Remembering Rubye

My grandmother never worked a day in her life.

She raised five children before people had electric clothes washers and dryers in their homes. She would wash her family’s clothes in the bathtub on a rub board on Monday, hang them on the line on Tuesday, iron on Wednesday, and fold and put away on Thursday. But she never worked a day in her life.

When my kids were little and things would seem really tough, I would remind myself that my grandma raised five and I only have two, and I had a washer and dryer. And a dishwasher. And I didn’t iron.

I would call her and she would laugh, telling me, “That was before permanent press!” She also told me how thankful she was that my grandfather’s Navy uniforms had to be dry cleaned.

When I called to tell her of my new discovery of all-in-one cloth diapers when my kids were babies, she asked, “you mean pre-folds?” She diapered five children before there were disposable diapers, too. But, of course, she never worked a day in her life.

Money was tight on a military income. Once when her kids were still at home she had called my grandfather to express her concern there was nothing in the pantry for dinner. As she looked out the window she spotted a turtle and said to my grandfather, “I’ll call you back, I think I see dinner walking across the driveway.”

Even when her kids got older she was still on deck for whatever they needed. My dad and uncle would visit their parents and go fishing. They once brought home fish at two in the morning and woke grandma, who dutifully got out of bed and started cleaning their catch.

My grandmother had been trained to run banking machines in the early 1940s before meeting my grandfather. He told her he would go to work and she would raise the kids and she said let’s do it. She was 20 years old when she married my grandfather, so in order to get around the laws at the time she went to the doctor who delivered her and asked for a birth certificate, which was not automatic when she was born, telling him the wrong year so that she would appear to be 21 instead of 20.

When my grandmother attended my college graduation, that was the first time she had the opportunity to watch any of her direct descendants receive a college degree, out of five children and twelve grandchildren.

During my grandfather’s career in the Navy, Rubye got used to moving every year. Even after my grandfather died she would still move every few years, well into her 70s. She’d married again to Roger, a farmer who traded horses, when she was in her 70s, so she became active in the draft horse trade. She finally settled on a farm in rural Southern Kentucky, where she rented out land to local farmers well into her 80s, even after being widowed again.

I remember the summer of 1995 when she married Roger. I was living in Chicago for the summer with my Aunt Jo Ann when we got the call that grandma had eloped at the age of 70. It was mildly scandalous to some of the family, but I always admired her for doing whatever in the heck she wanted to do.

Once we went to visit her for Thanksgiving, and that ended up being the most memorable Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. Her horse-trader husband, Roger, had arranged for us all to spend the day on a trail ride that would end in a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. Grandpa Roger hitched a wagon up to two draft horses and drove the wagon while we rode in the back. There were probably 20 wagons and a dozen or more solo riders. It was actually cold in central Florida near their home in Trenton that morning, though it warmed up as the day went on. When the convoy would stop the announcement would be, “Men in the front and women in the back!” We picnicked for lunch on the wagon, and when the ride made its way back to the start point at the end of the day it was potluck time.

She had a wicked sense of humor. She had been on the lookout for a horse for me, and when she finally found a retired Standardbred race horse she called to tell me she was on her way with “Hurricane Lightning” — whose name was actually “Whispering Thunder.”

During her time traveling with Roger they would often stop at our house to pasture their horses for a few days before continuing on to Florida. She was always down to go shopping, get our hair done, or let us try some new makeup on her.

She went through a battle with skin cancer that landed her in the hospital for several weeks when I was in high school. On my days off of work I would go over and do her nails. That was when I learned she had started dying her hair gray in her 60s. The treatment had made her hair grow back in light brown, which prompted her to tell me she’d started dying her hair gray out of embarrassment that it hadn’t turned that way yet on its own. “Who ever heard of such a thing!” she laughed.

The best parenting advice I ever got from anyone ever was from my grandmother. She told me to do everything with my kids when they were little because that was how they would learn. The more you do with them before they are five, the smarter and more well-rounded they would be, she said. Kids needed experiences.

After my second son was born I found myself perplexed by the fact he had blue eyes. I called grandma, who told me that her father had some of the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen, right up until the day he died. She had blue eyes and my grandpa had blue eyes, but my dad was the only one of her five children who didn’t have blue eyes. In her Southern Alabama accent she said, “I was so ma-ad!” in a way that I will always remember her humor about the situation.

Even though she lived just two and a half hours from me when my kids were little, I wasn’t able to get down there to see her as much as I would have liked. I either didn’t have a car, needed new tires, or couldn’t afford the gas. But when the tires were new and the gas tank was full that was always my first destination. We would go have lunch at the only Asian buffet in her rural town around the corner from the Merle Norman.

She spent the better part of the last decade of her life living with my dad and stepmom. During a rare lucid moment the last time I saw her, she simply said to me, “I wish we had more time.”

My grandmother would have been 97 in June of 2021. Her mother lived a long time, too, but there are debates as to whether Miss Autie was 98, 99, or 101 when she passed. My grandmother would often say, “I’m going to have to live to a hundred and fifty just to get even with everybody!”

And we really thought she would make it.

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