It’s a Woman’s World
By: Ruth Wertzberger Carlson
In memory of Ruth Kuhl Kuhlmann (1917-2012)
We called her Auntie Mame because our Aunt Ruth reminded us so much of the flamboyant Rosalind Russell in the movie by that name. Ruth Kuhl Kuhlmann had an adventurous spirit, a contagious laugh, an easygoing attitude, and a flair for fashion that inevitably included scarves.
She was exotic compared to the moms we knew. First of all she worked! In the 1960’s Midwest no mom worked unless her husband had died. Aunt Ruth loved ordering, managing and selling the cosmetics and gift section of the Rexall drug store in Melrose, Minnesota, while her husband Ed was the only pharmacist in this tiny town.
Her backyard had a French style white iron patio table instead of the regular picnic tables we had in Iowa, a sunken living room and a 60’s style huge round clock surrounded by triangles. She married later in life and had our cousin Edie at age 45... unheard in the 60’s. Even the way she talked was special, “Isn’t this bee-you-tee-full” she’d exclaim often because she never took happy times for granted.
Ruth grew up in Dubuque, Iowa during the Great Depression and her older brothers worked to support her and her seven siblings. For weeks all the family had to eat was bean soup and peanut butter was a luxury. Sisters Rosie, Ruth (my mom) and Angie all slept in one bed. Ruth, who was eight years older than Rosie, was not happy when her younger sister let her best friend sleep over, making it four girls in a lumpy bed. With their age difference Rosie said Ruth was like her doll. When Dubuque held a contest to choose a girl most resembling Shirley Temple, Ruth twisted rags in mom’s wet hair overnight so she’d have curls in the morning. She dressed Rosie up in one of the few dresses she owned and trotted her out on stage to sing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” My tone deaf, brunette mother did not win, but it was a story Ruth dined on for years.
Despite tight finances, my grandparents somehow found the money to send their girls to the Immaculate Conception Academy. Nuns ran this Catholic high school for girls and their idea of sex education was advising young ladies not to kiss anyone till they married, to always double date, and if they had to sit on a boys lap in a car to put a telephone book in between them.
During World War II Ruth dated a soldier so the Clubs in Dubuque gave her the best tables and she lit up the dance floor jitterbugging. Unfortunately there were so many men after her she sent the soldier a Dear John letter. Rosie, who looked up to her big sister, said Ruth could have any man she wanted. A dentist was after her! That was the jackpot in small town Iowa. But Ruth stayed single for a long time, and left her hometown of Dubuque to move to the big city of Minneapolis. She acted in plays and modeled fur coats until the manager hit on her.
Finally Ruth settled down and married Ed Kuhlman. As she said, “A Kuhl woman married a Kuhlman.” Ed was the kindest, most gentle man you’d ever meet. Together they opened up the Rexall drugstore in Melrose. Ruth loved working so much she quit at age 88. One time the Coen movie director brothers came into her store and left without Ruth realizing who they were. When another customer told her, she was outraged. “They didn’t buy a thing!” she exclaimed.
Later Ruth and Rosie became best friends and the big sis was always looking out for my mom. When my dad came over to pick Rosie up for a date, Ruth shoved her father in the closet because he was drunk. “Who’s coming over, the Governor of California?” asked Granddaddy. When Rosie married, money was still tight, so Ruth lent her wedding dress.
Every summer Ed and Ruth were generous enough to let my family of ten children invade their lake cabin in Minnesota. We loved seeing our cousins Paul, Edie and Augie. Uncle Ed’s brother had a cabin next door and we swooned over his son’s, who were tan, fit college students that took us water skiing.
The adults started drinking the “martoonies” (as they referred to martinis) right at five o’clock and one night, after Ruth had a few, she decided to play a prank on her brother-in-law's son who had experienced some wild times in San Francisco. Ruth ran in the house put on some jeans, a floppy hat, huge sunglasses, a daisy behind one ear and in her bare feet against a large pine tree. “Hello,” she called in a falsetto voice. He looked up nervously. “Come here, don’t you remember me?” Nervously he approached the strange woman while she kept talking. By this time my parents were doing their best not to laugh out loud. “Remember San Francisco? I’ve come to see you.” He stammered and looked scared to death that she was going to tell him she was pregnant. Finally my parents started guffawing and Ruth took off her that and sunglasses. He didn’t think it was too funny, but only Aunt Ruth could pull off playing a 20-year- old when she was middle-aged.
While the girls dove in the lake from the end of the dock, Rosie and Ruth dangled their feet in the water, wearing shower caps to protect their perfectly coiffed aqua net dos from splashes. They took the opportunity to give us wise advice such as: “Its just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man,” “Why would a man buy the cow when he can get the milk for free,” “Anyone can get married,” and “Go to college so you can work in case your husband dies.” And my favorite, Aunt Ruth’s phrase, “It’s a woman’s world!” It was the start of “women’s lib” and Ruth was already living it, working and taking care of her children.
Ruth was also different because she traveled…buying a leather (leather!) coat in Spain and visiting Hong Kong when her husband attended a pharmacy convention. Of course with Ruth there was always drama. She accidently set the curtain on fire ironing. The manager came in, saw all of Ed’s asthma medicine and accused them of being drug smugglers. Ruth yelled back that their curtains were flammable and a danger to guests. As usual with men, the manager backed down to Ruth.
When Ed died, Ruth continued traveling alone, visiting us in San Francisco where she enjoyed tea dancing at the Hyatt, seeing her daughter and her new granddaughter Nicole in London, coming to my sister Carrie’s wedding in Monterey and taking a church led tour of Jerusalem.
Ruth had a sense of adventure, which my mom did not always appreciate. Once she decided to surprise my mom by showing up unexpectedly at our home in Dubuque. My mom, still in her robe, opened the door, turned around without a word, and went upstairs to her bedroom. She calmed down soon enough but there was nothing Rosie disliked more than having company see a messy house, even though Ruth kept protesting “But I’m your sister, not company!”
Ruth and Rosie’s favorite activity was bargain shopping…my mom called it entertainment. Sometimes Rosie asked me to help her hide some of the bargains in the closet so my dad didn’t see them. Shopping must be in our genes since my five sisters and cousin Edie recently get together often to scour the Union Square stores on San Francisco for treasures.
Ruth and Rosie were very religious but when my mom died of cancer at age of 53 Ruth said she was mad at God for a long time. While my mom was a strict Catholic who believed every word in the Bible, Ruth was more relaxed. She said “What’s wrong with gays? They don’t hurt anyone.” And she continued to be friends with the man in Melrose who changed his gender.
When Ruth finally retired she moved into a nursing home where both of the men were after her and the women were jealous. She picked the dapper dresser who could drive and also had a boat! She and her friend used to sneak out of the home and grab a bus to the bar down the street for a drink. The first time it happened the nursing home was frantic to find her, but after they discovered her, the bartender started posting a sign in his window when she visited, “Ruth’s here.”
Later she moved to an actual house with five other seniors. She loved her caretaker Alison and it was mutual. Her son Paul lived nearby and visited her everyday for lunch. Allison made sure Ruth got her boxed white wine for dinner and Ruth was known to sneak out in the middle of the night and get another glass. My brother Bill makes Wertzberger wine and he’d send her bottles. Ruth let Allison drink the good stuff and then she’d fill the empty bottles with her boxed wine and declare at the dinner table, “Oh this wine is so good! It’s delicious!”
She told me she wanted to meet a man, but said, “Where am I going to meet them stuck here in this home?” The last time I saw her she had to have her pacemaker replaced and all she cared about was whether the doctor would be cute. When she came home, Allison wheeled her up the ramp and she shouted “whee!” Her sense of humor remained intact until the end. Ruth loved life, despite the tragedies in her own, breast cancer, growing up during the depression, losing two sons, her husband, and her nine siblings, (two died as infants during the first Pandemic flu epidemic).
When I was young I hated my name. It sounded like an old lady to me and to this day most Ruth’s are usually around 90 years old. Whenever I acted spacey or said something silly my dad said “We sure named you after the right person.” I laughed and took it as a complement. Now I’m proud to be named Ruth and only hope that I can be as much of an inspiration to my nieces and nephews that Ruth was to us.