A contemporary retelling of the book of Ruth
“It seems like a dream now, it was so long ago”
I had a job in the steel mills in Bethlehem. It was 1978. Pennsylvania. Inflation was high and imports were cheap. There were allegations in the press of dumping by Asian companies. Congress launched an investigation, but by then the die was cast. Domestic steel production became a thing of the past almost overnight.
Elimilech and I saw the writing on the wall. It didn’t matter that his name meant “God is my king.” It seemed God had deserted us. We couldn’t make the mortgage payments, or buy clothes for the boys, and some nights we went hungry ‘cause there was no money for food. What else could we do? We had to pull up stakes and find something better. We rented a U-Haul truck and headed for Texas. The oil fields were supposed to be booming.
We weren’t there very long. Elimilech was killed by a piece of pipe that got loose. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t him I missed so much as his income. I never had much training outside the domestic realm. I was a good cook. I’d fire up the taboun and cook the meanest flatbread in west Texas. There were some native American women, and some descended from Spaniards. We’d talk grains and baking and weaving. They used a mortar & pestle; I used two flat rocks. We both made flour. I sold some of my bread and fabric I wove at the local market, but it was hardly enough to make ends meet.
Summers were hot and dry. When they called the town Amarillo, they were right. West Texas blows yellow dust and everything gets coated with this fine layer of it. You can keep the windows shut; you surely don’t want them open when it feels like a fiery furnace outside. You dust in the morning. By afternoon there’s this jaundiced coating on everything. In the winter, the wind pierces like daggers. There aren’t any trees taller than a shrub out there. Nothing to break the wind. Folks were nice enough to us, but I missed the east.
The boys finished school and married their sweethearts. Those girls were sweet. Ruth and Orfa. They were dark skinned and spoke both Spanish and English. We thought the world of each other. They always told me they’d do anything and go anywhere with me. I guess I didn’t know how true that was. The boys were guards at the prison, second shift. One night they were coming home together to save on gas. I mean, when it’s $.50/gallon, you have to save any way you can. They hit a patch of black ice on the 2-lane. Got T-boned by a rig. It was a closed casket funeral. No mother should have to bury her sons.
I was pretty broken up about that. Jimi Hendrix sang “No sun coming through my window. Feel like I’m living at the bottom of a grave”. That was me. Bitter. Hopeless. Angry at the world. Angry at God. There wasn’t really anything to hold me there. I told the girls, Ruth and Orfa, I was heading back to Bethlehem. They said we’re coming with you, Nana. I told them that was foolish. They were young and still had a future. They could remarry if they wanted. They could go to school & get a degree that would lead to a good-paying job. Me, I was shot in the ass. Too old to get a decent job, even though age discrimination was illegal. Too old to snag another husband. Who needs the headaches, anyway? Many husbands are high-maintenance crybabies who never grew up. Or looking for a one night stand. The ones worth having all found a chair in the Chinese fire drill. Petulant, the girls were. They wanted to come with me. So we loaded up the U-Haul with whatever little bit of stuff we had to call our own.
We got as far as Texarkana. I gave them that lecture again. Orfa heard it, after a little persuading. She headed back home. Ruth, though. I’ll never understand what makes her tick. She was like a dog. Point and say “go home!” and some dogs do. But others, they just come closer and lay down at your feet as if to say “ain’t goin’ nowhere.” It’s a strange devotion. I have no clue what she sees in me. She said she’d stick with me through thick and thin. We sure had lots of that. Fog was thick. Soup was thin- -thin enough to read a magazine through. We had lots of adventures, the two of us, on the rest of the trip. They’ll have to wait for another story.
“Been a long time crossing
Bridge of sighs”
Naomi is so lonely. She won’t admit it, or maybe she doesn’t know. She complains about everything. How her husband was a jerk. How her beloved boys were taken from her. How Texas sucks. How no one loves her. She lashes out at me with unkind words, the kind that leave the stripes of a flogging on the backside of my soul. I know that place. My soul still aches to lay beside Mahlon. I’ve spent enough time in the darkness to know that when someone comes into your life as a glimmer of light, you chase that light. But that’s me. I guess some people just build a wall around themselves. She’s a good woman. I believe she’s blessed, though the world would disagree. Look at that pitiful, broken old woman they whisper. Even if she doesn’t hear the words out loud, she still believes them. We have choices in life, though. We can sink into despair and wallow in our misery. We can “look on the ups side,” as my husband, Mahlon, said. God is here and working, even if we can’t recognize Her or the plan.
It’s so easy to think we’re the ones in control. Then when things don’t go our way, we get angry at those around us who love us. Like a dog hit by a car, we rage in our pain against everything, helpers or otherwise. She may seem stiff-necked but I think it’s just a defense strategy to keep from getting hurt any more. Really though, what else can the world strip from her? I think she’s like one of those caramel candies: hard on the outside. Soft on the inside.
I believe in the healing power of love. I know she still carries that of God in her heart.
It’s been a too long time, with no peace of mind
And I’m ready for those times to get better
Sometimes you have to hit bottom to recognize the blessings in your life. It’s like standing on the rocky bottom of a river: you know you can’t go down any farther. We made it to Bethlehem and got a room in a bedbug-infested boardinghouse. Life’s not great, but we’ve got a roof over our heads and food on the table. Nobody close to me has died recently. Ruth found a job with Martin Guitars only a few miles from here. She says they hired her as an apprentice. She did well on one of those aptitude tests and now she’s learning about wood selection and the craft of building stringed instruments. She’s excited about work. There’s a spring in her step that’s been missing since Mahlon died.
Ruth is so kind to me. She’s the balm of Gilead on my soul. It’s taken me a long time to get that. I’ve done nothing to warrant it. I’ve been short, even rude to her. She sticks with me. I can’t say what she sees in me. Sometimes we hug, just to hold each other. The world can be as cold as it wishes. That fades away. There’s just her for me and me for her. We’ve been through so much. Four legs are more stable than two, I guess.
There’s a guy from the front office. He comes down to the floor to see how things are going. He’s even taken an interest in me. He’s been showing me the finer points of bending wood for the sides of guitars. Boaz Stoltzfus, I think. These PA Dutch have funny names compared to Juan and Rosalita, if you ask me. Some of the locals are mean to me. They call me names and say rude things. Not Boaz. He sees potential in me, I think. You know, I hadn’t ever done any woodwork before we came here. It’s creative and it’s as much a craft as weaving.
He’s handsome and funny. He tells stories about growing up not too far from here. Family and farms and horses. He hired on here after he graduated from Thaddeus Stevens in Lancaster. He says while he loves the farm, he knows how hard it is to make a living that way. He started on here about 20 years ago He’s maybe a year or two older than me. He has prospered with the company. He started on the floor like me. Now he’s the shift manager. He’s “comfortably fixed,” as my grandmother would say.
There’s a new girl down on the floor. Moved here from Texas. She’s a natural for this work. There’s no other way to explain it. Not a girl, actually. We’re pretty close to the same age. Hispanic, from her accent. Dark eyes, long black hair she wears up in a bun for safety. Really sweet. There’s a sparkle in her eye, and forever looming behind them. A sad little curl to her smile. She hasn’t said much about herself, though I keep dropping hints I’d like to listen. Even so, it seems like life hasn’t been particularly kind to her thus far. On the one hand, the company has a strict policy on anything that can be considered sexual harassment, which includes unwanted attention. On the other hand, I’d really like to get to know her better. It’s almost spooky. It’s like she was meant to be here.
Oh! My! God! I am so mortified! We have one of those unisex bathrooms in the plant. I opened the door. It wasn’t locked. There he stood. Boaz. There was no doubt his fly was down, even though his back was towards me. I tried to shut the door without a sound, but I think he saw me in the mirror. Just when it seemed like things were getting turned around, this happens. I’ll probably get fired. And Naomi and I just moved into a nice little townhouse. The rent’s more, but there aren’t any bedbugs. Naomi murmured in passing, something about it would be nice if we had a dog. Not anything huge. Company. Entertainment. We looked at breeds and settled on a Pug. It came from the pound, sort of like us I guess. We called him Frank. It’s funny the things that count as blessings in your life. A dog. No bedbugs. My boss taking a leak. Dear God, how is that a blessing?
I was walking Frank in the park the other day. It was a Saturday morning, like something from a Disney flick. Birds were chirping. Magical sunlight danced and played tag with the flowers. I don’t quite remember, but it seemed like the flowers were singing. Who should I meet but Boaz, out for a jog. I tried to look invisible but he recognized me and came over to talk. We sat on a bench. There was none of the boss-worker dynamic from the plant. Almost instantly we were enveloped in conversation. You know how sometimes time just stands still, even ceases to be? It was like that. We laughed and told stories. There was a vendor over on the one side of the park. We got cheesesteaks, those ones with enough grease in them to seize your heart. He wiped the grease off my chin. I did the same for him. He’s sweet and tender. I never thought there could be another after Mahlon.
It’s all happened so fast. They started seeing each other. Got engaged. Married. Baby on the way. Obed if it’s a boy, Miriam if it’s a girl. They invited me to live with them, so now I’ve got an apartment in their basement. They make sure I’m taken care of That’s about as close as a grandma can be. Ruth just keeps on giving. I’d have been dead long ago without her.
Maybe all that’s happened had to be: the unemployment, the migration, the deaths, life in Texas, returning to Bethlehem…all those hardships…to reach this blessing. Ruth to be a mother. Dear God. Ruler of the universe, creator of all. Did all that hardship have to happen? I’ve heard it said that we need hard times so we appreciate the good ones. Otherwise we get like the people in California who complain about the weather when it’s sunny every day. Really, God, there were times I would have sooner been trampled by Jehu’s horses. Couldn’t you imagine an easier way to beget the King of Israel? Let me see…
It seems like a dream now, it was so long ago….
 Eagles “Saturday Night” from the album “Desperado.”
 Selling a product below cost to gain market share
 (Walter J. Harrelson 1989) p. 385. Commentary.
 Traditional Palestinian “oven” for baking bread.
 It means “yellow” in Spanish.
 Spanish for Orpah. Ruth translates as “Ruth.”
 Jimi Hendrix Experience “I don’t Live Today.”
 Vernacular: ruined. Refers to a gut-shot animal. The meat is contaminated with intestinal contents. Therefore, inedible.
 Woodie Guthrie “The Dustbowl Years.”
 Robin Trower, “Bridge of Sighs.”
 Used 19 times in the OT (Biblegateway.com). It describes pride and unwillingness to listen to the Lord or heed direction.
 Crystal Gayle “Ready for the times to get better.” 1990
 Gap: I think Ruth is a US citizen. In 2014, Martin was raided by INS. A large number of employees were deported.
 Trade school of some repute.
 From class discussion: The origins of dressage were in battle. Horses’ hooves were cut to be like meat tenderizers, and the opponents trampled to death.