Ruth enjoyed discussing those stories with me and reliving all the fun they had had as young girls.

Aunt Ruth was determined to walk again. She went faithfully to her therapy every day, and one day she told us that she had something special to show us. She was helped into her wheelchair, and we were all taken down to the therapy room. She was positioned at the ends of the parallel bars, and she grasped them with her hands and hauled herself to her feet. With both hands on the parallel bars, she slowly and painfully made her way three or four steps forward. We cheered. I thought to myself that here was a kind of determination that I should try to emulate throughout my life. I felt admiration and love for her grow in me.

Aunt Ruth never did become able to to walk enough to move out of the nursing home and into our house. My mother was working and couldn’t take care of her needs, so she had to stay in the care center. She was able to come to our house every so often for special occasions, but as the years went by it was quite an ordeal for her and us.

When my parents moved to Oregon after I had graduated from high school, they intended to move Aunt Ruth with them but delayed until they had been able to build their house. I didn’t move to Oregon with them at that time. I was working and thinking whether I wanted to go to college or not. I didn’t own a car at the time; I rode everywhere on my bicycle and at night got rides with friends. I rode my bike every Sunday after church to see Aunt Ruth that year. We talked and talked. I told her all my adventures (I was having a lot of adventures in those days!) and we reminisced about the past a lot. I loved hearing more stories about my grandmother, who had died so many years before I was born.

I really missed Aunt Ruth after my parents moved her up to Oregon. Now I think I really missed my chance during all those conversations to get her to talk about herself. She never did talk much about her own life. She much preferred telling about others.

I went to Oregon on a vacation and went to see Aunt Ruth. She had become very frail and was no longer walking. It wasn’t as good a nursing home as the one in California. I left, very depressed about her situation.

I went off to college and in the summer back to Oregon to my parents’ home. We visited Aunt Ruth, but she was wandering in her mind and barely knew who we were. My sister and I were working for the summer, so we stayed home while our parents went down to California for the graduation of one of our brothers from University of California at Santa Barbara. While they were gone, Aunt Ruth died. We got a phone call from the nursing home, and we immediately went there to take care of things.

We met with the director, and with the mortician, and we arranged for the crypt at the mausoleum in Portland where Ruth’s mother and sister were entombed. When our parents came home, the four of us held our own little service for Aunt Ruth.

If I were within reach, I would leave her flowers every Sunday.

I will end this part with an Easter greeting card from the the era when Ruth would have sent them to her friends. Easter for her was the holiest day of the year, and since I am posting this on Maundy Thursday, she would have appreciated the card right now.

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