Grandma Ruthie: Reflections on a Woman Made of Steel

My dad, in a photo that looks remarkably like my son.

My dad’s mother was a very tough lady.

I knew her as a retired Rosie the Riveter, a woman who lived on a beautiful, large estate she had fully paid for, in the middle of a decaying neighborhood. She raised chickens and you could play four holes of golf on her grounds. Most of all, I remember she had a playhouse for her grandchildren fully stocked with ice cream and Oreo cookies, splendors that were not allowed at home.

Grandma Ruthie raised four children pretty much on her own. They were all very successful in their own ways. My father was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and he nearly died from pneumonia as an infant. Family legend has it that he survived because of an ice bath. Shortly after, my grandmother and her whole family moved to Southern California where war jobs offered high incomes. Grandma Ruthie became a worker, then quickly a forewoman in charge of inspecting fuel cells at a factory. She eventually became a union representative. Throughout her home, she had various certificates and photos of herself throughout her storied career. I remember those well.

Frankly, she scared me. A product of the Depression, she thought I was soft. Spoiled. She made me eat things I didn’t want to eat (with the promise of Oreo cookies) and didn’t understand my gag reflex, my urge to vomit that food which disgusted me. “When I was little, we ate what was on the table, or we starved,” she would lecture me, perplexed.

It is only now, as I watch “The Dust Bowl” and after I suffered my own bout with infertility and loss, that I begin to understand where she was coming from. The hard times that hit the Southern Plains in the 1930s: we can’t even really imagine the hell it was to survive that. The documentary talked a lot about how destructive hope was to the farmers in the Dust Bowl and, well. I think we all know how awful our frenemy hope can be in this community.

I can never understand Grandma Ruthie’s plight: a widow suddenly responsible for four children, who knew what it was to starve, who often ate Spam, but who encouraged her children above all, to educate themselves. Who was an American success story. Who looked at her granddaughter and worried that she was soft, because she lived on a beach, and wouldn’t eat food she disliked. I know that ultimately why she was so hard on me was because she worried about how I might meet the tough times. The times that she knew would inevitably come.

Grandma Ruthie: I hope maybe you underestimated my resilience. I like to think that though I grew up not wanting for anything, I carried an inner toughness maybe you didn’t suspect. I think perhaps I had an iron core within my “hothouse flower” exterior. And that enabled me to eventually conceive and carry your great-grandchildren, who I wish you could meet. I think you would be utterly enchanted by my son’s engineer brain (he would have loved to learn about the fuel cells and what you were looking to go awry) and my stubborn daughter, who is made out of visible steel.

You were a heroine, Grandma Ruthie. I wish I would have told you that, while you were living.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Grandma Ruthie: Reflections on a Woman Made of Steel

  1. Oh wow, that is EXACTLY your son’s face. I actually see it even more in the second photo.

    What an amazing lady. I do think hard times yield some pretty strong & impressive people. My husband’s paternal grandmother was also a single mom in the 1940s, and my aunt’s mother a single mom of four in the 1960s, and both were tough, hardworking ladies. I think Grandma Ruthie (awesome name!) would have appreciated this tribute 🙂

  2. What a great post! I am sure that Grandma Ruthie would have been honored that you took the time to write about her and she would be very proud of you and all that you have come through.

  3. It makes me sad to think that your grandmother thought you were soft 😦 She sounds like an amazing woman. My grandparents from that generation were very tough as well. I can’t imagine living through what they had to endure.

  4. Your grandmother sounds…intense. And I’m sure she’d be proud to see how you’ve weathered the (significant) storms of your life.

  5. My grandparents thought the same of my sisters, cousins and me. In some ways, we are soft. Cold shower — once a week? Re-use someone else’s bath water? No way.

    I definitely see strands of your grandmother in you. You have her toughness, just in different ways.

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