Thursday, October 03, 2002

Ruth's greeting

Simple poetry of a good life

        Ruth Djerf Dershimer died Monday. Heart failure. No, let's call it a heart attack. Her heart never failed her. Never.

        Here's how sweet she was:

        Her son-in-law couldn't even laugh at mother-in-law jokes.

        Her ex-husband still counted her as a friend.

        She had faith in the Bengals.

        She liked everybody, except the Clintons. And she never said anything really bad about them.

        She was smart, a teacher who graduated at the top of her class. But she never made anybody else feel stupid.

        A Latin and Greek scholar, she wasn't too snooty to watch QVC and the soaps in the afternoon.

        She put together scrapbooks for her children. Even better, she rallied through illness, clinging to life long enough to “be in the memory banks” of her grandchildren.

        And she wrote poetry for strangers.

        Colored paper. Illustrations and drawings. Sometimes there was a hand-written note, the cursive beautifully formed, penmanship learned a lifetime ago at Vine Street School in Over-the-Rhine.

        She returned to that neighborhood after graduation from the University of Cincinnati. “Mom really wanted to teach Latin,” says her daughter, Linnea Rocklin, “but they needed first-grade teachers.” So Ruth began a career in elementary education that lasted 34 years, with a nine-year hiatus to stay home with Linnea and her brother, Mark Dershimer.

        A workshop early in her career advised that children should be made to write — even just a little — every day. And while her first-graders wrestled with their lined paper and Golden Rod pencils, their teacher began to write “my little verses.”

        With a poet's talent for selective detail, she wrote about January's sinuses and W-2 forms and fuel bills, along with frost on the windowpane. In a verse about her father, she described him as a blue collar worker, a bowler, hunter and fisherman, “a solid, stolid sort.”

        She took a spectacular fall about a year ago, breaking four bones and postponing, she said, her tap-dancing debut at age 75. Linnea's husband, Bob, laughs appreciatively. “She even joked with the guys from the life squad when they came to take her to the hospital.”

        As she convalesced, of course, she wrote a poem, making fun of herself: “Thank heaven I'm not tumorous. But, oh, my broken humerus.” And another celebrating the nurses who took care of her. She did not make fun of other people.

        Some of the nurses, no doubt, made The List, the 140 or so people who started every month with the sweet words of Ruth Katharine Djerf Dershimer. Her poems are on bulletin boards all over the world, including mine here in Cincinnati.

        Ruth said she had a greeting card mentality. She did. And it wasn't the kind of greeting card that jokes about how old you are on your birthday. It was the kind that makes you feel lucky to have lived another year.

        Heart failure.

        I don't think so.

        E-mail Laura at or phone 768-8393.



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