Ruth Evelyn Jones, 1923 – 2016

The last time I saw my grandmother
The last time I saw my grandmother

In the years of the roaring 20s, Chester Finley and his sharp-eyed, capable wife Frances Finley were married. They had two young, bright sons – close in age – followed by a daughter Ruth. As young boys her brothers Russell and Richard started acting strangely. At the ages of about five and three (I think?), they stopped walking, stopped talking. They died not long after. I remember Grandma Finley showing me the pictures of them, dressed in their Sunday best, lying still in their coffins. She wept, sixty years later, for their lost beauty. What peace there might have been in that midwestern home was shattered. Frances – so strong and capable – could not bear the death of her sons and left her husband and quiet young daughter while she stayed with her parents. When I think about my grandmother, I think about this formative time. She rarely – never – talked about it. But I imagine that little girl with her patient, grieving father, and her lost brothers, and her missing mother.

I was told this story because there was a chance that the sudden lost of those two boys was a genetic flaw (four trouble free generations later, we suspect it was some sort of environmental poison they got into). Indeed, my great-grandparents never bore another child. They adopted Walter to help with the farm. Walter was mischief personified (from what I could tell) – a happy go lucky child in a serious family and it was my grandmother’s job to keep him out of trouble. Some jobs are impossible.

We gathered together for her 90th birthday
We gathered together for her 90th birthday

When the second world war put lie to the hope that the first had been the “war to end all wars”, Ruth was a young woman in a small midwestern town. The story here is shrouded, but my grandfather Virgil left for the war (he was a baker on the European front – but even the bakers saw some things that marred memories) with an understanding with one young woman. During the war, he and my grandmother (from the same small town) exchanged letters. After the war was over, the two of them got married. We have a beautiful hand-colored photo of them beneath a grape arbor, him in a dark suit and her wearing a simple white dress.

I have a story from her in a letter I cannot find (I probably put it somewhere “safe” – curse my bones!), where she talks of the post-WWII housing shortage. They lived those first year in a house that had been custom built for what she called a “midget couple” who had made their living in the circus. Grandma said she could cook dinner while sitting on the bed. I really wish I could find that letter.

In her own words… “Grandpa and I were not Christians when we were married. In our hearts we knew we would always feel unfulfilled as we were living. Then in January of 1948 our Wesleyan Church had a revival and we recommitted our lives to Jesus. Larry was born two months later – into a Godly home! We never looked back.” (April 11, 2006)

Larry Marcus was followed by Kathy Frances, who was followed by Renee. Each child was given the middle name of a grandparent, until they got to Renee. My grandmother could not stomach “Blanche” as a young girl’s name, even in the middle! (The result being that I don’t know Renee’s middle name! Edited: My mom says it is Evelyn, which was Blanche’s middle name!)

In 1954, the whole extended family moved to California in “Grapes of Wrath” type moment. (Well, everyone but Walter as far as I can tell.) They lived in a little house in Turlock California, with a big family and big garden. Brian Chester – the last of the children – joined them. My grandfather worked at an asphalt/construction company in accounting, and in 1963 my grandmother went to work, first at Farmer’s Insurance and then in the Merced Schools library.

At my parent's home
At my parent’s home

My grandmother described the home in Turlock, “Your Grandpa and I loved fixing the house on Locust Lane in Turlock (My mom says the house in Turlock was actually on Mitchell St, but we may need a family conference to get this all right). Grandpa hired a carpenter to put in metal liners in two deep drawers. One drawer held 25 lbs of flour, the smaller one, 10 lbs of sugar. He put lazy susans in the corner. Grandpa bought a big electric stove – the oven held 6 loaves of bread. Oh, did I bake in those days. We had an acre of land with lovely walnut trees and two apricot trees. My folks, the Finleys, lived in a trailer next door. Grandpa Finley irrigated the whole acre as it was needed. What a wonderful place for the children.”

The young family years are filled with tales of camping trips to Yosemite, grape arbors, camping cookies and gardens. My grandparents were, from that revival in 1948 until their dying breaths, extremely faithful and devoted Christians, following a Nazarene theology. They supported the building of a new church, and my grandfather was the church treasurer. (He actually had an office in the church, which I remember being very impressed by.) It was a very strict practice (no movies, no rock music, no face cards, no dancing – certainly no alcohol or smoking or indecency). This made for quite a culture clash with the ’60s, when the older children were teenagers. If there was a saving grace in that conflict, from what I can understand, it is that my grandparents were willing to live by the strictures they preached. There’s an old joke that you should always invite two Nazarenes fishing with you. If you invite only one, he’ll drink all your beer. Your beer would have been more than safe with my grandparents, I think.

My grandparent's home
My grandparent’s home

Around the time I was born, they moved as a family to a trailer park just off the freeway in Merced – my grandparents and their parents in trailers in the same park. My grandmother describes meeting me, “For some reason, I often think of you the very first time I saw you – at 6 months of age – at the airport. I as holding you while your mother and Grandpa collected luggage. Several people came up to us and commented on how pretty you were. You had such a dear perky way about you!”

We lived with my grandparents for a year, after we came back from Zaire. I turned four in their home, and remember it well. It gave me a familiarity with my grandparents I was lucky to have. I remember sitting for lunch at the long dining table, with the cold cuts and breads beautifully presented. Dessert was often sliced nectarines, or cottage cheese and jam mixed together.

My grandmother was very interested in people, and in their stories. Her letters to me are full of updates about the family, her neighbors, and friends of friends. (I always tried to write really newsy letters back so her letters to OTHER people could be about me.) She was very a very good cook, and preserved food. I remember an abandoned apple tree in a neighbor’s yard. She spent hours and hours laboring over a hot stove turning bushels of apples into applesauce.

BLTs for lunch - I remember this from my childhood!
BLTs for lunch – I remember this from my childhood!

She lived a life tending to others. I remember her as a caretaker to her mother, her mother-in-law, her great-aunt, her husband. When they left, she tended to the only-slightly-older folks around her.

When your grandmother dies, even at age 93, people often express their sympathy. I have often replied that in her death, my grandmother realizes one of her fondest hopes. One of her last letters to me, written in a hand turned shaky and short by neuropathy, ended with this joyful anticipation “I often think of heaven. It seems so close, so real. I often think of the loved ones who are already there. So if I don’t see you all again, let’s make a promise to meet in Heaven. Eternal joy! No more separation or pain! Bliss! I like that word. Much love, Grandma Jones”

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I have created a shared album of pictures of grandma here. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some details that are missing – I’d love to hear the family stories!

Don’t you cry for me

The other night, I tucked a tired Grey into bed. It’s his most philosophical time, since every nine year old knows that the best way to get your parent to linger and not shut off your lights is to start talking about your rich internal life at 8:55 pm. As I returned to his bed with the water (and before I turned on his music and summoned the cats), he softly sang to the tune of “Oh Suzanna”:

Farewell old master, that’s enough for me,
I’m going straight to Canada where colored men are free.
(A href=”http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Song_of_the_Free”>Song of the Free

I was, shall we say, surprised. “Where did you hear that?” It being a way to extend bedtime, he freely answered. “From a book about the Underground Railroad.” “Was it about Harriet Tubman?” “Yeah.” We talked about race and equality. We talked about good people sticking up for other people against bad laws. I had that ever necessary conversation about how actually we don’t call our friends colored anymore. And after a successful ten minute delay, I kissed him goodnight.

But it brought me back. I haven’t explicitly thought about my encounter with the Underground Railroad in years. As so many important encounters do, this one started in a grade school library. I got to thinking about how the reading I did in that fourth grade corner of the library changed my life and outlook on race and gender. It helped me see a world outside the Inland Empire farming town, and to see that life from someone less blonde and blue eyed than I was. It wasn’t just Harriet Tubman who spoke to me, but a whole range of these strong, amazing, not-white female characters in this great set of books. I hadn’t intentionally set out to read minority feminist adventures. But I did. And I was – and am – greatly influenced. I’d never before realized what a great collection this is, or would be.

Freedom Trail: The Story of Harriet Tubman

by Dorothy Sterling
by Dorothy Sterling

I have not read this book in over 25 years, but I remember this: Harriet had no advantages. She was black. A slave. Young. A woman. But she was gritty, determined and resourceful. This book did not sugar coat the hardship of slavery, or the dire danger of escaping. Harriet is gravely and permanently injured. But she risks snakes and dogs and slavers, overcoming so much, to escape. And then, once escaped, she goes back again and again to help others in the same journey. This is a book that inspired me by the capabilities even a young girl could have. It also helped me understand just how lucky my lot in life was. Harriet seemed very real to me, in the pages of this book. It made it clear that it wasn’t some intrinsic merit of mine that gave me a life of comfort and love, and her a life of persecution. But it did tell the horrible story of slavery in a way that didn’t condemn a white person to shame. I could choose to see myself in the helpers & conductors – the allies. I think I’d like to re-read it.

Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Scott O'Dell
by Scott O’Dell

I’ve always had a fondness for survivalist stories. I devoured almost all of them in the genre I could find: Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, The Mysterious Island, My Side of the Mountains…. This is a slim but compelling volume in that larger lexicon. It was particularly important that instead of “White person trapped in savage environment” (See…. all the others above except My Side of the Mountain) it was the story of an Indian girl. And she was not left for a few weeks, or a few months. She created a whole life for herself, by herself. It’s a heart-song to independence and self-reliance.

Journey to America

by Soniya Levitin
by Soniya Levitin

A friend and I were talking about how you introduce your children to the horrors of man’s inhumanity against man. You can’t responsibly raise children who have never heard of the holocaust… but it can be tempting. I’m not sure I want my children to understand how evil we truly can be. This book was introduction. It’s an escape story from the point of view of a young Jewish girl who fights with her family (and alone) to escape from Nazi Germany – with her violin intact. It touches on the hard edges of the horrors, without delving into them. There’s a narrow shave, but a happy ending.

Journey to Topaz

by Yoshiko Uchida
by Yoshiko Uchida

In counterpoint to that was this book. Of all of them, this might have been the hardest to deal with. It was geographically very close to me. And WWII is described as such a morally clear war from the US perspective. It would have been easy for me to get through childhood not knowing about the Japanese children uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps in the US. Yoshiko Uchida’s descriptions were memorably evocative. I can still almost feel the grit and dirt in the barren and beautiless camps. Her life had started very similar to mine, and then had taken this left turn through no fault of her own. It hit very close to home.

Julie of the Wolves

by Jean Craighead George
by Jean Craighead George

Leaving the WWII theme and returning to “awesome girls surviving in inhospitable circumstances”, we head up to Alaska for an Eskimo adventure. I don’t remember thinking about how appalling it is for a child to be literally safer with a pack of wolves in the arctic than with her family. I do remember how cool I thought it was to make friends with a pack of wolves. I believe I was cheering for her never to return to civilization. This one was again on the more mature side of the spectrum.

Naya Nuki: Girl Who Ran

by Ken Thomasma
by Ken Thomasma

This is the book that started my obsession. Ken Thomasma came as an author to speak at my school when I was in second grade. We got a number of signed books from him in my grade school library. I read Naya Nuki over and over and over. I remember driving and looking for the places in the hills where Naya Nuki would hide out. The story is of a Shoshone girl captured by Nez Pierce slavers – who escaped and ran her way back over hundreds of miles and through countless dangers to be with her people. (Although she had to leave behind her friend – a much less important character named Sacajawea.) The countryside was my countryside. I mean, I had seen and touched the man who wrote the book! This was real! And it was a fantastic start to a reading life.


That was hardly all I read as a kid, of course. I had plenty of other books in the reread queue that were not about amazing non-white girls. But I’m in retrospect impressed with that list. I find myself wondering if some forward thinking youth librarian pulled these books out, made them attractive, brought them to my attention. I do not know. I kind of hope so.

Dear Librarian from Whitstran Elementary back in the ’80s – thank you.