by Mary Duggan
If you’ve been following along with the story behind our little business for awhile now, then you probably remember reading about our dear friend and neighbor, Ruth McNeill-Opyt.
We grew up in a big old corner farmhouse on one end of a long block in a tree-lined historic district on the South Side of Chicago. Ruthie lived in her tidy little dollhouse Georgian at the other end of that same long street. The very street where we, as sisters, still live and work to this day. Ruthie raised her 3 children at one end of the block; our mom raised her eleven at the other end. And while their lives did not cross often, they both held each other in very high esteem. Ruthie, a Protestant, used to say that she upheld one end of the block while our mother, a Catholic, upheld the other. Each of them referenced the other as always waving and having such a wonderful smile as they zipped past each other in cars filled with kids. A passing that lasted for decades.
When Clare was a little girl, she used to stop at Ruthie’s on her way home from school. She would settle into a lawn chair next to Ruthie’s beloved husband, Arthur, and fill him in on all the happenings from her day at St. Barnabas Grade School. Art was in retirement by then, and Ruthie used to love looking out her kitchen window at the two of them chatting and meeting a big need in each other’s life. Clare’s father had flown the coop when she was just a toddler, so she was always on the lookout for kind and interested father figures. Art’s career had ended and his kids were grown and gone, so Clare was a very bright and chatty spark that warmed his day. Art and Ruthie loved to garden and our mom always remembered the day Clare came home excited, her hand clenched in a tight fist. Inside that fist, harvested seeds from the pods of Ruthie’s prized poppies. To this day, self-seeding stragglers from those long ago poppies still come up each year in the small scrap of grass just outside Ruthie’s front door. Truly, Arthur, Ruth and Clare were the best of friends – though they were, of course, Mr. and Mrs. McNeill back in the formal days of our youth.
Many years later when it was time for me to buy my very first home, I landed back on the old block, landing somewhere in the middle of that long street, in a tiny little cottage from the turn of the century. Returning to the street of my childhood proved immediately to be a mixed bag emotionally. Geographically it placed me in the same neighborhood as my rapidly aging mom, so it was convenient. But emotionally it placed me knee-deep in happy childhood memories that did not sync up with the current day reality of less-than-friendly neighbors and a house with lots of hidden and expensive problems. As soon as I had accomplished the lion’s share of the unpacking, Clare encouraged me to go and find Ruthie. I’m sure she’s still there, she said. And she will make everything feel better.
She was and she did. Our lives overlapped for a little more than a year, before Ruthie wisely but oh-so-sadly put her house on the market and joined her kids in Florida where they could guarantee her daily doses of sunshine, safety and love. It was only one year; but it was a year I will treasure forever.
Just shy of 90 years of age, Ruthie was a pistol – funny, engaging, no nonsense and more loving than anyone I have ever known. We would sit for hours on her stoop swapping stories, laughing, and getting to know each other until our fannies ached from the concrete. Sometimes, when the weather was nice and time permitted Ruthie would even bring out a small pillow to sit upon. All the love I had known on that block as a child, but had not encountered upon my return so many decades later, was restored in my friendship with Ruthie.
Ruthie still drove and I can remember the day she came peeling down the street, and swerved quickly into my driveway. I have news, she said. Big, bad news. She would be moving to Florida. And with her would go my only friend on the block. Ruthie, who’d survived two wonderful marriages to two wonderful men. Ruthie, whose favorite color was red and so she wore it often. Ruthie, who so loved cardinals that most days her clothes had some sort of cardinal motif on them. Ruthie, the life long Cubs fan who never missed a game. Ruthie whose favorite bird, the cardinal, was so identified with her that her entire living room was full of variations on cardinal – from folk art to fine art, from schmaltz to lovely and everything in between. Cardinal tchotchkes were everyone’s gift of choice for their friend. And Ruthie had lots of friends.
But I was so sad when Ruthie gave me the news that I felt like I was losing my best friend on earth. Ruthie would be gone and with her would go all the love and all the wonderful stories. Rural life and growing up in Lodi, Wisconsin. Stories of her grandfather, the master German metal crafter, recruited to move to the US by P. T. Barnum himself who had a need for a man like him inside the circus. That same grandfather, and his subsequent marriage to the young woman hired to tutor him in English. And the oft-told family joke: of course, she’d taught him the critical phrase, “Will you marry me?” And other stories like the sad account of her young brother’s untimely death and Ruthie’s standard refrain when she had to recount anything tragic – “It was just one of those things.”
And of course her favorite stories of falling in love with Art, and him taking her to buy a navy blue velvet wedding dress. I broke all the rules, she said. He saw the dress before the wedding. He even bought the dress. And it wasn’t white. I broke all the rules, she’d say, and it didn’t matter one little bit. I had nothing but happiness with my Arthur and our wonderful children.
In the final days before her departure, Annie and I went down and packed up all the cardinals in Ruthie’s living room. I had never been inside her house before; we’d spent our friendship on her front stairs and my front porch. And so, of course, there were more stories; and Ruthie’s insistence that I pack up a few of the cardinals to remember her by. They sit on a red bookcase in my back sunroom. The former back porch now enclosed and perfect for bird watching. I don’t need much to make me remember Ruthie; but if I did, those 3 red birds would do it. One a cheesy drug store bird; one a finely carved folk art specimen; and one a small red feathered creation nestled on the perch of a wooden bird house.
Annie got the word of Ruthie’s passing via Facebook. It was early in the morning and she gave me the news with my first cup of coffee. Clare, who’d known Ruthie the longest, was the last to get the news. She stood then at the kitchen window, looking out on the bleak winter day, when she realized that the barren Burr Oak tree just across our driveway was filled to overflowing with cardinals. Cardinals are the state bird of Illinois. They are not uncommon. But this was a veritable convention of cardinals; male and female alike, a full-on chorus of cardinals, gathered here on the street where Ruthie had lived for 65 of her almost 100 years. In a flash they were gone. All of them; before Clare could gather us at the window. Ruthie.
Ruthie had made me promise that I would not cry when she died. I’ve led a wonderful life, she’d say. Don’t make a fuss, pluck a dandelion and lay it in the casket with me and let me go. No tears. I’ve had two wonderful husbands and I’ll enter the gates with one on each arm. Of course, I broke that promise.
Of the many conversations with Ruthie that I cherish the one I think that means the most to me began with Ruthie saying “you know, I have some favorite words.” Something no one had ever said to me, before or since. And she began to speak those words. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Wife. Mother. Aunt. Neighbor. Grandma. As she spoke the words, she counted off each one on her long and gently gnarled fingers. She had clearly done the count many times before. And then she ended with Child. Of. God.
I have truly loved, she said, being each of these words. These are my favorite words.
Her final words, child of God, had occupied many of our chats. Without the least little bit of preachiness, Ruthie always referenced her relationship with “the Lord.” Ruthie did not suffer fools, and she could be very astute in her observations of her neighbors and the folks that had passed through her life. If she ever observed or even heard about any kind of meanness, abusiveness, or cruelty of any sort she’d always say, “He was clearly a sick man, Mary. A very sick man.” She’d hang her head, wince deeply and say, “And a child of God.”
Ruthie lived simply – easy going was what she liked to call it. Her kids called. Her Grandkids called. They all visited regularly. Her beloved Cubs played their games. She went to her church and had her hair done. Red and tightly curled. “I suppose I’m completely white by now,” she said one day. “Maybe I should be doing something different. But really, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’ve been this color for so long.”
She didn’t give a fig for looks; and when she gave me a photograph to remember her by she handed it to me saying “here’s a little something for your dart board.” She encouraged me to remain prayerful, and told me on more than one occasion that if I ever felt that my prayers were not being heard and answered that I should give her a call. “I spend so much time with the Lord,” she said, “that maybe I’ve tied up the line. Let me know and I’ll clear off for you to get through.”
In Ruthie’s view of the world, the Lord had done right by her. When anyone said “God Bless You” to Ruthie, she always responded with “He has and he will again.”
Ruthie left us all on December 29, 2016. She had been 99 years old for just a few days. In the final summer of her life her beloved Cubs had finally won the World Series. And she died lovingly attended by her family. Which was probably her favorite word of all.
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About the author: Mary Duggan is Co-Founder and President of the Duggan Sisters – creators of lifestinks® – the natural deodorant that actually works and lifestings® DEET-free bug repellent.
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