As fiercely independent Ruth struggles to stay self-reliant at the age of 86, each day brings her closer to an event that will alter her life forever. While her author daughter shifts through Ruth’s possessions prior to her move into a skilled nursing facility, she discovers a previously unseen photo from 1949 and realizes how little she knows of her mother’s life.
As Alzheimer’s continues to warp Ruth’s once sharp mind, she can no longer shed any light on the past. Yearning to know who her mother was as a person in her own right, the author painstakingly reconstructs Ruth’s life from photos, letters, public records and firsthand memories.
What emerges is a portrait of a bright, beautiful woman who is propelled through decades of broken promises and heartache, bouncing from one ill-fated relationship to the next, but always staying strong, always surviving. Through a timeline going back sixty years, the author gleans a much better understanding of the woman she had known only as Mom.
Backstory for “Finding Ruth”
I never imagined I’d write a book about my mother. In fact, the mere thought of doing such a thing would’ve sent me into spasms of fear. It’s not easy to admit this, especially with circumstances as they are now, but the relationship between my mother and me was never an easy one. It would be fair to say that it was strained, at best.
So, what made me put a halt to the third book in the series I was working on in favor of this memoir/biography? A calamity, followed by the discovery that I had no clue what my mom’s life was like before I came along. Finding a photo of her when she was just 19 showed me how little of her past she had shared with me. I remember staring at that captivating photograph and wondering who is this confident, carefree person? This is not the mom I know!
Because of all she’d been through, by the time she moved to Santa Barbara she was harboring a whole lot of resentment and sorrow for the way her life had played out. Most of our conversations consisted of her recounting the numerous injustices she had endured. I tried to comfort her by pointing out that was all in the past and she was stronger because of what she had lived through.
I only wish now that I had changed the narrative by asking her specific questions, like what was her first husband like, or how did she meet our father. I wonder now if she had shared those times with me, would it have brought us closer? Maybe it would’ve allowed me a chance to offer a different perspective on those painful episodes. Maybe that would’ve given her the opportunity to reexamine her feelings and forgive and forget.
Despite the prickliness of our relationship, I was hellbent on doing everything in my power to make her last years more rewarding. This is not me patting myself on the back; this was me desperate to bring happiness to a woman who had sacrificed so much for my siblings and me. It was the least I could do to repay her.
Looking back, I can now see that I was missing the bigger picture. The heartache and disappointments she’d suffered had a profound effect on her psyche. As I learn more about dementia and Alzheimer’s, I wonder if my mom’s jaundiced view of the world had been shaped in part by the deterioration of her brain. Or perhaps it was the other way around, that loss and regret led to a true breaking down of her once fine mind.
Though I started the book as a means of piecing together her life for a better understanding of who she was as a person in her own right, it became a journey not only into her past, but mine as well. For instance, it never actually registered for me that in the space of 24 months—between my parents’ divorce becoming final and the date she married her third husband—my mom had been engaged four times. If I hadn’t lived through it and viewed the public records with my own eyes, I would’ve never believed this was possible. After all, she worked two jobs. When and where did she meet all those men?
After accompanying her through 60+ years as her life unfolded on the page, I had a better understanding of our mother/daughter dynamic. Because of this, my feelings of love and devotion to her were renewed. This was possible in great part because Alzheimer’s has wiped her mind clean of her painful, disappointing past. It is bittersweet that she has returned to the open, loving and positive person she was back in her youth. In a strange way, it’s a gift to us all. She feels no more hurt, only love.