By Nancy Flinchbaugh,
Daughter of Jean Turner Flinchbaugh –
whose father, James Raymond Turner
shared grandparents with Ruth
On a lovely October day, our church women gathered for retreat on the edge of Buck Creek Reservoir near Springfield, Ohio. My friends and I rolled out our newly created canvas “Living Vine Labyrinth” and began to circle in, under the ceiling of trees, near the dancing, shining water. Falling leaves joined us on the path; as the wind swirled, signaling the changing season.
I kept watch over others enjoying our sacred space on this maiden outdoor voyage of our little labyrinth, lovingly decorated with green vines and flowers of all of the colors of the rainbow. Only three months old, the space had already begun to wind its way into our hearts and help forge a new spiritual happening among us. On this afternoon, Jennifer walked the labyrinth. She stopped at each flower and held her arms out at her sides, closed her eyes and tilted her head up to the heavens. Madgelyn sat on a corner chair and watched her daughter’s prayer.
After Jennifer completed her walk, they approached me to chat.
“It’s beautiful,” Madgelyn said.
“I felt the colors merging,” Jennifer told us. “This is very nice.”
I smiled at their happiness with our prayer cloth. “It’s so nice to have it outside, today,” I said.
After more conversation, Madgelyn asked me if I had an Aunt Ruth.
“Aunt Ruth?” I asked. My mind raced through the branches of our family tree, even though I knew no Aunt Ruth hung there. Somewhat confused, yet wondering, I replied, “No, I don’t have an Aunt Ruth. But we have some Ruths here at the retreat, inside.”
“No,” she said. “No, this isn’t anyone still living.”
I stood and pondered. Ruth. I didn’t have an Aunt Ruth, I was sure of it. And just as I was ready to dismiss her question, I thought again. No, no Aunt Ruth – but there was a Ruth. Yes, there was. Ruth. Ruth Turner.
“My mother’s father had a cousin, Ruth. Ruth Turner.” I told her, still somewhat befuddled that a stranger would reach into my life with clarity.
“She helped you with this labyrinth,” Madgelyn told me. “She will help you with your artistic pursuits.”
I smiled. I laughed. “She helped make the labyrinth?” I asked.
“Yes, with the vines and the flowers. She helped with this.”
Not quite sure of that, I laughed again. “OK,” I said.
“You can think of her as your guardian angel,” Madgelyn told me.
And so, that day began my quest to discover more about this woman, Ruth. If she were to be my guardian angel, well, then I wanted to know her more fully.
The next day, I sat on the sofa in my morning prayer ritual. I suddenly became aware once more of Ruth. There in our living room, she had already made herself known. On the floor in front me, I remembered -- the Turner family heirloom Persian carpet that had once graced her bedroom. I jumped up and knelt down to look at the rug. Definitely vines and flowers, attached to trees in the intricate pattern of blues and pinks and white. So perhaps the idea for the labyrinth came from the carpet on which I walked each day. Or did the idea come directly from Ruth who slept for years with the carpet? Or did the idea come from the Persian artist awakened in Ruth and now passed on to me?
The mystery began to thicken. I realized that Ruth Turner was indeed a part of my life.
I looked up, then, to the wall and my eyes lingered on the picture of a cloister. When the family divided her water colors years ago, some were offered to me. I quickly chose this cloister one, because it spoke to me of Spirit. And then when we painted our living room pink, with blues, I had this water color framed and hung above the sofa; because of its colors. It fit right into our living room; and it called me to go deep within. So every morning, I sit and it hangs there with an arched doorway opening onto the sacred path, leading back to a black arched door. Ruth’s painting speaks to me of the call to enter into the center. Ah Ruth, hanging on my walls, you have already found your way into my life.
Ruth called me then to gather my family to learn what I could about my newly acquired guardian angel, dearly departed back in 1975. There were only a few threads to trace.
Cousin Bobbie Ernst, family historian, daughter of my mother’s sister, has written three books now and chronicles the Turner family history. I call her. She already traced the thread of Ruth back to Saugatuck, Michigan, contacting Peggy Boyce and Jane Van Dis of the Saugatuck-Douglas Art Club. She sends me pictures and the obituary showing Ruth hanging a picture of a potted plant. Later she sends me silver spoons engraved with “Lucia”, once made for Ruth’s mother. She admits not much is known and directs me to my Aunt Dottie. (Later when I shared my saga with Magdelyn at a lunch meeting she told me, “Ah, so there was an aunt involved!”)
Then after a Thanksgiving family reunion with my husband’s family in Texas, we arrange to visit my Aunt Dottie Turner and Cousin Dottie, Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama in November. We’d found this as an alternate route home from Texas years ago and once more stopped in to renew our connection with my mother’s brother’s wife
Aunt Dottie and Uncle Ray had befriended Susan and Arthur Turner in their twilight years. Arthur, Ruth’s brother, had been distraught when Ruth passed away from cancer in 1975. Aunt Dottie and Uncle Ray had traveled with them to Saugatuck to clear out Ruth’s house. Neither Ruth nor Arthur had children, so my aunt and uncle became family to them, helping them as they completed their lives, and receiving their estate.
Aunt Dottie shared more paintings with me. A picture of boats in a harbor, the potted plant in the obituary and a quite wonderful nude in the woods painted from a rear view, with hints other artists gathered around painting from the front. Later, I would learn this was probably painted at Ox-Bow, the summer art camp in Saugatuck, an effort of the Chicago Art Institute, where Ruth had studied in earlier years. Unfortunately, Aunt Dottie had never met Ruth, so she couldn’t tell me much.
Now at home, I focused on the art of Ruth. The cloister continued to call me within and I wrote:
Always beckoning that hound of heaven,
calls us within.
Sacred spaces designed with mystery,
lead us to center.
The cloister nun motions here,
The potted plant from the obituary, I hung also in the living room. For me, it speaks of that inner impulse to evolve and create, to carry on the artistic life of Ruth, so I tried to explain its meaning to me:
There is an inner impulse to evolve
within each life .
The amazing potted plant
astounds with grace.
Years after it lived
as subject for the artist’s brush,
the blooms yet hang
into the stillness of now
Ah, that inner impulse to evolve.
I looked more closely at the still life of a flower in a vase, with grasses branching out, beside an ear of corn, and named it “Harvest.” This keeps watch over our kitchen space. I wrote:
The bounty of the land
captured in this stillness
where flower and grasses dance over
The nude moved into our bedroom, and my husband appreciates it hanging there. I do, too. Ruth has captured essence of a lovely woman and she speaks to me of disclosure, so I penned words for her offering…
She stands in the center
opening herself to others.
They paint the day away
as she reveals her perfect body;
beauty of this human form we share.
What a bold act of hers --
to let them see her nude.
They capture her moment in time
and even now she speaks to us
of celebration, of bountiful life.
Do you see how Ruth’s art moves into my house and opens new avenues within me? Do you see how she encourages my muse to sprout and grow? Yes, she does.
Our empty nest provides more spaces to be; and during my new year resolve, I decided to transform my son Luke’s room into the Room of Ruth. Now the other water colors of Ruth hang there, along with her spirit, encouraging my art, I believe.
Ruth lived most of her life by the water. South Bend, Chicago, Detroit and then Saugatuck. The theme emerges from her work. A picture of the harbor, boats gathered ready for voyage; and green flowers in the foreground speak of growth in journey. I wrote:
We grow when we journey
Remind of days gone by
Places of journey
Harbor boats offer invitation
Into the possibilities of now
Travel within this moment into
Spaciousness of God; loving soul.
Along the Kalamazoo River, she retired in the delightful artist community of Saugatuck-Douglas, where she helped found the Saugatuck-Douglas Art Club and contributed to their Art Club annual calendar her local sketches, including a boat at a small dock. I propped this on the desk in her room and let it speak…
Along the River
Along the river,
empty boat waits.
Possibilities of journey,
time to explore.
Also hanging on the wall, now, in her room is a vase of yellow and white flowers. When I imaged this room in my new year vision, I wanted it to be a room of light. The flowers are somewhat luminescent and capture the bounty of art with which Ruth blesses me…
Blooming purely, white
Beaming brilliantly, yellow
Bouquet of goodness
Beacons to this ever present moment.
As I prepared to travel to Saugatuck to meet Ruth’s retirement friends, I wrote these little musings, captured her art with my camera, then pasted them together on note cards, gifts of past and present; an offering from Ruth and me. And I see that Ruth has encouraged me deeply already. So I made one more card, with the photo from her obituary and I wrote:
Captured in a moment of display
You smile, holding your art in your hand.
Calling the muse forth,
You challenge us to create, to share.
And then came the morning when I sat in silence and began to feel Ruth’s spirit join mine.
I have to explain that this Ruth thing has been quite an amazing occurrence in my life. I traditionally have not been the sort to communicate with those who have left us for the other side, but I’ve had just enough nudges that I keep an open mind about the possibilities. So on this particular morning, when I sensed Ruth during my quiet time, I decided to ask her a question.
If she had come back to help me with my art, I really wondered what insight she might have to offer. And so I asked, “What do you want me to do, Ruth? What do you suggest?”
And then, quite clearly, before I had much time to think or compose an answer for her, she told me, “I want you to create a bird sanctuary in your back yard.”
I laughed, and smiled and wondered. “A bird sanctuary?” I thought about my overflowing “TO DO” list. How could I possibly begin to find time to serve the birds? At that point in the Spring, our vegetable garden still held tomato cages and growth from the previous year. The hostas along the fence were overgrown with day lilies. The flower gardens in both the front and back yard looked like their caretaker had relocated to Alaska. Yet, I began to consider...
My husband told me I needed first to care for what I had. And so, I started to clear out the vegetable garden. I spent an afternoon removing the day lilies to let the hostas have some space. I weeded the flower garden in the back and bought a few more plants to attract birds and butterflies and began to water the roses and moonflower bush and other flowers growing there. I bought some peat moss and organic soil and cow manure and mixed it in our wheelbarrow and dumped it on the garden and began to buy plants and seeds. In the front, I planted red geraniums and my favorite gold and red Indian paintbrush, and purple petunias and tried to do a better job on weeding. I pulled the unwanted growth out of the Mothers’ garden in the front.
Gradually -- because of Ruth I think -- the yard began to take shape. Now, a couple months later, the tomato plants stand four feet tall; and they join squash and cucumbers, basil and sage, catnip and cabbage; broccoli and brussell sprouts.
Meanwhile, I found myself exploring other people’s backyards, learning how they feed the birds and create sanctuary; what they see; how they do it. I picked up a couple hummingbird feeders and a birdfeeder at the Master Gardener’s plant sale. I bought a beauty bush, that is supposed to have purple flowers and purple berries that the birds love. And I began a search for a bird bath, finding completion on my wedding anniversary when my husband presented me with a beautiful sunflower mosaic bowl with pedestal for flying friends.
And then, too, I thought of the metaphor of the bird sanctuary; perhaps a visional motif for the rest of my life – creating hospitality at church and at home; perhaps some ideas for my next novel? For a writer who specializes in creative meanderings, I began to realize there may be no end to reflections on this theme of welcoming those who know how to fly.
However, when I called my Cousin Dottie Turner a few weeks later to share my story, I jumped out of my chair when she told me, “Oh, yes, Ruth had a bird sanctuary in her backyard. I have a picture of it.”
The hairs on my neck stood at attention. “Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “Ruth had a bird sanctuary in her backyard? Oh, my God!”
When I began to explore Ruth’s past, I learned of her participation in the Saugatuck-Douglas Art Club and soon visited their website to send off an email inquiry. I knew I wanted to visit. I wondered if her friends might still be alive. Ruth passed away in 1975. Thirty seven years later, I knew there wouldn’t be many.
The Art Club president, Jim Hanson, became my first acquaintance, a veritable Saugatuck welcome mat. He connected me with Peggy Boyce, an artist who knew Ruth, and also contacted Jane Van Dis, on my behalf. Then he went above and beyond inviting my husband and me to stay at his house, when we planned to check out Ruth’s retirement town.
On the Saturday evening of Memorial Day weekend, we found our way to Jim’s family’s homestead where he regaled us with good conversation and kindness. The next morning he showed us the way to First Congregational Church, where Ruth attended for many years. There I met Peggy Boyce in the nursery, and sat with Jane Van Dis and her son in worship, a delightful experience with a focus on reading the Bible through the lens of history, the church, and experience. I found it quite wonderful, especially because it was the month I had published my book Revelation in the Cave, my creative saga of mystery and spiritual adventure linking women from a 21st century book club, to St. Thecla and the first century Christian Church. Here I sat on the pew, where my ancestor Ruth Turner worshiped God, and heard a very feminist sermon, that she would have appreciated, too. I gave the pastor a copy of my book, as a token of gratitude. He promised to read it and write a review.
Mr. Hospitality Hanson (who also welcomes birds, by the way) arranged a lunch gathering in town with Peggy and Jane. There they shared impressions of Ruth, and slowly she began to take more form in my mind. “A tall, angular woman,” “Trying to loosen up in her painting,” “Participated in a Bible Study with us,” “Regularly meeting to paint with us,” “I believe she was content,” “She never had a partner here, perhaps before she retired.” I marveled at Peggy and Jane’s full lives of raising many children in Saugatuck, working hard and always doing art. “She was a good friend of my Aunt Adele’s,” Jane told me. “There are many of her watercolors in Adele’s house, now owned by her daughters.”
Then Jim gave us a tour of Saugatuck and mentioned that his sister is a real estate agent. Unfortunately we don’t have the resources for a vacation home, we thought. At the end of the tour, he dropped us off for the Saugatuck sightseeing boat, and 91 year old Jane accompanied us on the trip and added much depth to the broad strokes of the boat captain’s monologue.
Earlier, Jim had taken us by Ruth’s retirement home at 440 Spear Street. There we met Tim Spooner, who invited us back to see the house if we had time. So, before we left Saugatuck for home, we returned to the house where she lived for over thirty years in retirement.
There the mystery of Ruth continued to astound, as the current owners of 18 years, Tim and Steve Masterson, accounted their experiences restoring and renovating her home into quite a masterpiece. They knew about Ruth; later emailed me her Last Will and Testament, and said they believed she had resided with them for some of their years. Twice, they told us, when she didn’t like their choice of art work, she knocked pictures off the wall, despite the strong wire and hook that defied falling on their own accord. When a rocking chair was incorrectly placed, Ruth would turn it toward the window. And twice, she appeared in the back hall in an old-fashioned dress. But they hadn’t seen her for a while, and I noticed the bird sanctuary was gone as well. Perhaps that is why Ruth has moved to Springfield, and wants to recreate her bird sanctuary in my backyard.
While in Saugatuck, I also learned about the Art Club’s annual Arts and Crafts Sale and inquired if I could sell my book there. Jim said that authors had participated in the past, and soon found a booth mate for me. So I found myself signed up to return to Saugatuck at the end of the July. This time Jane Van Dis offered a place to stay. My husband and I looked forward to a to return to the friendly town who had welcomed us so warmly in May.
Perhaps Ruth thought the Saugatuck crowd would like my book. I have to thank her for her creativity in the way she engineered bringing me in for the show.
Copyright 2012 by Nancy Flinchbaugh. Used by permission.