“I had a dress just like that”

Ruth was standing in front of a large display case with several short, beaded dresses in different colors arrayed on mannequins. In the background, Coon-Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra was playing ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”.  Her face was shining, sixty years had melted away from her slender, octogenarian frame.  Anyone could see that she had always and did still possess the  soul of a flapper.

“I had a dress just like that” she said, pointing at one of the mannequins.  “Dress” was a generous term for the garment in the display at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s exhibition . Long strings of beads were draped over the length of the mannequin’s body, clinging to  every curve. How this effect was achieved was a mystery since there was nothing between the beads and the body underneath. I imagined for a moment Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston , bending her legs back at the knees and swinging her arms forward and back. At each jaunty movement, the strings of beads would swing revealing a thrilling glimpse of a curve, a shape, a shadow.

Perhaps more surprising than the thought of Ruth in such a revealing dress was that there was not the slightest note of embarrassment or regret in identifying something so emblematic of her adventurous youth. In fact, there was more a tone of pride at her independence and strength.  Born in 1901, Ruth remained unattached throughout most of the jazz age, enjoying the freedom that unmarried life allowed her. She was the youngest of her siblings, and her father, a politician and businessman, was perhaps too busy to monitor all of her activities. When she got in trouble, which, by her own admission, happened with some frequency, her father Henry would say with a sigh, “Well Ruthy, now you’ve done that!”

When her father moved to Washington DC for a position in the new president’s cabinet, he took Ruth with him. With new responsibilities and a visibility that brought an end to her flapper life, Ruth was now ready for marriage and building a family. It didn’t take long before she met her Scandinavian  husband, Nils. His propriety might have chased away her flapper soul, but it was still there, more visible to her grandchildren than her children. Her face drawn in a wry smile, often with one eyebrow cocked, she would tell stories from her childhood and recite playful verses, sometimes with the Scottish brogue of her great grandparents.

It was one of Ruth’s grandchildren who reported this episode from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum and his unexpected encounter with her flapper soul.  Ruth’s years of dance and jazz and mischief long submerged, came rushing up to the surface, and he was there to see and hear it all.

Our youth is never as far away as we imagine. Sometimes it dwells just beneath the surface, simply waiting for an invitation. Sometimes circumstances,  sensory cues,  or nothing at all brings the energy of youth flooding back. If we are lucky, we find the words and images to capture an experience or emotion we thought was lost. If we are even luckier, we find an inquisitive reporter and able writer who can ask the questions that will bring us further and deeper into our past, gently gather our memories and bring them into the light with words that make the past, present again.

“…you’re going to your universal foreverness.”

Doris was seated across from me at the table in her small apartment. Her eyes sparkled, her words were soft and slow, chosen carefully and full of conviction. This was our first conversation together about her life, and yet somehow we had skipped childhood, adolescence, professional life, married life, and motherhood. We would return to all of these topics later, but now we were talking about the end of life. “You can’t be selfish at this point,” she said, “you’re going to your universal foreverness.” Her voice was inflected with a grin that could be heard more than seen. “Universal foreverness,” was an awkward phrase, but expressed exactly what Doris intended.

It all began as she described her recent recovery from a severe illness. “When I was that sick and was told that this may be the whole game, they asked me if I wanted a chaplain, I said, ‘yes—and Jewish,’” she continued, “but I was so willful, I said, ‘It should only be the right thing, no Jesus stuff, no anything, anything like that. It has to be fundamentally correct.’”

Doris is Jewish, though perhaps somewhat unconventionally so. The chaplain’s Jewish prayer had “pleased her,” she said, but it seemed clear that being “pleased” wasn’t enough. So I pressed her on this point, wondering what she was thinking when death seemed so close, “Well, I had this feeling,” she said, “that feeling doesn’t come often, but it came suddenly, that…that was it.” She paused and smiled. We were quiet for a while. “It sounds as if you have a feeling of resolution” I said. Doris, straightened up and smiled, “Well this isn’t the time to lean on angels, or anything like that. You have to lean on things that are real.” She paused, “If we pray as if we are enlisting the help of the forces that hold the earth together,  it seems to me the most wonderful thing… that we can have help from the powers of…” she searched for a moment, “gravity, or lightning or anything we can see. And we can pray, ‘may the powers’—and may they, because they might!—‘may they give me the strength to overcome this illness.’”

I had been waiting with one question; it’s the question that I usually wait to ask until the last interview. But here we were already talking about the end of life. And so I asked, “Is there anything, a saying or story that you want to make sure that your children know—something that they will remember you by, that will help them in their lives?” “Well,” she said, “lean on the actual powers…gravity, light and—who knows what else—that they will come to my aid…” then interrupting herself she said, “of course gravity isn’t going to walk around…But to be assured,”she resumed, “that the powers that are there…that they will continue to be there.” She was silent again, we had been talking for an hour and I could tell she was tired. “And I think that, that is what I want my children to remember about me.”

“You can’t be selfish at this point…” What Doris had said earlier was making more sense to me. Approaching the end of her life her hope was that the powers over everything that she could see ”would continue to be there,” not for her, but for her children.

It can be the most poignant part of the life story we tell this consideration of what remains of us when we die.  For Doris, her skepticism of the supernatural, and reliance on powers that can be seen was not just the foundation of her approach to life, but the foundation also of her approach to death and to the legacy she would leave her children.

In life journaling, this question of enduring values, principles of life, and ultimately of legacy is one we revisit over and over, it grows out of the life we live and is the way we give life to others.