There are two places in the world where you can find evidence of my great-grandmother, Ruby Evelyn Hines. One is a stretch of farmland situated on Marsh Creek in Southern Idaho. I grew up visiting my grandparents on the farm every summer and every Christmas. From the beginning of my remembering life, Great-grandma Ruby stayed in a little yellow trailer house, next to the original farmhouse where my grandparents lived. When we arrived for a visit, we would often pass Ruby, out for a walk on the narrow lane. My sisters and I would venture over to her trailer house after greeting my grandparents. I remember her answering the door with a generous smile, asking, “Now, who are you?” Ruby had Alzheimer’s and didn’t remember our names but she always invited us in to examine her trinkets and treasures and feed us a snack.
Ruby married my great-grandfather, Vivian (yes, you read that name correctly), when she was only sixteen. Ruby didn’t seem to shy away from work. She frequently worked along side V (as she affectionally refers to him in her journal) in the fields, kept a garden, kept bees, sewed, knitted, crocheted, and cooked for her family and the farm help.
Four years after their marriage, my grandfather, Don, was born. He was their only child and she was a powerful mother. She traveled once a year with my grandpa on the train to Oregon to visit her family. I like thinking of them as a brave, little duo, working hard and loving hard. My grandpa speaks of his mother with such affection that I know this must be true. With a twinkle of admiration in his eyes, my grandpa recalls that his mother had BIG arms. “I could never milk a cow as fast as she could!”
The other place you can find Ruby is a little quarter-acre lot in Southwestern Arizona. When my grandpa was experienced enough to take over the farming operation, V and Ruby retired to the desert in a travel trailer for the winter months. I didn’t visit this place until several years after her passing so I don’t know, first hand, what it meant to her, but her spirit is alive and well there.
When I visited a few weeks ago, I found a journal of hers from 1960. Ruby recorded, in a few sentences, what she did each day of that year. Most days there was a report of the weather, including high and low temperatures. I imagine that spending the winter months in the mild climate of the Southwest felt like a luxury worth recording. The weather report was usually followed by some tasks she completed, like knitting, baking bread, letter writing, cutting V’s hair or sewing. There were days they spent on the road, days V spent fishing, evenings Ruby spent rock hunting, trips to Mexico, trips to beaches of the Baja peninsula, and evenings spent playing cards with friends. The theme of the journal was her constant creativity. Even in retirement, her days were spent creating.
There is a shed on the quarter-acre lot that houses a hodgepodge of artifacts, evidence of her creative life beyond the typical domestic arts. Ruby collected hundreds of shells on the beaches of Mexico. She drilled them and strung them on wire to make decorative baskets. There are snuff containers of tiny colored shells that I imagine she purchased for a project that either never came to being or has since been lost. I wonder if she collected the shells, simply for the pleasure of holding and having them, the same way I enjoy colored paperclips. I find a tiny lizard skeleton in a lidless canning jar. The desert holds onto him in the same way it retains these pieces of Ruby and V.
Ruby moved around a lot as a girl. Her father was one of those people that hated to stay in one place. During her childhood they made their way from Kansas to Colorado, back to Kansas, to Oregon, then back to Kansas, back to Oregon, then Idaho. They moved three times while in Idaho before Ruby married V at age 16. I imagine it felt good to stay in one place! But I also think all of this moving may have taught Ruby from a young age, to love the place that’s in front of your face. For a woman who spent much of her life trying to make green things grow, and visiting her extended family in forested Oregon, she clearly loved the desert. She must have been an avid rockhound because the barren ground is covered in unique mineral specimen, deliberately placed at the foot of decades old cacti. This is the bit of Arizona that I remember from traveling there as a kid.
What Ruby created on the desert floor around her 1950s Spartan park model trailer, is completely worthy of designation as American folk art. Mosaics constructed from naturally colored stone stretch out in each direction. And what I love most about it, besides the fact that it still exists today, disturbed only by the spring weeds and some years of desert dust, is that she did it for the pure love of making it. Why else?!?
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote this:
“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything.”Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Sometimes creativity feels like a crushing chore, but when I think about Ruby it feels more an attitude. An irrepressible impulse that played out in the bread she baked, the cows she milked, the clothing she sewed, the baskets she constructed, the beets she hoed, and the rocks she laid. Her mosaics matter enormously and not at all, in the same way that each life matters enormously and not at all.
I have a niece who shares her great-great-grandmother’s name. Along with the name, she bears a physical resemblance and the same penchant for artistic expression. My 93-year-old grandfather cannot look at Ruby without tearing up, overwhelmed with memories of his mother. I’m reminded that maybe that’s the greatest creative legacy we leave behind—the people. I see her strong arms on my sister. I see her precision and artistry in my father. I see her quiet, enormous heart in my grandfather. And I see her ability to make any place feel like home in me. To carry Ruby forward in the world in our spiritual DNA–what a sacred privilege!