Did I ever tell you about Ruth? She was a checker at the grocery store my father ran. One of my earliest childhood memories was Ruth seeing my toddler self, on the arm of my mother, pick up a Tootsie Roll to put in my pocket. She whispered something into my Mother’s ear. After my first “talkin’-to” in business ethics, Mom told me to produce the candy from my pocket and to give it to Ruth with the words, “I’m sorry.”
Ruth was always at the grocery store, five days, forty hours a week, at minimum wage, year after year. She needed the job. It was a small Kansas town, with few opportunities for the unskilled labor of a woman. Ruth lived on the south side of the railroad tracks, the wrong side, in a house that even then struck me as barely habitable.
My mother said that Ruth’s husband, whom everyone called Mutt, was a handy man. I had to ask the meaning of the term. My father called him a bum.
I knew what that meant. One hot summer day, my father was on vacation from the store, and, instead of painting the house, he and I had gone fishing, down on the Arkansas River. I don’t remember if we caught any fish, but I do remember coming across Mutt’s distinctive jalopy pick-up, parked in brush near the river. I asked if Mutt was at the river being a “handy-man.” My father muttered something about Mutt only being handy at sleeping off whiskey.
Ruth was as much a constant of my childhood as any other adult. Each day to work she wore a black skirt and a white blouse, one made of soft broadcloth cotton that had seen countless weekly washes and ironings. I remember Ruth’s slow gait, and her complaining about how standing all day hurt her feet. She and Liz, who worked in the meat market, would have a Diet Pepsi—then, quite an unusual beverage—each afternoon during their fifteen minute coffee break, behind the counter of the meat market.
In addition to working a cash register, Ruth ordered the tobacco products. She would grunt each time that she bent her large frame down to inventory the bottom row, where the packets of fresh tobacco were kept.
When I was old enough, I became Ruth’s co-worker during the summers that I worked at the store. One day Jim Thorson and I discovered that it was possible to call the front of the store from back in the meat market and to ask for Ruth. We laughed, watching down the aisle, at how eagerly she went to the phone at my father’s desk.
"Do you have Prince Albert in a can?"
"We sure do."
"Then let him out!"
I pulled the same prank, weekly, for an entire summer. Remembering it at a distance of many years, and knowing that an unexpected phone call engenders undue hope, or worry, in the mind of an adult, I’m ashamed to recall how kindly Ruth took the joke — “Oh, Terry Wayne. You’re such a rascal!” Of course, what was she supposed to say to the boss’ son?
Before we celebrate the coming of Christ at Christmas, the Church asks us to begin this liturgical year were we left the one before it, with longing for a future that redeems the sorrows of the present. The Prophet Isaiah produced some of the most beautiful words our scriptures contain. “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins” (40:1) Sometimes it takes most of a lifetime to comprehend what you have always known. Hearing those words this Advent, I remember Ruth.
Those same words would have been proclaimed and preached in the Lutheran Church that she frequented. I wonder. Did Ruth take comfort in them? Did she see them as addressing the hard life that she lived? Or did she even view her life as particularly difficult? It may not sound like much, but God does grant most of us the grace to remember those who “have it harder” than we do.
And then there is the Baptist, the one who comes before us each Second Sunday of Advent. We call him the forerunner of the Christ, the prince of prophets, but, wasting away in Herod’s cell, he must have questioned what he had made of his life, what fate had handed him. He had preached the great promises of the God of Israel. Where were those pledges at the end? John would have died the same way Ruth did—the way most of us do—hoping that God had found him faithful, perhaps relieved to know that the struggle was over, and pondering in fretful faith the meaning of it all.
Does modern society refuses to celebrate Advent—we rush toward Christmas the moment Halloween ends—because we can’t take the longing of the season, can’t suffer its open wound? The Church Fathers preached the future coming of the Christ, because they realized that, while so much had been given in Bethlehem, so much more had yet to be bestowed. Salvation hasn’t yet sunk into the foundations of this old world.
If you don’t stop to think about life, if you don’t ask if the universe really cares about Ruth—if it cares about you—how can you help but to rush toward Christmas, rather desperately hoping that this one will be merry and bright, the one where all your dreams come true. But there is no birth of a redeemer—there’s only tinsel—if you can’t see that your life needs redemption, that you yourself desperately need Isaiah’s words to be true.
One of the great joys of my first years of priesthood was being able to come home to attend Ruth’s funeral. It was at a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and there was no question of my doing anything at the event, save sitting quietly in the pew. That seemed fine, even fitting. I had always been “Terry” with Ruth, not “Father Klein.” But at the cemetery, also on the south side of the railroad tracks, the pastor did invite me to read a psalm. The Twenty-third. Ruth had come to join Mutt, who, true to form, was already asleep. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” More promises from the God of Israel. But of course for Ruth, I firmly believe, they were no longer promises. They were bright fulfillment. For me, and for the small crowd at the grave, they were words of great comfort.
Terrance W. Klein