Tuesday, July 17, 2018

In good hands

Recorded voice: You have reached the desk of Angela Lindstrom, claims adjuster. I am either on another call or away from my desk. Please leave your claim number, name, and a brief message.

TD: Hi, my claim number is 555123456.  I just got a letter saying you need some information in order to process my claim. Here goes:

My legal name is Thomas J. Dryden.

My social security number is (redacted).

Although I prefer wine to beer,  don't watch TV sports and if I miss a day shaving, nobody really notices because I've never had a heavy beard, my legal gender is male. Perhaps I should consider transitioning but at this point it doesn't really matter.

My date of birth is November 17, 1951. I used to regret that my mother couldn't hold out a few more hours because then I would have been the third generation of my family to have been born on November 18th, but, after all these years, I've decided the 17th suits me better.

The date of my accident was, well, nine months before November 17th, give or take a few days, so I'll have to say February 17th, 1951. My parents always said I was an accident. Dad was 44, mom was 38, they already had two kids and weren't planning on having any more. I like to think I was conceived on Valentine's Day.

If you have any more questions, let me know.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Shutter madness

October 5, 2017

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. You guys installed our electric hurricane shutters last year. The one over our bathroom window is broken. I pushed the button to lower it before the hurricane but the motor was dead. I got up on a ladder and took the cover off and was able to lower it manually, an inch at a time, but it took half the day. The room is now pitch black so I want to get this fixed as soon as possible. My number is 555-5555. Thanks.

December 1, 2017

Woman: Southwest Storm Shutters, this is Sara, how can I help you?

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. I left a message a couple of months ago but didn’t hear back. The motor on one of the electric storm shutters your company installed last year is broken. Could you send someone out to fix it?

Sara: I’ll have someone call you. Just a heads up, it may be tomorrow, we’re a bit backed up.

TJD: That’s fine, thanks. I’ll wait for your call.

February 12, 2018

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: Tom Dryden here, I’ve called several times. The motor on one of my shutters is broken. Could you please call me back? 

March 31, 2018

Sara: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. How can I help you?

TJD: This is Tom Dryden and this is the third or fourth time I’ve called about this. One of my shutters, the engine on it — you installed it two years ago — is broken.  Last time we talked you said someone would be calling but I never heard back. I need to have this taken care of. 

Sara: Nobody got back to you? I gave Don your message, he’s usually so good about returning calls, so I don’t know why he didn’t, but I’m sorry. I have your number. He’s out right now but I’m going to text him and he will get right back to you.

April 25, 2018

Sara: Southwest Storm Shutters, Sara speaking. 

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. I’ve been trying to get one of my shutters fixed since just after the hurricane. I’ve called and called and you've promised someone will get back to me but nobody ever does. When I stopped by your office last week, you said you’d have Don call me that afternoon. Hurricane season starts in a month. I really, really need that shutter repaired. 

Sara: Oh my God, I am so embarrassed! This isn’t like him. I tell you what, I’m going to put you on the schedule right now for — let me see — how about Thursday, May 3 between 9 and 3? 

TJD: I have three appointments that day but I’ll rearrange my schedule. Thank you!

May 3, 4:40 p.m.

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. You promised you’d be here today between 9 and 3. It’s 4:40 now and, after sitting around all day waiting for you to show up, I’m learning you’ve gone home for the day. This is unacceptable. I spent (a massive amount) with you last year and these shutters are guaranteed for ten years. If you don’t call me back first thing tomorrow I’m going to call the Better Business Bureau.

May 4

TJD: Hello?

Sara: This is Sara at Southwest Shutters. Mr. Dryden, I am so, so sorry. The technician we had scheduled to repair your shutter yesterday up and quit without warning — abandoned his truck and the sheriff finally found it on Marco Island this morning. You have my word Don, the owner, will be there on June 3 at 8:30 a.m. sharp. 

TJD: You swear?

Sara: On a stack of Bibles. This isn’t the way we do business. There will be no charge.

TJD: There shouldn’t be, they’re guaranteed for 10 years, parts and labor. 

June 3, 9:30 a.m.

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden at 555-5555. Call me! I have had it with you people! You were supposed to be here an hour ago.  I ran a service business myself and if I had treated my customers the way you treat yours I'd have been out of business pronto.

June 6, 2:45 p.m.

Woman: Thank you for calling Shutter Pro, my name is Jennifer.

TJD: Hi Jennifer, my name is Tom Dryden. A neighbor told me your company repairs storm shutter motors. I have one that is broken. I need to have it fixed ASAP. 

Jennifer: Mr. Dryden, I am so sorry but we are booked solid until September.

TJD: You're kidding. September? 

 Jennifer: Don't worry, I can help. Do you have a pen and paper handy?

TJD: Yes.

Jennifer: Call Enrique Menendez at 555-1234. He used to work for us but retired last year. He still takes on some of our overflow work and, don’t tell anyone I told you this, he charges less than we do.

TJD: Thank you so much! I will call him now!

June 6, 2:48 p.m.

Recorded voice: You have reached Enrique Menendez. Please leave your name and number and I will call you back.

TJD: Hi Enrique, my name is Tom Dryden. Jennifer at Shutter Pro recommended you. I have an electric roll-down shutter with a broken motor and I need to get it fixed. If you could call me back, I’d really appreciate it, I’m desperate here.

June 6, 4:45 p.m.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden.

Sara: This is Sara at Southwest Shutters. I know we’ve given you the run-around and I’m so, so sorry.  The reason I haven’t called is that the manufacturer hasn’t had any replacement motors in stock, they’re waiting for some to arrive from China, but they have confirmation they are on their way and have promised they will be FedExing us a new motor to to arrive Monday morning, June 18th at 8:30, and we’ll be at your house by 9 a.m that same day to install it.  If we are a few minutes late, it’s because we are waiting for FedEx. You have been beyond patient. Thank you.

TJD: It’s a good thing you called. I want you to do this work because, after all, you installed the shutters and have guaranteed them but I finally put a call into someone else because I’d given up. Can I call him and tell him to forget it?

Sara: Absolutely!

Same day, 4:46 p.m. (call that went into my voicemail while I was talking to Sara).

Enrique: This is Enrique Menendez returning your call. I can fix your shutter motor tomorrow and will be there at 9. Please text me your address.

Same day, 4:52 p.m.

Text message from TJD to Enrique: Hi Enrique. Please disregard my message but I can’t thank you enough for returning my call. Have a great day!

June 18th, 9:30 a.m.

Recorded voice: You have reached the voicemail of Southwest Storm Shutters. Our offices are closed for vacation from Monday, June 18th through Friday, June 22nd. If you’ll leave your name and number we will return your call on Monday, June 25th.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

My father's store

My father, G.L. (Bud) Dryden, Jr., in 1929.
From the Central Wesleyan College yearbook.

My father died in 1966. He was 58. I was 14.

He didn’t see me graduate from high school or college. He never met my wife or six of his nine grandchildren. Sometimes I go for days without thinking about him. It’s not that I don’t hold him in the highest regard. I do. It’s just that he’s been gone so long, and that I became accustomed at a young age to not having him around.  

But there’s one place I always miss him so badly it hurts  – and that is when I go to a superstore like Target or Costco.

My father ran a general store in Auxvasse, Missouri. Dryden’s Store sold everything from milk and meat to canned goods and kerosene, from hosiery and overalls to boots, blankets and toys. It was housed in a redbrick building at the north end of the town’s block-long business district.

Customers entered through a covered tiled porch sandwiched between two raised display windows. The first floor had two rooms – a large retail space for groceries, dry goods and housewares, and a back room to store wooden cases of soda, barrels of vinegar, blocks of salt, and chicken feed. The back room also contained a kerosene pump for those customers who didn’t have electricity and depended on the fuel to light their homes.

The dark, moldy-smelling basement, accessible from the back room, contained a cast iron furnace, along with a giant pile of coal to keep it stoked in winter, and was used to store cases of canned and bottled goods. 

A staircase on the right side of the first floor led to a mezzanine with two rooms -- one for shoes, boots and ladies’ hats, and a second my father used as his office and to store boxes of cereal and crackers. He arranged his desk overlooking the floor below so that, when he was doing paperwork, he could keep an eye on his store.

A small room on the third floor was used for storage. This floor also contained several apartments. One was rented to the local phone company whose operator connected calls using an old-fashioned switchboard. 

A wooden platform freight elevator ran from the basement to the top floor. Dad never used it – he found it quicker to carry whatever he needed from one floor to the next -- but his children, nieces and nephews played with it on Sundays when the store was closed and he could allow them to yank themselves between floors to their hearts’ content without every other child in town begging for a ride.

The ceiling of the first floor was made of stamped tin. The floors were wide pine planks that, every Saturday night after closing, were mopped with kerosene to keep the dust down, giving the store a distinctive but not unpleasant scent of oil.

Groceries were displayed on the the left side of the store. Upon entering, customers passed two racks of bread, wooden bins of potatoes and onions, oversized glass jars of cookies, shelves of crackers and boxed foods, and a rack of candy. There was an open coffin-like cold case for produce and dairy products, a meat case, and, behind that, a metal cold box for soda. A butcher block table contained an array of knives, a meat saw, and alongside was a stand with an electric meat slicer. The little finger of my left hand is proof positive children shouldn’t be allowed to operate meat slicers. 

There were three orange and green-trimmed counters where customers' merchandise was placed as they shopped, and two aisles.  One of them, for most of its length, contained shelves displaying cans and jars of vegetables, condiments, jellies and fruits. Cereal boxes were kept on the top shelf.  

Shoppers didn’t have a choice of brands. If you didn't want Del Monte green beans or Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, you were out of luck, but nobody ever complained.   

Dryden’s wasn’t a self-service store. There were no shopping carts or baskets. Customers stood in front of the counters, rattling off their shopping lists to dad; to his children, who worked after school and on Saturdays; or to one of the middle-aged lady clerks who wore flowery aprons. As each item was located, it was placed on the counter until everything on the customer's list had been found. At that point purchases were placed in brown paper bags or cardboard boxes which, for ladies, dad always carried out to the car. 

A metal stand containing rolls of white and brown kraft wrapping paper separated two of the counters. Tucked behind the rocket-shaped gum ball machine at the end of the counters was a candler. Clerks held eggs against its light to determine if a fetus was inside, in which case the egg was thrown away.

The far left aisle was accessible only to employees because it contained the cash register and sensitive financial information, including a cabinet full of invoice booklets on which charges were recorded. My father never hesitated to extend credit to those who needed it. He knew that, for some of his customers, it was the difference between feeding their families and not feeding them.

Dad happily took phone orders and, regardless of whether the order was for $1 or $50, faithfully delivered them in his trusty 1954 red Chrysler our family affectionally called "Old Red."  When the delivery included a case of soda, he placed it on Old Red's right front fender. Many who called in their orders were elderly and unable to get out of their homes.  My father was, for some, the only human they saw all week and they kept talking, long after they had paid for their groceries. Dad always made time for them though I could tell, when he took me along, that he was antsy to get back to the store. I remember one octogenarian showed us a tumor that had been removed from her stomach which, for some reason, the doctor had allowed her to bring home in a jar. 

The dry goods section of Dryden's Store was on the right side of the building. It consisted of two aisles containing shelves of paper goods, grooming products, hosiery, toys, school supplies, bolts of fabric, jeans, and other items of clothing. Coats and jackets were kept in an upright wooden closet. A short counter held a circular tin container of thread; dress patterns; and wooden boxes of rick-rack, buttons, elastic, eye hooks and other sewing accessories dad referred to as “notions.” In the spring and summer, there was a spinning rack of Burpee seeds for gardeners.

Among the best-selling items in the dry goods department were the hand leathers, special gloves made from goat skin. Men who worked in the refractories in nearby Mexico and Fulton needed them to keep their hands safe from the hot-from-the-kiln bricks they had to handle.

Tampax, Kotex and Modess boxes were wrapped in plain brown paper, the price was noted in the upper right corner, and placed on a shelf where customers could reach them without having to embarrass themselves by asking for them by name. All the women in town knew what they were and could tell which product they were buying by the shape of its box. 

The dry goods counter had an old-fashioned crank-style cash register that emitted a "ka-ching" when the drawer was opened but, because most folks who shopped that side of the store also purchased groceries, dry goods were usually rung up on the left side.

The store’s back wall contained paints, floor waxes, furniture polish, varnishes, enameled pots and pans, plates, saucers, bowls, cups, pyrex dishes, and other household items. A Facebook friend wrote recently that, when she married in the late 1950s, she and her husband purchased everything they needed to set up housekeeping from Dryden’s Store, and that she still has most of it today.

The busiest day of the week, by far, was Saturday, when farmers and their families came to town to shop for the provisions they needed for the coming week. The brick plants closed at noon on Saturdays, the same time as the bank, leaving workers with paychecks they were unable to cash. They didn’t have to wait. Dad kept in his back pocket a fat leather wallet stuffed with hundreds of dollars in tens and twenties. Everyone in town knew Mr. Dryden was happy to cash their paychecks. And Mr. Dryden, a good merchant, knew that most all those men would be spending much of their paychecks on groceries and dry goods. 

At Dryden’s Store, you didn’t need a plastic bar-coded loyalty card to identify yourself. When you walked through the door, everyone already knew everything they needed to know about you. Whether you had gone to church on Sunday. How your crops were doing. The state of your family’s health. Whether you were a little pressed for money. If you needed an encouraging word. Customers and clerks (not dad but all the others including me) exchanged gossip and talked about the news of the day. Some customers, particularly the elderly ones, spent hours in the store meeting, greeting and conversing with every shopper who came in. Everyone knew everyone else and for many, Dryden’s was the center of their universe.

My father was diagnosed with cancer in December, 1964, and, for much of 1965, was in and out of hospitals, unable to work in his store. My mother, who knew what was about to happen but didn’t tell anyone, ran the store for most of that year. 

Two weeks before his death, dad came to an arrangement with a local couple who had told him years before that if he ever wanted to sell his store, they would be interested in buying it. The deal was sealed in our living room, on a Sunday afternoon. That night, I rode with dad in Old Red to the store for his final visit. Mom had mentioned as we left that we needed milk. Dad picked up a carton of Sky-Go Farms, reached into his pocket, and dropped a quarter in the cash register. “It’s their store now,” he said quietly. 

That is my most vivid memory of him.

Every time I go to a superstore, I like to imagine my father is with me and that I’m showing him around. He would be amazed to learn that stores sell ready-made meals, that customers are checked out within seconds by clerks who sometimes don’t even acknowledge their presence, that paper money rarely changes hands, and that stores are open Sundays and sometimes 24/365. He would marvel at the choice of brands (seven brands of green beans at my local Target!), at the prices (red and white potatoes cost two and three cents per pound at Dryden’s Store, they’re 99 cents and $1.09 at Publix today), at the sophisticated merchandising techniques, and at the sheer quantity of products, most of which didn’t exist in his day, that today’s consumers apparently can’t live without.

I wouldn’t have to explain to him that stores like his are gone forever. He was smart. He would pick up on that instantly and understand why. Having left college in 1929, fifteen hours short of the credits needed for his degree, he landed a job as a management trainee for a chain of variety stores and was sent to a store in Arkansas where he learned to become a first-class merchant. He threw himself into the job, kept notebooks detailing the lessons he had learned (I have them) and was making big plans to grow with the company. The Great Depression ended those plans. The store he was working in closed its doors. Try as he might, he couldn't find another job. There weren't any.

I am convinced that, more than anything, the time he spent in that Arkansas variety store shaped my father's career and character. When, three years later, he opened his own store, he put 110 percent of himself into making it the best it could possibly be so nobody could take it away from him. It was his pride, his joy, his passion.

My imaginary shopping trips with dad are my way of staying connected with him.  I like to think he would be pleased to know the influence he and his store had on my life and to know I learned from observing him many of the lessons that have defined me not only as a businessperson but as a man. 

Most of all, I'd like him to know that, every single time I set foot in one of those mega-stores, I miss him like crazy.

Post Script: 

Below are some photos my cousin Tom Tate sent after reading this post.  Years ago he and his wife were visiting Auxvasse and went by the store building. lt's no longer being used as a store -- I don't know what if, anything, it is being used for these days -- but Tom was able to get inside and shoot these photos. My parents never owned a camera so we have no photos of the store when it was operational, but these shots show some of the incredible details of the building -- the freight elevator, the tin ceiling and the railing across the front of the mezzanine where dad kept his desk (the mezzanine has apparently been sealed up), the tile on the front porch and the entrance. Note the decorative glass that runs the full width of the storefront. I'd guess it's worth more than the building itself. The building was built in (if I remember correctly) 1911. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Every town should do this on Memorial Day

Thanks to my friend Joyce for sharing on Facebook today a story about the very special way her hometown, Summit, NJ, honors its veterans on Memorial Day. I tried to "Share" it but for some reason Facebook didn't allow it, so I'm writing about it here in the hopes that my friends in other cities, towns and villages across the country will see this and try to get a similar program going in their communities.

Here's what Joyce posted on Facebook:

My hometown, Summit, NJ, is honoring its vets with banners on every street light. My dad .... Lt. Jack Bonnell, 2nd Armored Division .... WW II, Battle of the Bulge ... would be so proud to see his banner at DeForest and Beechwood. What a great tribute! The town has a wait list of veterans still to be honored. My sister, Sheila, who still lives in Summit, did the paperwork. Well done, Sheila! It's great to know that future Memorial Days will have these personal tributes to those who served.

Kudos to the good folks of Summit, NJ who put this program together... and thank you Lt.Jack Bonnell and the millions of other veterans who have kept us free. 

Please share this story so your friends across the nation will see what Summit is doing and what they could be doing in their towns, too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Billy and Rupert go to the veterinarian

“Rupert!” exclaimed Billy Ray, the black-and-cream dachshund, to his piebald patterned brother. “I just overheard Mom and Dad. Today is the day we go to the veterinarian for our checkups.” 

“Oh no!” replied Rupert, lifting his head off his comfy bed where he had parked himself after breakfast. “I do not like going to the veterinarian.”

“How come?” Billy asked. 

“I don’t like the car ride. I don’t like the cats in the waiting room. I hate the slippery metal exam table, and I especially despise that tattooed assistant who talks about me as if I were an idiot.”

“I don’t mind any of that,” Billy said matter-of-factly. “In fact, I sort of enjoy all that attention.”

“Most of all,” Rupert continued, “I hate the Xanax the vet insists Dad feed me an hour before we leave the house to calm me down. I don’t like feeling drugged or out of control.” 

“But Rupert," Billy said earnestly, "you are out of control whenever you visit the vet. The first time I went with you, I heard Dr. Jones told Dad that, of all the dachshunds he has treated in the last 40 years, you are the most anxious and the worst behaved. Why, you peed and pooped all over him and his assistant, and all they were doing at the time was weighing you!” 

“I hate that stupid scale, too,” Rupert added. "It always adds a pound."

“You squirmed so much and screeched so loudly they had to muzzle you. I was embarrassed to be seen with you.”

Dad called from the kitchen. “Boys, I have treats for you! Come and get 'em!”

Billy scampered toward the kitchen but Rupert stayed put. Billy stopped, turned, and asked, “Aren’t you coming to get your treat?”

“It’s a trick,” Rupert replied. “Dad has wrapped mine around a Xanax.”

“Oh come on,” Billy said. “Admit you need it.” 

“All right,” said Rupert reluctantly. “I’ll accept the treat. But I’m going to eat around that Xanax and, when Dad isn’t looking, am going to spit it out.”

“Suit yourself,” said Billy.

Two hours later, Billy Ray, Rupert and their Dad returned home from Dr. Jones’ office.

“Dad,” Billy called after his father who, having removed his clothes the moment he walked into the house, was running toward the bathroom. “Aren’t you going to pick up this pill on the floor?”

“Of course I will,” his father yelled from the bathroom. “As soon as I take a shower to wash off Rupert's pee and poop. God, it’s disgusting.”

Rupert plopped onto his comfy bed. A moment later he was joined by Billy. 

Wrapped around each other, the two little dachshunds, worn out by their great adventure, fell fast asleep.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Eulogy for Ruby

My mother, Ruby, died three years ago today, at the age of 102. A micromanager to the end, mom reminded me the day before she went into the hospital for surgery that if something went wrong, she expected me to write and deliver the eulogy at her memorial service. I'm sharing it here in the hope that someday, one of her future descendants will find this post floating somewhere in cyberspace and will realize why he or she loves to read, is fanatic about puzzles, can talk with anyone about anything, and intuitively knows that, when life knocks you down, you pick yourself up off the floor and look toward the sun. 

There are a lot of sad people here today. That's OK.

It’s OK to feel sad for ourselves, because Ruby was a huge presence in our lives.

But she wouldn’t want us to feel sad for her. As my mother reminded all of us many times, she lived a wonderful life. A life as rich and as long as hers is something to celebrate, not to mourn.

That’s why we are here – to celebrate her life, and to give thanks she was part of ours.

So let’s start at the beginning of it, 102 years ago. Woodrow Wilson had just been inaugurated for his first term. The radio was 10 years in the future and women didn’t yet have the right to vote when she was born on April 3, 1913.

Her parents allowed her brother, Homer, and sisters, Margaret and Lucille, to name her. They named her Ruby.

She started school in Mineola’s one-room schoolhouse the day she turned six.  In those days, students were required to memorize long poems. More than 90 years later, Ruby could still recite many of those poems verbatim.

She had a happy childhood. She rode her horse … swam in Loutre Creek in summer … skated on it in the winter.

She went to Montgomery City High School, which she loved. She had to move in with her grandmother and aunt – there were no school buses to take her back and forth.

In 1931, the year she graduated, Ruby won the Missouri State High School Extemporaneous Speaking Championship. She had hoped to go to college but there was no money for it. The Great Depression was on. Her father had lost the family house and the bank he worked for had closed. Grandpa, grandma, Ruby and Betty Jo, her little sister, had to move into the basement of the bank building.

That fall, mom went to visit a friend who lived in a nearby town, High Hill, where they attended a baseball game. One of the players was a young man named Bud Dryden. Bud asked if he could drive her back to Mineola. She said yes.

Despite his driving – my father was a terrible driver – Ruby fell for Bud and he fell for her. Both were intelligent and ambitious. Both had high hopes for the future. Both wanted to get out of their little towns. Both were eager to get out of their family’s homes where they were stuck because of events beyond their control. Both were early supporters of FDR, who was promising to lead the country out of the Depression.

They were married on June 25, 1933. They honeymooned at Bagnell Dam – there was no Lake Ozark yet.

That fall, Bud and Ruby moved to Davis, a tiny town of 30 people – mom was able to name every one of them 80 years later – where dad and his brother, Jarrett, were to run a country store.

Now, Davis wasn’t exactly what the newlyweds had in mind when they were planning their future. The day they moved to town, workers were removing the train tracks – not a good sign. There was no electricity, no running water, people in Davis ate squirrels and possum. It was like moving back into the nineteenth century.  But the country was stuck in the middle of the Great Depression. Davis was the best they could do  … so they made do.

In July, 1935, Ruby and Bud were blessed – and I do mean blessed, mom told me the night before she went to the hospital what a blessing he had always been – with a baby boy, Jerry, who they and everyone in town doted on. He was the only child in Davis.

In October, 1941, they lost almost everything they owned in a flood.

In May, 1942, mom and dad were blessed again … this time with a girl, Judy. They couldn’t have imagined what a blessing Judy would turn out to be.

In 1944, they moved to Auxvasse, where dad had purchased a general store. Both became active in the community … and Dryden’s Store prospered.

In 1951, mom was surprised to learn she was pregnant again. In November, she gave birth to me. For 63 years she persisted in introducing me as her “change-of-life” baby. She was 38. 

In 1957, the Dryden family grew when Jerry and Nancy got married. It expanded again in 1958, when Ellen was born, making Ruby a grandmother at 45 … in 1960 with Julie …and in 1963 with Marilyn.

In 1964, Bud became sick. He underwent surgery for cancer in December, the same week Ruby’s mother died. Mom always said that, when her time came, she wanted to go the way her mother did – she was only sick for one day and didn’t suffer.

Dad died in February, 1966. Ruby was just 52.

She grieved, of course. And at first, she was overwhelmed. But she didn’t sit around and cry, “Why me?” That wasn’t in her nature.

It didn’t take long for her to realize that, for the first time, she was in charge of her future. No longer was she someone’s daughter or wife. She was an independent woman, with the ability and need to make her own decisions. And that is when the Ruby most of the people in this room knew and loved, came into her own.

The year after dad died, mom took Judy and me on a trip to the other side of the world. We stopped in Hawaii to see Betty Jo and her family, then continued on to Okinawa, where Jerry and Nancy had been stationed. We toured Tokyo. Jerry arranged a trip to Taiwan. That was, when you think about it, an incredibly gutsy move for a small town housewife who had never traveled west of Kansas City.

In 1968, Jerry was sent to Vietnam. Mom bought the house across the street for Nancy and the girls to live in. She loved having them close by. And she decided the house was a good investment – she was teaching herself about business. Dad had never trusted the stock market. Ruby saw that times were changing, and sought out a stockbroker who taught her about the market, which she continued to follow right up to the end. When I was in college, mom had emergency gall bladder surgery. The last thing she told Judy and me as they wheeled her into operating room was, “Call the broker and buy 100 shares of Kroger.”

In 1970, mom's first grandson, John B., was born. A year later she got another one – Jay. And in 1974, Jimmy.

During the 1970s, Jerry and Nancy lived in Germany. Mom made two trips to see them, and took side trips to several other countries. She loved being exposed to new cultures … new foods … new scenery. Several years later she took a trip to England and Scotland.

In 1976, the year after Judy and I married, Ruby moved to Columbia. She wanted to be near (her daughter) Judy and her family. And she saw it as a new challenge, an opportunity to live in, what was for her, a big city – a city full of young people. Mom always loved being around young people.

Her fourth granddaughter, Katie, came along in 1979.

One day in 1981, mom took Jay and Jim to the barber shop where she ran into a high school classmate, Bill See, who had lost his wife. They started courting – people born in 1913 called it courting, not dating –   and in January, 1982, they were married.

Mom and Bill enjoyed each other’s company. They went to restaurants and movies, played bridge, and traveled to Florida, California, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, New England and Nova Scotia. Bill even took her on fishing trips with his family.

Ruby’s fourth grandson, Ben, was born in 1983. And her final grandchild, Stuart, in 1986, a few weeks after Bill died.

At 72, Ruby was a widow again. But she wasn’t the kind of person who wasted time feeling sorry for herself.

She had always been a big reader but from the time Bill died to the day she died, she read constantly – two, sometimes three books a week. She preferred non-fiction, especially biographies. Mom always felt bad because she didn’t go to college. She shouldn’t have. There isn’t a history professor in this town who knows more about America’s presidents than Ruby did. She read biographies of every one of them – even Millard Fillmore.

She continued to play bridge. She said the secret is to memorize every card that has been played. That was easy for Ruby. She had a photographic memory.

In 1998, when she was 85, she had open heart surgery. At first, when she learned she needed it, she didn’t want it; she said she had already lived a long life. But Bill’s son Mike, a doctor like his father, who always took wonderful care of Ruby, explained that if she did, she might have many more good years and for that advice, all of us will always be grateful to Mike because it gave us 17 more years of Ruby.

Jerry made sure she did the rehabilitative exercises the doctor had ordered … which she hated.

Ruby wasn’t big on physical exercise; her brain was the muscle she was concerned about exercising. She played Scrabble. She worked her Sudoko puzzles. And she became proficient on the computer which Jay and Joe and Mary Lou taught her. Ruby wore out two Macs … and loved her iPad.

As she moved into her nineties, Mom did everything she possibly could to continue living in her own house. She had the washer/dryer moved so she wouldn’t have to climb stairs, and the bathroom remodeled so she’d be less likely to fall.

She was proud of her independence, and we were, too. By the time she was 98, she had been living alone for more than 40 years.  

In November, 2011, mom was the victim of a violent home invasion, and Judy walked in during the invasion and received the same treatment. But Judy, who had always been there for mom, showed what she was made of that day. She somehow escaped and called the police. I will always believe she saved our mother’s life. If she hadn’t done what she did, we would have been gathered together three and a half years ago under vastly different circumstances and believe me – we couldn’t have possibly felt like calling it a Celebration.

I think those of us who loved Ruby took the home invasion harder than she did because it took away from her the thing we knew she valued the most other than her family – her ability to live on her own.

In the wake of that, mom decided to move to Lenoir (an assisted living facility). It was a decision we all hoped she’d never have to make.

But, typical of Ruby, she found there was a lot about it she liked. She enjoyed the dining room with the white tablecloths and salad bar … going to the beauty shop on her own … going to movies … playing duplicate bridge, which she almost always won … and to the library.

Mom had always had lots of company and that continued here. People gravitated to Ruby because they wanted to spend time with her. She was well informed and up to date. Her family and visitors couldn’t believe her memory – it was sharper than any of her children’s and, probably, her grandchildren’s. She told great stories. And she was always willing to listen, and to offer advice. So many of those who came to spend time with her – Joe and Mary Lou …Marybelle and Juanita …Rex and Lou ….Harrell ….Barbara and Phyllis…Carolyn – were the children of friends and relatives she had outlived. Ruby was a link back to them. She loved you all.

Ruby lived life on her own terms right up to the end. She was the one who decided to have the surgery. She knew there was a chance things could go wrong but I don’t think any of her family members ever seriously considered it. After 102 years, we thought Ruby was immortal. But … she wasn’t. We take comfort knowing she got her wish – she left this world like her mother did -- sick for one day, and one day only. She didn’t suffer or linger.

When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that my mother was anything special.

It wasn’t until after dad died and, especially, after I became an adult, that I began to appreciate how unique she was.

Ruby loved to learn and considered every day an opportunity to improve herself. Most people, at some point, stop trying, because they’re afraid they will fail. Not her. She took a daily online quiz and was disappointed in herself when she got a wrong answer. How many 102-year-olds do you know who do that? She challenged herself to keep learning and, amazingly, she retained everything—and I do mean everything. Her brain was like a computer hard drive.

Ruby was practical. She didn’t overcomplicate things. And she wasn’t extravagant. If there was a new book she wanted to read, she didn’t run out and buy it. She called the library and got on the waiting list.

She had common sense and used it.

She had a wonderful sense of humor. She loved to laugh.

She could find joy in the simple things most of us take for granted. In the changing of the leaves in the fall, in the birds outside her window.

She overlooked faults in people. Ruby expected more from herself than she expected from others.  

If she had been born today, Ruby would have been a success at any career she chose. She took up writing in her eighties, and became an excellent writer – she could have been a journalist. She would have been a great stock broker. Or real estate agent.

She was an optimist. Sure, there were times she felt down but mom always – always – could find something to look forward to. My sister says that mom always looked toward the sun, a beautiful way to express her outlook on life.

She didn’t complain. I called her almost every day. I could tell, from the sound of her voice when she picked up, how she was feeling. When I’d ask her, on days she wasn’t feeling well, how she was, she would change the subject. She didn’t want me to worry.

She was tenacious. She fought hard to live life on her own terms, and she succeeded.

She made great pies and breads and the most incredible light rolls you ever tasted.

She was refreshingly unconventional. She dressed like a teenager. She wore Keds and jeans and pedal pushers. She ate Special K for breakfast … and poured Half & Half on it.

She loved her 22 descendants unconditionally … was proud of each and every one of us … and worried about all of us … from Jerry to Teddy.

She was our Queen Victoria, the matriarch of our family, the glue that held us together.

A ruby is a gem that emits a beautiful light.

It is the color of love. It is durable.

It is rare. It is precious. The longer you have it, the more it grows in value.

Her brother and sisters couldn’t have possibly known the day they named her Ruby … that they had chosen a name that would come to suit her perfectly.

Thank you for coming to honor her today.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ebbing, Missouri. One more reason Hollywood is ebbing into irrelevance

I used to enjoy going to the movies but I rarely go these days. It’s not that I don’t like the experience. I actually enjoy sitting in a big dark room in a reclining leather chair eating cold popcorn from a cardboard container the size of a galvanized steel tub.  

It’s because 99 percent of the movies that come out of Hollywood are drek. The writers, directors and actors who inhabit it have lost contact with the people who buy the tickets and make their comfy lifestyles possible, the 99 percent of Americans who live in the wasteland between JFK and LAX.

I can’t remember the last time I came out of a movie knowing I had been entertained rather than having had my intelligence insulted.

That is why I didn’t run to my local multiplex when the much-touted Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was released last fall. Based on glowing reviews from critics whose judgment I’ve come to doubt, I suspected it would represent too much of a commitment in terms of time and money and would ultimately disappoint, so I waited until it was available on Amazon. My wife and I watched it last night.

The plot in one sentence: A woman (Frances McDormand) is at wit’s end because the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the man who raped and murdered her daughter, so she buys three billboards demanding to know why.

Critics hailed Billboards as a black comedy. The comedy, if you can call it that, is at the expense of the local yokels including a racist deputy who makes Barney Fife look like Stephen Hawking; a dwarf used car salesman; a dentist who attempts to torture McDormand as punishment for buying the billboards (think Laurence Olivier drilling Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man); and McDormand’s ex who is shacked up with a 19-year-old bimbette. The directors gratuitously threw in two African-American characters who, unlike the white residents of Ebbing, are wise and good. 

Having read the premise, I had no expectations that the script would satisfy. My sole interest in Ebbing was to see how Hollywood portrayed a small Missouri town because I grew up in one.

Ebbing, it turns out, is surrounded by mountains. Missouri doesn’t have mountains. Yes, there’s a region known as the Ozark Mountains but those aren’t really mountains, they’re just hills and not particularly high hills at that. Five minutes into the movie I hit “pause” to look up where it was shot. It was actually filmed in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains which are honest-to-God mountains.

If the director felt strongly about using that particular setting, he could have changed the name to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, North Carolina or, for that matter, West Virginia. One would think that, at some point in the location-scouting process, someone – a summer intern perhaps – would have been assigned to find out if Missouri has mountains but that, clearly, never occurred to anyone.

As a boy, I loved Gunsmoke, a TV series set in Dodge City, Kansas, a state as flat as a pancake. Gunsmoke frequently featured Sheriff Matt Dillon as he pursued bad guys into the nearly mountains. At eight years old, I knew from studying maps that there wasn’t a mountain within 300 miles of Dodge and it bothered me. At least the plots of Gunsmoke were satisfying.

The plot of Ebbing, Missouri isn’t. Like so many creatively bankrupt movies that simply run out of steam at which point the director yells “cut,” it doesn’t even have a proper ending. In the final scene McDormand and the idiot deputy are in a car headed to Idaho to kill a guy the deputy thinks may have had something to do with the murder. But then they admit they don’t even know if they want to continue the journey. At that point the screen fades to black and the credits roll.

The credits are the only reason I can even give Ebbing one star because at least the typography is nice.