Ruby’s Memorial Day

Ruby and her husband, Hercules Valentine Anderson, were my grandparents. Memorial Day always brings them to mind.  The wakes of being they left in life  we living keep alive in the name of justice, in the name of love and in the hope of a graceful redemption.

So it was with Miss Ruby, Grama. She was a wonder of woman, tiny, round and powerful with her cry at dusk, “Come Boss, Bosss-i , Bosss-i,  Boss.” And, they did—- a huge herd of them for the milking and the rewards of that effort were pots de creme fraiche and butter churned out from her ‘separator’ in the milk shed near the back door. There waited all her feral cats  and old Spike, her trusty English Spaniel. I can still see those marigold-yellow pats of sweating, sweet butter she created—-the size of bread loaves. Better yet were the raised dinner rolls or caramelized cinnamon buns she made to catch their melted flow.

Ruby lived in a tiny little room off her huge farm house kitchen, a mysterious place we never went except to rouse her from a nap. It was stuffed with sewing things, peacock and pheasant feathers, ribbons and colorful scraps of material, the special fancies that she used to make hats, and it all smelled like vanilla and lavender combined with the  ink of old newspapers.  Those she tied in bundles and stacked against walls covered in pale blue paper with designs of white flowers, green leaves and yellow birds. On the floor near her small bed lay the ‘Monkey Ward’ catalog, wherein lay the dreams of little precious time. 

A Victorian bureau, hauled all the way from ‘Missura’ by wagon contained a dusty mirror crowded with notes, a few cards and some dried flowers looking down on a crocheted, embroidered cloth  over which perched a collection of delicate bottles with stoppers, a satin cushion punctured with hat pins, a big silver brush with entangled wisps of hair, and a box full of brown photographs tied with wrapping string. I do recall my mother in that room on occasion humming and brushing Ruby’s long hair late in the evening before she retired.

I was a fey little boy who loved to explore and imagine, and usually in route to the upper floor attic with its secrets I just had to have the ‘once-in-a-while peek’ into her hidden room. That’s how I knew about the stuff in there. It never occurred to we kids to wonder why she slept there and not in the big bedroom with Granpa down the long hall off the living room. Probably because she never slept, rising at five and during harvest months even earlier in the wee morning.

The harvest, and then the canning, were great events and the noon ’dinner’ an enormous affair, whose logistics and labor were orchestrated by Miss Ruby with an army of ‘help’ ladies from the town. These events often fed twenty or more exhausted men and boys. Roast beef, chickens, ham, potatoes, yams, green beans, maple fried corn mush, fresh made dinner loaves or bread, pots of jam, relishes and my favorite, watermelon pickles, all loaded on the groaning board. Dessert was similar with cakes, pies, and home-churned vanilla ice cream that had an ‘eggy’ taste I didn’t like. Afterward, the men would lay about her ocean of a living room floor napping for a short break, as if snoring sea lions on a sandy beach.

Miss Ruby was considerably more than a farm wife and later in life, I came to know just how special she was. She was born into sod busting stock, who after the Civil War came out West to murder Indians, steal their land, and bring the blessings of Christianity to a heathen wild land. But for those who know what pioneer life was like, all the above truths had quite a different reality in the living. It’s amazing she ever survived, or her mother, considering the short lives of women during those times.

In her bureau box were photos of her relatives posed in front of a dug-in sod house, probably taken by a wandering photographer who, for a meal and a tale, made a small living documenting the lives and times of the great land rush. It wasn’t easy. She married into the Anderson family who carried the wounds of both sides of the Civil War. Among her effects was a little notebook which she kept wrapped in yard-goods-velvet that escaped the brutal environment of one of the South’s most notorious prison camps, Andersonville. In its pages were drawings of life in the prison made from a charcoal twig or something like it. It’s author was a young barely-teen Anderson. Such were the secrets Ruby kept to herself. Somethings she talked about, like the horror of tornados and prairie fires, or once when she ‘boinked’ a drunk Indian with a frying pan. And another time, how to help birth a calf or colt. Ruby was never a vain woman, and it was only later did I realized with some delight her discreet taste for beautiful clothes which she created for herself, and the collection of a small stash of flawless gem stones which belied her stoic American Gothic.

She was something of an entrepreneur, buying up farms and ranches along the Platte River during the Depression, created a business selling turkeys, raised peacocks for estates and hotels, established a processing plant, and never missed a day at the ‘Store’ she ran with my grandfather. Most of her children and all her grandchildren were college educated, carrying into life values of hard work, American hope, and above all, honesty with loyalty to God, country, and family—-in that order. It’s a good thing I knew them in boyhood, otherwise the exercise of those beliefs in the realms of hard narrowness in politics and religion would have destroyed our bonds.

Ruby carried history as a living knowledge. Her generation remembered the First World War and The Civil War as if only yesterday. Every grave in the acre or so of family stones was a person she had known, or knew by stories carried down. So when Memorial Day approached, it was time for action. Days before, a small army of family were dispatched to clean  the grave stones. Uncles did the mowing with a tractor,  kids weeded while women scrubbed, some singing hymns and the occasional ‘Praise Be Jesus’ would rise from the more devotional of the Methodist tribe. Being a little Catholic prince, I didn’t get that part, but loved the decorating, because as I  remember it there came from every kitchen garden a splendor of peonies, iris, spirea and other flowers to turn the death stones into a Garden of Eden, if only for a day. The actual Memorial Day was a rather grim and solemn affair with clusters of family walking through the graveyard remembering connections and telling sober stories.

Long years after her death, as I wandered the world, lived in exotic lands, and traversed every difficult turn in life imaginable I dreamed of her. It made me realize how much she loved me and how those trays of chocolate chip cookies she stayed up at night to bake for presentation on our arrival visit from the city were pure gifts of the heart. When my Mother and I were emptying those bureau drawers in her little back room we found that large diamond she had once brought for herself and never wore in public because she considered it vulgar display. Still, it was most worthy of her and we both burst into tears when we saw that it was encrusted with old cookie dough. Remembering you Ruby, this Memorial Day.

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