Old Relics

Old Relics

“What are you writing these days?” my friend Marty asked me this morning.

“Nothing but big, fat checks to subcontractors!” was my smart-aleck reply.

We laughed and ordered breakfast at the Neptune Diner (one of Lancaster’s little treasures – more about that later) where a group of Etownians and former Etownians had met to catch up with each other. Over coffee, eggs and toast, I told them about this house restoration project that has consumed Bruce and me for three full months now (as of this past Saturday . . . not that I’m counting . . . ) I also shared a little bit about the book I’m hoping to write eventually: about the woman named Ruth who grew up in this house and her extraordinary life.

I lamented the fact that I haven’t had time to do any writing, with all of the work we’ve had to get done on this old rowhome in the city (more, much more, to come on that too). But after breakfast, as I walked home (one of the great joys of living in the city), I realized that I’ve been feeling such a void, not doing any writing. It is such an important part of who I am and has always been one of my greatest joys. I decided to make time to write regularly, even if just a little bit. So I’m reviving my blog – the one where I recorded my experiences traveling across the country last year on the “Grace Tour.” It seems fitting to restart my blog today, exactly one year after I made my first blog post from the road.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll share some of our experiences as new city-dwellers, some of the treasures to be found here in Lancaster, and the trials and tribulations of this major home restoration project we’ve taken on. And I’ll share bits and pieces of the story of Ruth, the fascinating woman who lived in and loved this home for over 80 years before we moved here.

To start, here’s a little background: Last November, Bruce and I bought and moved into this old city rowhome (built in 1915) in Lancaster’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. The house had been sitting, unoccupied, since 1989, when Ruth’s mother had died.

Ruth had inherited and kept this place, which had been her childhood home, even though Ruth lived in her own apartment across town. For whatever reasons, Ruth was never able to part with this house, though she didn’t live in it. And it appeared she had left everything as it had been when her mother was alive.

When we went through the house for the first time early last October, it was like walking into a time capsule. In the living room there were stacks of books, magazines, letters, postcards and yellowed newspaper clippings on the bookshelf next to a green brocade chair with finely crocheted antimacassars on the arms. A gorgeous old “vertical grand” player piano, made by Bjur Bros of New York, sat silent along one wall, with box after box of perforated paper music scrolls stacked beside it. Fine china and crystal sparkled behind the glass-front of the china cabinet in the dining room, where a lace tablecloth and a silk flower arrangement decorated the polished mahogany table. In the kitchen, a set of milk glass canisters in the floor-to-ceiling hutch still contained sugar, tea and flour. Pots and pans were stacked on top of the antique gas stove, and a bottle of dishwashing liquid and a sponge sat on the ledge of the deep double-bowl porcelain enamel sink. In the upstairs bedrooms, the closets were overflowing with finely-tailored dresses and coats (including a few furs). Shoeboxes were stacked neatly on the closet floors, and hat boxes on the shelves above. Watches, rings, necklaces and tiny colored glass perfume bottles covered silver filigreed trays on the dressers. Ruth’s mother’s medications, lotions, and creams lined the shelves of the bathroom medicine cabinet and a plastic shower cap hung from the showerhead.

The house also contained clues to Ruth’s life: her pilot’s log from when she learned to fly airplanes back in the 1950’s lay on a wicker desk in one bedroom. Under the desk were several scrapbooks from her travels around the world. On the wall above the bed, a photo of her graduating class from Brenau Women’s College in Georgia. A bookshelf held some of Ruth’s college textbooks: zoology, French, physics, organic chemistry, modern literature, quantitative analysis. Hanging in the 3rd floor hallway were two framed rifle targets (each pierced with a few bullet holes), Ruth’s certification from the National Rifle Association as a “Certified Sharpshooter” and her amateur radio operator’s license.

Ruth was born in 1925. For a woman of her era to have lived such a life seemed quite extraordinary.

According to neighbors, after Ruth’s mother died, Ruth visited “Mama’s house” several times a week, checking on everything, tending her mother’s prized rosebushes out back and just puttering around inside. What made her keep this house, though she didn’t live here? Why had she left things intact rather than cleaning up and clearing out?

Something about this old place tugged at Bruce and me both. As we walked from room to room, he kept saying, “Intriguing. This is very, very intriguing.” There was a spirit (or spirits?) here. But it was the green rocking chair pulled up next to the antique gas cookstove in the kitchen that captivated me the most. It looked like Ruth might have been sitting there, sipping a cup of tea, just before we arrived. Like she had just stepped away and would be back any minute. I wanted to meet her. I wanted to talk with her. I wanted to hear stories about her life.

But it could never happen. Ruth had died in December, 2009. We purchased “Mama’s house” from her estate. Ruth had no children, and she had willed all of the contents of “Mama’s house” to the Salvation Army. So I contacted them and asked whether they would give me the letters, the scrapbooks, the photos and certificates and other relics from Ruth’s life (anything that they wouldn’t be able to sell). They agreed, and a month ago, a Salvation Army truck pulled up out front and they delivered ten huge containers of memorabilia. I’ve just started trying to catalog all of these old relics of a fascinating life well-lived by a truly avant-garde woman.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll share bits of Ruth’s story as I piece it together from these old relics (though not all of it, of course, as I plan to write a book about her life and don’t want to give away the whole story!)

For now, though, I’ll get this posted and get back to the sanding and the painting and the cleaning. Please feel free to forward the link to my blog to anyone else who might be interested. And thanks for reading!

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is one “relic” from your life that, if found by future generations, would reveal something interesting about you?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: ruths story home renovation

Next: The house that captivated us

Previous: Joe and Red