The end of Ruth's life is, unfortunately, the part for which the greatest amount of information survives, both in terms of family anecdotes and written documentation.
For years, all I knew of Aunt Ruth was what I as a young child had taken from snippets of adult conversation I overheard. In my mind's eye, I pictured a stern, no-nonsense woman in sensible shoes - one with a good head for business, but not much heart for people.
This photo, taken not long before her death in 1959, seemed to support that vision.
However, that's not what the evidence - sketchy as it may be - shows.
After her husband's death in 1948, Ruth's role in the Brandon Company changed, but she remained a vital part of the business until her death.
The 1949 Polk's Directory for Little Rock.North Little Rock shows the principals of the business as as Walter N Brandon (this was Walter Jr., Ruth's step-son) President, Mary P Brandon, Vice President (Walter Jr.'s wife) and Ruth B Brandon, Sec/Treasurer.
Two letters found among my grandmother's personal effects after her death in 1998 painted vastly different pictures of Ruth Balding.
The first was a letter from one of Ruth's sisters to another in 1957, relating the first sister's disgust with Ruth's behavior on a recent visit to her sister's home. In it, the sister said (among other things), "You've let her get by with everything just because of that disease she has and she's making herself obnoxious to everybody." She closed the letter with, "If you repeat any of this, I'll deny it."
The disease Ruth had was called lymphatic leukemia
in the 1950s. Today, it is called lymphocytic leukemia,
and given the amount of time between the 1957 letter and her death on 30 Dec 1959, I think it's possible she had chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Ruth executed a will on 12 March 1956, almost 18 months before the letter referenced above. Whether she decided to make a will because she found out she had incurable cancer (as it was considered then), or simply because she felt it was time, I don't know. Today, median survival of patients with this form of leukemia is 8–10 years, compared with 5–6 years in series reported in the 1970s.
In her will, Ruth directed that the stock she owned in the Brandon Company be sold, with her step-son, Walter N Brandon, Jr., having the first option to buy it. She also directed that her home, automobile and personal effects be sold, and with the proceeds from the sale of the stock, all net proceeds were to be divided - with one third going to her mother, and the remaining two-thirds divided equally among her siblings.
At her death, Ruth would continue to provide for the welfare of her family.
The second letter was from Ruth to the sister who authored the 1957 letter, and was written five months before her death, in July 1959.
I had the distinct impression as I read the letter that somehow Ruth found out that at least two of her sisters were talking about her behind her back, and one of them had a major axe to grind.
In the letter, Ruth related a story to her sister about one of their brothers who, in 1948 (the year Walter Brandon died and Ruth became a fairly wealthy widow), had borrowed several thousand dollars from Ruth - interest free - to start his own business. As of the date of Ruth's letter, her brother had yet to repay a penny to her, although his business was thriving, and he had purchased two new cars and a boat. He also borrowed money from their mother for his business, and Ruth had insisted that her brother pay their mother interest on that loan, due to Hattie Balding being on a fixed income.
I wondered why this letter was in my grandmother's personal effects at the time of her death. It was not addressed to her. It had been forwarded by the sister who received it to one of their brothers almost one month after Ruth's funeral in 1960.
My aunt was able to provide the explanation for that. Apparently my grandmother had advocated unsuccessfully for her brother (the subject of Ruth's letter to her sister in 1959), the executor of Ruth's estate, to forego taking the 6% of Ruth's estate as her executor, since he still owed the estate the entire debt described in the 1959 letter. Their mother's share of the estate would be reduced by his administrator's fee.
According to my aunt, my grandmother was the lone voice crying in the wilderness. Her brother was unmoved, and the rest of her siblings refused to back her up.
The family photo from which I cropped the picture of Ruth above now seemed to make more sense.
I had often looked at that photo and felt that Ruth was quite separated from her family. In fact, she seemed to me to be poised for flight in her very sensible shoes.
Not long before her death, Ruth fired her housekeeper.
But she couldn't get rid of her. The woman wouldn't leave Ruth's home. Not only that, but the former housekeeper threatened Ruth.
Ruth called one of her nephews to see if he would come over and make the woman leave. He did, by telling her she had two choices - to leave under her own steam or with police escort.
Afterward, Ruth was still fearful of the threat. She retrieved a revolver owned by her late husband, and asked her nephew to load it for her.
On 18 December 1959, Ruth went to see her personal physician. What they discussed is unknown, but I think it is reasonable to believe her illness would have been part of that discussion. That was the last time her doctor saw her alive. From my sister's recollection of conversations with our grandmother (Ruth's younger sister), Ruth was in extreme pain due to her illness for quite some time before her death.
Shortly before 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 30 December 1959, Ruth Balding Brandon climbed the stairs to her bedroom in her home on South Battery Street, tied herself into her rocking chair, and shot herself in the left chest. Her nephew felt incredible guilt.
Ruth was the first born of her siblings, and the first to die. She was 56 years, 7 months, and 22 days old.
She was buried in the Balding family plot in Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock on 1 January 1960.
From the sermon preached at her funeral, I note the following:...We thank Thee for her strong sense of duty, her strength of will
and the fidelity with which she performed the tasks of life.
We thank Thee that in the world of business she lost nothing
of her high ideals and made no compromise of her womanly character...
We thank Thee for the heart of compassion that was within her
and which overflowed with countless deeds of generous love and
thoughtfulness. We thank Thee that these qualities of character
were not intermittent or transitory but the expression of a
steadfast purpose, followed through a lifetime.
I wish I had known her.
I'll meet you on the other side, Aunt Ruth.
Feel free to leave virtual flowers at Ruth's Find a Grave memorial, by clicking here.
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