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At Ruth's house, dinner was at 5

Dec 16, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

In all the time I knew my mother-in-law, I heard her complain exactly once.

There is an enigmatic photograph of young, smiling couple in a very small frame on my wife's bed stand. The black-and-white photo probably was captured with a Brownie camera and has taken on the slightly magenta tone of age.

The smiling young man has his arms wrapped around a happy young woman wearing a late 1940s hair style. I never knew this couple as pictured, but a third of a century in the future I would know them well as my wife's parents, Sigmund and Ruth Hahn.

I look at the photo almost every day, and it brings to mind the transient journey that is life. It also takes me back to a simpler time and place for the young couple.

In the film "Field of Dreams" there is a similar sentiment when Ray Kinsella meets the ghost of his father for the first time on the baseball field he built in an Iowa cornfield.

"My God, I only saw him later, when he was worn down by life. Look at him. He has his whole life in front of him, and I'm not even a glint in his eye," Ray says to his wife.

Ruth passed away last week at the venerable age of 90 after a long, bitter battle with Alzheimer's disease. The final five years were far from golden, as the ravages of this cruel disease slowly took the present from her and left her with only fleeting images of her past.

Born in 1923 to a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran minister, life wasn't easy for Ruth Sprengeler and her family. Living on a minister's limited income in the unbelievably harsh conditions of eastern South Dakota and Minnesota during the Great Depression were challenge enough, but Ruth lost her mother at a young age and was raised in by a stepmother.

Challenges abounded in her life but in the slightly more than three decades I knew her I only heard her complain once. As we visited her youngest daughter, Barb, in Denver back in 2002, I heard Ruth say, "You poor girl, it just isn't fair."

Barb, my wife Sue's youngest sister, was in a losing battle of her own at 39, passing away from cancer later that year.

Ruth was first and foremost a wife to her husband, Pete, (the nickname my father-in-law was known by to family and friends). Perhaps this level of devotion to a spouse was once the norm, but aside from black-and-white television shows from the 1950s, you don't see the dedication to a husband anymore that Ruth displayed routinely.

She followed Pete to Cheyenne, to Ogden, Utah, to Oklahoma City, to Denver and, finally, to Lusk in 1962.

They were only going to stay in Lusk for two years, but that stretched to nearly half a century. They raised their family of five, four daughters and a son, in a house they built just a block north of the high school.

Ruth probably had the least interest in athletics of any person I ever met. Her quiet, selfless demeanor often had me wondering if she ever expressed a contrary opinion. If she did, it was in private, because her actions were always aimed at helping someone else.

As the grandmother of 11, she was proud of her second-generation family. Four of her grandsons went on to collegiate athletic careers, and Grandma often was challenged to games of catch, tumbling, races and tossing the Frisbee in the big Hahn backyard on Oil Street. Even when the children were just 6 or 7, Grandma had trouble throwing and catching with them. But it didn't matter. She loved a bit of rough house play with the kids.

Ruth began her career as a Lutheran parochial school teacher, but, after marrying Pete and starting their family, she didn't return to the classroom. She did take her prodigious musical talents to the church organ, and for 46 years she accompanied church services as an organist.

Ruth and Pete met at a Bunco party in the basement of a Lutheran church sometime in 1947. Their fathers had been classmates at the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, and family speculation had them setting the young couple up.

While the differences between Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are imperceptible to outsiders, the differences often were the topic of many discussions at the Hahn house.

I first met Ruth when she was one of the school cooks at Lusk High School, where I began my teaching career in 1980. Little did I know that the nice, smiling lady filling my tray would be the mom of the love of my life.

Ruth's meals at home were legendary. She took pride in cooking and caring for her family, and mealtime came with military precision.

Breakfast could vary slightly with the plans for the day, but lunch was at high noon, and dinner came at five, with few exceptions.

She beamed when her dining room was nearly standing room only, with all the leaves in the table, and children and grandchildren stacked tightly around it.

In retrospect it didn't surprise me that the last words I heard Ruth say were "Thank you," as a nurse swabbed her lips in the hospital last week in Denver.

The smiling young couple is together again. The ravages of a mind-stealing disease are gone. But that photograph remains as daily reminder of the fickleness of time.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator.

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