May 16, 2012

Memories live on with passing of special friends

SUSAN TOBIAS, Pinch of Time

---- — It's been only a few weeks since I said goodbye to two special women in my life. One was a "country" lady and the other a "city" lady.

The "country" lady was Mary "Elizabeth" Ellsworth Mount, 93, who died April 27. She was my vacation Bible school teacher at the Presbyterian Church in Westville when I was 5. Mrs. Mount helped me memorize scripture, was proud of my stick-figure Bible characters and taught me Bible stories on the flannel board.

(For the younger set, the flannel board was just that, a large square board covered with flannel that was used as a sticky backdrop for flannel people and animals to tell a Bible story. No PowerPoint back then.)

Her signature on several of my VBS certificates says I passed my classes from primary to intermediate. In junior high, her husband, Warren, taught me in released time classes. (He said I didn't do very well and produced the old test papers to prove it.)

I thought the Mounts would just be part of my happy childhood memories until 10 years ago when the Westville Historical Organization formed and we met again as members. It's hard to explain my happiness reconnecting with them as an adult. After several talks about genealogy, we discovered we are related by the McFaddin-Armstrong-McGibbon families. How wonderful!

They insisted I call them Betty and Warren, but that was very difficult because I was taught to call my elders "Mr." and "Mrs." Eventually, I became comfortable with our new relationship and loved every minute we spent together.

Betty's legacy, besides mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, includes teaching at the same one-room schoolhouse she attended as a kid, leading 4-H for more than 60 years at her great-grandfather's house next door, sharing local history and being married to Warren for nearly 67 years.

A farm kid and farm wife, she and Warren lived all their married life on her great-grandfather's farm, worked through hardships and celebrations, raised their children there and on April 27 said goodbye there.

Betty may be gone, but the maple trees she tapped — just last year — are still there, the old woodstove in the kitchen where she boiled the sap and kept the winter chill away is still there. So is the open door to anyone who wants to stop by for tea between 4 and 4:30 p.m., a custom started by her grandmother when Betty was still in school, carried on by Warren and family. For family and friends around the kitchen table, the tea and blondies (her special cookie recipe) are sweet, and so are the memories.

The "city" lady was Ruth Alden Jones Ryan, who at 103 was still living in her home, with her beloved cat and several generations of family memories. I met Ruthie when I interviewed her in the summer of 1997. She was 88, had buried her husband the year before and decided pity wasn't in her vocabulary. She dusted off her artwork from earlier years and embarked on a card-printing business named Hug Bugs.

We were at ease with each other, like friends who hadn't been in touch for a while, her sparkly blue eyes twinkling as she shared her family's stories. She was a sickly kid until about 7 — "Every time the doctor's carriage was in front of our house, the neighbors would air their mourning clothes getting ready for me to die" — but determined to reach at least 100.

With steadfast Yankee blood, Ruthie lived life to the fullest, attending a New York City art institute; writing a column for national art magazines; working in oils, photography and ceramics; and opening a gift shop with her sister, Eleanor, named "My Sister and I."

In the middle of one interview, she said her Grandmother Fay had died just three weeks before the completion of the beautiful home that Grandfather Fay was building for her at 35 Elm St. in Malone. Such sadness gave way eventually, and John Fay married Daphne Taylor.

"Taylor!" I said, surprised. "That's my great-grandmother's name." Lo and behold, it was the same Taylor line. Suddenly an ancestor who was just a name took shape in a picture Ruthie gave me, followed by Daphne's cookbook and stories of holidays and parties. We had a kindred spirit that never changed.

Ruthie died May 2 at 35 Elm. She dedicated herself to being the guardian of 100-plus years of family and community history, connecting the past with the future.

These few words scarcely scratch the surface of the legacies of Betty and Ruthie. If I could have kept them here with me until I turn 150, then I might think about letting them go, but that's not the way life works. There is no way to measure friendships like these. I can only hope to pass something on to the next generation that I learned from them.

One last thought, as always, please be kind to each other. The world needs more kindness.

Susan Tobias lives in Plattsburgh with her husband, Toby. She has been a Press-Republican newsroom employee since 1977. The Tobiases have six children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They enjoy traveling to Maine and Colorado, and in her spare time, Susan loves to research local history and genealogy. Reach her by email at