Ruth hopped along the edge of the wheat fields, dancing with the dandelion seeds. She had a private game that she played, where she would pick a stalk with its frozen explosion of fluff, carrying it with her, dancing with the wind, trying to protect it from blowing away but daring it to fly at the same time.
One arm outstretched with the trembling, spidery dandelion, she spun over the clover and wild strawberries, on down the mosses and between the ferns, flying over the dappled dry orange needles of the forest floor that led down to the lakeshore.
Inevitably the wind would win, and her quiet laughter was carried away with the tiny parachuting seeds as they sailed out over the waves and scattered.
Everyone who met her found Ruth to be a quiet, shy, polite little girl; but her parents knew a different side. When Ruth’s mother rang the dinner bell, and she came skipping over the road with a bundle of flowers and leaves in hand, Father exchanged a knowing look with Mother.
When there was company, it would be a quiet dinner. But when there wasn’t, little shy Ruth would turn into a tornado of questions.
“Why don’t the fishes climb up on land, Poppa?” and “How do the apples know when they are ripe?”
“Why do the bees love the garden so much?” and “But the roses, how do they grow in different colors from the same plant?”
And her mother would carefully try to explain how grafting roses worked, as more questions flew rapid-fire from Ruth.
Later, when Ruth grew up, she joined the Army. Sandy told the story about how she went to work in a hospital, somewhere in Ohio, perhaps, and how they transmuted Ruth into Char there.
The head nurse asked her name, and when she said “Ruth,” the head nurse simply shook her head. “That won’t do. We’ve already got four Ruths in this rotation.”
And so, Ruth took on a new name: her middle name, Charlotte, which in the hubbub of the frantic hospital quickly got shortened to Char. Friends who met her from then on knew her as Char, and only her family back in Wisconsin would remember the little girl she had been, and still call her Ruth.
Her firm, inquisitive nature and her towering nature (both physically and otherwise) made Char a force to be reckoned with in those days, I am sure.
She went on to marry Bruce, who was taciturn and quiet… a complete and total mystery to me. But together, they were somehow like perfect matching puzzle pieces, and their relationship had a solidity you could feel.
The previous sections are mostly fictionalized, my imagination running wild, because I wasn’t there. It was a time before social media tracked everything, before parents helicoptered in with video cameras to record every move. So they are imagined from stories, and imagined from knowing Char.
But Ruth, later Char, was a real person: my great-aunt, who I wish I had known better. That is not a trite thing. That is a true admission.
I wish I had known Ruth well enough to really and truly understand how she had become Char. What happened to her during the wartime hospital stints that convinced her to wage a different sort of war? A quieter war?
By the time I was born, and the entire time I knew her, she was just Aunt Char. And she was changeless.
A pillar if there ever was one, or maybe more the mast in the middle of her family, holding up the sails. Obvious and necessary, but somehow unassuming — even though she should have seemed intimidating. Sharp as a tack, yet soft and kind in her own way.
I wasn’t personally shaped by Char as much as some folks closer to her orbit. She was my mother’s aunt, and so I would see her every handful of years when we visited the family farm.
When I was very young, Aunt Char seemed to me like a taller, colder, more distant version of my grandmother. Which really just goes to show how warped kids’ perspectives can get. Dot and Char weren’t even related by blood, but in my childish mind, they were sisters. I thought them branches split from a single fork, when they were actually different roses grafted on a newly branching bush.
Time at the farm was fraught with much family drama. You might say it was thorny. A twisted tangle of stems and leaves. My dad didn’t get along with my mother’s father Bill very well, so it wasn’t a surprise that we never spent that much time directly with Char and her husband, Bill’s brother, Bruce. It was not until much, much later that I realized that there was a political schism quietly dividing things, as well. My father (a Vietnam War veteran), Bill (a Korean War veteran), and Bruce (a World War II veteran) had some fundamental differences about American interests and war.
Bruce had gradually shifted from his original conservative roots, pulled by Char and her family, until they were (for northern Michigan) quite liberal indeed. Char and Bruce founded a chapter of Veterans for Peace, fought against nuclear power plants (another reason for friction with my father, the nuclear engineer,) and for many other environmental causes well before it was the hip thing to do.
Later, after I had grown up, and kind of rebuilt my personal foundation on different grounds, Aunt Char and I would exchange letters off and on. Sometimes I would send a short hand-written letter, or even just a postcard, and get in return a fascinating, epic letter that told stories and dispensed little nuggets of wisdom.
She was particularly fascinated by politics, and so we talked about the state of the world, and how people’s beliefs get fixed in counter-intuitive, self-damaging ways. Gradually, she convinced me that rhetoric, rationality, and righteous anger weren’t going to get anyone to change.
Changing minds is a slow, tidal process, and it’s not something you force on someone. They change their mind. You… you just help them out. She wouldn’t really ever come out and say this directly. She would just ask interesting questions, letting me puzzle it out.
At first I thought that wasn’t so. That she was old, and too moderate. Rationality would always win, and I should fight forcefully for my beliefs to gain a foothold in someone else’s mind. And then I began to slowly understand that changing minds is difficult, if not impossible. (That includes changing your own mind, so let’s not get all uppity about it, eh?)
With time, I came to discover that Char was completely correct. People do not change overnight. Usually. They change like a plant which grows and bends around an obstacle, straining for the light of truth, or happiness, or hope.
Her long letters were an example of changing a mind — mine — like subtle, slow waves depositing new soil on a shore I thought would always stay the same. She wasn’t the only force of change, but she was persistent, and she asked the right questions.
At the memorial service, my mother told a story about how her entire career was shaped by Char. Char knew Jan well; she knew her style and her way of being, what she was good at, and how she loved to help people. And since Char had the long medical experience in her storied past, she simply asked one day: have you ever considered the field of occupational therapy?
And as the legend runs, my mother became an OT, getting a degree in a field she had been completely unaware of, thanks to Char’s gentle prompting. A field that my mom works in and loves to this day.
So really, I have to correct myself. My life was changed by Char. More than I thought at first. More than just a little.
In fact, I wouldn’t exist, if my mother hadn’t gotten interested in occupational therapy, and gone to college in Virginia, and met my father. And so on, and on and on, the dandelion seeds dance in the breeze.
Char was filled with the kind of humility which is so intense that the gravity of her helpful orbit was almost completely undetectable until she was gone, and we all had to realign our emotional telescopes.
She always had time for a question, a conversation. Her prompts would be deceptively sharp; careful knives that cut right to the bone of hard questions, with an ease that made it seem like the natural way of things.
As Heidi said at the memorial service, Char made herself a secret expert at knowing what you needed, letting you think you were helping her, but she was always helping you.
She was the best kind of quiet badass: the kind of person who makes everyone around her better, mostly unnoticed. You could tell that she never needed or wanted any kind of thanks, or to be singled out. She didn’t want anyone to make a fuss when she passed away. That was just the way that she wanted to be, and so that was how she was.
Thank you, Char.
Your little dandelion seeds have spread on the wind, scattered over time and distance, further than you knew.