On mothers: What Miss Ruby taught me


by Lisa Grele Barrie

photograph by Juli Leonard

 Most Sunday afternoons after church, the Bullock family gathers at the Oakwood home of its matriarch, Miss Ruby, to share a meal and play some cards. I used to watch with curiosity as their cars and trucks lined up and these folks spilled out in front of Miss Ruby’s house, two doors down from my own. Then one day I found myself in that house, sitting around the table with the family, playing “Horse Thief” and talking trash.

Miss Ruby, or “Mema” as she is lovingly called, is a fierce card player. We share my plush tiger cat Asia. She grew up on a farm in Franklin County. She is the mother of two daughters and two sons. She is a great-great-grandmother. She will celebrate her 100th birthday on May 5.

My mother was a fierce card player. She adopted my plush tiger cat Willi. She grew up in a small town in Connecticut. She was the mother of two daughters. She was a great-grandmother. And last October, she died at the age of 88.

The “meaning” of motherhood has been much on my mind since my mother’s passing. I’ve been contemplating the roles mothers play, the enduring lessons they impart, the love they give.

Miss Ruby is my guidepost.

There is a magical, effortless quality to the way that Miss Ruby mothers her world. Whether she is carrying her homemade cakes to be sold at the Person Street Pharmacy, or ministering to an ailing friend, or worrying about a family member, her genuine devotion shines through. When you’re with her, life slows down. On her front porch swing, we pet our shared cat and watch the world go by. Miss Ruby’s mother lived to be 104 (and seven months) and was a “tough little woman,” Miss Ruby says, just like Miss Ruby herself. Miss Ruby’s mother taught her the importance of family and faith, the value of hard work, the art of cooking, and the simple joy of living. Miss Ruby often shares stories about the life they led on the farm: picking cotton and tobacco, washing clothes with soap made out of grease and lye, wringing them out to dry, and driving a hoover cart pulled by a mule. And she yearns for those days when life was slower, simpler. When life was more like the uncomplicated love she gives so freely.

Universal truths

My friend Yvonne speaks of “mother” as a divine feminine power that comes in many forms. “It can be soft and round, or steady and forceful, or tender and squishy, or fiery and scary.” A mother, she says, is “someone always wanting your best interest to be served, for your utmost highest self to shine, for you to be loved no matter what.”

My friend Carly credits her mother for all of the things she loves: writing, reading, eating olives (one by one, off each finger), classical music, cornfields, the smells of the woods, seeking out friends, being fearless (but only in safe situations), collecting leaves in fall and berries in summer, baking apples, reading The New York Times, listening to Paul Simon, and playing in the dirt.

My friend Anna cherishes the legacy of her mother as someone who loved her children more than anything but who also valued her independence. Anna’s mother enjoyed a full life after early setbacks with remarkable grace and resilience. Her mother’s appreciation of gardening, volunteering, and traveling lives on in Anna.

My friend Glenda sees her mother’s artistic talents shining brightly in her own two talented, beautiful daughters. When she thinks of what “mother” means to her, she thinks about love, gratitude, and living fully in the present moment, with major doses of dance, song, laughter, and the ability to throw a great party. Glenda recalls how her mother would sit her down and remind her: The only way out is through. This is a quote that resonates deeply in my soul.

I believe that it is never too late to accept the gift that is wisdom from our mothers. It is a precious gift that can be received only when our hearts are open wide enough – and it is never too late to accept. My own capacity for love, gratitude, acceptance, and forgiveness has expanded since my mother’s passing, as I have finally considered all that she taught me. And I feel more comfortable and authentic in being a mother to my two sons with a heart that is open wide to imperfect yet pure love and appreciation.

The community that surrounds me – all of these daughters, all of these mothers – has inspired me to honor all that I am as precious gifts from my own mother. My appreciation for beauty and order, animals and flowers, books and grammar, fashion and wine, community service and hospitality; and for always allowing myself a good cry. She taught me that and more.

The community that surrounds me has also taught me to learn from mothers not my own, and to redefine what “mother” means to me. On May 5, the Bullock clan will gather to celebrate 100 years of one remarkable, enduring mother. On May 10, we will all pay tribute to mothers everywhere. On that day I will light one candle to honor the life of my mother and another one for Mema: who moves with such simplicity and grace, and is an inspiration and role model to so many.