Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Girl from Bakersfield

Every November, I think about that chilly Thanksgiving evening in 1966 when my life took a turn. In this case, that was a good thing, because that was the night that my Aunt Ruth taught me to play three chords and a couple of old cowboy songs on the guitar. I wish I had known at the time how much I would want to thank her in the future.

Aunt Ruth with our dog Pinky in 1966
My Aunt Ruth was born in the early 1920's in Bakersfield, California.  A raven-haired beauty with features suggestive of Native American heritage, she married my Uncle Richard, a young Methodist minister from Tennessee, in the 1940's, and they spent several years in West Tennessee and Northern Wisconsin before heading to Southern California, where my uncle would serve in various area churches for the remainder of his career. Every few years, they would make the trek with their three children back to Tennessee, and it was on one of their Thanksgiving visits that my Aunt Ruth brought her guitar.

I spent several summers with my aunt and uncle in California in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and I always looked forward to those visits with eager anticipation. Mornings would often start with a horseback ride with Aunt Ruth through old movie sets, some of which were still being used to film shows such as Bonanza and The Big Valley.  We would enjoy leisurely rides and generally get back home in time for lunch.  Afternoons were usually beach time, and Aunt Ruth would drive my cousin Debi's old Ford station wagon, nicknamed The Beatlemobile, on zigzag roads across the coastal mountains to Zuma Beach, where Ruth would help us set up. She always brought along munchies, SPF4 (at best) suntan lotion, and gallons upon gallons of Kool-Aid.  For a young teenager like me, it was nirvana.

Blog author flying a kite
 at Zuma Beach in 1967
Aunt Ruth never seemed to tire of taking us to the shopping mall, which was a fairly new concept at that time. Our favorite was Topanga Plaza, a short drive from our house, and she would arrange check-in times and meeting points with us, then give us free rein to stroll the mall, taking in candy shops, music stores, and Orange Julius stands. On any given morning, she might have sported a western shirt and jeans, but when we headed to the mall, Aunt Ruth always dressed up, often wearing her favorite sleeveless magenta dress, perfectly accessorized, with her lustrous dark hair arranged in a fashionable chignon.

Ruth was always either very with or ahead of her time.  She began playing guitar during the heyday of folk music.  She would sit patiently with me while I practiced new chords or some old Western song, gently suggesting how a different pick or strum here and there might improve the sound.  One evening in the 1970's, I remember her heading off to a church meeting with a rolled up foam mat -- she said she was going to a "yoga" class.  She was always tending to her fitness, and it was evident -- she was in wonderful shape well into her later years.  She and Richard maintained a small vegetable garden on their property, from which they would gather fresh beans and corn for dinner.  Ruth was always looking to enrich her life.

Nothing ever seemed to ruffle Aunt Ruth's feathers.  Once, my uncle heard of a man who was giving away free ducklings on a farm which fronted the Ventura Freeway.  Richard, Ruth and I headed there one afternoon and chased ducklings around the property until we captured enough to bring home (I'm sure that this provided endless amusement to motorists).  All was going fairly smoothly until several days later, when we went out to run an errand, forgetting that all the ducklings were locked inside a screened back porch.  When we returned from our outing, we realized the error of our ways, but rather than fret, Ruth simply grabbed a mop, some Mr. Clean, and got to the task at hand.  On another occasion, I recall her tossing burned toast out the kitchen window to an eager flock of chickens which roamed the yard.  This seemed odd to me, but to her, not a problem...they'd eat anything.  Painting during an earthquake?  Not to worry, she said...it's only a tremor.

The last time I saw my Aunt Ruth, she was in her late seventies, and a heart problem had slowed her down a bit, but she still managed to travel with Richard from their retirement home in the Ozarks to attend the annual walking horse celebration held in Shelbyville, Tennessee.  Even in the face of severe health issues, she still had that same spirit and that same grace.

When Aunt Ruth passed away several years later, I really felt like I'd lost a piece of my heart. But I also realized that I had been given the privilege of knowing a true lady, possessed of a unique combination of presence, imagination and spirit. And I can still play "Red River Valley" the way that she taught me that Thanksgiving night.