written by: Maggie Claypool
She watched the group of boys, laughing and gesturing, walk by. She sat behind her glass, watching, always watching — seemingly seeing nothing, but watching just the same.
The boys caught sight of her and fell silent. “Look,” one boy whispered loudly, “there’s Crazy Ruthie.” They looked warily back at her. “She’s so spooky,” whispered another. “What’ya whisperin’ about?” asked a third boy. “She don’t hear ya, she don’t hear nothin’. Come on, let’s go.”
He was right. She didn’t hear them or anything else. She didn’t really see anything either. Oh, her eyes worked, but her mind didn’t register the pictures they showed. Her picture window was like a silent movie screen. Through it she saw another scene, a scene she viewed over and over again.
She had been young once, and quite beautiful. She kept her thick, black hair wound loosely at the back of her neck. Her eyes were grey — not the dull shade of grey that lacks hue, but a lively grey marbled with violet. When she was excited, or mischievous, the violet sparkles grew brighter as if lit by the color in her cheeks.
During post-Depression days when many families were poor, her family was among the poorest. Her parents were hardworking, well-respected people. However, with eight children, they barely managed to make ends meet. They lived crowded together in a tiny six room house devoid of the luxury of indoor plumbing.
Ruth was her father’s favorite child, and that rank afforded her many favors. She was allowed more freedom, received more attention and had her way through most of her childhood. Her father didn’t mean to be unfair to the other children; he just couldn’t help himself. He could deny her nothing, and as she grew older, her manipulative power over him grew stronger.
In this region, just south of the Mason-Dixon line, a high school education was not something everyone could afford. The school system didn’t provide books or supplies. Families such as Ruth’s couldn’t afford to send all their children to high school; some couldn’t afford to send any of their children to school.
So, when Ruth and her younger sister finished eighth grade at the same time, her family could only afford to send one of them to high school. Of course, her father chose Ruth, ending forever her sister’s dream of an education.
High school, for Ruth, was an escape from chores and a convenient way to meet boys with money. By this time, she had discovered that her father was not the only man she could charm. She always had a string of boys following her. Even the class brain imagined himself in love with her, and gladly completed her schoolwork assignments as though she were granting him a favor.
Her girlfriends sighed and cried over this boy and that. Ruth laughed at them. She would never behave that way about a boy; that was how she expected them to behave over her. She used them for what they could give her and then carelessly tossed them aside like empty boxes.
Until she met him.
He was her older brother’s friend. Like every other man for whom she turned on the charm, he smiled at her and flirted with her. But, he treated all her sisters, and even her mother the same way. No matter what she did, he didn’t give her the individual attention she was used to getting from men.
Frustrated and yet intrigued by his behavior, Ruth came to see him as a conquest. She’d never chased a boy — she’d never had to. But, she decided, she would pursue him, and of course, (could there be any doubt?) capture him. Then, she would drop him cold. Unfortunately for her plans, somewhere between pursuit and capture she fell in love.
They became what her friends called “a couple”. Ruth behaved more lovesick than the girls she had previously found foolish. In her daydreams, she made plans for their wedding, their two children, and their lovely modern home.
He, however, was not entertaining any thoughts of commitment. He liked her, and enjoyed her company, but he wasn’t looking for anything more than a good time. Soon he began to pressure her for more of a good time.
Ruth said she wanted to wait for marriage. He laid down the usual ultimatum. Not wanting to lose him, she proposed a compromise: if he would give her a promise of marriage . . .
Never intending to follow through, he muttered something that was enough to persuade her; their relationship became more intimate. Naïve and careless, neither of them considered the responsibility, and an innocent child was conceived in a relationship formed of deception.
Shocked at first, she soon became ecstatically triumphant. She was certain she’d now get the marriage she wanted. But, marriage still wasn’t in his plans. He kissed her, said goodbye and she never saw nor heard from him again.
The unborn baby, once a cause of joy, was now a hateful thing. It was a part of him and a symbol of the way he had used her. Having no other choice, Ruth gave birth to the baby. She would have given the child away, except her father convinced her to let him raise it. She didn’t even bother to name the baby; her father called him Jerry.
She found a job as a store clerk and moved to another town, leaving Jerry with her parents. At first, she visited occasionally — simply for appearance’s sake. Then she finally realized she wasn’t fooling anyone, and her visits dwindled to holidays and family celebrations.
As Jerry grew, he questioned why he didn’t live with a mommy and daddy like his many cousins. His grandfather put off his questions for a long time, but finally the summer Jerry turned five, he told Jerry that Ruth was his mother. Grandpa explained that because Ruth wasn’t married, she couldn’t raise a child.
In the meantime, Ruth married a man she met in a roadhouse. Soon she bore another child, a little girl. One warm, summer day, she brought the baby to visit, and everyone gathered beneath the shade of the tulip tree. In the excitement of the new baby, Jerry was forgotten.
He had just learned to ride a bicycle. While everyone was still cooing over the baby, he came wobbling by on the rickety, secondhand two-wheeler crying, “Watch me, Mama, watch me!”
Everyone became quiet. At first Jerry thought it was because they were impressed by his bike-riding ability. Then he recognized the silence as the awkward type that fell whenever he said something about his mother.
He rode unevenly around the group and stopped the bike beside Ruth. “See how I learned to ride my bike, Mama?” he hesitantly asked.
“Who told you I was your Mama?” she demanded. His almost imperceptible, side glance at his grandfather told her what she wanted to know. “Don’t ever call me ‘Mama’ again. Call me Ruth.”
She was so irrationally angry that she didn’t notice how she was crushing a little boy’s heart. His chin shook delicately, and his dark eyes welled with tears. “I’m sorry, Ma…I mean Ruth.” Then he ran behind the house.
She turned to her father. The look on his face stopped her cold. For the first time in her life, he was angry with her. Truly angry with her. “Ruth,” he said, “you’re gonna apologize to that boy. You’ll tell him that you are his mama, and he’ll call you Mama. Now you get yourself back there and find him.”
“Daddy, I’m not a child no more. I’m a grown woman and you can’t order me around like that.”
Silence again fell. The humid air seemed to crackle with invisible lightning between them as the two stared defiantly into each other’s eyes.
“Ruth,” the old man began, “I never gave you the spankin’s you deserved while growin’ up. So, it’s partly my fault the way you turned out. But, little girl, it ain’t too late for me to give you a spankin’, and unless you get out there directly and find that boy, you’re gonna find out what you missed.” His voice became a barely controlled growl as he finished.
Twice she drew air to tell him no. Twice she exhaled without saying anything. She instinctively knew he meant every word. “Okay,” she relented. ”I’ll talk to him, but I won’t take him to live with me,” she declared childishly, thinking she had gotten the last word.
His fury spent, the old man replied quietly, “That’s for sure. I ain’t never lettin’ you take that boy — he deserves better.” He turned, and with shoulders slumped and head down, walked back to the house.
Ruth found Jerry in the blackberry patch. She stiffly told him he could call her Mama, but that he should not expect anything more from her. All Jerry heard was that he had a mama. He clutched at the crumb of hope he thought she offered. After all, she was married now — she would take him to live with her soon. He never lost that hope.
Jerry grew to be a young man, but the relationship between mother and son never grew. Though he tried repeatedly to win her love, she never responded. He applied himself to his studies. He developed his natural artistic ability. He lettered in athletics. His whole life was a repetition of “watch me, Mama, watch me!” She never took note of any of it.
He became a championship swimmer and won many awards. During his senior year, Jerry was offered many swimming and academic scholarships and accepted one to the state university located in the town where his mother lived. He asked his grandfather if he could borrow the truck to visit his mother and tell her about his scholarship. This time, he was sure she would be so proud of him.
The old man finally voiced the concern that had plagued him for years. “Son,” he said, “you can’t live your life for your mother. You gotta live it for yourself.” He held up his hand as the boy started to protest. “Now, I don’t mean to be harsh, boy, but she ain’t never gonna love you like a mother. Don’t put yourself through this no more.”
Jerry shook off his grandfather’s words. He knew that this time things would be different. His grandfather, a lump in his throat for the disappointment the boy was about to embrace, watched Jerry drive down the long, dirt drive.
He parked his grandfather’s old, beat-up truck carefully against the curb in front of his mother’s large home. Then he fairly flew to the front door. After an awkward moment of surprise, Ruth invited him in.
He told her of his swimming accomplishments, of how he was salutatorian of his graduating class and of his scholarship to the university. She smiled politely and murmured appropriate congratulations until he asked her to attend his graduation ceremony.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” she said, the apology not in her voice or in her eyes. “I have a life unrelated to that town, or to . . . well, unrelated to you. I left all that behind me years ago. I told you when you were little not to expect nothin’ from me.”
Finally, disillusionment swept over him. It smothered and choked him. “Grandpa was right. You’ll never love me. I’ve lived all my life for nothin’,” he said, a strange dullness creeping into his eyes, his voice. Quietly, he repeated, “For nothin’.”
He stood to leave. She spoke his name, but he seemed not to hear her. He walked, as though mesmerized, to the door and out it. Ruth went to the window and watched him walk away. A brief, and small pang of guilt stabbed at her — he really was a fine young man, maybe she’d done the wrong thing. Still, she just watched him walk away.
He paused at the curb and looked back at her. Inexplicably, in her head “watch me, Mama, watch me” rang out. Then, as she watched, without looking away from her he stepped off the curb into the path of a delivery truck.
Everyone said the grief of such a tragic accident took her mind. Only her father suspected the truth: that it was guilt that turned her mind inward — guilt for a death that was much less an accident than his birth had been.
In front of her window, life passes by unnoticed. All things change but one: her own private, silent hell.