Note: This post details a year-community service project I led with a group of students at the Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. It was previously published by The Dillydoun Review, a fine online journal which appears to no longer exist.
“I had twelve children, but the last one, a redhead, was give to me.” So began the story of Ruth, one she recounted with little variation on each of our visits. Her eleven biological children were all born at home, mostly in a barn from what we could gather. It was never clear who gave her the last one but the child was undoubtedly a redhead in Ruth’s mind. I say in Ruth’s mind because there were no pictures of any of the children around the trailer. Ruth also never spoke of grandchildren whom we felt must have existed. We did see a grainy photograph of her long since dead husband. He appeared a serious man in a flannel shirt and overalls. Ruth handed us the photo dispassionately, making it impossible for us to tell how she felt about the man either in the present or past. She did show passion for her dog, a small, grey unnamed mutt who yipped at us and nipped our ankles, and who, from the smell in the trailer, did not always wait to be let out before urinating. Ruth loved to hold the little scoundrel in her lap, stroking his mangy fur vigorously as she told her story.
As we listened to Ruth, we sat or stood cramped in the trailer’s living room area which doubled as Ruth’s bedroom and was connected to the small kitchen. The trailer was plumbed with a bathroom immediately across from the trailer’s front door. Lastly the trailer did have another room which could have served as a proper bedroom but which Ruth always kept closed during our visits. We did not inquire about its contents.
The trailer while small and dirty was not in and of itself unpleasant. There were several windows and the kitchen appliances seemed to be in good working order. The toilet flushed normally but the shower held a mystery of hoses and did not appear to be in use. The unpleasant feature of the trailer was not tangible but let itself be known immediately upon entry. In addition to the lingering urine odor, the trailer reeked of smoke. Ruth smoked what appeared to be a hybrid between a cigarette and cigar. Perhaps they were what are called cigarillos but at less than a third the price of a pack of cigarettes, I suspected that they were a breed of their own. Regardless of our arrival time, and there was no phone to let Ruth know we were coming, she was always just finishing one. She promised not to smoke in the students’ presence, a promise she kept for the first half hour of our visits. Finally, there was another odor routinely present whose source could have been Ruth herself. Living as she did with no shower and always wearing the same housedress, we could not discount that possibility. Despite these malodors, we grew to love being in the trailer, and it was in fact the trailer itself that led us to Ruth.
A week or so after the high school year and our community service group started, our small city’s daily newspaper ran an article on Ruth and her trailer. The article was headlined by a large photograph of Ruth and her dog standing in front of the trailer and went on to explain that Ruth had been the recipient of a new trailer, the old one having been vermin infested and in a frightful state of disrepair (later I could only wonder at what odors might have inhabited that abode). The article also made reference to the fact that Ruth had some part of her undergarments exposed beneath the flimsy housedress, a reference which I was later to learn infuriated Ruth. Finally, the article mentioned that Ruth’s property had a problem with strewn garbage and left a number for potential volunteers to call to offer a hand. As I considered garbage removal to be a perfect bonding activity for my small group (only seven this year) of service students to undertake, I called the number right away and spoke to a caseworker for the elderly. I volunteered our services with the only hesitation that I wanted to be sure there would be enough work for myself and seven teenagers. She assured me there would be plenty of work to go around and we set up a Saturday date.
The first day we went to Ruth’s was an unseasonably cold September day with steady rain. I rounded up six of the students in my minivan, impressed that none of them were dissuaded by the weather. We met the caseworker at Ruth’s and quickly saw the magnitude of the task. Ruth’s trailer sat on about a half-acre lot, the majority of which was literally knee deep in garbage. There were large items including mattresses and a car hood a well as smaller ones such as broken toys and used IV bags.
Our task for the day was to gather up all of the scrap metal items and load them in a dumpster which had been dropped off by a sheet metal company. The car hood turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. By the time we were finished half a day later, we had unearthed the equivalent scrap metal of several cars and completely filled the midsized dumpster. Once soaked, the task became fun. We yelled out large finds and enjoyed identifying matching pieces. The place was filthy, sheet metal constituted the "cleanest" of the garbage. We did not have much communication with Ruth that first day. Periodically she would stick her head out of the trailer; we would wave and continue on with the work. Before leaving we bid her goodbye. Though she didn't smile, I thought she seemed pleased. The recycling money would go directly to her; a full dumpster could easily be worth $50.
Discussing our experience in class the next week, several of the girls in the group wanted to follow up with Ruth. Janet wanted to pick up more garbage while Chloe thought perhaps Ruth might want some companionship. I contacted the caseworker about both issues. She agreed that the garbage was atrocious but had no idea how we might go about disposing of it. As far as visiting Ruth, she was all for it and a few days later called me back with the news that Ruth would be okay with a visit from us.
The next weekend we nervously headed back to Ruth and the trailer. It was a gorgeous fall day and driving the dozen or so miles out of town to Ruth's hamlet, I couldn't help thinking of my mountain bike and several trails which would make for a perfect ride on such a day. Ruth lived about a mile and a half up Buffalo Hill Road, a right turn off the two-lane highway which captured the gas station and convenience store, the town's commercial area. Buffalo Hill Rd was notorious in the both the local law enforcement and social services communities. The folks that lived there endured a hardscrabble existence. The dwellings were almost exclusively trailers with a few having gotten to the last years of the 20th century without running water. Lawns were strewn with all forms of detritus, common elements included car parts and roofing materials. As a youth worker some years back, I had worked with a couple of kids from that community; the social and material gap between them and kids in town was staggering.
Ruth was wearing the same housedress as the week before and seemed neither pleased nor displeased to see us. Although she presumably was aware of our visit, I felt obliged to explain that we were here to pick up some more trash and just chat a bit if that was okay. We spent a few hours doing just that. Most of the students were more comfortable outside but Chloe and I did listen to Ruth for about an hour. We soon discovered that her whole life had taken place in this area, most of it spent outdoors working. While we listened, the crew outside stacked old tires; apparently the caseworker found someone to haul them. In talking to Ruth about the state of her living area, she was clearly excited about the new trailer and equally nonplussed about the garbage. If it had ever bothered her, that time had passed. Now she existed with it. She did let on that she thought burning would be a good solution. That idea was a big hit with the boys, and soon we had a small pyre in the front yard. We fueled it with all of the wood items we could find and, despite some environmental misgivings, it was enjoyed by all. The day's highlight was someone lighting a couch with Patrick sitting it in.
When I saw Patrick's name on my class list, I was immediately apprehensive. I had taught him as a 7th grader and at that point, he was one of the most difficult students I’d ever had in class. He had the typical rambunctiousness of young teenage boy but it was combined with a mean streak. He was argumentative and nasty to both myself and his peers. I soon discovered that the 11th grade Patrick was a complete opposite of the younger version. He was relaxed, kind to others, and fun to be around. His previous frustrations seemed to be channeled into his artwork; now he was an artist in several mediums who within the year would begin applying to art schools.
We left Ruth's without having made any significant dent in the garbage but with her consent to come back the following week for a visit. On the way home, I let the group know that garbage burning was a onetime activity and that our focus would probably have to shift to just sitting with Ruth.
We returned to Ruth the next week and the weeks following. We would sit in the cramped trailer, play with the dog, and listen to her stories. She told us about how she went into labor with no one but a few of her older kids around. Unfazed she locked the kids in one room, spread some clean blankets down in another, and delivered the baby herself. We also learned that she had broken her hip a few winters back. She was walking in the snow outside her trailer, fell, and heard a snap. She dragged herself to her car, but was unable to get in, so she honked repeatedly until someone came by and took her to the emergency room. Her mobility was greatly restricted by the hip but she still had the car and made regular trips to the store for her smokes. I drove the car a few times, allegedly to warm it up, but always to top off the gas tank. It was an older American car, maybe a Pontiac, with bald tires, loose steering, and suspect brakes. It was scary to drive but I smiled as I thought of Ruth piloting it through the curves and potholes of Buffalo Hill Road.
Of my seven students, Phouphet was the least frequent visitor to Ruth's trailer. She was an immigrant from SE Asia, struggling to learn English, complete her school work, and help in the family's restaurant. Improbably, she had the most in common with Ruth. They had both experienced hardships beyond what the rest of us could know. Her Sundays were often occupied with the family business.
Peter also did not attend too many Sundays. He was the only senior in the group. He was alternately jocular and intense. On one evening in the middle of the year, we organized a movie night to shake the midwinter blues. Smoke Signals, the story of a boy looking for his father was fantastic, and the mood in the van on the way home was upbeat. When I got to Peter' house he collapsed into my arms sobbing. Later, the others were to tell me that he had an extremely difficult relationship with his father.
As fall grew into winter, it was clear that Ruth had developed some affection for us. She rarely asked us questions about our lives but thanked us for coming and once as we were leaving, I thought I heard her say, "I love you kids". On occasion I would bring my two-year-old son who would run around the trailer and bring a smile to Ruth's face. She would hold him and not smoke on those visits. We continued to see her weekly through what turned out to be a snowy winter; it seemed important as she was more housebound in that season. I offered to bring her groceries but she declined. As far as I could tell she survived on cans of Ensure. I did not offer to bring cigarettes. After a few of the visits we treated ourselves to some sledding in a nearby state forest. The pristine snow and crisp air felt purifying after the heat and rank air in the trailer.
I particularly remember Braden's joy during those sledding outings. Braden and Patrick were classmates and good friends. Braden was a marginal student at best, a class clown who attempted with some degree of success to charm his teachers into passing grades. He was a big kid, physically, and in many ways emotionally, with lots of energy who seemed confined in Ruth's trailer. But he attended faithfully, he loved the group camaraderie and the half hour van rides gave him a great forum for one-liners.
On a few of our visits we found that Ruth was not alone. Twice we met one of her older sons, the only one of her children we were to meet. He was a large gruff but friendly man who lived "not too far up the road." He thanked us for visiting his mother; it was not clear how often he came by. Another time we encountered another man, a former son-in-law. He was small and unfriendly and seemed to be squatting in the trailer's extra room. He obviously resented our presence and went so far as to threaten me physically. When I didn't back down, he stepped aside. Ruth ignored him and, in a few weeks, he was gone.
As part of the community service experience, my students kept a journal. Writing was a chore for many of them but a few wrote readily, and in Chloe's case, beautifully. Chloe was the youngest of three sisters; her parents were well educated and the family lived simply in a rural setting. She was a strong student, photographer, and athlete yet she did not project the confidence of many of her peers, sometimes appearing to be carrying a heavy burden. She was the most invested in our time on Buffalo Hill and became our "Ruth historian".
When the local paper put out a call for more diverse voices on the editorial page, I knew what to do. It took a Saturday afternoon and several slices of deep-dish pizza but I was able to convince Chloe to submit some of her journal to the paper. In March, the paper published her account of listening to Ruth's stories with no editing under the heading "Listening to a Woman of Courage." Seeing her words in print made me proud and amplified what had already become a powerful experience.
When the snow finally melted, we were greeted with the shock of the garbage. Somehow, we had thought it would melt away as well. I made calls and wrote to the town supervisor, a former landlord of mine. I explained that we would provide all the manpower if the town could just haul it away, after all we would be removing a huge eyesore. He was sympathetic but said he could not authorize public equipment for a private citizen. I gave up.
Janet fortunately did not. She was atypical of my students in that her parents were Southern, conservative, and wealthy. She had grown up privileged and used to getting what she wanted. She was a strong student destined for a good college.
My failure at garbage removal presented her with a challenge. After two weeks of phone calls, she had gotten the county's largest private hauler to donate their biggest dumpster to the cause. They dropped it off on a weekday in May. We were awestruck the following Sunday, it was the size of an 18-wheeler. We scheduled the party for two weeks hence. I provided pizza and the students friends. The day was beautiful, abundant sunshine promising summer weather. A crew of 30 had been mobilized and we picked up trash with a frenetic energy. Notable finds included plastic medical tubing, decapitated Barbies, and pornographic Polaroids. It was disgusting and wonderful. A few times we had to stop so the jumpers could pounce atop the dumpster, trying to somehow create more room. By the day's end the receptacle was overflowing and the lot clean. When I confirmed pick up with the garbage service later in the week, they told me we had gathered more than ten tons of material.
My group was elated. Although our time with Ruth had evolved far beyond garbage pickup, it felt like a great accomplishment to clear the lot. Even Ruth seemed pleased and somewhat amazed as she used her cane to walk around her property for the first time in years. Surveying the area, one of the students thought we should plant a garden. We got Ruth's okay, picked a plot, and planned to begin work on it the following week.
Hannah was a motivator behind the garden idea. This was unusual as she was the quietest of the group. She was an only child, living with her mother. Her father had evidently abandoned the family years before and was not talked about. She was a great student and wrote very well but spent much of the year in Chloe's shadow. She came along almost every Sunday: I got the sense that the group was a critical one for her.
Although school was out, most of the group continued to visit Ruth in the summer. The garden flourished. "Best damn tomatoes I ever had," Ruth commented. For the first and only time we managed to get Ruth on an outing with us. She had spoken fondly of a place in the local woods which she had enjoyed as a child. We packed a picnic lunch and set out on our quest. Many dirt roads later we came to the summit of a hill and Ruth declared that we were here. We ate and she related stories about chasing her brothers and sisters around in this very spot. The mood was light and Ruth seemed truly happy.
As the summer wound down and I began to think about the upcoming school year, I could not help but reflect on my year with Ruth and the students. Ruth was a tough plain-spoken old woman. She had made her way in the world with little education and help from others. Her life was lived in poverty but she did not appear bitter about it. I wondered what happened to her children, they were rarely mentioned. I don't think she ever saw me as one of her kids, nor did I see her as a grandmother figure, but we did forge a strong bond. It seemed incredible that I, now a teacher in the community, had grown up within a dozen miles of Ruth, never aware of Buffalo Hill Road or the conditions faced by those who lived there.
I now live in San Diego, many miles and years from Buffalo Hill Road and am no longer in touch with my group. Despite the break, I feel confident in asserting that our time with Ruth was not forgotten by any them as they continued on their different journeys. Chloe, Hannah, and Janet did go to good colleges. Chloe's path included working with native children north of the Arctic Circle and AIDS patients in San Diego. Patrick called me from art school a few years after graduation deeply concerned about Peter who was planning to enlist in the military. He wanted me to talk him out of it, a task I did not undertake. Braden spent the first years after high school living at home and smoking lots of pot. On my returns to town, he was always excited to see me. Finally, Phouphet married early, had a baby, and continued to work in the restaurant. When I was last in town many years ago, she would not let me pay for my meal.
We spent a year of Sundays in a smelly trailer listening to an old woman repeat stories. Because of some garbage, I became friends with a woman I would have never known otherwise. A woman from a world far away down the street. I saw some teenagers give some of their time and selves to a project with no set goals or outcomes. We just spent time with Ruth. It felt right.
Toward the end of the summer after the year of Ruth, I decided to contact the journalist who wrote the article. I thought she should know the impact of her story. I discovered that she no longer worked for our local paper, having moved on to a paper in a larger city 80 miles to the West. I was not able to make phone contact so I wrote her detailing our visits, the garbage, and the garden. I also mentioned how Ruth was simultaneously proud to be featured in the article and incensed at the mention of her visible underwear. I pointed out that being close to destitute was not equivalent to being without dignity. I left my contact information but received no response.
In Fall, I started a class with a majority of new students. The returners and I brought a few of the newbies to see Ruth one weekend but the new group had different projects in mind. As a result, our once weekly visits became more sporadic but I did commit to myself to seeing Ruth at least once a month. On a Tuesday in November, a few weeks after my last visit, I saw her death notice in the paper. The notice was brief with no mention of her beloved little dog. There was a service scheduled for the following week. I was shocked. While she was far from healthy, she had not appeared to change in the year we'd known her. The next day I gathered the old group together at lunch and broke the news. The students hugged and sat quietly.
It was in the middle of a school day but I was able to arrange for three of us to attend the service. There were few mourners, no one I recognized, and I felt overdressed in my khakis and oxford shirt. I was glad Patrick was wearing jeans and flannel. I half listened to the brief words from a Reverend who clearly hadn't met Ruth. We lingered a bit after the service but decided not to go to the burial site. I looked for but did not see a redhead.
François Bereaud teaches and writes in San Diego.