As a clinical social worker, I support people as they fine-tune the art of living happily. Much has been written about personality types and lifestyles that contribute to a happy life. Although there seems to be little useful data on what factors definitively help us live enjoyable lives, we know when we are in the presence of inspiring people who manage to do just that.
For the past eight years I had the pleasure and honor of knowing a woman who I consider an amazing mentor on this topic. Ruth, until September of this year, lived with her pet rabbit in a one bedroom pre-war apartment in mid-town Manhattan. She was the loving mother of my life partner, Jon. Although in failing health the last two years, she insisted on maintaining both her lifestyle and her independence and remained upbeat and engaging until she died.
Since Ruth passed away –one month shy of her 94th birthday- Jon and I have received many comforting and informative condolences from those who knew and loved her. The comments have touched upon Ruth’s following qualities:
Creativity and Persistence Ruth worked hard for years in her role as a creative director for several different major advertising agencies on Madison Avenue. In an era when female executives were few and far between, many of her national campaigns were award- winning. A single mother, she did more than raise Jon; she regularly made it a priority to expose him to new cultures and experiences through travel. She also used her abundant creativity to parent Jon. She once made him hold a banana during the entire two and a half hour ferry and train trip from Fire Island to Manhattan because despite her instruction not to do so, he had threw a banana overboard from the Fire Island ferry.
Loyalty Ruth loved her family, friends and pets unequivocally. She did not judge, gossip or disparage others. She zealously defended those that she loved and counseled patience and compromise during disagreements among family or friends.
When Ruth retired from Madison Avenue, she joined the Peace Corps. At age 68, she travelled to Lesotho and taught English for two years. She rarely talked about the bugs and rats that were at her camp there; instead we heard stories about her amazing fellow volunteers and the people and animals of Africa. In her seventies, Ruth decided to learn how to dance the Tango, and did so up until her late eighties. Besides traveling extensively in Africa, Europe, and Asia, Ruth went fishing in Alaska and made it the Great Wall of China for her 90th birthday.
Like most Manhattanites, Ruth walked everywhere. She thought nothing of walking 30 blocks to shop at the flea market or buy groceries. Up until recent years, she refused to take a taxi unless her destination was in another corner of the city. In her eighties, she resumed tango dancing soon after a hip replacement surgery.
Sense of Fun and Sociability
Ruth loved to play games, cards and entertain. She had bags of party accessories: hats, boas, masks, glow sticks, multiple decks of cards and drawers full of colorful candles and tableware. Jon and I were loathe to miss her annual St. Patrick’s Day party or annual Easter egg hunt. Her living room was painted fuchsia and her kitchen had black chalkboard walls that her many friends had filled with drawings and words of affection.
My all-too-short time with Ruth inspires me to impart to my children and clients the importance of pursuing lifelong learning, authentic connection, fun, adventure, and living with curiosity and creativity. Although we can’t avoid the obstacles and illness that life inevitably throws our way, we can certainly follow Ruth’s example and invite more joy into our lives.