Sunday, December 12, 2010

Memorial: Ruth Bressan

Ruth stood in her sunny kitchen cutting peaches and gesturing with the knife as she told us about the headless rattlesnake that had snapped at her. Her sons had captured it, beheaded it, and put it in the sink. Instinctively, the creature coiled and sprang at her, even though its head was long gone and its fangs with it.

She was making us dessert, cutting fresh Colorado peaches to put on vanilla ice cream. So far it had taken her 45 minutes to cut three peaches. They were beautiful minutes, though, full of stories of Ruth’s life as a young wife and mother, then a grandmother, and finally a great grandmother, all spent in the shadow of Colorado’s Spanish Peaks, twin mountains called Wahatoya, or breasts of the earth, by native Americans.

She laughed, a tinkling giggle, her bright blue eyes blinking with delight in her memories.

Ruth lived in a house built by her husband Arthur, a comfy 1950’s ranch with a picture window in the living room that framed a stunning scene of the peaks. They raised six kids there—Dave, Doug, Don, Daryl, Debbie, and Dana.

Her kitchen has corner windows that looked the opposite direction, toward one of the dikes—volcanic walls—that are unique to this neck of the Southern Colorado woods, south of Walsenburg and east of La Veta. Outside those windows, dogs, horses, cows, and who knows what other unknown beasts roamed the high dessert.

And rattlesnakes. As Ruth told it the Bressan family had a close relationship with these snakes, which liked to nest in the rocks of the dikes.

Still gesturing with her knife, still cutting the peaches, Ruth tells us about the time she and her dog went for a walk in the autumn and heard hissing all around them. Both froze—smart dog—until the snakes lost interest and moved.

We were her neighbors and were at her house on one of the two or three visits we made every year. Although our land adjoined hers, it took us about half an hour to drive to her house. So we did not visit as much as we wanted. Each visit, though, was a treat.

This time, my brother Ed, his wife Gwyn, and my husband Joe were all visiting. Finally, Ed got up and helped Ruth finish the peaches. We sat down and had our tasty dessert. But the real luxury was time with Ruth.

Usually, Gwyn and I visited without our husbands. Two years ago, we went driving around the nearby Boy Scout camp her family helped build. I drove my Toyota 4Runner and Ruth encouraged me up one steep hill after another, as though we were driving to the mall. At one point, we ended up on the narrow ridge we often hiked. She suggested that I drive along the ridge but I suggested otherwise. Each time I hike that ridge I chuckle at Ruth, so glibly telling me how I could just turn and keep driving on a cow path. She would have.

The year before that, we had hiked close to Ruth’s home, to a formation she called the Birdbath. It is probably a 20X20-foot flat rock with a pool at one corner into which water puddles. It was a hidden wonder, a little mountain treasure we would never have known without Ruth.

Afterward, we shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The last meal I shared with Ruth was in her cozy dining room with her son Dave. We brought part of the meal and Ruth and Dave added fabulous cheese plus strawberries with melted chocolate. And wine. Ruth loved Yellow Tail. We talked about gas drilling in the area, we heard more stories of the Bressan family, we laughed, we talked politics. We were kindred political souls—Ruth and Dave even had a fish named Obama.

And we left. I hugged Ruth and told her I would see her next year. We are fair weather neighbors, in the mountains only in the summer. Ruth waved goodbye, her grey hair in its perky little ponytail, her tiny frame tucked into her jeans.

That was my last view of her. She died last Friday, of a cancer that came on ferociously—adenocarcinoma, which affects the lining of the internal organs— and stole her right from under us in a matter of weeks.

I only met Ruth eight years ago—ironically, we got to know one another over a lawsuit with a troublesome common neighbor. And I only saw her a few times a year. Yet I am as bereft as if I had seen her every day. Partly it’s because I did not get to spend as much time as I wanted with her—it’s like our friendship was just getting started. There was so much I wanted to know, so many stories I wanted to hear.

Largely, though, it’s because she was an American original—the kind of person whose life stories belong in a book, whose world was larger than the rest of us can even imagine. And who made us larger by sharing it.

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