Ruth the Moabite
Ruth was in therapy because she felt lost even though she knew where she was going and how. She had always wanted to be a doctor and was close to completing her degree, yet with every metaphorical glance over her shoulder at the past, she felt increasingly uneasy. Ruth realized she was at a crossroads – she had to decide if to understand what had molded her as a person or if to accept it without question and move forward. Ruth wanted to understand it but could not.
On the bus ride home from her first session, she thought about the way the therapist had asked many questions about Ruth’s parents, as if her point-of-origin could explain her present, nullifying any twists and turns her life took following her exit from the birth canal. Ruth had explained that her father was a forensic pathologist and for that reason she saw him as a cold and unfeeling man. When she thought of him, Ruth evoked images of cold and sterile rooms with metal tables and her father, drill in hand, working on the dead to uncover narratives that he had no interest in as living tales. To Ruth, her father lived in the timespan after life had left its final mark on the human body, the space following the period at the end of an old story.
Then there was her mother, Mère, who did not work, who Ruth described as wearing yoga pants and laying on exercise mats while watching television. The psychologist asked how well Ruth spoke French and Ruth had trouble understanding the reason for the question until she remembered what her life must have looked like to the interpretive eye of an outsider. Yet her family was not French nor had they ever lived in France. The name Mère stemmed from Ruth’s mother never wanting to have a child. The way that her mother had explained it to her - she had never seen herself as someone called “Mommy” - masked a truth that Ruth could sense. Ruth explained to the therapist that she was the unwanted daughter of a woman who had somehow allowed for her conception. The therapist had asked what, other than the choice of name, would make Ruth think that was the case.
Ruth had selected a childhood story from when she was eight years old. When her father returned home one evening, tired and with the accounts of the dead imprinted upon his retina, she presented him with the toys she damaged that day. She knew how to use his clinical skills wisely. He neatly stitched her stuffed animal after a quick yet thorough examination and deemed her doll, chewed by Stanley, the family beagle, to be unsalvageable. At that age, Ruth had been less comfortable with the finality at the end of life that her father supposedly craved and had run to her mother in tears.
“Mère, Daddy says that Dolly isn’t gonna get better,” she wailed.
“Well, sweetie, you have other toys,” her mother answered. She was lying on the couch and flipping through a magazine on knitting.
“But I want my doll!” Ruth cried.
“Why don’t you go play with Stanley?” Mère probably noticed that the girl who she had birthed eight years earlier cried deeply in response. She extended her arm towards her daughter and awkwardly tapped her on the head three times with her index finger. “There, there. You know, sometimes you are going to be disappointed in life.” Then she returned to the magazine, gazing at the pages for a few minutes until Ruth, feeling defeated, gave up and walked away.
The therapist had said their time was up.
Ruth got off the bus at her stop and walked home. When she reached her studio apartment, she took her cell phone out of her back pocket and called her parents. Mère answered.
“Mère, what was Dad like when you met him?” Ruth asked.
Because of her own ongoing therapy, Mère had become used to conversations that began with intense and direct questions. Ruth had begun to think of therapy as an important piece of her family heritage. She was following in Mère’s footsteps, their well-placed outline guiding her to analyze her mother who was, in turn, analyzing her own in a relay race of psychoanalysis.
“Let me think.” Mère said, laughing. “I’d describe him as emotionally young and lost without me.”
Ruth’s father picked up the line. “Honey, stop, because I was suave and charming, at least compared to the bodies in the fridge.”
Ruth knew much more about her parent’s meeting than she let on. It was at the hospital. Her mother then worked as an imaging technician and her father was a medical student. Ruth liked to imagine her mother as a naïve beauty courted by her father with flowers from the gift shop. In reality, Ruth knew their partnership to be more practical. Her mother, not recognizing the benefits of being alone over being with the wrong person, spent seven years in a relationship with another man. He had broken up with her abruptly and within a year married a much younger woman. This had caused Mère to feel old and rejected. She had not exactly chosen Ruth’s father as a mate but accepted him as her spouse as one would inevitable changes in the neighborhood. Her father felt emboldened by the presence of his trophy for a period of time after which the sheen of his prize was reduced to a small badge of honor. She rewarded his care with her loyalty and eventually with a child. They immediately hired a nanny as a crutch and then a necessary prosthesis for their lives.
“Ruth, honey, go outside tonight and look at the beautiful sky,” Mère said. “Venus and Jupiter are one third of a degree apart.”
“I was outside earlier and all I saw were homeless people sitting close together. Maybe the one on the left was named Venus.”
“Very funny, Ruthie.”
“Ruth, did you get some dinner?” her father asked. “I want you to take yourself out for a good meal. It’s on me.”
“I didn’t get any dinner. Where should I go for dinner?”
“Why don’t you take yourself to that French place we went to for your birthday?”
“Ok, I think I will. Thanks!”
At the restaurant, Ruth sat down at a table with an erect posture and opened her novel. She felt extremely adult taking herself out like this and ignored that it was her father’s treat. A woman in her early- to mid-fifties walked by and stopped when she was near Ruth’s table.
“Ruthie?” Her voice was familiar to Ruth’s ears; the sound waves fit into pre-established channels in her mind.
Ruth looked up and recognized Nancy, her former nanny from birth through age ten. When Ruth became older and more independent, Nancy simply was not needed for the full-time hours that she desired. In the end it was a job, although one that can never be only that.
They embraced and Ruth invited Nancy to join her.
“I’m on my way out but I can sit with you for a bit,” Nancy said, her cornflower-blue eyes still sharp and her blond hair cut into a trendy bob.
“What are you doing here on your own?”
“My dad insisted.”
“Ah, enough said.”
They laughed and then looked quietly at each other in the way people look at people who they have not seen for many years.
“So, are you healing kids yet?” Nancy asked.
“I’m waiting to hear where I matched for residency.”
“That’s wonderful. And how are your parents?” Nancy asked.
“Fine. Mère cut her therapy back to once a week and Dad is guest lecturing on death investigation at the community college.”
“Well, that is just fantastic.” Nancy leaned back and crossed her arms. “Oh gosh, you look like a full-grown woman, Ruthie. Wow. I remember taking you home from the hospital as a newborn. You looked like ET. Your face was all smooshed.”
“Wait, you took me home from the hospital? I thought parents were supposed to do that.”
The blood vessels in Nancy’s cheeks widened, causing her face to flush slightly.
“They did too. I drove you in my car and they drove ahead in theirs.”
Ruth, sensing an opportunity for understanding, probed further.
“Please tell me more about that day.”
“I think your parents just wanted to make sure you were in experienced hands. All new parents are scared. You know, like, ‘You’re sending me home with this baby alone?’”
Ruth nodded although this did not make her feel better.
“The thing I remember about those early years was that your dad was constantly afraid you would get hurt.”
“Really? I always thought of Mère as the scared one.”
“No, no, I remember when you fell once, I think you were about five, and you tripped off the front steps, remember? You tripped and split your lip and he just went into disaster-response mode.”
“No, not exactly panicked, he switched into this robotic style and picked you up in total silence. You,” Nancy pointed her right index finger at Ruth, “were screaming and had blood coming out of your lip and you shot me this look that I swear said, ‘This is your fault.’ Anyway, your dad took you inside, lay you across the kitchen counter, got his supplies from his case, and stitched your lip up in total silence.”
Ruth looked down at the table, vaguely remembering this experience. In the curved reflection of her spoon she saw a younger version of herself laying on the kitchen counter and remembered how cold the granite had been under her spine and the way her father’s eyes had looked down at her injury while the rest of her had ceased to exist. She had been stitched up like one of her dolls.
“And I thought my mom was the problem,” she told Nancy.
Nancy pouted slightly, an expression Ruth recognized from reading bedtime stories years ago and reaching the moral conclusion.
“Oh, honey. Neither was a problem,” Nancy said. “All parents want what is best for their children. They all have that motivation.”
Ruth noticed that Nancy did not say if Ruth’s parents actually knew what was best for her or had the skills to bring it about.
Nancy continued, leaning back in her chair and pointing at Ruth again. “You were always a very sensitive kid. I knew it when you were playing a game of chase with your dad. You were running after him and he was pretending to be scared. Then you started crying and holding your arms out to hug him instead of to catch him. To calm you down, he had to laugh to show you that he was only pretending to be afraid. Your mom decided to get you a dog after that even though I was against it because they are so much work. She said something becoming resilient by caring for a pet.”
Ruth raised her eyebrows in surprise. She didn’t think that Stanley made her more resilient, unless taking dogs that were afraid of the vacuum cleaner for a walk during housecleaning made their owners tougher.
Nancy smiled. “You know what else I remember? Your family was obsessed with hand sanitizer.”
Ruth burst out laughing. Her parents did have a familiar routine of wiping their hands with antiseptic lotion before every meal. And after shaking hands, shopping, or for no apparent reason at all. Ruth suddenly remembered how, as a child, she had gone on a picnic with family friends. Ruth had extended her hands, palms up, expecting an adult to give her a dollop of sanitizer and then sat there feeling foolish as everyone simply started eating.
Ruth took a small bottle out of her purse. “Look, I have some with me.”
Nancy held out her hands. “Can I have some?” Ruth squeezed a few drops onto Nancy’s palms, amused at their role reversal. Still, she wanted to know more about her beginnings and was disappointed that the conversation had shifted elsewhere.
“Nancy, what else can you tell me about my birth? Mère always said she couldn’t remember because of the meds they gave her,” Ruth asked. Nancy’s pause before answering was prolonged enough to make Ruth feel nervous.
“What details can anyone provide about it? You came into this world, Ruth. That’s it.” Nancy’s simple answer made Ruth remember the time when she was ten and asked to go shopping for a training bra. Nancy had asked, “What exactly are you training for?” and that was the end of that conversation.
“I’ve just always had a feeling I was missing something that I really needed to know.”
During therapy that day, Ruth told the psychologist that learning about the human brain in med school made her think of memories as a rushing river. Some memories stuck to the bordering land while others were carried away and diluted when they entered the ocean. Whenever Ruth felt lost, she liked to walk by a stream and compare its motion and pace to the stillness of the surrounding earth. It made her think about change over time, about what resulted from the friction between the moving and the still. During these walks, she would search for clues to fight her sense that the information she needed had been washed away. Ruth would notice the spray in the air, the tension between the dynamic and the immobile forcing beads of water to become airborne. Sometimes when she’d touch these drops with her hands and look for her reflection in the watery residue in her palms, she’d glimpse a childhood memory. Once, Ruth saw the day that she’d noticed her friend’s parents had albums filled with photos of the day their children were born. It was the moment she’d realized that her own parents had none of this. It had been the beginning of a hunch that turned into fear and then anger, quickening, turning from an exploratory meander to a vivid gush with no boundary.
“How old are you now - twenty-six?” Nancy asked.
“Ruthie. Sometimes new mothers have difficulty processing…or difficulty accepting…the change…the idea of having a child, especially when their mental health has been…a challenge, or challenged, in the past. The threshold they must cross is wider and they fall into the gap.”
Ruth stared at her plate. There, she saw a miniature version of her mother about to plummet into a divide, one hand gripping the plate’s surface as her grasp slowly slipped.
“What happened to Mère?” she asked Nancy.
“After you were born, I entered the recovery room to meet you and your mom asked me, ‘Do you know whose baby that is?’ She had very wide eyes, I remember, and she pointed at your bassinet without really looking at it. Your father was sitting at her side, holding her other hand, and looked at me and shook his head.”
Ruth knew the head shake that Nancy was describing, it is the one he had used to inform her that Dolly was done for.
“She became psychotic?”
“You were in good hands, Ruthie. You were in mine. And your mom healed with time.”
“You think she healed?”
“I think she did.”
“But she still doesn’t love me.” The feeling that had haunted Ruth’s entire life suddenly came into words, sliding out of her mouth, creating a vacuum of space inside her body where they had been that was immediately filled with bad memories. Ruth remembered the afternoon when she was five years old and walking through a mall with Mère and Nancy when Mère wandered off without telling them. Ruth had been chattering nonstop, she was full of questions and observations that she was eager to express, and when she turned and saw that her mother was no longer there her words had stopped working. She was unable to explain what was the first inclination of many she would have in her life that something very important was absent, besides her mother at that exact moment. That feeling of loss had been behind every conversation she had had with her mother since.
“Ruthie, she loves you,” Nancy said. “She needed help. Many people do.”
Ruth’s words fled from her body. “I have always felt so alone. My father follows death like a craving and my mother runs from new life. No wonder they picked each other.”
Nancy brushed Ruth’s cell phone aside to hold her hand across the table. “Breathe,” she said. “Your parents found each other through love and that is how you were born.”
“This isn’t Sesame Street. They failed to stop me from happening. It’s like two people made from stone mated.”
“Ruth, do you know how I met your father?” Nancy asked.
“It was at the hospital.”
“Weren’t you in some nanny service?”
“I was, but I still met your dad for the first time at the hospital. Your dad worked on my late husband.”
“What? I didn’t even know you were ever married.”
“He had a cardiac event. It was unexpected, sudden.”
“Nancy, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Your father was wonderful.”
“My father was wonderful?” Ruth again pictured her father’s harsh fixation on her busted lip as she lay on the counter.
“Ruthie, your father is more human than you give him credit for. He was very supportive.”
“Human, yes, but supportive? How was that?”
“I had some questions about the autopsy results that he answered directly and sincerely. He took the time to sit with me and talk it over and I had a sudden glimpse of … the finality of my husband’s death. For years that glimpse, that feeling of loss, came and left, but what struck me then while talking to your father was the understanding that I’d never be able to hold my husband’s hand again. I would never feel his fingers woven between mine, or feel it squeeze mine back, again.”
“Oh, Nancy,” Ruth sat back, unsure of what to say.
“Anyway, I dumped my feelings onto your poor father, rambling about my new reality. I actually felt foolish, sharing raw emotional anguish with a person who I’d never met before. The social worker came then, and there was all this paperwork and I really forgot the incident with your father until…well.”
“Your father reappeared with this white, cardboard box in his hand, gave it to me, and walked away. The box was heavy. I waited until I got home to open it. Inside I found an imprint of a hand in clay. I was stunned. I sat on my couch with the molding in my lap for a few minutes, then reached out and lightly touched the finger prints with mine.”
Nancy’s eyes became damp. She looked down at the table for a few seconds before continuing.
“The fingers were long and elegant and so familiar to me. I…I let my palm fall into the imprint and felt it hug my hand. And then I fully understood what your father had done.”
Ruth was wide-eyed and amazed.
“It was so thoughtful of your father to make the molding. From then on I could hold my husband’s hand as often as I wanted. Ruthie, I rest my palm in his clay hand every morning and it still gives me strength all these years later.”
The table tilted a little bit, barely noticeable, with only a minor creak, as Ruth’s view of her father began to shift away from a man whose heart prevented him from interacting with the living to one who could help them navigate death. He served and chaperoned them during their initial entry into the world of mourning, like a cousin to Anubis who brought souls down the Hades.
They sat in silence for a moment before Nancy continued. “Did you know that your mother came back to the hospital as a volunteer after you turned one?”
“It was brief. She mostly helped with transport, moving patients or guiding family members down hallways to their next station.”
“Oh, like I did in high school.” Ruth smiled a bit, remembering how as a teenager she had wheeled one patient to imaging, passing by a sign that said, ‘Musical Therapy.’ “Glad you’re not taking me in there,” the man had said, “because then I’d know I was really screwed.” Ruth had laughed so hard the nurses had hushed her. She had enjoyed the job immensely for moments like that one. It had helped spur her interest in medicine.
“So what happened? Why did she stop volunteering?” Ruth asked.
“I think,” Nancy said, “it just got to her. She felt like she was taking on everyone’s pain. The night before going in she’d get really anxious and when your dad figured out the pattern he put an end to the volunteering.”
Ruth tried to imagine her mother becoming anxious but could not.
“I think that your dad understood your mom’s discomfort,” Nancy said. “Actually, your mom used to tease him because she witnessed him almost unable to do a blood draw on a patient in med school. The story was that when the patient winced at being stuck, so did your dad. In fact, the patient had to assure your dad that he was alright before they could continue.”
Her view of her father challenged again, Ruth leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms defensively, this time tilting the floor back, just a little, so that the water in the glasses on the table began to slant towards her, forming an angle versus the horizon. In the space created by this angle of change, she began to guess that her dad was actually so empathetic he was unable to differentiate himself from other people. Turning to forensic pathology would be his mechanism of self-preservation and not the choice of someone who was unfeeling, as she had always thought. Ruth wondered what it was like to want to practice medicine without overexposure to human suffering. The question forced her brows to furrow, the inward bend of the cleft containing her deliberation on whether compassion was like gold, a finite resource depleted by over aggressive mining that hopefully could be cultivated to avoid extinction.
Ruth’s phone vibrated, drawing both of their attention. The text message said, “Hope you are enjoying dinner. Don’t forget dessert!” and was from ‘Dr. Dad.’ Nancy, reading the text upside down from her seat, said, “You realize how much you helped him. Not all children can pull their parents out of themselves. It isn’t fair to ask, really, but you entered the family and helped it repair.”
After the waiter brought the check, Nancy said she had to get going. She embraced Ruth tightly and then wrote down her email address. “Love you,” she said, before walking out.
Ruth, sitting still at the table, gazed at her hands and considered the post-mortem on this evening. Her encounter with Nancy had revealed so much to ponder. The floor, table, and water glasses began to rebalance as Ruth accepted the new paradigm. Ruth now regarded her father as inhabiting the other end of the emotional spectrum on which she had always placed him. Her father preferred death because it was final, because the period at the end of a life’s chronicle brought to a close the anxiety of watching pain. His empathy and his compassion for life rendered him unable to treat the living, to bear witness to their suffering and to navigate the uncertainty of illness with them while providing reassurance. Again, Ruth felt herself slip onto the kitchen counter, her lip being stitched by her father who could not bear to experience her pain, but she could not see her mother standing next to him as a mother would, not even from afar as one would observe a museum painting. This absence that usually hummed quietly in the back of Ruth’s consciousness grew louder, the void now brightly highlighted in her mind.
Once home, Ruth dialed her parents. Mère answered, sounding sleepy. “Hello? Ruth? Is something wrong?”
Ruth sat on the couch. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“For once can’t you talk to me when it isn’t a good time?”
There was a pause and then Ruth heard Mère get up and walk into another room before answering. She sounded nervous and unsure.
“I’ve spoken with you at plenty of inconvenient times.”
“Mère, why did you have me?”
“Why did you decide to have me if you knew you did not want to be a mother and would be unable to care for me?”
“You know what I mean.”
Silence. Ruth was taking a stand at the crossroads, staring down the path towards understanding, anticipating pain but having to know what came before her.
“Ruth. I don’t know what to say,” Mère said.
“Why not?” Ruth demanded.
“I don’t know, ok? I don’t know. It was what people did. And your dad wanted a child very badly.” She paused. “I asked myself that question many times after you were born and I could never think of the answer. Of why.”
“Of why you ruined your life?”
“No, of why I ruined yours.”
Ruth was surprised to hear Mère’s response be more maternal than egocentric.
“You think that I thought I was a perfect mom? The best that I could do for you was to hire someone else to do my job and then stay away.”
“For my entire life?”
“Not for that long! I was there, I was generally around.” Mère started crying. “I tried, Ruthie, as much as I could. But we had Nancy and she was so much better than me. At least I made sure of that, that your needs were being met somehow.”
“You could have done more, Mère. Do you know how it feels to be outsourced? Do you know what it is like to feel rejected by your own mother?”
“Do you know what it is like for someone to put a child next to you and not to feel anything other than the need to run away?” Mère yelled.
“To be asked to care for someone when you…can’t, really?”
Ruth placed her hand against her chest as if to guard herself from her mother’s stabbing honesty.
Mère tried to lower her voice to a conversational level. “I got better with time, Ruthie. Remember the art classes we took?”
“Yes, I remember,” Ruth said, although she actually remembered her mother referring to the classes more clearly than taking them.
“I really tried,” Mère said. “I just needed training wheels. I could never become a pediatrician. I admire you for it, but how do you find it in yourself to deal with all that?”
Ruth walked into the kitchen and turned on the faucet, letting the water run over her fingers while she thought. She noticed how beautiful it was, the way the drops changed shape so quickly while humans remained stagnant relative to the pace of aquatics and storytelling. Ruth was not sure how to answer her mother’s question. She had never stopped to analyze her desire to pursue medicine, she had simply wanted it. She remembered an experience during her pediatric rotation at the clinic. A mother brought her very overweight son in for an evaluation because his lips were turning blue in gym class. The boy was unable to sit comfortably in the chair meant for children because he was so large. Ruth felt herself recoil at the boy’s breasts and at the sound of his labored breathing. She was disgusted by the mother’s misguided neglect. The attending physician must have felt the same. He reviewed the boy’s records, looked at the mother, and said, “Your son is too fat. His lips turn blue because he is fat.” It had made the mother irate and defensive. But then, weeks later, Ruth saw that same overweight boy and his mother at the grocery store. From a distance, she observed the boy pestering his mother for junk food. The mother had taken cookies off the store shelf, changed her mind, and put them back. The boy had thrown a huge tantrum in response but Ruth had felt overwhelmed with joy. “At least we helped with that,” she thought.
Ruth turned the faucet off. She knew what to tell her mother about entering pediatrics. “I feel good, grateful even, especially when I work with kids. I am pretty happy to have most of those interactions, even if they are sometimes painful. There is a lot of hope, really, in working with children. And there are these moments of connection that I always appreciate, no matter what came before or later.”
Mère cried again quietly as the soft power of gratitude overwhelmed her.
“Do you know why we named you Ruth?” she asked.
“After my great-grandmother, right?”
“Yes and no. I really loved the story in the bible about Ruth the Moabite and Naomi the Israelite, her mother-in-law. Ruth loved Naomi so much that she stuck with her even after Ruth’s husband died. ‘Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay.’ She was so brave. So resilient.”
Ruth exhaled, releasing the remaining piece of unspoken frustration within her body, her breath forming the faint yet recognizable outline of Mére changing from an unwilling mother to a well-intentioned but incapable one.
“I’ll let you go back to bed,” Ruth said. “Goodnight…Mom.”
“Goodnight, Ruth. I love you.”
“I know you do.”
Ruth hung up and went to the window, and looking at her reflection and then past it to the outside world where people were walking home. She leaned forward and whispered softly, “Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay. And your people shall become mine.”
Bio: Ateret Haselkorn writes fiction and poetry. She is the winner of 2014 Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest (adult contestants). Her work has been published in Scarlet Leaf Review, Literally Stories, Mused Literary Review, and Page & Spine. She is a member of the Alabama Street Writer’s Group of San Francisco and maintains a website at: https://aterethaselkorn.wixsite.com/author. Twitter: @HealthyHalo1.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.