Ruth died. She was my mother’s best friend and the wife of Pete who became something like a dad to us kids after our dad died in 1969. Pete would come over most weekends and do things like fix a leaking faucet or replace a water pump on Mom’s ‘88 Oldsmobile or help Mom with balancing the bank book. It was the stuff of everyday life. Ruth would most often come with him and she and Mom would chat while Mom ironed clothes or mopped the kitchen floor or fixed bologna sandwiches for lunch. Ruth would pitch in as needed. I remember them sitting on the couch in the living room with Ruth knitting baby clothes for the latest baby at church while Mom was asking for a seven letter word for whatever clue had stymied her in her latest crossword puzzle. They would chatter away about the recent news from Pella, Iowa, where both had lived before moving to Phoenix, or how to get grass stains out of kid’s dress pants, or some convoluted story of the antics of one of the dozens of stray cats Ruth took in throughout the years, or any of a myriad of mundane day to day topics that crossed their minds. They were also the kind of friends that could just sit in silence for long periods of time. Occasionally, they’d get into a snit with each other, but they’d always work it out. They loved each other. She and Mom were best friends. A childless woman and a young widow with four orphaned kids found a deep bond and a million things to hold in common.
Pete and Dad had been best friends back in Pella, as well. They were in the same class at school. Mom and Dad, Pete and Ruth—good friends all around. When Pete died back in 2003, I agreed to conduct the funeral. It was a very difficult thing to do. I struggled with what to say and the emotions were completely raw and ever at the surface and they kept choking me up. Having to minister to others, when I longed to be ministered to, was rough. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t do a funeral like that ever again. But when Ruth called a few months ago and asked if I would conduct her funeral when the time came I agreed to do it. How could I say no? I couldn’t say no.
Ruth died last week on Tuesday and her brothers and sister planned the funeral for Monday. They flew in from the Midwest and we arranged things over the phone and through emails. I drove to Phoenix on Saturday evening to pick up my sister and brother at the airport. We all slept at my son, Justin’s house. We reminisced late into the night. On Sunday we spent more time talking, remembering, laughing, crying and telling Pete and Ruth stories. I worked on my funeral sermon in little scraps of time I found throughout the day. The message I wrote was taken from I Thessalonians 4:9-12 where we’re asked to make it our ambition to lead a quiet life. To love well. To work with our hands. To not have to be dependent on others. It talks about the simple, peaceful, quiet life that was so exemplified in Ruth. Of course, I also wanted to include a few comments from James 1:27 where James reminds us that true religion is taking care of widows and orphans. Ruth did that. So did Pete. No big splashy program put on by the mega church to help widows and orphans adjust to new realities. Just simple, quiet, ‘behind the scenes’ acts of love and kindness throughout the long hard days after our Dad died. Ruth was a practitioner of true religion. Pete, as well.
I asked my sister, Miriam, if she knew why Pete and Ruth had moved to Phoenix just a few short months after our family had moved from Pella back in December of 1960. She looked at me in shock and said, “You don’t know that story?”
Obviously I didn’t. So she told me what Mom had told her.
Our dad was very sick with emphysema back in 1960. It was a rough winter in Iowa. The doctors had warned him to move to a warm, dry climate or he would soon be dead. They doubted he would survive the winter. So, with the help of neighbors and friends, he packed everything up and moved us to Arizona. Dad and Mom’s best friends, Pete and Ruth, helped send them off. It was a sad day leaving family and friends. Lots of tears were shed. A few months later Pete sold his Hudson car dealership, Rus Auto Service and Sales, and he and Ruth packed up their earthly possessions and also moved to Phoenix. Ruth told our Mom that Pete had wanted them to move as soon as possible so that they could be near our family and help in case something happened to Dad. Pete wanted to be near us in case his best friend, Ray, died. Pete and Ruth gave up their lives in Pella to be able to help their friends in Phoenix. It’s a crazy story. I don’t know why I had never heard it before. My siblings all knew it. I didn’t.
Who does that? Who lays down their life and livelihood for their friend? But that is what they did.
And help they did. A million tiny acts of kindness and generosity throughout all those years. A million simple offerings of love. Day after day after day faithfulness. They took care of a widow and her orphaned children.
At the end of my message I couldn’t read James 1:27. I tried. I gritted my teeth and willed myself to do it. I started, but it was impossible to see the words through my tears. I started and stopped and started again. “Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this…” but I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t stop sobbing. After a long, long time I finally choked out the words.
“…look after widows and orphans in their distress.” That’s what Pete and Ruth did. What amazing people they were.