A Mother's Day tribute to grandmother Ruth Viola King

May 11 2012 - 12:06pm

Ruth Viola King sat in a straight-back wooden chair, its only concession to comfort was a seat cushion stuffed with cotton. She had finished her evening meal, supper, which consisted of a "jonnie cake" with dark corn syrup, a couple of slices of "streak-o- lean" and a cup of coffee. She had learned to subsist on a very frugal diet. The cakes were made from corn meal fried in lard on her little two-burner electric hot plate. She sat here in the living room, its windows trimmed with lacy curtains, her small, white-clapboard, wood-framed house was on Barrington Drive. She lifted her well-preserved guitar from its black leather case and waited for her grandchildren to visit after they ate supper.

She had lived there for about three years, directly across from her daughter Winifred (Winnie) Reynolds. The dirt road ran about one hundred yards before it dead ended. There were a dozen houses; half of them were backed up to the railroad track side. Passengers and freight trains ran regularly and rattled windows and dishes as they passed.

Ruth was born near Dothan, Ala., in a one-room log cabin that her father built. Benjamin Emmit Napier added more rooms as the family grew to 13 children. Napier (called Naper by the locals) had also donated land for a school house, which he and neighbors built, and he was the teacher as well. He would later marry a former student when she reached the age of 14 -- not yet an old maid.

Mrs. King, as she was called (it sounded more like Kang when folks said it), was a widow. Her husband William Henry died in 1920, leaving her a young widow with three children under 6 years of age; Ernest ("Son") was almost 6, Winifred 3, and Jeanette 1. Ruth had to move in with Henry's folks after his death but soon moved back to Dothan to the Napier home. Her children experienced the life she had grown up with, and greatly enjoyed all the family and farm life. Most Saturdays their grandfather would drive his Buick sedan; loaded with boys and men, into Dothan and after dutifully "chewing the fat" with other men in town, then load up goodies and head home. The children and women at home looked forward to his return because there would be candy, bananas, and cheese slivers from a round of cheddar. Eventually, Ruth would move 100 miles north to Columbus, Georgia where there were cotton mills, and jobs. They arrived just in time for the Great Depression, but found nothing "Great" about the hard times. They managed to scrape by with help from family, neighbors, and occasional jobs for Ruth and Son. He would soon work for the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, on construction projects in the area. When old enough, he joined the Army and continued to help support the family financially.

As Ruth tuned her guitar, she lifted the strap over her head and smiled at her two grandchildren, Shirley, just 10 and John eight. The children adored Grandma King and enjoyed the treat of listening to her sing. Ruth's favorite music was a mix of Church and Bluegrass. She asked the children to sing with her a favorite, "You Are My Sunshine." They made the song sound joyful and hopeful. Ruth had given them cookies and lemonade as a reward for helping with the chores. Shirley had washed the sheets and made grandma's bed, John had mowed weeds using a hand sling blade, and raked up the yard.

Grandma King sang more songs, the children listened intently. When she finished singing "The Old Rugged Cross," John asked, "Grandma sing the 'Father' song please." Ruth asked, "What song is that Johnny?"

"You know; the one about Father Long."

"Oh, I know the one you mean, 'cept it's Farther not Father. The song is about us understanding God's love later on in life or, farther along."

"Yes grandma, it says 'all bye and bye' so that means later?" Shirley spoke up. "Grandma, I knew that, it's kinda sad though when it says "when death has come and taken our loved ones ..."

"Yes Shirley, it is kinda sad. I felt that way when I lost my Henry, your grandpa that you never got to see, 'cept for that picture yonder on the wall. It was a terrible thing with him being so young and our children being just little ones." Ruth paused for a moment. She didn't spend much time grieving anymore. Henry had been dead more than 25 years now.

"But I don't sing it to feel sad, I sing because God promises that I'll understand, later on, and I do. The song also says 'Cheer up my brother, walk in the sunshine' and that's what I think about, that makes me feel good."

The children understood. Ruth sang, "Farther along we'll know all about it. Farther along we'll understand why . . . ."

Ruth thought of William Henry King and the day they were married, Christmas Eve of 1912, and their eight years together.

She was a strong woman, a devoutly religious woman who would live on until 1982 when she died at her daughter Jeanette's home in Calimesa, Calif., at the age of 86. Son, Winifred, and Jeanette and their families were there to say goodbye. Ruth would exchange her "old rugged cross," that she had dutifully carried, finally, for a crown. The world took little notice of her passing; just another one of the millions of her generation who did what they had to do -- persevere and keep the world turning.

Once in a while, a generation gets lost and forgets what life is all about. They become victims of bad habits, bad advice, and poor role models. Believing that the world owes us something more than an opportunity to succeed creates false expectations. Ruth wasn't one of them.

Reynolds lives in Pleasant View. He is a retired businessman and member of the Kiwanis Club of North Ogden.

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