Thomas F. O'Neill
The story below is about a woman that was born 106 years ago the same year my paternal Grandfather was born, unfortunately, my Grandfather passed away in 1982.
Reading this article reminds me of the great stories my Grandfather told me about what the world was like in the bygone days of my Grandfather’s youth.
It would also seem life was so much simpler during Ruth Fears childhood years as well.
I would like to wish everyone a happy and joyous new year and many more to come.
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106-year-old Mabton woman recalls holidays from a different era
By Jane Gargas firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated Dec 26, 2017
There was no regular Christmas tree.
Instead, they decorated a cedar branch with strips of tin foil. The stockings hanging along the wall weren’t red and velvety; they were worn every day by the children. Toys weren’t peeking out from those stockings, but each held a coveted orange inside. Flickering gas lamps, not electric ones, glowed through the house, while chicken and noodles simmered over a fire in the wood stove — Christmas in Kansas was a little different than Christmas in the Yakima Valley in 2017.
But, then again, it was 1911.
Ruth Fear of Mabton doesn’t remember anything about her first Christmas, but after all it was 106 years ago and she wasn’t quite three weeks old.
“Santa brought me,” she jokes.
But Ruth remembers so many other Christmases through the years, going back a century. She’s engaging and sharp, with an impish sense of humor, which has served her well during her 106 years.
Ruth was one of 10 children born to Amos and Grace Neer in the town of La Fontaine in eastern Kansas.
Their house wasn’t fancy, with three bedrooms, a kitchen, front room, and dining room. Like most homes at the time, there was no radio or telephone, let alone televisions or computers. A woodstove heated most of the house, but didn’t quite get to the bedrooms: “They were cold!” Ruth says emphatically.
Christmas in the early 1900s was a hallowed and memorable time in Ruth’s home, filled with the sounds of children playing and wondrous smells coming from the kitchen. “Whatever Mama cooked, we thought she was the best because she was our Mama.”
Since this was Kansas, there was always snow outside: “My Lord, there was lots of snow and cold.”
But inside, there was great joy. Even though they couldn’t afford a Christmas tree, the cedar branch the boys hauled down from the hills was all they needed. The children cut strips of tin foil and covered the needles until they sparkled. “Us kids thought it was beautiful,” she recalls.
On Christmas Eve, the children removed one of their socks and hung it by the stove. If they found an orange in it the next morning, they were thrilled. “That was really something,” Ruth says.
One year Santa delighted Ruth with a china doll all her own. Stuffed with cotton, the delicate doll wore a dress made by her mother. Ruth still has the doll, although the name she gave her has long since faded into the past. She now wears a dress Ruth sewed for her. “I loved my doll.”
Ruth's China Doll
Although Santa never left a lump of coal in her stocking — “I was a good girl” — one year an older brother filled her stocking with crumpled up newspaper. At the bottom, though, he left a penny, and that treat redeemed him.
Times weren’t easy in Kansas in those days, Ruth points out: Money was scarce, winters were long and bitter and the family lost two sons, one to whooping cough and another to the Spanish flu, which devastated families around the world in 1918-19.
Ruth is the last living member of her family. “They’re all gone but me.”
But even during times when everyone was scraping by, there were plenty of happy experiences, too. Ruth particularly remembers how pleased she was to sing Christmas carols at school and in church. “I loved to sing.”
During that time, she learned to play her mother’s organ, a purchase her grandparents made in the mid-1800s. Ruth’s older sister took lessons, then taught all her siblings how to play.
Ruth still has that organ.
As a young woman, Ruth was swept away by a young man named Wilson Fear. After they married, they moved to Oregon, near one of her brothers, to find work. Wilson did farm work and Ruth raised their two daughters.
“It was a long way from home, and those were hard days,” she says, remembering how difficult it was to make a living during the Depression.
She enjoys telling the story of a time when she bought gasoline for the car: She paid a dime and got a penny back. “Wasn’t I rich?” She laughs.
Ruth and Wilson always managed to make Christmas a happy time for their girls. “We weren’t rich, but we had nice things and good times,” says daughter Roberta Neal.
Roberta remembers well the Christmas her parents gave her a blackboard and chalk, just like the ones at school. Her father made it from a block of wood, which he painted. “My father said he only had 50 cents, and that’s what it cost to make.”
In 1951, when Wilson obtained a job at Hanford, the Fear family moved to Zillah.
They carried on Christmas traditions, some from Kansas, some new. Ruth baked Christmas cookies with her girls, but also became known for her rich chocolate cakes, made from scratch. Never in her life has she used a cake mix.
Ruth Fear, 106 years old
Another “never” for Ruth has been pants. She has yet to put on a pair; she’s worn dresses every day of her life.
But Ruth, whose first Christmas was in 1911, is on the cusp of entering a new era, a very digital one. That will happen when the entire family, all five generations, gathers on Christmas Eve, at the home of Ruth’s granddaughter Teri Trayan, where Ruth lives.
Since Ruth loves music but can’t always hear it well, one of her gifts will be a device with Bluetooth technology that will amplify the songs and hymns she loves, which means she’ll be able to listen to them without missing a word.
And with that, someone who started life at Christmas time just 11 years after the end of the 19th century will be propelled firmly into the 21st.
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Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
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Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found on his award winning blog, Link:
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