These are memories of Ruth Kelly Melby from her daughter – Jean Melby. ~ 2015
Remembering My Mother
Ruth, my mother, was a special woman. Born in a small house on the prairie in 1912, she was delivered by my Aunt Esther, who at the time was only a teenager. Always an avid reader and eager student, she became the first member of her family to attend college (and the only one of her siblings to complete a college education). All her life, a thirst for learning and understanding the finer points of culture, were next to her family, a primary focus. As valedictorian of her high school class in Pettibone, N. Dakota, she received a scholarship to Jamestown College, a small Presbyterian liberal arts college in Jamestown, N. Dakota. There she met my father, who like her, as valedictorian of his high school in Bowman, N. Dakota, also attended Jamestown College on a scholarship. Both would share a lifelong belief in the value of education and its ability to enrich one’s life.
It is my mother’s passion for learning and culture which I most remember and through which I was most influenced. The youngest of five, I believe I experienced my mother more closely in this role as she reentered the teaching profession when I became a first grader. She loved motherhood and her children, but yearned for her own career and a way to keep learning as well as share her love for education. She had faced obstacles to this dream. Although she taught several years before she was married and again several years at the Heart Mountain “Relocation Center: (aka concentration camp) for Japanese Americans in Wyoming, she spent most of her early married years as a stay at home mom. During the Depression, and again after World War II, a number of states prohibited married women to teach in order to preserve jobs for men, ” the breadwinners.” Teaching was out of the question, both because she had five children to care for and because, legally, she could not teach. Once her children were all in school and married women were again allowed into the profession, my mother became one of the first generation to ” have it all” — both family and career. Although these dual responsibilities would lead to great stress, which ultimately may have been one of the causes of her early death at 60, this is how my mother was happiest and this is the way in which she had the greatest influence on me.
In every nook and cranny of our house. we could find books on any subject that might interest us. Not only did we have weekly trips to the library to check out and return books, we were exposed to fine art, literature, music, history, and science. If there was a Time/Life series released, my mother bought it. The Great Books were scattered about the house. I still remember curling up with art books from a beautiful series my mother had purchased and kept in the living room. I became so familiar with artists and their work, that when I took art history in college, I received more than the highest possible score on the art history final. Learning at home was easy and it soon became my passion too.
In the early 60’s, with the advent of Sputnik, U. S. politicians became obsessed with keeping up with the Russians. A greater emphasis on science and foreign language in the schools was the result. Legislation encouraged the teaching of languages at an earlier age, and since there were few qualified to teach foreign languages, innovative methods to ensure instruction were sought out. As a result, my mother was chosen to teach Spanish via television to all 7th and 8th graders in Missoula, Montana, our hometown. There was, however, one slight problem. Ruth knew very little Spanish. In order to prepare herself for the task of a television language teacher, my mother embarked on a new educational adventure. She attended summer institutes sponsored by the National Defense Department. One of these was a summer course in Guatemala, which afforded my mother a travel adventure on her own. Something to which I would later aspire. She also went back to school, taking Spanish language and literature courses and meeting with a tutor to improve her conversational and pronunciation skills. She also prepared thoroughly for the task of teaching via a new medium, developing puppets, a house, and other props for filming and presenting the language.
Again, here was an inspiration for me. I eventually also attended school in a foreign country, studying linguistics, becoming fluent in a number of languages, and finally becoming a teacher of the English language to immigrant students.
My siblings often made fun of me because rather than do my homework independently, I would turn to my mother for help and corrections of my written work or math assignments. This continued well into my high school years. I remember my mother typing an English term paper for me at 3 a.m. and helping me with the footnotes and bibliography and learning algebra at my side. Nevertheless, I did finally strike out on my own and probably had a better grounding than most because of the private tutoring my mother provided. It was her passion which was transmitted to me in these hours spent together. She was a perfectionist and she instilled in me the need to improve myself through academic endeavors. When it was time for college, she and my father supported my desire to go to Whitman College, a small liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington, something they could manage financially because I was the youngest of five and the only child they were still supporting. I believe this was the greatest gift my parents gave to me as from here I leapfrogged to university in Seattle, a summer abroad program in Germany (also inspired by my mother’s lifelong dream to travel to Europe), my ultimate marriage to a German, further education at a German university, and my passion for travel and other cultures and languages.
Ruth supported all of her children in every way she knew possible. We all had the opportunity to receive private music or dance lessons. Only some of us took advantage of these opportunities. Karen had years of dance lessons and would later run a dance school for a number of years. Jan and I had piano instruction and both play to this day for relaxation and enjoyment. When I took up the flute and played in the school band and orchestra, my parents gave me much encouragement. My father was a great lover of classical music and would have me listen to his favorite pieces with him, commenting on the smallest nuances. My mother, always eager to encourage the arts, bought me a very expensive flute, which I still have and now play in a number of amateur groups. She endured my habit of practicing next to her desk as she corrected papers. We were, indeed, close. Without my mother and her influence, I do not think I would lead the life rich in culture and knowledge seeking which defines my days at present.
When I was a small child, too early for me to remember, my mother was stricken with breast cancer. My sister Karen remembers my father sitting in the car with my mother for a long while and coming in with eyes red from crying as she had broken the news to him. She had a radical mastectomy and was not expected to live. I remember vaguely that I as the youngest child was allowed to accompany my mother to my grandparents’ home, where my mother recuperated from the operation. Through sheer determination, I believe, my mother survived. She wanted to raise her family. She also wanted a life of her own. Her best friend, Daisy, told me once, that during one of her weekly visits, she had told Daisy that she needed to work. She needed something more than a life at home. She needed her own life. She was determined to embark on a dual career and she did.
This decision was followed by years of grit, courage, and perfectionism. Despite having survived cancer, my mother was stricken with adult diabetes when I was in the second grade. In spite of her health problems, my mother persisted in accomplishing much more than is normally expected of working mothers. Never was a warm breakfast with oatmeal, bacon, eggs, pancakes, waffles, or toast for a family of seven missing, no lunches went unpacked, never was a warm, well-balanced meal in the evening lacking, never was a school performance unattended, never was a birthday of children or grandchildren forgotten. Not once did my mother neglect her duties as a mother and wife, all while she engaged in being the most dedicated teacher possible. After school, my mother usually worked until five or six in her classroom. Only then, did she came home to prepare the evening meal. After dinner my mother retreated to her bedroom/office, where she prepared lessons and corrected papers until midnight, only to rise at six to prepare breakfast. Saturday was her day for errands, the hairdresser, and grocery shopping, the latter of which was followed by an hour of gossip and visiting with Daisy, her best friend. Sunday was a day of church, Sunday dinner, clothes washing, and more preparation and paper correcting. Ruth always attempted to make her instruction fascinating to her students. Our basement was filled with files of pictures, articles, and other materials she collected for teaching. Her sixth grade history instruction never got much past the medieval period because she had so much supplementary material and interesting projects for her students to enjoy. This is but one example of the excellence and perfectionism which she brought to every endeavor. Her work ethic and dedication would be difficult for any woman to match, including her own daughters.
Ironically, precisely at the moment I finished college and embarked on my adult life that my mother’s cancer came back with a vengeance, calling me back from a romance with my later husband and my university studies and work in W. Berlin. My mother had successfully raised her family, instilling in us all the desire to learn, love for family, and a strong work ethic. Her promise to raise her family and lead a life of her own had been fulfilled. Her persistence, courage, grit, and determination could not defeat the cancer this time and she was lost to us.
I believe my sisters and I still function under the shadow of this remarkable woman. It is a difficult model to follow and I think all of us at some point realized that striving for perfection is perhaps not the wisest approach to life. Certainly it contributed to the recurrence of my mother’s cancer and her death. Nevertheless, she left an indelible impression on us and an entire generation of students. Many who were my age and whom I met at high school commented that my mother was the “best teacher” they had ever known. In fact, she was named “Teacher of the Year” the same year she died. She is a model of womanhood few modern women could replicate, but she is, indeed, someone to emulate.
~ Jean Melby-Mauer – August 2015