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.

Friday, April 13, 2018

I'm scannable and my wife is from Hannibal but don't worry, I'm fine

My wife has a new car. She didn’t want it. 

She was perfectly happy with her 2005 car that had only 65,000 miles on it. She loved everything about that car —  the powder blue paint that matched her eyes, the classic lines, the white leather interior, the polished wood burling on the dashboard.

For the last couple of years I suspected the car’s days were numbered and kept suggesting we at least consider replacing it but she said no, it was the best car she ever had and that men glanced over at her whenever she pulled up next to them at stop lights. (I found that disturbing but she apparently liked all that attention.)

Shortly before Christmas the car started having issues. I took it to a repair shop and laid out $3,400. The mechanic assured me it was good for another 13 years.

But one day last month it started making ominous noises. I drove it over back roads  I didn’t want to take it out on the highway — to the shop and was given an estimate of $5,000 for repairs, roughly the same amount as the Blue Book value of the car had it been fully functional. My wife reluctantly agreed it made no sense to spend that much money.

The car was shimmying like an Ikette, the brakes were shot, black smoke was billowing from the exhaust, the tires had suddenly lost all their tread and I think (but am not sure — I’m not mechanically inclined so I don’t understand these things) the engine was about to fall out. The mechanic told me to be extra careful driving it to the dealership to trade it in because it wasn’t safe.

En route to the dealer’s that afternoon we smelled smoke. We pressed on. A half mile before we arrived I removed my foot from the accelerator so we could coast to a crawl before turning in since there were no brakes. As we pulled into the parking lot the car gave a loud shudder, the engine shut down and, I assume, at that precise moment its soul ascended to car heaven leaving its beautiful powder blue body behind, looking as perfect as the day it came off the assembly line.

A couple of hours later, we drove out in a new car. My wife’s beloved car fetched $1,500 as a trade-in and that was generous given the amount of work it needed. I’m sure it was flat-bedded to the junkyard that afternoon.

The new car is fun to drive. Its electronics are as sophisticated as a 787’s, but the body is slung low — really really low. You can’t just slide into the driver’s seat, you have to squat alongside it, then move slowly and carefully across the seat to fit behind the wheel. A driver five feet tall would have no problem but I’m a six-footer. (Full disclosure. I’m five eleven and three-quarters but have always lied on driver’s licenses and passport applications. Six feet sounds much more impressive.)

Which brings me to the night before last. We had taken the new car out to dinner. I had pasta, my wife had chicken, the car had 92 octane. I said I wanted to drive home because I rarely have the opportunity to ride in it, much less drive it. As I was getting into the driver’s seat, I didn’t squat low enough and POW, smashed the crown of my head — hard — against the roof. For a moment I saw stars and thought I was going to pass out, the pain was that bad. 

I couldn’t sleep that night because I had a terrific headache and kept reaching up to touch the knot growing atop my head, which is now roughly the size of Taiwan. 

Yesterday afternoon, remembering news stories about famous people who’ve died after seemingly innocuous head injuries, I insisted my wife drive me to the ER, where, at check-in, I was given a wristband that identified me not as Tom Dryden but as a bar code. The bad news: I’m no longer a person. The good news: I can be scanned by a Target cashier. 

Speaking of scans, a CAT scan revealed I was fine. No bleeding to the brain. 

But this morning, nearly 36 hours after my stupid accident, my head is still THROBBING. No amount of extra strength Tylenol will make it stop. And I can't remember the point I was going to make when I started writing this post. 

I am almost sure I did have one.