Ruth Van Wormer, a Friend of a Different Generation

Ruth and her husband Marvin

Ruth and Marvin Van Wormer

Ruth Van Wormer was the mother of my best friend Jo, and Ruth was a best friend of a different generation.  Her house was the kind of place we all wanted to spend as much time as possible.  Her husband Marvin was one of the dearest men you could ever hope to meet, a conscientious objector who did alternative service during World War II.  He was a researcher in the Minnesota Starving Study.  This study involved research toward the end of the war, dedicated to figuring out how to feed the large number of people in Europe who were perilously close to starvation  For the rest of his life, Marvin could not stand to see food go to waste.

Ruth was the world’s best cook, bar none.  (My apologies to anyone else whose cooking I also love.)  We could appear by surprise at dinnertime, and she would come up with a delightful meal on the spur of the moment.  She also sewed all manner of clothing and decor, including a wedding dress for a classmate of Jo’s who proceeded to elope before the dress was finished.  (The marriage didn’t last much longer, as I recall.)  She must have sewn Jo’s wedding dress too, though I honestly cannot recall.  She was a master at knitting and needlepoint.  I still have the knitting needle case she needlepointed during her best years.

Helen Winnemore’s, a long-established shop in the German Village area of Columbus, was the beneficiary of her love for artistic paraphernalia.  Her children and then her grandchildren inherited some wonderful decor, and can think of her every time they look toward those items.

And what a conversationalist!  She was so wise, and versed in so many topics.  When I called to talk to my age-mate Jo, there were times I almost wished Jo would not be there, because I would wind up having about a 20-minute fascinating conversation with Ruth.  

As the adoptive mother of her two children, Ruth became an outspoken advocate for all children.  She was an integral part of the team that started the day care center at North Broadway United Methodist Church, which is still thriving today.  She told me with pride how one mother came to them explaining that she and her husband had checked out 17 day care centers, and if her child could not be accepted that that particular one, she would not be returning to work.  The other 16 just didn’t meet this mother’s standards.

Ruth left this world so many years ago that I cannot recall the exact year, though I can pinpoint it to the early 1990s.  Her husband and her daughter Jo followed during the ensuing years.  I miss them all.

There was one problem that hung over Ruth for most of her life, one that made many people instantly think less of her.  She never could manage her weight.  This beautiful woman suffered so badly due to body image issues.  Her doctor was always telling her that if she didn’t lost weight, it would be an early grave for her.  She lived into her 80s, so I am guessing she won that argument.

In her later years, Ruth had a smaller appetite, and a smaller body.  In those years she looked frail to me; it just always felt like Ruth’s previous set point was the weight she was intended to be.  However anyone chooses to regard her weight, it did nothing to detract from the beautiful person she was, inside and out.  It did nothing to detract from the powerful positive influence she had in so many lives.  It took nothing from who and what she was.

But it brought her underserved sadness and frustration.

My hope is that we can one day—soon, I hope—live in a world where people come in all shapes and sizes and everyone can just be the size they are.

Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

photo credit Marcea Lancu

Credit: Marcea Lancu

Cognitive dissonance is often used to call attention to something we would really prefer to ignore.  Have you ever listened to someone prattle on about the partner who is “ever so loving” except when they are threatening your friend’s safety or emptying their bank account?  Or when they are belittling a friend?  To the point where you are ready to say “Well, you say this person loves you.  Is that behavior loving?”  And you of course hope this cognitive dissonance will get your friend thinking about whether this is truly a beneficial relationship.  It is definitely useful, and we need to pay close attention to it.

But there is another type of cognitive dissonance that we also find difficult to process, and that is when someone who may not be so close to you has such diametrically opposed qualities that you are unsure what to think.  I once had a young neighbor who was in trouble at school pretty much all the time.  His mother’s excuse-making didn’t make it likely that these problems would end any time soon.  And yet—one day this same young neighbor noticed fire coming from the exhaust of a school bus, and he was the one who raced to the front and banged on the door, hard, to get those kids out safely.  Not the kind of heroism we would expect from “Mr. I’m Always in Trouble at School,” right?  But the reality is, both can be true.

Famously, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame) was a walking contradiction.  He initially brought Jewish people into his factory during World War II for the free labor, then wound up protecting those same people from being deported to extermination camps.  During this entire time, he was a member of the Nazi party.  His life after World War II was reportedly a mess.  All of these things are true, and for approximately 1,000 Jewish people and their descendants—these people would likely not even exist had it not been for Oskar Schindler’s virtues.

Realistically, none of us is as consistent as we would like to believe.  If we feel our past is shameful, we can decide on a better future as opposed to labeling ourselves and giving up.  The good we do need not be negated by whatever preceded it.  We might even devote significant time to making amends.

Most of us tend to seek a certain degree of consistency in our lives.  And part of that consistency can involve putting people in categories with the hope of knowing what to expect from them.  My own experience leads to me believe that few of us are that totally predictable.  There are some things we can count on:  People who go out of their way to be kind will continue to do so, chronic liars and thieves are unlikely to suddenly grow a conscience about their behavior.  And people and life will continue to surprise us.