94: Last Duet

94: Last Duet

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Last Duet

They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.

~Confucius

My stepmother Ruth died recently, leaving an empty ache I would never have predicted based on our early relationship. I didn’t welcome her into the family or make an effort to know her until after my father died. Then I grew to love her and regretted the lost years and my initial condescension and aloofness.

I first met Ruth in my twenties when my parents were separated. My mother was in Switzerland and we were told that Mom had “left Dad” and he’d sue for divorce. The marriage had been miserable and I accepted the decision.

My husband and I returned from an overseas trip and stayed with Dad in my parents’ home. We came home one evening to find a merry party underway. Dad sat at the piano playing a duet with a short brown-haired woman. Other strangers sang along, waving glasses in the air. We stood awkwardly at the door. Dad leaped up, his face flushed, and introduced us to his friends—and Ruth. She had a big bosom and full mouth and stood straight with her chin held high. She smiled warmly at us. We smiled politely back. Two weeks later Mom returned, the marriage was “patched up” and there was no more mention of Ruth.

Six years later my parents divorced and Dad moved into a flat. He was lonely and we often had him round for dinner. Soon Ruth flew down to visit her daughter and Dad started seeing her. Within a year they married.

Our family viewed Ruth with suspicion. We thought she’d zoomed in to grab him while he was alone and vulnerable. He opened his arms to her with joy and we resented it and kept a polite distance.

She was so different from Mom, who was tall, elegant and cultured. Ruth was short and curvy, and walked with a slight sway from side to side, like a small but undaunted ship bobbing out of harbour. We assumed she was less intelligent than Mom and looked down our noses at her.

She did things that annoyed us. If Dad boasted about his children, Ruth launched into stories about her own daughters or grandchildren that reduced us to chilled silence. One time, when my brother, sister and I had teamed up to buy Dad a piano accordion, I was annoyed as Ruth prattled on while we waited for him to open his card. I wished she’d shut up; I wanted to watch Dad’s face as it dawned on him he was getting this wonderful gift from his children.

Sensing our disapproval, Dad withdrew into Ruth’s family. My husband and I lived in the same city, so we maintained contact, having picnics and dinner dates with them. They had jolly piano evenings where Dad and I played duets. With Ruth, Dad became a different person from the quiet, controlled man he’d been with Mom. He smiled and laughed more, cracked corny jokes, and entertained. He was happy. Ruth always welcomed us in, but I never truly opened up to her and she chattered to fill the cool silences.

Then, out of the blue, Dad died of a massive heart attack. One morning on the bowling green he bent to play his ball, rose flushed and gasping, and collapsed on the smoothly clipped grass. Friends said the night before “he’d been in top form” at a party, greeting friends and playing the piano.

All through the funeral service, tears hovered behind my eyes. At the wake, one of Ruth’s granddaughters started plinking on the piano. My heart hurt so much I couldn’t face all the people standing around, drinking a toast to my father. A wave of dark, oppressive grief rolled over me. I rushed upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom, sobbing. I crouched next to the bathtub, my stomach twisted in an agony of loss.

People tried the door but I ignored them. Eventually, through my wrenching sobs I heard a knock, a gentle voice. “Chris, it’s Ruth. Please let me in.” How she got in is a blur, but she knelt beside me and held me in her arms, tears pouring down her face. Her warm bosom was immensely comforting. She took me through to the bedroom and kept soothing me. I saw the kind person she was, saw then what my father loved about her.

I got to know Ruth well in the following months. I visited her every evening. We’d talk about Dad, her life, and how she’d lost three husbands, each death devastating. She started to relax with me, becoming her natural self. I enjoyed her sense of humour, her delicious chuckle when she related funny things Dad had done. I realised my aloofness must have made her feel unaccepted and nervous around me.

Ruth had no university degrees, but was intelligent and creative. She worked for years as a bookkeeper, and made her own clothes to fit her short, full-busted figure.

One day she showed me a letter Dad had written when she was in hospital. He wrote how much he loved her, how he couldn’t bear to lose her and how at the age of sixty he finally knew what love was all about. As I read the letter, my throat choked up and tears streamed down my cheeks. Poor Dad. His first marriage to Mom had been a battleground. I wished he’d married Ruth earlier. His thirteen years with her were the happiest of his life.

I stayed in touch with Ruth for twenty years, visited her different homes, chatted over tea or lunch, and saw her family occasionally. I grew to love her like a mother. Ruth was always interested in me and my life, appreciated every gift or visit. We laughed a lot. She had a lovely laugh, a rich gurgle that started deep in her throat.

She was positive about everything. When she had to scale down, Ruth accepted her reduced circumstances. She regarded the aches and pains of ageing philosophically. “What else can I do?” she’d say.

My husband and I moved into the country and I saw less of Ruth. One day we made arrangements to have lunch and I booked a table at a restaurant. A week before our date, the unthinkable happened. A mutual friend phoned to say Ruth had died. She’d gone to lunch, risen from her chair and collapsed of a heart attack. She died instantly. I was stunned, torn with sorrow that we never had that last lunch.

I’ll miss her laugh, her generosity of spirit, and her kindness. Since I loved my Dad, I wished I’d extended that love to her before he died, instead of after. She taught me not to judge by appearances, to laugh and be positive about life’s changes. She was a healing companion for my father and I was grateful to her for that, and honoured she was my friend all those years after he died.

~Chris Rainer

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