Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Story of Ruth

A life well-lived. Can any of us ask for more than that? And yet some just seem to do it better than others. Ruth Poteete was one such person.

I met Ruth many years ago when we moved to Mulvane and she was our mail lady. She always delivered the mail with a smile and in the spring and summer she would often stop and visit with my mother who spent every waking moment in the yard when the weather allowed.

It wasn't until my sophomore year in high school that I connected Ruth to a very pretty, shy girl in my class named Berty. Berty and I had gone to school together for 3 years but not until I practically attacked her in Foods class asking her about her older brother whom every girl in the school had a crush on, that we actually met. I guess my big mouth and her shyness were the perfect match and from that moment on......we were friends.

Berty came from a large family (12 kids to be exact....6 boys and 6 girls) who were headed up by Ray and Ruth Poteete. Ray by this time was retired military working for the post office and between the post office, working on his passion wood working and his other passion running.....he wasn't often around and when he was, he kept to himself. Ruth on the other hand was around. She ran her home with the efficiency that only a military wife with 12 kids can. Her word was law and even though she was small in stature.....she could be a force to be reckoned with. I was privy to a couple of situations where I witnessed the wrath of Ruth and no one doubted that she meant business.

Ruth's home was a welcoming home with a door leading from the garage to the kitchen that was perpetually open. Along with her own 12 kids a steady stream of extended family and friends came and went through that door over the years....and always they were welcomed by Ruth with an ease that was both inviting and comforting. Looking back though....I suspect that after 12 kids....nothing much surprised her nor rocked her world to any extent.

When I first started going to the Poteete's on a regular was sort of a fantasy land for me. There was constant commotion, laughter, yelling and just plain life going on in that house and most of it taking place in the kitchen. To a girl with one brother who spent a great deal of her time alone.....this was a world I had only dreamed of. My fantasy though was their reality and I am sure they saw their house with different eyes than I did.

I think the thing I liked most about going to the Poteete's was Ruth's reaction to my being there. Her reaction was simply no reaction at all. If I was there.....I was treated like everyone else which meant I might be handed a dish towel and told to dry dishes, or a dust rag and told to go dust something. Often on Sunday's I was put on "Thiry duty," and told to go find Thiry (Berty's younger sister) who would always mysteriously disappear when she was suppose to be helping fry chicken or do dishes. I always found her hiding somewhere trying to sleep. I once even found her in the tub with the shower door shut. Ahhh....good times.

As Thiry got older, she, Berty and I became inseparable. Every Friday and Saturday night (and sometimes Mon.-Friday night too) we were gone. However, Ruth's rule was no one went anywhere on Saturday until the house was clean. This often meant that I was recruited to help in order to speed the process up. Looking back this is rather amusing as my house cleaning skills would never have and I am sure never did pass the careful inspection of Ruth. Even her own daughters were known to have to go back and redo a job more than once on more than one occasion which explained Berty's belief that things were never clean enough for her mom because she obviously had dirt in her eye. Possibly though.....Berty should have expressed this thought when her mother was not within ear shot as I believe her opinion was met with the evil "Poteete look!" If you have seen know the look  I am referring to and Ruth passed that look onto each of her children! Go ahead....tick one off and see what kind of look you get! LOL

Every Sunday the house on Greenwich was alive with people. After Mass everyone gathered for fried chicken and a pot luck of assorted foods in the Poteete kitchen. For years every Sunday I could make it....I was there. My mother would have had a nervous break down having her house full of people, noise and commotion every week, but Ruth took it all in stride. In fact she seemed to thrive on having her family around and she could always be found holding a grandchild and enjoying the company of her children. After dinner when the kitchen was clean and everyone was just sitting around...Ruth would often tell stories of her past growing up in Moline, KS or about adventures she had had in Japan, the Phillipines or many of the other places she and Ray had traveled while he was in the military. My favorite story was of her experience being in the Udal, KS tornado back in the 1950's. The tornado virtually wiped out the whole town and because of the time it hit (night) there was no warning. It was a frightening experience to say the least, but like everything else....Ruth seemed to take it in stride.

Ruth had her onery side too. The Poteete house was always inundated with animals, but they were never allowed in doors. My two favorite animals where Bogart and Dinky. Bogart was weiner dog mix and Dinky was Heinz 57 whose mother was Bogart and whose father could have been any dog. Well one of them (can't remember which one) had puppies. They were so cute but Ruth had no intention of keeping more dogs so they were being given to anyone who would take them. There was one left and she was so cute. She was black and white and I loved anything puppish. Ruth knew it and told me to take the puppy home. I knew taking that dog home was going to ensue the wrath of my mother and I really did not want to go there. I told Ruth I better not, as I fawned over the puppy and then tried to hand her over to Ruth. Ruth was having none of that. She gently handed the puppy back to me and said, "go ahead. Your mother won't mind. Just tell her I said it was okay." Now I knew my mother and I knew it would NOT be okay. But I wanted that puppy so I decided to sneak her home and Ruth being the "generous" lady she was even provided me the box to sneak her home in and food to tide me over until I had found a way to break our new little addition to Mom.

As I knew would mother about busted a kidney when she found out that I smuggled contraband in the form of a puppy into her house. As I stood there watching the vein in my mothers forehead throb as she was telling me not just NO....but HELL NO.....I burst out...."but Mom....Mrs. Poteete said it was okay." Normally telling my mother that someone elses mother had okayed something, thus trying to trump her would have been hazardous to everyone's health involved. But not this time. Mom picked up the puppy, looked it over and said...."She is pretty cute. Fine....we'll keep her." It was a WOW moment.

One of the reasons I liked Ruth so much was because she seemed so different from my own mother. As kids often do when they are less than pleased with their own parents....they compare them to other parents. When I was mad at my mother....I am sure Ruth was thrown in her face on more than one occasion. I always saw them as polar opposites until one evening. I am not sure whether Ruth was looking for a child, picking up a child, or just needed a break and for whatever reason ended up at my house. I know though that it was an unusual occurrence as to my knowledge other than their chats when Ruth was a mail lady and a few necessary chats regarding Berty and I....they had never really talked. Mom invited her in and they sat down in the kitchen and began a conversation that lasted at least a couple of hours. I perched myself on the stairs where I could hear but not be seen and listened as these two women whom had seemed so very different to me, suddenly became more and more alike. Both were brought up small town Catholic girls but that is where I thought the similarities ended. The reality was Mom was a single parent and Ruth often felt like one. Both had to put up with a great deal from the men in their lives and both were suffering through their childrens teen angst. Both also hand younger children at home whom they were trying to sheild from the older ones shenanigans. The way they talked you could tell that in many ways.....they were kindred spirits. Amazingly....Ruth had many nice things to say about me to my mother and she let her know that she was glad that Berty and I had found each other as she felt my "personality" had helped to draw Berty out. Mom of course felt that Berty had a settling effect on me and was so happy that I had a friend such as her. It was a surreal moment....these two so very different seeming women.....suddenly showing themselves to be very much alike. It was also surreal because a moment like that never again happened for these two. They ran into each other from time to time and again had a few obligatory phone conversations....but never again did such a conversation take place between them. Also...never again did I compare the two or throw Ruth in mom's face.

As the years went on.....I was invited into not only Ruth's home but also Ruth's family. She seemed to know that her family filled a void in my life and she told me on more than one occasion that I was around so much....she had decided to make me on honorary Poteete. It was an honor. I was even invited to a Christmas or two....which again was different than the Christmas's I had grown up with. With 12 kids you would go into the poor house trying to buy for everyone so Ruth stuck to the true meaning of Christmas raising her brood and taught them that it was about the giving NOT the receiving. Christmas at Ruth's was celebrated after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Everyone came back to the house where of course....there was food galore and then gifts were open. Ruth's gift to everyone was always.....socks. When I got my first pair of socks.....I almost cried. It truly meant I was part of the family (in my head The kids, who had drawn names the previous Christmas Eve....then presented each other with gifts that they had hand made. I remember a Christmas or two both Berty and Thiry panicking because come Dec. 23rd they had not as yet completed their gifts. It was a beautiful tradition which left a lasting impression on the character of Ruth's  children.

When the last of their children were out of high school, Ray and Ruth decided to leave that wonderful house on Greenwich and move to rural spot in eastern KS, then eventually they moved to Emporia and then Topeka. I missed the Sunday dinners and seeing a house full of Poteete's on a regular basis. But whether I had a wedding, a baby shower, a baby or any other major event in my life....Ruth always seemed to find a way to be present for it. Every Christmas....hers was the card I looked forward to getting and every special Poteete occasion that I could make it to.....I so looked forward to seeing her. She always seemed to be laughing and enjoying this new found stage in her life. I will always picture her with her beautiful white hair, her wonderful laugh and her glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. And her famous words to everything...."oh my!" 

When my husband died....she was there at the funeral. Ruth had never really been a verbally demonstrative person. Her feelings for others were always conveyed through her actions. I remember very little about that day. I remember it was hot, Thiry was pregnant and Berty, Dan (Berty's husband) and all their girls were there. Other than that....I remember little else....except for Ruth. She came up to me with tears in her eyes and hugged me. She said, "Lisa....I wish this hadn't happened to you. I am so sorry. I love you." Those words touched me more than anyone will ever know and like many other things about Ruth....will hold a special place in  my heart.

Later, when my own mother died....Ruth again touched me with her words. She let me know that she was always there for me.....that I was her honorary daughter and that if I ever needed her.....she was only a phone call away. I never dialed that number....but it was always a comfort to know that if I had ....the voice on the other end would have been one of love and compassion. It would have been Ruth.

When I heard Ruth had been diagnosed with Parkinson's I truly was not worried. Maybe it was my lack of knowledge about the disease....or maybe it was just how well I knew Ruth, but I felt Ruth was stronger than any disease. With the proper medical care....I figured this was merely a speed bump in the life of such a strong woman.

I was thrilled beyond words when I heard that Ray and Ruth were moving back to Mulvane. I envisioned getting to spend some good old fashioned Poeete time again with this amazing family. I had hopes of Sunday dinners with lots of noise and chaos and heck.....I might even go help clean on a Saturday for old time sake. The move however coincided with Ruth having med issues and her Parkinson's giving her a run for her money. I was having a garage sale and Ruth had some stuff she wanted me to sell. As I sat there in my garage...I saw an elderly woman pull up and get out of her car. She literally was shuffling very slowly to get across the street. Not until she was half way up my drive did I realize this was Ruth. She sat and talked for awhile and told me her meds were giving her fits. She let me know in no uncertain terms though.....this was merely a set back and as soon as her meds were adjusted, she would be back to her old self. She was right. A few weeks later I rode my bike by her house to find her walking in the yard picking up sticks and much more her old self. I began to make that a regular bike/walk route and would stop and visit anytime she was out.

In April of 2010 it was discovered that Ruth needed a heart valve replacement and a valve repair. She had been tired and not feeling well and her heart valves appeared to be the culprit. It was felt that after the surgery....she would feel tremendously better. This was not to be the case. After her surgery it was one health issue after another. She had trouble with her Parkinson's, she was dizzy, she felt awful and old health issues became present health issues. She was either in the hospital or a rehab most of the time.....being able to spend only a short time at home.

When she was in the hospital she was at the same hospital where my youngest had weekly physical therapy. So on therapy days I would sneak off and go visit Ruth. Several times she was obviously feeling too bad to have I would go in, squeeze her hand, kiss her forehead and leave. She always managed a smile and a "thank you for coming by." One time though, when she was in the ICU.....I caught her on a good day. As I walked in a nurse was with her. Ruth seemed truly happy to see me and introduced me as her "honorary daughter." The nurse then laughed....."with all the daughters you already need an honorary one too?" I laughed too as I had always kind of felt the same way. Ruth however did not laugh. She simply said...."yes!" We proceeded to visit about Berty, Thiry, her grandkids, my kids, Ray, the hospital staff and jello. Every time I would start to leave she would squeeze my hand a little tighter. Finally when I knew my son would be just about done with PT.....I told Ruth I had to leave. She smiled and said..."I know." She then grabbed my hand and said..."I love you Lisa!" Tears rose in both our eyes. They drift down my cheek now as I write this, for what I didn't know then was that was the last conversation we would have....and those were her last words to me.

Ruth continued her trips in and out of the hospital over the next few months. Her body was getting tired and complications from her health issues were taking their toll. On Thanksgiving morning I talked to Berty who told me that the drs. had told them she was not going to get better. Thanksgiving evening Thiry called crying. That is a sound I have only heard a couple of times in 30+ years. Ruth was gone! The reality was processing. I left for the hospital to say goodbye. The whole trip up their I had thoughts of Sunday dinners, Christmas socks and a smiling Ruth with her glasses hanging from her neck. I also had the same sinking broken hearted feeling I had had nearly 8 years before as I drove this same route to the same hospital to say goodbye to my own mother. I also worried that maybe my need to say goodbye to this woman and my presence at such a time might be viewed as intrusive to the family. I hoped though that maybe my being their might offer some kind of solace in all of this sorrow. My fears were alieved when I walked in and Thiry grabbed my hand and said "Thank you for coming," and Berty hugged me with both relief and the understanding that only three decades of friendship can bring. I have no doubt that Ruth had designed it that I could not only come to say goodbye to my surragate mother but also so that I would be there with the two women who meant more to me than anyone else in the world.

At Ruths funeral....Father said: "She survived a Tsunami, a prairie grass fire, a devastating tornado, and an large earthquake." I think I knew all of this but wasn't sure. I did know however that she was a small town girl who married a man who became military. While he served, she was at home raising 12 kids. She had little patience for whining and even though she was small in stature she could put the fear of God in you (i.e. the Poteete look). She loved plants and birds and the outdoors, She laughed often, loved with all her heart and lived her life to the fullest. Yes.....Ruth's life was a life well spent. So Ruth, I thank you for making me one of your own. I thank you for the Sunday dinners, the explorations of your house to find Thiry, the puppy, the Christmas cards, the socks, and most of all...for giving me the two very best friends a person could have. I know you are in heaven sitting at the kitchen table discussing us girls with my mom. Please be kind! lol I love you beyond words and miss you dearly. So dear Ruth until we meet again....R.I.P.


Sunny said...

What an amazing woman. I feel like I knew her too now.

Berty said...

I'm too busy crying right now to comment more, but thank you Lisa for your story of remembrance. I know she loved you and so do I.


Thiry said...

That was wonderful Lisa and now my eyes are teary too...I don't get to hide anymore when its dinner time and I do know how to cut up a whole chicken...I know Berty wanted to choke me everytime my mother made her show me yet once again...

angie said...


shellove said...

What a beautiful tribute! I laughed and cried. I didn't get to know her well, but knew her beauty well as I know what I see in her girls, including you (in our family we call 'em "bonus kids"). Nicely done!

Rose Poteete said...

Thanks Lisa for your thoughts on our Mom. She truly was a one and only woman.She did not judge anyone instead, would like you, encompass you into her life. I believe there are other honorary children, as she loved people and would help anyone in need even though she had a hand full at home.She is truly missed by so many. I look forward to seeing her again in heaven.