Jack Heaney could talk a dog off a meat truck, but he preferred to harangue his victims until the paint peeled off the wall. He and his 10 children were always arguing (their sides depending only on what room they were in) and were generally the kind of folk a publisher friend of mine referred to as “bicycle seat Irish.”
To say that it would take a special woman to love such a man is a grave understatement. The difficulty in describing Ruth Adams is that you constantly run the risk of understatement.
How to convey the sweet majesty of the woman? She was in constant motion, and it seemed that she relied on a renewable stream of love—from the kitchen bands at old folks’ homes, to work at the Apostolate of the Handicapped, to the dozens of children and grandchildren she took on as her own. For those of us who were lucky enough to know her (and, as often as not, to be loved by her), the thought of life without Ruth is almost as obscene as the thought of Ruth without life.
‘A four-letter word’
Her cookies were the stuff of legend; her “dippy do” fought over so much at Heaney family gatherings that she began bringing double, and then triple, batches. Ruth was Jack’s third wife—he’d been widowed twice—but within a few short months, she was “Mom” to Jack’s children. To Jack’s grandchildren (all 27 of us), she was ever “Grandma Ruth.”
If she ever felt an outsider (and who could blame anyone for feeling that way amongst the Heaneys?), she never let on. She introduced each of her extended family as “my son,” “my daughter,” &c.
“Step,” Grandma liked to say, “is a four-letter word.”
Jack Heaney, sadly, died suddenly in 1988, and Ruth was widowed for the second time (the love of her life, Ed Mullin, died in 1972, leaving her to raise two kids on her own). She later married Wally Adams, a fellow retiree, and Ruth folded even more children into the family.
‘All that matters’
The children of all her marriages were by her continually until she died, on March 20, under the tender care of the fine folks at Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Willowbrook, Ill. (to whom, many thanks).
There were upper limits to her decency. Let the coins clink into the old margarine tub, let the Hank Williams Sr. play on the CD, let the cards be dealt, and may God have mercy on your soul. Ruth had no gift for bluff (“Who dealt this doodly-squat?”; “I’ve got a dog from every county”) but she had no compunction about crushing the adoring grandchildren who dared to take seats at the card table.
By happy chance, I talked with Ruth on Friday, just two days before she died. She was feeling nostalgic, but—as ever—counseled love. “Make sure you tell the kids you’re proud of them, Billy, and that you love them” she said. “‘Cause that’s all that matters. This life—it goes by so quickly.”
Death be not proud.
—First published as “A Ruthless World,” ProviderNation, March 23, 2016.