Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2003 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan 5764
Remembering an era as it ends
WILMINGTON, Ill. This is how eras end.
The sky is slate-gray with clouds that promise - but do not deliver - rain. The earth dug out for my Aunt Ruth's grave is oddly reddish - or at any rate the rich golden-bronze color of desert seen at sunset from 35,000 feet.
We are here at Oakwood Cemetery to put Ruthie's remains into the ground next to those of Uncle Hal, who died nearly six years ago after Alzheimer's disease scrambled his productive brain.
Ruth Elizabeth Helander Nelson (sometimes, for reasons not quite clear to anyone, including Ruth, we called her Aunt Boo) was my late mother's only sibling. Now both Mom and Ruthie are gone, as are their parents, my grandparents, Swedish immigrants who lived long and useful lives until the late 1960s.
But now the era of these two turn-of-the-century sojourners and the two children they reared on fecund Illinois farmland has ended with Ruth's unexpected death at age 84.
As we stand here next to Ruth's maple-wood coffin, saying a prayer of thanks for her life, it seems to me that somewhere in the universe a gear is turning, a calendar page flipping. Somehow part of the story of humanity's remarkable journey has come to this unsettling end.
But, of course, the story never really ends. Ruth and Hal were unable to have children. But my three sisters and I in effect became their children. And now the four of us have children and those children have begun having children of their own.
So the story's long arc, which began in forgotten mists in Sweden, continues to curve toward the horizon. And those of us standing here on this autumn day can see only part of it, but it's the part that includes the end of Ruth. And yet the end of a generation is not all sorrow. It also offers us the occasion for remembering with gratitude the journey its members now have completed.
Ruthie was born in 1919, the year after the end of the war meant to end all wars. Six years my mother's junior, Ruth was a bright, pretty girl who, unlike my mother, learned English first. My mother's first language was Swedish. But when she first went off to grade school, her parents realized she hadn't learned enough English to get along. So they vowed to speak only English in their home.
Even though the Great Depression raged, my grandparents managed to send first Mom and then Ruth off to get degrees at the University of Illinois. Ruthie got a business degree in 1941 and soon worked as a systems engineer and taught computer systems for IBM in the early 1940s. She was a woman ahead of her time.
She married her college sweetheart in 1942, but continued to work because Hal was a career military man and there was a world war for him to help win.
Ruth got interested in the complex world of finance. She bought some stocks and followed their progress in the newspaper. The week of her death, she was still doing that - and doing it well.
I do not expect you to have any special feelings for Ruth or Hal or my parents or their parents, all now dead. But I do think it's worth our while to pay attention to the people who have journeyed ahead of us, who have given us models for how to live (and sometimes how not to).
When Hal was in his 50s, he started jumping out of airplanes as a parachutist. We cheered his bravery. And Ruth, in her later years, showed us how to be spontaneously generous with whatever resources we had.
All this is a sharp reminder that people learn from what we do at least as much as they learn from what we say.
One of my daughters is here at the funeral today, as are the two children of one of my sisters. They will have their own memories of time spent with Ruth, but it's good for them also to hear our own stories about her, to see photos of her as a young woman and, much later, as the caregiver to Hal when she had to move him to a nursing home.
We all need to know we came from someplace, from families that helped to shape who we are and will be. And when eras end, we should stop and notice, stop and honor those who gave it meaning.
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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved