My twin sister Ruth died when we were twelve years old, from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. That was a long time ago, but I still feel loss when I think about her. It’s a “killer” disease, even today, that results in twisted limbs.
Ruth died after suffering from pain most of her short life. What a tragedy! I think she was the smartest of the three kids in our family—my older brother Sol, me, and her.
My memories of her are not a complete picture of what happened, just scenes at specific points, and not much connection between those scenes.
I remember starting kindergarten, with Ruth, when we were five. It was cold weather—Ruth and I were left in the coat room and apparently abandoned by our mother, and left in the care of a stranger, Mrs. Lauer. We burst out crying simultaneously. But by the time my mother came to get us that afternoon we were happy to be in a new place, with new playmates and activities.
We started the first grade together, but by the following year she was no longer able to participate in regular school activities. Instead, a school bus came every weekday morning for Ruth, to take her the Rainbow School for Crippled Children, and return her afterwards to our house. One clear memory is the way my mother had to help Ruth down the stairway from our second floor apartment, with her crutches, to wait for the school bus every morning.
When the school bus arrived back, my mother was always waiting downstairs to help Ruth navigate the stairs back up to our apartment.
At one point, a lovely young woman, whose name was Grace Itnar ( I remember her name to this day) came to our house to help give Ruth a bath because Ruth’s condition had become so painful that my mother had trouble bathing her. Miss Itnar was a Visiting Nurse assigned to home care by a social service agency in Cleveland.
One day she brought a lovely birthday present for Ruth, which was completely unexpected. Ruth had never received such an expensive present before. It was a mobile whose figures moved depending on the humidity—used to forecast the weather. I don’t think it was a good forecaster, but Ruthie loved it.
In retrospect, social service agencies in Cleveland were marvelous. For a long period of time, my brother and I visited the Hospital for Crippled Children on Sundays with my parents because Ruth was a full-time patient by then. We were called in to see her, as my parents came back out to the car. I think that was because there was a restriction on how many visitors were allowed into her room at one time.
I remember the night Ruth died. My father was working the night shift at Perfection Stove when a call came from the hospital. My mother answered the phone to hear that someone should come quickly, that Ruth was failing! No preliminary warning, no softening of the message—just a message that your child is in trouble and you ought to come quickly.
A neighbor volunteered to drive my mother there. She asked Sol to call my dad at the factory and tell him to get to the hospital. We found the phone number of his factory in the phone book and called it. Sol said it was important that my dad get to the hospital when the guy at the company got him on the phone.
About forty-five minutes later, my dad pulled his car into the driveway. Sol and I yelled at him that he ought to be at the hospital. He slowly changed from his work clothes to something better, told us to get some sleep, and drove to the hospital. He was very subdued, just telling us to get back to sleep.
The next morning Sol and I awoke and found our parents home. They said she had passed away but didn’t cry as much as I expected—they’d been prepared a long time for this tragedy. Shortly thereafter a limousine arrived to take our family to the cemetery. According to Jewish law, Ruth was to be buried before another day passed. Sol and I were told to stay home and wait for my parents to come back from the cemetery. I suppose they didn’t want us to see the actual burial, but I never asked them about that.
People were subdued when they came back from the cemetery, but not as downcast as I expected. “Life goes on,” it seemed to me, was the attitude.
Since then I’ve been back to Mount Olive Cemetery in Cleveland a few times, where Ruth and other members of my family are buried. Her grave is on a hillside, below where my grandmother is buried and above the spot where my parents are buried. It’s a very peaceful setting, removed from any hint of her pain.
I recently looked through several file folders containing family-related documents and photographs. I found two items related to Ruth that moved me.
One is a large photo of Ruthie, when she was about seven years old, in a nice outfit and holding a stuffed animal. It’s the only photo of her that seems taken by a professional photographer. She looks very happy in the picture, but her knees, already wrapped in bandages, show the effects of the illness that would kill her.
The other item is what appears to be her attempt to start a daily journal, in an old appointment book. She wrote about Sol, the doctors she’ll be seeing in the coming weeks, etc. There are only four small pages of her handwriting, but they make her seem alive again.
As a footnote, it’s ironic that my wife Elaine was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. With modern drugs and treatment methods she is practically free from pain.
It was a hot summer day, and the windows were open, as usual. We had no air-conditioning in those days. Air-conditioning was for the wealthy or movie theaters. I was nine years old.
My mother was sewing across from me in the living room, and I was reading a book. A loud argument between the young husband and wife downstairs erupted, an all-too-common disturbance. My mother put her sewing down and spoke.
"Mister Friedman isn't much of a man."
I'd never heard anything like that from her before.
"What did you say?"
"He's not much of a man."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"He does everything she tells him to do. He's not much of a man."
"Pa does what you tell him to do."
"Your father isn't afraid of me. He loves me, which isn't the same thing at all. Besides, he doesn't always do what I want. Pa can drive me crazy at times."
"What does he do that drives you crazy?"
"None of your business."
"Don't you tell him that he drives you crazy?"
"No he has so much to worry about in the business. Life is hard, and he's a good man. Not like Mister Friedman downstairs."
She took up her sewing again.
The place where I worked after graduating from Ohio State is in New Mexico and named the "White Sands Proving Ground." It seemed a strange name at first, until I realized it was named for the White Sands National Monument, which is located about forty miles north of the proving ground.
Here, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert and created the world's largest gypsum dune field. According to information posted at the Visitor Center of the monument, the gypsum was washed down eons ago, from distant mountains, then carried by prevailing winds to the area where the national monument was created by the Park Service in 1933. It is a process which continues today.
One day I drove there, having heard it was worth a visit. It was not only worth a visit, but became one of my favorite places to go at night, with my friends the Kershaws: Leon Kershaw, his wife Marge, and their three children. They lived in one of the houses at the proving ground provided for married employees, who otherwise would have had to commute a long distance from Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Leon died six years ago of lung cancer, and Marge is now an eighty-year-old great grandmother. I send Christmas cards to her, and she to me. The memories of our times together are still vivid for both of us.
Marge prepared delicious picnic food, which we put in the trunk of their car. Then we drove to the monument while there was still enough daylight to find a private place among the dunes, bringing a blanket and the food with us.
We ate the food and chatted around the blanket. We had it timed so that the food was mostly gone by the time night fell.
A few stars appeared at first, the brightest ones. We lay back, watching the sky. There were some patches of light from neighboring groups of visitors, and sometimes sounds from them. But the dunes made it seem as if we were alone, in a very private place.
It was a sky show like none I've ever witnessed in any other place, probably because there is no nearby source of light pollution, like a town — even a small one.
Also, the air is very clear because the dunes are at an altitude of five thousand feet.
As it got dark, the constellations became very clear, and I tried to identify some of them from previous courses in astronomy. But this was a far different show than looking at static star maps or pictures of the night sky. The constellations moved as we lay there, observing the sky. Due to my background in physics and astronomy, I knew it was an illusion.
I knew that the apparent revolution of the celestial sphere was due to the Earth spinning on its axis, which takes approximately twenty-four hours.
The celestial sphere looked very much the same eons ago, before there was an Earth, and before creatures like us existed. It will look very much the same after the Earth has died, and we are gone.
The movement of the stars, as we lay there, was a marvelous sight, very much as early humans saw the heavens after nightfall. I was able to put aside knowledge of the physics involved and enjoy the sight, as people have since they first looked at the sky in wonderment.
Eventually it was time to leave: the kids were half-asleep, and there were things that had to be done the following morning. We picked up the leftovers and the blanket, then headed back to our car.
It was quiet going back; there aren't any words to describe the event we'd just witnessed — one that has happened every day in the history of the Earth, if you think about it.
But it was unique for me, on those days, with those friends. If I put my mind to the task, it comes back very clearly to me, after so many years — when I was a young man on his first job, away from home.
Copyright © 2007 by Mort Norman