An inspiring story about the neighbor who taught her to live
by Thia Li Rose — Posted on Feb 9, 2010
I stared blankly at the stacks of papers that filled my elderly neighbor’s living room that summer day. What had I gotten myself into?
“I need you to be my eyes,” Ruth said. “I’m looking for a notebook with a picture of this teapot.” She pointed at a cabinet filled with beautiful porcelain teapots. “It’s here somewhere.”
I smiled nervously. “Do you remember where you last saw it?”
“Goodness, no,” she said. “But you’ll know it when you see it.”
This was what my life had come to. Even an 89-year-old woman with bad vision could see I had nothing better to do than hunt for a dusty old notebook.
I’d moved back home when I was 28, feeling like a failure at work, at love, at everything. I was constantly tired and achy—depressed. Nothing interested me. I’d always enjoyed crafting, but now I never seemed to have the energy. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt God in my life. Mom kept at me to get involved, to help others. But what could I offer? Tips on how to be a loser?
So when Ruth Thornton called, asking if I could “pop over for a minute,” Mom had practically pushed me out the door. “It’ll do you good,” she said.
Now I searched through a sea of paperwork. Ruth had moved on to a different topic, how she’d gotten started collecting crosses.
My head was spinning.
“I don’t think I can find it,” I said after an hour.
“That’s all right. It’ll turn up,” she said. “They always do.”
Her optimism baffled me. Maybe upstairs? I thought. There, wedged in a corner of a spare bedroom, I found it.
“Wonderful,” Ruth exclaimed. “I’ll use that in the talk I’m giving next week.” I looked at her in astonishment. Almost 90 and her life was busier than mine.
I found myself visiting Ruth several times a week. At first, I’ll admit, it was just to keep Mom off my back. But there was always something that intrigued me, a book she suggested I borrow, a pretty pattern in a teacup, one of the crosses in her collection on the wall.
One day I arrived to find Ruth sitting in her living room squinting at a piece of stationery. “I need your eyes again,” she said. “Can you read this letter to me?”
“Sure,” I said. I moved a chair next to hers.
“Dear Ruth,” I began reading, “I was thinking about the dig we went on…”
I looked at her in surprise. “Were you an archaeologist?”
“No,” she said, smiling at the memory. “It was just a hobby. But we’ve stayed in touch.”
I finished reading the letter. Ruth said, “Thanks. Now I better write her back.”
I busied myself organizing some of her books, but I kept glancing at Ruth, carefully writing. She was amazing, a puzzle. How had this woman, living in a tiny Iowa town, managed to live such a full life? She just never seemed to stop. Surely the letter writer didn’t expect an immediate reply. But there was Ruth, hard at work.
Soon, I realized that Ruth wasn’t writing just an occasional letter. Nearly every day there was a note for me to read and a letter for her to write. She had collected friends like she had teapots, and had stories to go with each one, stories of travel and adventure, but also of raising her three children and selling clothes in her and her husband’s store in Storm Lake. She had lived a life I could only dream of living.
Summer faded into fall. More and more Ruth needed me to be her eyes and even her hands. I noticed that she was falling behind in her cleaning and offered to do her dishes. Ruth asked me to do more tidying up, more odd jobs. Finally she offered to hire me as a part-time housekeeper. I hesitated. A housekeeper? Then I thought, What else have I got going on?
“It’s a deal, Ruth,” I said.
That winter, Ruth fell and shattered her hip. A son called. Would I spend evenings with Ruth in a nursing home while she recovered? They’d be willing to pay. I thought of Ruth lying there alone. How could I refuse?
One cold winter night, when I was wondering for the millionth time where my life was going, I trudged down the hall to Ruth’s room. She seemed so small, so helpless in her bed. When she saw me, she managed a thin smile.
“I’ve been hoping you’d come,” she said. “A letter came today. Could you read it?”
I sat by her bed and quickly read the letter. “Anything else?” I asked.
She looked at me hesitantly. “Would you mind helping me write a letter back?” she said.
It was such a simple, obvious request, but for a moment it left me speechless. Ruth needed me. This woman, who had lived such a full, rich life, truly needed me. I had found my purpose. It had been in plain sight all along.
Connecting with others. That’s what kept Ruth going. And here she was, her body broken, still wanting to reach out. She needed me to help her touch her world. But more than that, I finally understood that there was something I needed from her.
“Who should we write?” I asked, collecting paper and pen. Her face lit up with excitement.
When we finished, I looked over at Ruth. There was color in her cheeks. I knew how she felt, like a new person.
Ruth left the nursing home, and my services were no longer needed. And yet I no longer thought of visiting Ruth as a job. Several times a week I found myself thinking of things I could do for her, baking some banana muffins or finding a poem I knew she would like, any excuse to drop by. But now Ruth was only a part of my life. I had started making crafts again, reconnecting with friends.
One day I found myself making Ruth a gift, stitching together a rainbow of yarns to create a large cross. With each stitch I felt my heartbeat quicken, my hand moving faster at a still familiar task. I couldn’t wait to show Ruth.
She held it up admiringly, her eyes twinkling. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful. This will get a treasured spot in my collection.”
She paused, and then looked at me. “I so look forward to your visits,” she said. “You make me feel young again. You have so much energy and life. I wish I had your energy.”
I looked at her in surprise. Was there someone else in the room?
But as my eyes met hers I realized that Ruth saw someone I was only just now recognizing. My aches? They seemed to have vanished. My spirit? It felt lighter than it had in years. I had learned that every day is an opportunity to learn, to meet someone, to try something new. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to start the next lesson.