„Grandma Ruth, your friend is YOUNG!‟ That’s what the granddaughter of my friend Ruth – who died this Sunday at the age of 88 – said when Ruth and her picked me up at Sea-Tac Airport when I first visited her in 2003. And on my next visit in 2011 Ruth was exactly twice as old as I was. So it was a friendship that transcended generations. That in itself might be called unusual, but the story of how we became – and stayed – friends is even more so.
In 1994 I spent the summer working at the Paradise Inn in Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. It wasn’t a particularly fancy job (I worked in the snack bar of the hotel) but studying English to become a teacher I wanted to improve my English skills, and I didn’t need a sophisticated job for that. Plus, I wanted to have the opportunity to explore a national park in more depth than possible during a vacation. And that I did.
On one of my days off I decided I wanted to hike beyond the snowline. My actual goal was to hike all the way up to Camp Muir, a shelter for those who want to climb up to the peak of Mt. Rainier. This was as far as you were allowed to hike without a climbing permit. I was already on the Muir Snowfield when I decided to take a break. That’s when Ruth turned up. Already in her sixties, she was also hiking on her own and she started talking to me (as was her habit to do to anybody she met) and we decided to hike on together. When she said it was time for her to turn around, I gave up my original plan and hiked back down to Paradise with her. It was such a pleasure to talk to her – I learned about her love for Mt. Rainier (at least one trip per year was „mandatory‟), her husband Flick who didn’t hike but who waited for her at the campground, and I marveled at her energy. In your mid-twenties people older than 60 seem already quite old, so I was deeply impressed about all the hiking and cycling she told me she was doing regularly. When we reached Paradise, she said she would be back with her husband later, at which point we exchanged addresses. Mind you, in 1994 cell phones were not ubiquitous yet and the Internet was also not used as widely yet. So we parted promising we would write each other.
And we did. At first we wrote each other letters and postcards (I used to get at least one postcard of hers from Mt. Rainier per year, plus one from Hawaii, where she spent Christmas with the family of her oldest son every year), later we switched to e-mailing and often attached pictures. I would tell her of my wedding – and years later of my separation and divorce, about my family, my work and my singing. She would send pictures of her widespread (Alaska, Ohio, etc.) family, keep me informed about her children and grandchildren, let me know about her husband’s death and about her cycling trips with the travel company Backroads (for instance up to Machu Picchu, Peru in 2003 or 2004, in her mid-70s!).
There were years when we didn’t mail too often but we never lost contact, in contrast to what happened regarding all the young people I worked with on Mt. Rainier all summer (after a year or so nobody kept in touch any longer). Then finally, after working for a few years and saving money, I flew over to Seattle with my then husband R. to visit Ruth and show R. „my‟ mountain in 2003. There was no awkwardness (we hadn’t seen each other for nine years!) or gap between the generations – Ruth welcomed us into her home in White Swan (central Washington), took us out to dinner to her favorite Mexican place in Toppenish, showed us the murals there, and, of course, took us up to Mt. Rainier. She had even just bought a new car, so that all of this was possible. What moved both R. and me a lot was that Ruth gave us a wooden toy train that her late husband Flick had made as a parting gift. It is still sitting in my bookshelf in my living room today.
In 2006 she went on a trip to Europe: First, she came to Munich to visit me for a week. Of course, I had to take her up to Germany’s tallest mountain, the Zugspitze, at the price of me fainting on the ride back down in the cablecar (due to a panic attack as my ears were clogging up and I couldn’t pressurize (?) them). Her ironic comment when I was awake again: „You do everything to get attention!‟ I also took her to my home-town, so she could meet my parents, brothers and sisters. We even went to see R., even though we had been separated for two years by then. After her stay with me she traveled on to see a nephew in Budapest and go on an island-hopping Backroads trip on the Dalmatian Coast (age: 77).
After five years I finally flew over to Washington in 2011 again – this time I wanted to go to Canada, and she was enthusiastic about going on a two-week trip with me. It was her strong wish to show me Vancouver Island, booked a motel for us there and everything else that was needed. But first, of course, we had to go up Mt. Rainier together again, and she actually showed me some trails I hadn’t been on before because they were not reachable without a car from Paradise.
Ruth was 82 now and still hadn’t given up hiking, even though she had become a bit slower and did not finish all the trails we went on.
On the way to Canada we visited some relatives and a married couple that she had been friends with for many years. N. and S. were so welcoming and kind that I’ll be forever grateful to Ruth for introducing me to them. We had common interests (Star Trek, singing, hiking, to name but a few), so that there were no awkward silences but very interesting conversations. I really liked them and the little coastal town of Bellingham instantly – and was actually quite sad to leave them after two days. Ruth and I also got to meet their son D. and had lunch with him – a very nice young man who called Ruth Grandma Ruth, even though they were not related.
Ruth and I traveled on to Vancouver Island (British Columbia), had the most expensive afternoon tea you can imagine in Victoria and explored the towns, harbors and nature of this beautiful island. I could feel how glad Ruth was to be able to share this place with me – and I was equally happy to experience this place with her. So, Vancouver Island was her wish, the city of Vancouver was my wish, which is where we went next. I fell in love with this beautiful city! The scenery – skyscrapers, the sea and in the background the mountain ranges – and the relaxed atmosphere in Vancouver really charmed me. Ruth is not as big a fan of big cities, so I did some of the exploring on my own, which was fine. I had been a little worried whether traveling with an elderly lady for two weeks might become a bit tedious but I’m happy to say that this wasn’t the case. It was a wonderful trip that I have very many fond memories of. (I really wish I could share some pictures of her and me together but – as much as it pains me – I still do want to keep some sort of anonymity on this blog.)
Again, some time passed. In 2013 I came up with the idea to offer my niece to accompany me on a trip to the USA. She gladly accepted and we decided it would be best in the holidays before her last year of school. So we went in summer 2015. Of course I had wondered whether we could visit Ruth while we were there but since I knew I just had to show my niece the national parks in the southwest (Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, etc.) and wanted to finally see San Francisco, it just wasn’t feasible.
That’s why I decided – shortly after coming back from our trip, actually – to fly over the very next year. I had this feeling that I couldn’t quite shake that I shouldn’t wait another year (my gut feeling proved to be right). When I started planning and writing Ruth about it, she was excited to see me again and was also quite sure that we could go and see N. & S. together, who had moved from Bellingham, WA to Corvallis, OR. She also went ahead and booked us a room in Paradise Inn. Of course, we had to go there – this was OUR Mt. Rainier! Then Ruth became ill. For quite some time it didn’t seem very likely that we would be able to drive up to Mt. Rainier together, let alone travel to Oregon. The way things worked out in the end was that we did drive up to Mt. Rainier but just for a couple of hours, after which Ruth’s son picked her up while I stayed there. At that time Ruth was still in a rehab facility learning to use her legs again and learning how to safely use a walker. I could witness first-hand there how excellently the people in physical therapy worked with the elderly as I took part in one session. In retrospect I feel very blessed that I was able to experience this part of Ruth’s life as well, even if it was also a bit hurtful to watch this once so active and independent woman in a situation in which it was considered an extreme success that she could walk down the hall and back. But Ruth, being resilient as she always had been, improved day by day, so that by the time when I came back her way after my trip to Oregon, she could walk much better and had moved into an assisted-living place, in which she seemed quite content. She showed me around her new home and even talked about getting her indoor bike back, so she could start riding it again. I don’t know if she ever did, as her health seemed to deteriorate again later.
After saying goodbye to her for what felt like the very last time (in person), I drove away in tears. I felt a bit as if I’d already lost her. So when Ruth’s friend N., who had become my friend now as well, let me know that she and S. were going to visit Ruth, very likely for the last time as N. cannot easily travel because of her own health problems, and that Ruth cannot read and write e-mails any longer, I typed up a letter and sent it to N. to take it with her and give it to Ruth. I’m truly glad that I did this and that I did express my feelings about our friendship there (albeit in brief):
Ruth, I do reminisce about our time spent together last year – and the years before. I feel truly blessed that our friendship has transcended generations and lasted all these years (23 years!).
I’m going to treasure these memories forever. You’ve also been an idol of sorts for me: Your energy has always amazed me and the fact that you’ve often traveled, hiked and biked on your own has surely influenced me in what I feel I can do as well.
Thank you very much for your friendship, for your energy, for introducing me to your family and to N. and S.
But I do feel that she has given me so much more than what I mentioned here, which is why I want to conclude this tribute with a last letter to Ruth.
Your death makes me grieve but it also makes me want to celebrate how meeting you has enriched my life.
I may not always have noticed or realized how much you influenced and inspired me, especially since some of these influences only emerged years after meeting you. Let me pick out three of your inspiring traits:
Your openness: Americans are often described as being open and easy to talk to, even if you’re a stranger, so in this way you were the poster girl for this typical American characteristic. And your interest in other people wasn’t superficial or just a way of being polite, as our friendship over a period of 23 years has shown. Forming a lasting friendship after spending half a day hiking with a total stranger has surely influenced me in how I approach chance encounters. Often, I am the first one to suggest in such a case that we could stay in contact, more recently, for instance, by simply telling them to remember the name of my blog and contact me there. It’s not always been clear to me that your example may have lead me to this attitude but today I’m pretty sure that this is true. I’ve also become less shy about just starting to talk to strangers that are sitting next to in a theater or standing next to me at a stage door, for example. This is still not at the same level of what you practiced, but thanks to your example I’m catching up!
Your energy: Since I met you, I’ve always admitted when telling other people about you that I wish I had the same amount of energy at my age (which is 41 years younger!) that you had at your age. Until a few years ago, you rode your bike every day. When it became too dangerous to ride it outside, you had it transformed into a stationary indoor bike, so you could keep exercising. In addition to that, you lifted weights to counter the effects of osteoporosis, went hiking and took part in mountain-biking tours all around the world. This was a natural way of life for you, while I always have to fight my inner couch potato to get myself to do any kind of physical exercise. Sure, ever since my stay at our Mt. Rainier I have enjoyed hiking – but I still do it much too rarely unless I am on holiday. I hope, though, that I’ll strive to just do a little bit more to honor your example!
Your independence: I don’t quite remember whether your husband didn’t hike for health reasons or because he just didn’t like hiking. It doesn’t really matter: you wanted to hike, and so you did – and you either found friends that accompanied you or you went on your own. This attitude is something that impressed me in my twenties and keeps inspiring me today. There are people who were surprised when I told them that I would fly to the US on my own, women, especially, who said they wouldn’t do that, feeling it was too dangerous to travel alone. I have no such reservations, and, I think, that is at least partly due to your example. Admittedly, it has taken me a while to get there, but now I see myself traveling to all kinds of places even when I’m older. Sure, I have nothing against company, but having a partner who doesn’t like traveling does not make me unhappy now.
You see, even though we only saw each other for a total of four to five weeks over the course of 23 years, your influence on my life has been quite significant. So I thank you for helping me to become a more independent, out-going woman! I may be way behind you regarding practically all of these aspects, particularly physical exercise, but I’m striving to keep improving myself.
I also need to thank you, again, for introducing me to your lovely family and to N. and S., two of the kindest and most lovable people I have met in my life. Your friendship to me and to them has also brought N., S. and me together, another reason why I feel deeply blessed by having had you in my life.
Even though we didn’t really talk about it, you were a religious person, too, so I’m hopeful that you died believing in life after death. I heard that you died shortly after having some strawberry ice cream, which feels like a good way to go. Of course, I wasn’t there but it sounds like a peaceful death, which – in all sadness – makes me happy for you.
Rest in peace, my dearest Ruth!