Looking for Ruth: A Family Story

Ruth Yearbook PhotoWhen my mother was thirty-nine, her parents sat her down. It’s difficult for me to imagine her being seated like a child before her parents on a sunny afternoon, shifting uncertainly on an old sofa. Waiting, wondering; having not a clue what it was all about, not knowing how her concept of her history was about to experience irrevocable change.

My mother (who morally objects to the term ‘mother’ and adamantly prefers “Mom”) is a strong woman. Always has been. She grew up with the Beatles and social change and rock and roll. She was invited to Woodstock by a friend, though, to my eternal dismay decided to not to attend. She was married by twenty-two, and divorced at twenty-nine, which left her to raise my young brother and infant sister on her own. She delivered newspapers to make ends meet, driving up and down roads on early Sunday mornings with my sister asleep in the back seat and my brother tossing newspapers out the window. My mom put herself through a Masters program. She got things done. At thirty-one she met my father. At thirty-two they married. And at thirty-nine, just as they were deciding to have another child, my mother’s parents sat her down and they told her. They divulged the secret they’d been keeping, the secret apparently everyone knew but her: that her mother was not in fact her mother, not by blood anyway. Her birth mother’s name was Ruth. She died in 1950, when my mother was one and a half, and with her death a lie was born within our family, a lie that lasted nearly forty years.

The thing that struck my mother was that everyone knew, literally everyone, including her siblings. Her elder sister, who’d been a little older when Ruth had died, still possessed vague memories of those early years. Their younger brother, born to my grandfather’s second wife, Lillian, had done the math. Lillian was still overseas in the army the year my aunt was born. No one ever bothered to tell my mother, and she never questioned it. Who would? Who, after a lifetime, would question that her parents were her parents?

The reason my grandparents had decided to at last tell my mother the truth about her birth was that Ruth’s sister was dying. This woman, Edna, had taken my aunt and mother in shortly after Ruth’s death. Her own daughter had died years before and she welcomed in her nieces, even going so far as wanting to adopt my mom, a sweet little baby in whom she saw her second chance. My grandfather said no. They had fought, and hadn’t spoken since, but my grandfather remembered her in the end, and understood the way she’d felt; respected it, maybe, because when she was dying in the hospital he saw fit to tell my mother, and in doing so was forced to explain her connection to this woman, the last link to Ruth.

Shortly after my grandparents revealed the truth, Edna passed away. This left my mother with a head full of questions and no end in sight. Lillian hadn’t known much about Ruth and my grandfather, who’d spent so many years suppressing that part of his life, and could barely remember (or didn’t want to.) It’s difficult to know what he did or didn’t know by that point. He was a kind man, a good father. He kept a lot in; in their family, you were raised not to discuss certain things. And so, when my mom went to him with questions, he didn’t have many answers.

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