Clyde Beal: A lady quite blessed in her senior years
When I first came to her home, 86-year-old Ruth Skaggs greeted me at the front door wearing her pajamas and the brightest smile I’d seen all morning. She had dozed off in her corner recliner while waiting on my arrival.
As I waited in the living room for her to exchange PJs for daytime wear, I couldn’t help but notice family pictures spanning several generations. The photographs gave the impression this lady was quite blessed with family and friends; getting into the interview I discovered just how far her blessings had stretched.
“My two children bought this house for me,” she said with a noticeable tone of pride in her voice. “My daughter, Shirley, and son, Edward, they take care of my utilities too. During summer Edward shows up with his mower and trimmer. They’re here almost every day checking on me. I’m really blessed, don’t you think?”
Skaggs was born in a little log cabin on a 50-acre farm in Carter County, Kentucky, that came equipped with the usual antiquated rural furnishings you’d expect in 1932.
“Along with my two brothers and sisters, we maintained a standard of living that provided for our needs,” said Skaggs. “I was 11 years old when my mother died, even at my age something told me she would never be completely well again. Medical care was lacking in many ways during those days. I remember sitting by her bed night after night until she passed away at the age of 44. The doctor said it was cancer.”
Skaggs’ father was a laborer in surrounding farms, which provided little because of his paralyzed left arm. He was a proud man who refused the generosity of neighbors. If he didn’t work for it, he wouldn’t accept it.
“After mother’s passing my oldest sister Betty became the family cook and decision maker of household matters,” said Skaggs. “She was four years older and I thought she enjoyed being able to boss us around, looking back I suppose she took on a lot of responsibility.”
Indeed, there wasn’t any shortage of work on their farm. With a garden that seemed as big as Texas, chickens, a milk cow and plow horse, having time on your hands was never a concern.
“I taught myself how to swim in Raccoon Creek by trial and error,” said Skaggs. “I jumped in deep water, struggled to the bank gasping for air and spitting water. I went right back and tried it again until I learned to swim. Being afraid to try something new never held me back. When the snow was too deep for most to go sleigh riding, my older brother Dorris and me would go down any hill in a repurposed washtub that Dad had installed special handles on.”
“I attended Greenup Grade School,” said Skaggs. A one-room building with a wood stove in the middle of the room. Mom had dressed me up in my Sunday best for the first day of school and all the other kids wore everyday casual, I was totally embarrassed.”
Skaggs seemed vague in her recollection of education at the high school level; she did pass her GED exam later on that earned her high school diploma.
Somewhere between learning to swim in Raccoon Creek, picking blackberries, a pair of German shepherds named Frank and Jessie James and mastering her mother’s old sewing machine, Skaggs discovered she could sing - and her voice sounded pretty good. As a matter of fact, there were a few family members whose voices when blended together with hers became quite popular in area churches.
“This all got started right about the time I became 12 years old,” said Skaggs. “Along with my father, brother Jeffrey and my sister Bonnie - once people heard us sing together we began getting invitations to perform in local churches.”
Singing in local churches soon expanded to church locations in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia for this family quartet. Because they didn’t have their own transportation, they made frequent 6-mile walks to the bus stop going to singing engagements. Their father, being the proud man that he was, would never charge a fee for doing what he loved, but church elders and board members decided that they accept any donations offered from those in attendance.
“Our singing engagements continued for nearly eight years,” said Skaggs. “Sometimes we went for several weeks performing every night during revivals and special invitations. Then one night I was introduced to a young man that just seemed right. He was home on furlough from the Army which allowed little time together before he left for Korea.”
They began an exchange of letters that had the postman working overtime, letters that eventually contained words straight from the mystical heart of Cupid.
“Arnold and I were married 58 years ago at the courthouse in Gallipolis, Ohio,” said Skaggs. “We went to Hawks Nest State Park for our honeymoon and returned to Gallipolis where Arnold became a self-employed carpenter until he joined the union sometime during the 1970s.”
As a child Skaggs never recalls attending a movie theater, going shopping, buying ice cream or other childhood luxuries but as a young mother of two, she remembers them well.
“I’d take my kids to Gallipolis on Fridays and give them some pocket change for sweets. I’d make my furniture payment at Topes Furniture Store, meander through Murphy’s five and dime store and go grocery shopping at Johnson Super Market.”
Arnold became pastor at White Oak Baptist church where he remained for 40 years with Ruth leading the choir. He remained in this position until cancer took him away.
Ruth became quite an accomplished seamstress over the course of her working years. She operated a booth at the antique mall in Gallipolis selling everything from quilts to pillows and scarves. She also operated from a craft shop in Jackson, Ohio.
“I made my daughter’s wedding dress,” said Skaggs. “I’ve given away scarves and pillows at church and still provide routine and emergency alterations for the entire family while wearing out five different sewing machines.”
It shouldn’t surprise you to know she still drives, and 10 years ago she was teaching her great grandkids to do cartwheels. She attends Beulah Baptist Church and sings at the Heartland Nursing home in South Point.
Yeah, I think she’s definitely blessed; maybe the kids have spoiled her a little too.
Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.