I was born on a cold snowy day in in February in the year 1940 in Oklahoma City. My oldest sister Jeanie gave me my name, Janice Ruth. Throughout most of my life I would be called Ruthie.My Daddy called me his little baby Ruthie. We did not live on North East Thirty-Second Street when I was born, but that was the first home I remember. I spent nine years of my childhood in that house. Some days were happy and some sad, but that nine years was some of the happiest of my life.
My mother worked at a dry cleaner. My daddy was a brick and block layer. They both worked very hard. Jeanie, my oldest sister, was married, but she lived with us because her husband Cecil had gone away to fight the war in Germany. I was not quite sure where Germany was, but I thought Cecil must be very brave to be in the war. I missed him, too. Jeanie and Cecil also had twin daughters, Jeanie Marlene and Cecil Darlene.
The twins were really cute. They smelled good, and Jeanie let me rock them sometimes. Jeanie Marlene was a good baby. She hardly ever cried. On the other hand, Cecil Darlene cried all the time. For some reason I always seemed to wind up with the screamer, Cecil Darlene. I would get a headache sometimes because she cried and screamed so much. My older sister Margie always got Jeanie Marlene to rock. She was lucky. To this very day Cecil Darlene can be a real pain in the back side, but I love her very much.
I knew nothing about death, but I learned at a very young age what death meant. Jeanie Marlene died of pneumonia at the age of six months. My daddy explained to me that she had gone to Heaven to be with Jesus. Now, I love Jesus, but I didn’t understand why He wanted her. I asked Daddy when Jesus would let her come back, and he said not for a very long time. I knew what death was then, and it hurt so bad inside.
My sister Ola was a teenage girl, so she rarely spoke to me. She was busy with her girlfriends and boys, boys, boys. She was real pretty. My brother Junior spent all of his time when he was home trying to get Margie and me in trouble. I just hated him. He was, of course, Mother’s favorite, along with Margie, the faker. She faked sick all the time to get out of doing chores.
My daddy was a very kind man. He was a drinker, an alcoholic, I should say. He was the most loving man I have ever known. He was so good to all of us kids. He never in my whole life gave me a spanking. He would pick me up when he got home from work, give me a big hug and a kiss, and ask, “How is my little baby Ruthie today?”
He would sit there, drink his Progress beer, and let me tell him what I had been doing all day. We talked a lot and worked in his garden a lot. He let me feed the chickens, too. Sometimes he would walk home from the bus after work, and he would be kind of drunk and staggering. That made my mother get mad at him, and the other kids in the neighborhood would tease me about it. Unless you wanted a big poke in your nose, then you had better not say anything bad about my daddy!
I had quite a few fights with other kids about that, but I never told my daddy. I was never ashamed of him for drinking because he was a good daddy, and he loved me. I never ever heard him say anything bad about other people. He would say, “Ruthie, if you can’t say good things about people, then just don’t say anything.”
That was good advice. It broke my heart when he passed away at sixty-four years of age from cirrhosis of the liver. I gave him his last shave before he went to the hospital, and he was dead within two days. That was my second experience with death. I knew my daddy was in Heaven with Jesus because he was such a kind and loving man.
Where do I begin with my mother? What a woman! She was so hard to figure out. One day she would be in a good mood, and I loved her. The next she would be like Mammy. That’s what she called her mother. That would be my granny, the one I spent a few of my summers with. I did not understand why she was the way she was until I was much older. She had ten brothers and sisters. She was the oldest of the girls, so she did most of the work and took care of all those kids.
Why would anyone want that many kids? It is a mystery to me. She had to quit school in the eighth grade to help Mammy at home. She eloped with my daddy when she was eighteen. He was nineteen. They had to elope because Mammy wanted her to stay home to help her.
They moved to Grandpa Carter’s ranch in the Arbuckle Mountains, near Davis, Oklahoma. Mother worked even harder there. She helped Granny Carter cook for about twenty-five ranch hands. She had such a hard life. My mother and daddy both picked cotton. She said her hands were always bleeding from picking cotton. She did laundry on a rub board and cooked on a wood burning stove. Women these days would probably die if they had to live like that. They never went to a doctor or a dentist. A midwife delivered my two older sisters, Jeanie and Ola.
My mother took the bull by the horns and told Daddy that they were moving to Oklahoma City. She was just sick and tired of working so hard. Could anyone blame her? That is how we wound up in Oklahoma City. Junior, Margie, and I were born in the University Hospital in Oklahoma City, and eventually we all wound up living on Thirty-Second Street.
That’s when Mother went to work at the dry cleaner, and Daddy started working construction. We lived about a mile from the bus stop. We had no car, so they had to walk to catch the bus. This could be bad because Oklahoma has some bad weather. In the winter, it was snow and sleet, and in the spring and summer, it was tornadoes. Yep, we lived right smack dab in Tornado Alley.
Mother worked so hard I wanted to help her, so one day I decided to start supper. She always made cornbread or biscuits for supper, so I got everything out that she needed to make the biscuits. I put the mixing bowl on the counter, too. I would have started the biscuits, but I didn’t know how.
She always complained about waiting for the oven to warm up, so I decided to light the oven to warm it up for her. I got the big box of matches and turned on the gas. Then, I knelt down and opened the bottom door to light the oven. I struck the first match, and it broke in half. I struck the next one, and it didn’t light; it just kind of fizzled out. By the time I struck the third match, the gas had filled the oven. BOOM! It blew the door on the top of the oven open, and flames shot out in my face.
I could feel my hand burning, and I didn’t know it then, but the flames singed my eyelashes and my eyebrows off. It also singed the front of my hair. The oven was lit though. Thank you, God!
My mother came in the door from work and saw me holding the matches. I looked at her and very proudly said, “I lit the oven for you, Mother.”
I will never forget the look on her face. She didn’t know whether to be mad about lighting the oven or happy that I did not blow the house up and kill myself. She took the matches out of my hand and she said, “Ruthie, don’t you ever do this again. I am not going to spank you this time because you were trying to help, but don’t you ever do this again.”
She got some butter and put it on my burning hand. I was crying because it was really hurting by then. She said, “Just look what you did to your hair, and you burned your eyelashes and your eyebrows off. Go lie down on the bed. And, Ruthie?”
“Promise me that you will never ever do this again.”
I never made that promise, but I sure wish I had. I was so happy because I didn’t get a spanking. My mother can really spank hard.
About a month later, I was thinking about the oven and how to light it. It had bothered me the whole time. I had eyebrows and eyelashes again, and the front of my hair was just a little fuzzy. I just knew I could do it. I had been practicing how to strike the match. I just couldn’t let this pass. I had to learn how to light that oven. I was obsessed with it even though I knew Mother would spank me whether I succeeded or not. That meant nothing to me. I had been spanked lots of times. This was a challenge I had to win no matter what.
I have been like this all my life. When I fail at something, or when I just can’t do something very well, I can’t seem to let it go. I have the need to master it, so I just keep trying. I never get much better at some things, but I never give up. Maybe I am just hardheaded. That’s what Granny used to tell me. But, she didn’t really like me, so her opinion doesn’t count. I don’t mean to say she didn’t love me because she did. I drove her nuts, I guess, so she didn’t like me too much.
The second time I tried the oven caper was about two months later. I was hungry, so I made the wrong decision again. I was going to make cinnamon toast. I spread a little butter on the bread, sprinkled some sugar on it, and then added a little cinnamon on top. It was great! I really liked it. We were poor, so we had to make do with what we had.
Well, let me tell you what happened. The toast was ready to put in the oven, so I got that darned box of matches. I struck a couple of them just for practice. That worked out, so I figured I was ready to go for it. I turned the gas on and opened the bottom door. I got the match out and struck it on the side of the box. No good. It went out. I pulled out another match and struck it. It worked! I stuck it under the burner and BOOM! The top door flew open again, and the flames shot out both doors. That time I was not burned. The oven lit just like before, but I was wondering why I didn’t have to use three matches like before.
Just then, my mother walked through the back door. She laid her purse and groceries on the table, walked over to the refrigerator, and picked up a refrigerator belt that Daddy was getting ready to put on because the other one was worn out. She did not say a word. She got me by my arm and proceeded to wear me out with that belt. She put marks on me that Granny’s soap would not take off! I was screaming and crying, but she didn’t stop.
It seemed like forever, but finally she stopped. She laid the belt back on the refrigerator and turned to me and said, “What did I tell you the last time you did this?”
“Never to do it again,” I said, still crying.
“Do you believe me now when I tell you not to do something?”
“Yes, Mother, I believe you.”
Let’s just say that she sure made a believer out of me. It was hands off the oven from then on. I decided I wouldn’t try that until I was really old, like thirty.
She sent me to bed with no supper. Later that night she came in our room and explained to me how dangerous it was for me to light the oven. She put some kerosene on the marks on my legs, and she looked down at me and said, “You have no eyebrows or lashes again, and your hair is singed in the front.”
She kissed me on the cheek and said, “I love you, Ruthie.”
After that, I stayed away from the oven. When she kissed my cheek and said she loved me, it meant everything to me. She had never done that before. She loved me and wanted to keep me safe. I was so happy to know that. I promised myself I would be good and do what I was told.
But, that was really hard for me to do. There were so many things to do and so much to explore. My mind was always buzzing with things to do, but unfortunately, some of them would get me in trouble. I wanted to be my own boss. I guess that was the whole problem. I hope you will enjoy reading about my life as much as I enjoyed living it. This is just one of the tales of little Ruthie.
Be sure to follow the antics of little Ruthie each month as we bring a different story about her life to our website.
Janice Sautter is a great great grandmother who spends her time writing, painting, drawing, and playing video games. She lives with her husband Jim and their two dogs, Daisy and Lilly. She writes under the name of J. R. Carter.