Seeing Ruth


This year, my grandma Ruth would have been 94. I keep this photo as a reminder of my foundations, especially the string that connects me to her. The camera captured her holding a rifle, but my eye is always drawn to her confident stance, spring-coiled with kinetic energy. Flanked by my grandpa Earl and his brother Leo, her back is straight and she knows where to aim.

They had driven a 1938 Dodge to somewhere outside Anita, Iowa. It’s summer 1945. World War II is over in Europe, and in its last Pacific Theater days. The men – Earl on leave and Leo separated from the Army Air Corps – wear parts of their Army-issued uniforms, as they didn’t have much more. They have the same outfit on. Ruth’s sartorial identity is all her own. Leo looks at Earl as if to say, “this woman can shoot.” Or maybe, “I’m out of here.” But Earl looks in the direction Ruth is pointing – always at the horizon. He knows she always knew where to aim. She is fortitude.

Born a few months apart and less than a decade before the Great Depression, Ruth and Earl were both children of a rural Iowa landscape. And they were quiet giants. She was explosive, eyes boring certitude into all they surveyed. A bird of prey – exacting in her choices but deadly with the target. His strength was kept in a place that always found the light. He made it home from a war that was designed to kill as efficiently as possible, and she made life after so much death possible. She was a protector.

There is still a lot I don’t know about her, and try to imagine from photos like this one. In reality, I only have drawing-on-a-napkin-type impressions. Her younger sister Leah died as an infant. Her older brother John was a WWII Marine and then an FBI agent who found and kept secrets for a living. Her grandfather was a Union soldier briefly imprisoned in Andersonville. A strain of hocus pocus went on for generations – in a bit of reverse divination, my first and middle names are those of Ruth’s father and mother, respectively. And my sister bears the name of the lost baby. My parents claim these people from the near past didn’t factor into naming. But the conjuring is strong.

Rooted in these shrouded stories, Ruth defied the time she was born into. She had a courage of bearing, and was the developer of Earl’s beta. He could build or fix anything, but it was through her force of will that he could start an auto body and bear the burden of combat memories. She listened to him, fully, but there was nothing passive about it. Sensing her queenness, the family dog Fred brought her still-writhing snakes as tribute.

I look at this photo every day, revel in it. I realize I have built an array of talismans that tell me who I am, whether they are stories, images, or artifacts. But they embody so much about what came before. We bestow certain objects with power, but that power had to exist in some other form. There is something alive still. I hold onto an idea of transmigration – Ruth’s strength and intelligence survive in this photo, and I have a voodoo hope that it bestows my life with some of her exactitude. She is the backbone of everything.


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