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A death shared by mother, daughter

By Hillary Johnson
St. Martin’s Press, Hardcover, 242 pages, $24.99


Publishers should listen to their authors. Hillary Johnson’s title for her book was The Art of Ruth, not only a more compelling title but in many ways a more truthful one. The book had its inception in the death of Ruth Jones, Hillary’s mother (forgive me for using first names, but after spending time with them in this book, I feel as if I know them that way). But what she celebrates is her mother’s life, her spirit, her anima, which Hillary came to know in her mother’s final years through her art. “It was only after Ruth died that I began piecing it all together -- my blindness, her artistry, our failure to connect on this signal matter.”

Edna Ruth Hines Johnson Jones was as complex and complicated a woman as her name. At times I didn’t always like Ruth, the strong-personalitied, outspoken, sometimes coarse, always lively Ruth, but I was always fascinated by her, and by the end of her life and the book I admired and respected her.

Every daughter has a story to tell about her mother. Hillary Johnson, a journalist and freelance writer, has not only a story but the words to tell it. “There were a whole lot of sweet little old ladies out there, and then there was Ruth,” she writes.

There is a mother-child, especially mother-daughter relationship that transcends personalities, and Hillary has tapped that spine of recognition. Many grown children identify powerfully with their mothers as did Hillary, yet paradoxically we need to pull away, to separate. Many mother-child relationships know their share of anger and resentment amidst a bond so powerful that not even death nullifies it. Show me a parent-child relationship without guilt or regret because we pretended not to care, when caring was the watermark of our need for each other.

It was throat cancer that claimed Ruth’s physical life, the illness that brought Hillary back to Minneapolis from New York to be with her mother for four years before the cancer claimed her. “During those years that I spent with her, years during which she presumably was looking down death’s jaws, Ruth was not an angry, resentful or even depressed person. She was, instead, someone with an uncommon capacity for delight, someone who chose to see mostly beauty and who spent the lion’s share of energy remaining to her creating it.”

One of Ruth’s friends commented to Hillary that “Ruth seemed to create art wherever she looked.” And even though she held death at bay for several years after her diagnosis, she made an accommodation for it by preparing the room in her home in which she would die. Ruth wrote to her son, “And since I’ve taken five years to die of this I’m so proud to have made such a lovely place to do it in. It’s quite lovely.”

Ruth’s death was not entirely on her own terms. A botched medical procedure left her without the use of her vocal cords. Hillary has little good to say about the medical profession in general. Only one doctor and a few of Ruth’s caregivers earned any of her respect. But while Ruth was rendered voiceless, she was not speechless. Ever quick with pen and yellow note pad, she wrote prolifically and carried on full-fledged conversations. It is this turn of events that allowed Hillary to recover meaningful conversations and to quote her mother verbatim.

Ruth’s final gift to her daughter was the manner of her death. Not only in a “lovely place,” but in a lovely way. She wanted to be a model of courage. “And it seems she did just that by dying with dignity and grace.” Hillary goes on, “I recognized that she had not only faced her death with enormous courage, she had led her life with courage and grace as well. ... Her powerful will to live had been another revelation.”

Most of Hillary’s discoveries about her mother somehow trace to Ruth’s art. Interestingly enough, as close as they had been at times during Hillary’s growing up, she had already moved away by the time Ruth took up the formal study of art. Thanks to the pieces left behind and to Ruth’s new artistic friends, Hillary got the chance that many of us do not to meet our mothers anew.

Though Ruth was not at all pious, art, nevertheless, was sacred, wherein she followed Shaker tenets that claim art comes from the spiritual world and can only be given away, not sold for monetary gain. “Her art was an expression of her love. She made art precisely so that she could give it away to those she loved, to those who admired it.”

Always the consummate hostess, in the last year before her death Ruth summoned great reserves of energy and good cheer inviting friends in for lunch. As they would say their goodbyes, none of them suspected they were seeing Ruth for the last time. That was precisely how Ruth wanted it. After Ruth’s death, people in the medical profession even made a point of telling Hillary that in their minds, “Ruth had been different, had touched them in a fashion not every dying patient had.”

In this work, as in all good writing, the universal is in the particular. In the story of Ruth Jones and Hillary Johnson, most of us, I dare say, will see glimpses of our relationships with our own mothers. Ask for the book by its publisher’s title, then get past it and enjoy The Art of Ruth.

Judith Bromberg is a regular reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000