By Pat Edwards
Her name was Ruth Smith, but I came to know her as “Dolly,” as many others did. She entered my life in June 2011, when she first submitted a story called “Tuscaloosa, Alabama; I Was There” to Groundwaters magazine. I was managing editor of the literary quarterly which we distributed free to libraries, senior centers, businesses and organizations throughout Lane County, Oregon. Dolly had picked up a copy at the Junction City Library near the retirement residence where she lived. Her story told of her college years in Tuscaloosa during World War II. It had been triggered by the news of the devastating 2011 tornado season that hit Tuscaloosa rather hard that year and it brought forth some poignant memories which she shared with our readers.
In her 2011 bio, Dolly told a little about her life:
“I was a biology major at UCLA after leaving the University of Alabama. I then worked as an instructor and histologist at the University of Oregon while earning my Masters Degree in Biology. My late husband, Damon Smith, worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency and was also a WWII veteran and a rancher. Damon and our daughter, Judy, are both gone now and I moved to a retirement residence in Junction City three years ago to be with other people. I was overjoyed when I found a copy of Groundwaters a couple of years ago. It is an excellent magazine. Thank you for your efforts and good works.”
After that, the mail began to bring other submissions on a regular basis– mainly poetry that Dolly had written, and one day we received the first of several donation checks she sent us, tucked neatly inside a letter containing her most recent poem.
Upon finding out that she was living in a senior residence, I began hand-delivering copies of Groundwaters to her when I did my distribution run to the Junction City Library. Her home was only a few blocks out of the way and when I knocked and stuck my head in the open door that first time, she greeted me with a smile. When I told her who I was, she worked her way to her feet using her walker and threw out her arms to demand a hug in greeting. Her excitement in meeting me was spontaneous and humbling. I sat and visited with her for a short time during which she showed me her desk and the journal that she wrote in as often as she could when her health would allow. It wasn’t long before I had to head out to make my other deliveries, but I knew that I’d be back when it was time to distribute the next issue.
On later visits, Dolly told me about her love of her homeplace which she still owned. It was part of a ranch on Grimes Road that her husband’s grandparents,William A. and Eliza Jane Smelser Smith, had homesteaded in the late 1800s. Because of my love for the history of our local area, I was eager to learn more about her past, but I missed the chance to learn more directly from Dolly. Her close friend, Anne Maggs-Foster, however, was able to supply some of the details of Damon and Dolly’s very interesting life.
“I met Damon and Ruth in 1982 when we purchased 28 acres from them. Our acreage was 3 of 10 strips of land that fell across both sides of the little valley where their homeplace is now.
“His grandfather homesteaded 160 acres of the valley when he rode out to Oregon on a saddle horse. The main valley is the one Ferguson runs through and the old, original Smith homestead was on a small knoll to the north and east of the current intersection of Ferguson and Grimes Roads. The stage coach used to run along the top of the ridge because the bottom land would flood.
“Grimes Road used to be a wooden road which made it passable in the winter. When we first moved out there, the old, one-room school house was still standing near the intersection. Damon said the teacher lived with them (which he hated because he could not cut class!)
“Damon told us that his dad, Walter Leston Smith, was one of ten kids. When the kids were grown, Damon’s grandfather, William A. Smith, split the side valley along Grimes Road into ten, 10-acre, strips and gave one to each of their children. Damon’s dad slowly collected all of the strips as his siblings either moved away or died off, and Damon inherited the majority of the original homestead. .
“Damon’s mother, Callie Lilly Wolf, grew violets and she used to trade varieties with old man Kneibl who lived on Ferguson Road. Walter and Callie’s old abandoned homeplace was on our piece of land, as were the big barns and many small outbuildings.
“Ruth met Damon when she was looking for a squirrel skeleton for a biology class at the University of Oregon. He was a “cowboy” and she fell for him. They used to have horses and we rode with the both of them for many a mile on the logging roads up behind our place. She told me that they built the house with hand tools – no electricity at the time. They had an outdoor privy until her mom came to visit after Damon and Ruth’s daughter, Judy, was born, and said that, with a baby to take care of, she needed an inside bathroom.
“Ruth was highly skilled in methods of canning and cooking. She processed and preserved whatever Damon hunted. She wrote a story about “Zoe” which I believe was modeled on herself as a capable, homesteader. Ruth could shoot and cook, care for her family and home, be a good neighbor and a ‘second’ grandma to my kids, and keep a positive outlook on life.
“She gained her teaching credential by correspondence and taught school at Junction City High School after Judy was born. She taught art and science and, for many years displayed the pictures her students had painted.
“In the early 90s, we gave Ruth our old Macintosh computer when we upgraded our home computer. My daughter, Amity, and I taught her how to use it and she began writing in earnest. She would write on a yellow pad, then transcribe it into the computer where she could edit with ease. When the old timers came to visit Damon – and there was a steady stream of men – she questioned them about wildlife and plants and stories of how things were done so that she could infuse her writing with the lore of the times she was writing about.
“Ruth was a unique person who loved life and lived it fully.”
Dolly Ruth Smith, as she liked her byline to read, was indeed a unique and wonderful woman who managed to wend her way into my heart as our much-too-short friendship evolved. I didn’t get to see her often, but when I did, she was always so excited to see me. Sometimes, she had a friend visiting who she would introduce me to as “her editor.” Other times, I would find her confined to bed following what she called “small stokes.” In about 2013, I learned that she had fallen and injured her leg. I traveled to Junction City to visit her in the rehab center next to her assisted living apartment, but when I arrived, I was told that she had been taken to one in Eugene, instead. So, I tracked her down there. When she saw me enter the room, her face lit up and it warmed my heart. After several more weeks, she was transferred back to her apartment in Junction City.
Dolly began an obvious decline at that point, but whenever I visited, she’d talk about the new story that she was writing… a fairytale. As time went on, it seemed to grow in importance to her, even though her ability to work on the story was hindered by failing health. She said that she’d dream about the story and would try to get it on paper the next day, since she was no longer using a computer, but it was not coming together as well as she wanted. She was especially obsessed with the ending that was just not working out for her.
By October 2014, she decided that the story which she titled “Angela” was going to have to be good enough, although, obviously, she still was not happy with it. She had her niece, Martha Mattus, type it for her and she then sent it to Groundwaters as a submission for our January 2015 issue.
I was a bit surprised by the story when we received it. It was not her normal style of writing and it was written with an almost child-like imagination, but I personally knew how much it meant to Dolly, so I promised her that we would use it in January. I also promised that I’d help her figure out an ending for it. Before I could prepare the story for publication, however, I received an email from Martha, who lived in Portland. She said that Dolly was once again in rehab – this time in Junction City – and that she was not expected to live more than a week or two. Dolly asked her to notify her friends and if we wanted to say a last goodbye, we should do so right away.
When I got there, Dolly, herself, told me that she didn’t expect to see her story in print. I assured her that it would be in the January issue and I’d be bringing it to her as I always did. I added an “ending” to it that would reflect her passing and brought her a mock-print of the story as it would look in Groundwaters. It seemed strange at the time because I was talking about her passing, but Dolly seemed touched by it.
Amazingly, Dolly rallied in late December… at least it would have been amazing for someone else, but Dolly had grit and I believe that she somehow willed herself better. I changed the ending again, which still was not satisfactory, but I was able to deliver that January issue to Dolly in person… but she still was not happy with the story.
“Angela” once again became a passion for her as she lay in one rehab center bed after another. Months passed, and each time I would visit, she would hold up her yellow writing pad to show me that she was still working on her story. She was determined to get it right, despite her increasingly failing health.
In May 2015, she began slipping into what seemed to be semi-conscious, coma-like states, but she then amazed her caretakers by rousing enough to eat her meals and talk a bit.
On May 13, I went to see her. She was barely responsive. When I entered her room, she stirred and opened her eyes, but didn’t speak or show recognition. I took her hand and told her who I was, but she didn’t seem to understand. Before I left, a nurse came in to take her temperature and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She talked quietly to her and Dolly smiled a couple of times. She seemed to respond when I mentioned to the nurse that those hands she was holding had written some beautiful poetry and stories… and she smiled. As I was leaving, I leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek to tell her goodbye, I told her that I would make sure that Angela would live happily ever after. With eyes still closed, she formed the words “Thank you” and smiled.
Dolly was put under hospice care shortly afterwards and peacefully passed away in her sleep on Tuesday, July 22, 2015.
By then I knew that in her mind, Dolly was Angela, and this amazing, wonderful lady had written her own happy ending.
(Published in the annual Groundwaters Anthology, August 2015)
A Celebration of Life and a potluck lunch was held for Dolly Ruth Smith at the Long Tom Grange on Ferguson Road between Junction City and Elmira on Sunday, August 30, 2015. Her interment is next to her husband Damon and daughter Judy at the Rest Haven Cemetery near Junction City, Oregon in the Smith Family plot.