"Please, Dad! Wear your tie tonight!" Ruthe clicked into the living room with her first ever high heels. The mismatched, second-hand furniture looked worse against the pink lace shirt-dress swirling around her knees. But with nervous self-examination her eyes were on her skirt edges.
(c) 2001 Ruth Marlene Friesen
"I won't go to my own graduation!" Ruthe's threat rang high-noted, hollow and desperate.
"He will. He will." Ruthe's mother pacified from the bedroom where she was dressing. Anna Veer began to nag and prod Ben to put on the tie she'd bought for their wedding. He saved it for extremely high and holy occasions.
"Kids get disrespectful once they've some education-" Her Dad strolled back into the living room in a hunting pose, pausing to watch his eldest checking herself nervously in one mirror then another.
She caught his glance and turned away as she realized her undemonstrative father was rather proud of her. He would wear that despised tie for her. A long tense whoosh of air expelled from her trembling rib cage. Lord, they don't understand me or life... I've got to protect and take care of the folks.
Now she threw herself back into analyzing her appearance. Ruthe straightened the wide belt with the square rhinestone buckle, pulling in her breath and again, slowly twirling the rustling skirt around her knees. There. That flat, undecorated bodice reminded her with a fresh crush that the other girls had ordered real flower corsages. She patted the spot on her left side where deep pink roses with an iridescent bow should be, and sighed silently, no one can tell this is a second-hand dress, can they? Thanks then, Lord, for this good find.
Gingerly she poked into the mass of light brown curls and waves that tumbled down and beyond her shoulders. She had far more hair than her delicate features warranted. Now she swung the whole mass of sprayed hair like she had seen others do in the school washroom. She spotted a few stray wisps on top and tucked them down a bit.
More waiting? Ruthe took off her glasses and rubbed them vigorously with a tissue for the third time, then studied her nails critically. Her dad would not allow nail polish, but Maelyn had lent her clear nail strengthener in school, and so far he had not spotted it. She had even worn it to work the last two nights at the telephone office in the city.
The phone shrilled. Ruthe nearly tripped on her seven-year old sister, Sharri, as she dashed into the kitchen just fast enough to beat thirteen-year old Suzanne to the receiver.
She ignored Brandt, grinning from his perch on the counter, swinging his lanky legs, eyeing the comedy. "Yes. Speaking."
For a long attentive minute she froze in a listening pose, weighing, deciding.
Suddenly the gold flecks in her teal eyes jumped with life. "I'm coming right in. It's okay. Hold on- I'm on my way."
In one motion Ruthe hung up, swooped the car keys from the kitchen windowsill, and her new white patent purse from the table. As she tore through the porch doors, she called over her shoulder, "matter of life and death! Go ahead without me. I'll be back soon's I can!"
In those same split seconds her parents had appeared in the kitchen, Suzanne had bounced back downstairs from their bedroom, and Sharri screamed Ruthe's name. But their dressed up graduate jumped into the old brown '59 Pontiac, backed out into the gravel street and spun away, hearing none of them.
Ruthe breathed deep trembling breaths as she steered nimbly around the familiar corners of Kleinstadt and onto the highway to Saskatoon. She was now an adult on a serious mission.
Abruptly she giggled a tiny taut giggle. What a crazy reprieve from the fussy banquet and public ceremonies and speeches, the anticipation of which had tied her in knots all day. This was exhilarating; speeding down the highway in the magic of an early evening hour in May. The sun shone warmly, a welcome surprise after a long winter of cold and very short days.
Just when she was beginning to unwind a new nervousness washed over Ruthe. What could she possibly do for the O'Briens when she got there?
On the phone Muriel had said that her mother was dying and asking for her, and her older sister had vanished. "Ruthe, you've got to come help me find Cathy before Mom dies!" her new teen friend had sobbed.
"I've never been at a deathbed before," Ruthe worried. "I was not really at Grandpa's last year. Not right when he died. What will the rest of the O'Briens think, me barging in like this?"
Swiftly her thoughts went into a soundless but high-charged dialogue with God, a habit developed in her lonely preteen years. What will I do, Lord? I'm only that mousy bookworm who reads too much and is scared of strangers. Just look at what I've got myself into now!
Vivid scenes from the last two weeks washed in like tidewater to remind her how she stumbled into this double life.
Her dad had been out of work all winter. He was a strong, healthy man who was not afraid of strenuous outdoor labour. It was the first time ever that he had been unable to find work. Her mother had been in poor health almost as long as Ruthe could remember, and had suffered several big surgeries in recent years, but when she, with rash pride, began to threaten to go washing floors for others, Ruthe knew it was time to step in to help. Her parents had promised she could stay in school as long as they could afford it, but before they would go on welfare, she would be expected to do what all good Mennonites, at least of her parents' generation, had done; work to help the family pull through hard times.
Ruthe was observant enough to know if she dropped out of grade twelve, chances of finishing would get slimmer with time. After much deliberation and prayer and quiet inquiries, she wrote a letter she had polished daily for three weeks. It won her a special interview in the city with the Chief Operator at SaskTel, the provincial telephone company. She got a fine arrangement to work weekend night shifts in the telephone office, with extra shifts in any week when she notified the scheduling clerk she was available.
The Chief Operator had been so understanding and amenable to help Ruthe this way until she could take full-time shifts, because she had done it herself in the fifties, in a small town not far from Kleinstadt. Since the late sixties, operators were now to have their high school completed. It was a coup, yet Ruthe did not brag.
Her parents did when she announced the job to them. They told everyone they knew. Her mother worried about her commuting to and from the city those forty minutes at night and again at so early in the morning. At the same time, they were both clearly relieved that Ruthe had found a way to support the family and stay in school until after her June finals.
City life held a unique fascination for Ruthe. Characters and intrigues she had experienced vicariously in books percolated and blended in her imagination. She couldn't keep from staring at people in the streets, and at the huge buildings, which held so many unrelated individuals at once. Each face, each voice she heard in her headset hinted at volumes of personal stories.
Tenderhearted, Ruthe soon began to have physical cramps of empathetic ache at the human suffering she sensed. A month ago she began to come earlier or stay a while after a shift to drive up and down the streets, sub-consciously hoping to be in the right place at the right time to help someone, she supposed.
"Dear God!" she moaned now, as she brushed her damp hands on the pink lace and gripped the wheel tighter, unaware that her foot pressed down as she thought of Muriel and her mother, waiting. You did a miraculous thing the night You directed me to Muriel. You even put words in my mouth. Do it again! Please Lord! I cannot turn around now! Ple-as-e. I've promised.
Two weeks earlier Ruthe drove down one of the more run down business streets when she spied a narrow, weather-beaten building, held upright by a cafe on one side and an over-stuffed pawn shop on the other. An eye-straining sign flickering over the door proclaimed it to be Rona's DanceSpot. She knew she was too naive about this, but felt one thing instinctively; there had to be some unhappy kids there, never mind what Arlene at school said about the fun of modern dancing.
Cold clammy fear touched her neck. Some of those people might be hiding their misery under a false gaiety, but which ones would admit it in there right now? And, what would the plain, conservative people of Kleinstadt say if she set foot in that place? A few of her classmates would be willing to dance there, but would sure be selective in whom they would tell about it.
Still driving steadily toward the city, and away from her own graduation banquet in the streamer-decorated basement of the biggest church in Kleinstadt, Ruthe's mind was reliving how she had driven around and around the block two weeks ago. She had stopped across the street and stared at the door, which seemed to open and close with each colour change of the sign above. With great turmoil, she had distorted and drawn out the sleeves of her old white cardigan sweater draped over her shoulders.
Fears taunted her after a fresh surge of compassion came, "Wow, you're schizo! Know something? You're too naive for words!"
Oh-h Lord! another part of her whimpered, I'm sorry, but, unless You give me the courage, I can't do it! Should I really go in there?
"Ach-h, you silly country bumpkin," her fears taunted her again, "Drive yourself to Emergency. There's St. Paul's hospital just up the street."
"Will you shut up!" Ruthe cried out. "The Lord God Almighty is with me. If He wants me to go in there He'll give me the courage."
For a stunned moment she considered the echo of those words. The battle eased for her some, but she drove around the block once more.
Three tears dribbled down her cheeks as she prayed with a fresh conviction that there was someone God wanted her to rescue in that place. She vowed to go in. Abruptly, she parked in front of the door and dashed in. Fast.
The throbbing, thumping music deafened her as she entered. That, and the purple-brown haze of the psychedelic lights flashing on and off through a cloud of suffocating smoke promptly numbed her good intentions. Ruth froze as bodies shook and shimmered before her. Suspended in space like a speck of dust, she was about to call herself a daydreamer and worse, when she heard a muffled sob behind the door handle she was still clutching.
Ruthe about-faced, ducked some flailing limbs, and looked under the coats on a coat rack. There was someone with tousled auburn hair on her white knees, with white arms hugging her thin white legs to herself. Ou-p. Ruthe's heart jumped into her mouth, as she blinked to clear her quickly smarting eyes from the smoke.
You've been wanting to help someone, whispered her silent companion, how about her?
That flesh has to be covered! Ruthe whipped her cardigan off her shoulders and onto those creamy white ones, whispering urgently, "hey, com'on. Let's get out'a here."
A white swollen face lifted under the auburn mop. "-Like a game! Two guys fought over me. Then-n, wh-when I split a seam, they tor-e my dres-s! God! I can't go home. Ever!" Her head dropped on her knees again. "I wanna die!"
"Let's go fast." Ruthe urged briskly. "My car is at the door."
"They threw my dress away!" the young teen wailed.
"Com'on." Ruthe coaxed, feeling desperate for fresh air herself.
Slowly the redhead got up out of the coats and stood on wobbly platforms, stretching the bottom of Ruthe's sweater down past her panties, and attaching herself to Ruthe's arm slunk out with her.
The redhead had begun to cry aloud in the car, and Ruthe, not sure what to do with an unhappy soul now that she had found one, simply pulled away and drove out of that area. She decided that what was needed next, was to talk it out, and let this girl spill her trauma. If in her place, she knew she would not want to be taken to the police, or other strangers, but now that she had begun, Ruthe was ready to die before she would bail out of helping this girl. Whatever it took, she was in this one hundred percent, plus.
When she saw that they were on a quiet residential avenue parallel to the riverbank, beautifully canopied with shade trees, Ruthe decided it would be okay to park in a hidden spot.
"Ahm? My name's Ruthe. What's yours?"
"Mu'riel-l." Embarrassed, she cried again, "Oh- my-God, Ruthe! I can never face my mother and dad!"
Glancing in the back seat to be sure, Ruthe apologized that she had nothing more to offer for a covering. Nervous at first, then growing more tender, she got Muriel to talk more coherently.
Muriel told how it happened that certain new boyfriends that she had tried to impress had persuaded her to try that DanceSpot.
In reply to a question about why she had come to rescue her, Ruthe opted for the truth. That led her to explain some things about her family, and her own feelings about people. How her parents took the family to every service at their small Mennonite church, but they were reluctant to care about strangers, while on the other hand, she had a great hunger and ache for people with problems. Since about nine, when she invited Christ to save her, Ruthe said, she had found Him to be a great personal Friend to whom she could confide all her thoughts. "I always capitalize words or pronouns related to Jesus. He's that precious to me. Only, I'm not greedy, Muriel. I want everyone else to have this same wonderful Friend. He died to save every person in the whole world, and wants to be close to everybody!"
Muriel drank it up. Her family were good Catholics, but she had never met anyone willing to discuss religious stuff informally with her. She had never presumed that she might be able to talk directly with the great Creator Himself.
Rapt in this conversation Muriel forgot for a bit that she was curled up sideways, in just her black bikini underwear and still stretching Ruthe's sweater like a blanket around herself. "I'd love to talk to God," she said wistfully. "Show me how."
Ruthe demonstrated her informal chattering style with her invisible Friend, and bubbled enthusiastically as she introduced Muriel to Him. "She's anxious to meet You, Lord, tho' I bet You've been looking forward to this much longer than we can guess. -Go ahead, you talk to Him now, Muriel."
"Oh sweet Jesus; I've never done this, but my new friend talks to You as if You understand ordinary English... an' have feelings. Oh-ho-o God!" Muriel dissolved in tears again. "How I wish it had never-ever happened! Can You forgive me? An' please, can You make my life okay to live again?"
Ruthe smiled at an oncoming car as she remembered those prayers.
Nearly three in the morning they had rolled up in the O'Briens' quiet drive, just a few blocks further. The car stopped between lovely lawns and landscaped trees in the pearl grey moonlight. Muriel's brick home was all dark and solemn. The clinging ivy rustled. Ruthe watched Muriel slip up to the large oak door, find it unlocked, and slip through, still stretching the old sweater all about her.
In her ears rang an invitation to come visit soon.
Ruthe smiled with dimples now as she checked her graduation hairdo in the rear view mirror and recalled how she had felt driving back to Kleinstadt that night. A six to midnight shift plus another two hours spent with this new friend meant she had robbed herself of sleep, but she didn't care. She sang at the top of her lungs, praising God and venting the extra adrenalin energy that had built up.
Over and over she had exclaimed, "Oh Lord-but-I love You! I love You! Oh-ew-how I love You!" Then she worried that there would be such a shine on her face the next day that people would make her tell what happened. That she resolved not to do. This night would always be a secret between Muriel, the Lord, and herself.
A glance at her watch; she could be at Mrs. Pearl O'Brien's bedside in another ten minutes.
When her mother had asked where her sweater was, Ruthe said, "In the city," correctly guessing her mother would think she meant her operator's locker. Her mom warned her sternly about leaving temptation lying around for strangers to steal. "Don't trust anyone in the city, no matter how nice they talk to you." Grateful not to be quizzed further, Ruthe accepted the warning with a nod.
The following Monday Ruthe had stopped at the O'Brien house to pick up her cardigan. Mostly she was curious to find out if her new friend was still traumatized. Had she told her parents? What if Muriel pretended not to recognize her today?
A poised woman in a tweed and cream ruffles ensemble, wearing her thick auburn curls in a smart coiffure, answered the door's chimes.
"My name-um-m," suddenly Ruthe was the painfully shy Mennonite girl others in her hometown thought she was. "Ah. Is Muriel home please?"
"No. But do come in, Ruthe. She'll be home from her music lesson shortly." Mrs. O'Brien drew her in with both hands and closed the handsome door behind Ruthe.
"I'm so glad you came." She motioned the gulping guest into an elegant living room. "My daughter told me all about... well, what happened on Friday night, and the kindness you showed. I told her she ought to have taken your number and address so we could thank you properly."
Panic hit Ruthe at the idea of her parents meeting these people. "Oh-no. That's all right. No need!" She made a mental memo to impress on Muriel never to call her at home. Leave a number with the operators' clerk instead. Nerves knotted her neck and between her shoulder blades as Ruthe glanced about the room. It was perfectly appointed in a navy blue, white and gold French Provincial decor.
With a gracious wave of her hand, Mrs. O'Brien had offered her the blue brocade chair, and perched on the edge of the brocade sofa nearby. "Just today I've been wishing I could talk with you, alone. So this is timely." Twisting her hands fiercely, she went on to tell Ruthe what a wonderful thing she had done to help Muriel escape that wild hangout, and how good her attitude was now about life. "You saved our family from an awful scandal." And more. "Of course," she interjected a couple of times, "that's the first time any of our children have ever been involved with such crude young people."
Abruptly her shoulders sagged. "I just wanted to thank you, Ruthe."
Intuitively, Ruthe sensed that Mrs. O'Brien had just lost the courage to say something. Looking at the tense face and the fingers twisted into pretzels, compassion rose in Ruthe like warmed mercury and she found herself suddenly sitting beside the tight woman, her hand gently on the twitching back, "Okay. What's really wrong?"
The woman's face dropped into her hands. "I- went to my do-doc-tor's th-this morning an'-and the tests sh-show advanced ca-cancer of my cer-vix!"
Ruthe tried to explain that before this became serious, the doctors would help her.
"No-no. You don't under-s-stand! I hid it too long! The doctor said this morning-g that I have only a few days. At most th-three weeks! Ouh, Ruthe!" she wailed. "I'm so scared! I've been stumbling around all day fee-ling icy... with f-fear. How will I ever tell Ian tonight? What will become of my children?"
Now she clung desperately to Ruthe. "An-what of me? I don't want to die! I can't! I jus-won't!" Realizing she had no power over death, her voice trailed in anguish, "Oh-h God-d, must I!?"
Though death had never worried Ruthe much; she had heard so many sermons on the glories awaiting believers in eternity; this woman's fear was catching, and Ruthe shivered with cold. She could not think of anything appropriate to say, so she patted Mrs. O'Brien's back and let her cry herself into exhaustion. That took some minutes. During that time Ruthe did what was her habit whenever she didn't know what to do next. Her thoughts became a dialogue with her Friend who always listened and often prompted her with ideas what to do next.
After a time Ruthe felt impressed to whisper to Mrs. O'Brien, "Do you feel God loves you? Specifically you?"
The tweed shoulders grew quieter and a muffled answer agreed. "Yes, God loves us all."
"Since He is perfectly holy, do you think He might ever make a mistake and let a sickness or death slip by Him to a person, and then say, 'Oops. Didn't mean that to happen!'?"
Sniffling into her ruffled wrist, Mrs. O'Brien raised her head and dried her eyes. "No. He's got to be reliable, or He is not worth calling God. Or regarding as one. But-"
"Exactly." Ruthe warmed up. "If we understood everything we could run for His office. We need to trust Him and see His view on things. Sometimes He tells people- in fact, the Bible teaches that He always warned people and told them what He was doing, especially if they were His followers."
"I wish I could ask Him about so many things!" she interrupted. "Muriel sa-id you- you talk with Him personally."
Ruthe's favourite subject. She was so relieved that prayer was the key to helping this woman. They knelt then on the ivory broadloom and she had taught Mrs. O'Brien to pray in her own frank and intimate way. They took turns for half an hour. Then the city woman began to believe that God had heard her, and that He felt very tenderly towards her.
"Oh Ruthe!" she beamed. "He says He loves me! He's even willing to forgive me for being unfaithful to Ian. An-an the reason He let these things happen- was so I could end my long search for Him. It's just as if He's kneeling here on the other side of me. I just know I've met Him at last!"
That was when Muriel came in. Mrs. O'Brien was all over her daughter, excitedly telling of her encounter with God. Next both of them were handling Ruthe with hugs and kisses. She felt embarrassed and tried to leave for work, but they were loath to let her go.
Floating on secret clouds, Ruthe had made two more visits since. One in the hospital just after a hasty hysterectomy was performed, but Mrs. O'Brien's surgeon had found her bladder and lower bowels perforated and filled with cancer too. The specialist offered no hope and let her go home when she insisted she meant to die in her own bed. The other visit, at their home, had given Ruthe a passing glance at Muriel's brother, Ross, but not the rest of the family.
Ross was eighteen, and like Ruthe, graduating from high school. His class ceremonies were to come at the end of June. He was red haired like his mother and sister Muriel, and Ruthe was warned that he considered himself a captivating ladies' man.
Cathy, seventeen, was described by her mother and sister as a well-proportioned blonde looking twenty-seven; a jet-set party animal. Until that other Friday night, fifteen-year old Muriel had envied her sister's many adoring boyfriends who bet each other for turns at dates with Cathy.
Keith, three years younger than Muriel, was more like her, though blond like Cathy. "He's creative and brave," Muriel had explained. A few twelve-year old boys tagged after her brother into whatever projects he thought up. His mother felt he was hiding his real brains because of peer pressure.
It usually took Ruthe thirty-five minutes to make the trip into the city, but this night she arrived in twenty-five as she turned in at the curved driveway and stopped before the brick two-story house.
Muriel was in the doorway. "Oh Ruthe! What are we going to do?" she cried, running around the car front and directly into her friend with arms outstretched.