This is the text of my eulogy for my grandmother, Ruth Ronald, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 94. She was my last surviving grandparent, having outlived her husband by 54 years, and my other grandparents for nearly 30 years. She touched a lot of lives, and I’m just starting to grapple with the size of the hole in my own life created by her passing. I hope my words are worthy of her memory.
Good morning. I’m John, the oldest of Ruth’s eight grandchildren, and father of two of her nine great-grandchildren.
My job today is to talk to you about my grandmother and her life, but I don’t think a dry recitation of the facts and particulars can do justice to her memory. What tells you more about a person: where they were born, lived, worked, raised their family? Those are important, sure, because as you’ll hear, being a Minnesotan did indeed help make Grandma who she was. But these bits can only sketch the outlines of the portrait of a person.
To know someone, well enough to remember them, you need to know what they loved. And that’s what I’m going to share with you today, a few of the things Grandma loved.
There is a line in The Princess Bride in which Inigo Montoya, the character played by Mandy Patinkin in the movie, says “I shall explain – no. Wait. That will take too long. I shall sum up.” So this list, or any list like this, for a person who spent ninety-four years on this Earth is going to be incomplete. I’m sure I’ve missed some things. But I feel confident these were some of the ones closest to her heart.
Grandma loved to travel. Some of my earliest memories I have of her revolve around the presents she brought for my sister Karen and I from her trips. Because when you’re little, it’s all about the loot, right? Her passport had stamps from all over, Spain to Columbia, Poland in the ‘80s, cruises in the Baltic and trips to New Zealand, and other places besides. She didn’t neglect the US, either. I’m hard-pressed to name a state she didn’t at least pass through. Larry, I’m sure, can regale you with tales of some of those road trips. The fact that one of her nicknames within the family was “Sidetrip Grandma” might give you a clue about how trips with her might go.
Grandma loved the Redskins, win or lose. She was still following them this fall. I remember well from the year I lived with her while I was in college, seeing her in her recliner in the den, under her afghan, watching the games on Sunday or Monday night. I think it’s fair to say she’d have a few choice words for Dan Snyder and how he’s run things, delivered in that “more in sorrow than in anger” tone that marked her as a Minnesotan. But two things that could make her happy on a Sunday, the Redskins winning or the Cowboys losing.
Grandma loved teaching, and she poured herself into that work for more than 20 years. She taught here at St. Catherine’s and then in Montgomery County. She taught elementary school, mostly third and fourth grade as I recall, and frequently classes for gifted and talented students. I really believe that what she found fulfilling about it was unlocking young minds, and giving those kids the knowledge and the structure they’d need to continue to explore knowledge, and the world. She was a curious person herself, and there’s no one more curious than children, and I think she enjoyed taking them on those journeys of discovery.
And she did love children, though that upper Midwest reserve meant she was rarely expressive about it. And it’s definitely true that her love for kids was sometimes tempered by her love for order, because children are pretty much entropy incarnate. And we won’t even talk about teenagers. Oh, she loved them still, but they did try her.
Speaking of order: you may have heard the expression, “You can have it done your way, or have it done for you.” Well, that wasn’t the case where Grandma was concerned. If you were doing it for her, you were doing it her way. Or you’d do it over until you did it her way. Or you waited until she wasn’t around and just presented results. Which had better be up to snuff, or you were doing it over anyway.
Grandma loved telling stories, and especially in the last ten years or so I noticed she more and more frequently shared stories from her childhood and youth. One evening when my daughter Alexa and I were at dinner with her, she regaled us with the tale about how she and her little friends used to play in her grandfather’s bakery. Until the day they mixed up the sugar and the salt, which led to a bad batch of bread, and then lead to a battalion of outraged Polish housewives descending on her grandfather. She told stories about growing up in Minneapolis, and living in Hawaii, stories from the places she’d visited and things her students had done. And, of course, stories about her family.
And stories leads me to books, because books were one of those things she loved fiercely. You only had to look in the den to see the packed shelves, or talk with her for any length of time to know she was a reader. She read broadly and in some areas, deeply. Vacations could be measured in how many books were read, and sometimes by how many books were acquired. If you needed a gift idea for her, a book was often a good choice. And books were one of the ways I connected with her most, because it was a passion we shared, and the question “What are you reading?” is one she always had an answer for, and she loved talking about books. She was still reading, and reading as widely as she could, until very recently. In fact, while she was at the rehab center, she pressed a book on Alexa and I, asking us to read it to see if we could make sense of it, because she thought it was just silly. Alexa rose to the challenge and it proved to be a time travel romance, which it’s safe to say wasn’t Grandma’s preferred genre. Uncharacteristically, she’d only made it through chapter four before pressing it on us.
Grandma loved her faith, and this church and parish, of which she was a member for more than fifty years. If a Saturday visit stretched over into Sunday, you were trekking up the hill to go to Mass. The tradition in our family for many years was to come to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve, and often we stayed for the late Mass. Many of her oldest and dearest friendships were formed in this parish. She taught at the school, and she was a member of clubs and organizations here for many years. She wasn’t overly dogmatic in her faith, but she was true to it to the end.
She loved her independence, and she fought hard to retain what she could as her physical capabilities diminished. It is certainly true that as the years went on, the true extent of that independence declined. But at the core of that drive was a determination to meet the challenges of her life on her own terms. You did what you needed to, she once said to me, or at least you did what you could, and you kept doing it as long as you could manage to. You could call it stubbornness, and you might not be wrong; but I call it determination, and determination was as clear a mark of Grandma’s character as her intellectual curiosity.
But most of all, Grandma loved her family: her children, the grandchildren and great-grand-children, her parents and siblings, her aunts and uncles and cousins. She always wanted to know how the far-flung members of the clan were doing, and she was the go-to person if you had questions about that yourself. No birthday or other milestone went unmarked, and she could, and would, recite with fierce pride the achievements of her kin. And that kinship wasn’t solely that of blood, because if you brought someone new into the family, they became hers as well. She love most having them around her, not just for holidays or birthdays or special occasions, but for whenever it was possible to gather. And you knew, without fail, that if there was a meal, then grace would be said, and after the prayer she would say “And we are thankful that we’re all together,” or words to that effect.
And here we are, together, because of our love for her, and for each other. Grandma, you may be gone, but I know each one of us carries a piece of you with us, now, and ever after.