Our mom used to mention an Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister, who lived in Taos, New Mexico, and was an artist. We’d met Ruth on a couple of occasions, she assured us, but we had been so young at the time, we had (and still have) no recollection of those encounters.
But as we grew into adulthood and came to more greatly appreciate creative types—bohemians, as they are sometimes called—we began to wonder about Aunt Ruth and to fervently wish we could at the very least see some of her artwork, which Mom had led us to understand would be paintings.
We did an internet search every few years but never turned anything up, in large part because didn’t know her last name (we assumed she’d been married at some point).
We even included a heavily fictionalized version of Aunt Ruth in one entry in Men My Mother Dated and Other Mostly True Tales, the collection of humorous essays and stories we published some years back. In this particular tale, Ruth and her husband lived not in Taos, but in Amarillo, Texas, where they operated a roadside eatery. The story had it that Mom, feeling restless as her senior year in high school approached, was given permission to spend the summer with Aunt Ruth and work as a waitress in the diner.
As the story progresses, Mom meets Jack Kerouac, who is traveling south from Denver with Neal Cassady to visit William S. Burroughs in Mexico City. A mildly fictionalized account of that trip is found in Kerouac’s novel On the Road, but Mom’s encounter with Kerouac isn’t, of course, mentioned there, since it never happened (except in the pages of our book).
In recent years, we’ve become an avid (if entirely amateur) genealogist, digging gleefully into the various branches of our family tree via ancestry.com and other, similar sites. But only very recently did we make any serious progress in learning more about Aunt Ruth, who was, it turns out, a citizen of some prominence in Taos, so much so that one Mary Alden penned a 1,000-word profile of her for The Taos News that was published on March 4, 1999, nearly a month after Ruth passed away.
From that profile, we learned much more than we’d ever known about Ruth (which was admittedly next to nothing).
The fifth of six children, Ruth was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on January 15, 1912. She demonstrated an affinity for music from an early age, playing cello, violin and piano; she even played with a symphony orchestra for a time when she lived in or near Kansas City.
Ruth was very bright, beginning kindergarten at age 4 and skipping seventh and eight grades to enter high school at the age of 12. She graduated at 16 and shortly thereafter entered her freshman year at the University of Oklahoma.
During her junior year of college, Ruth met one Thomas Benjamin Hatcher and soon dropped out of school to marry him. They had two sons, but as Ruth, who had become a Quaker (she was raised in a family of Methodists), wrote in her unpublished memoir, “My Southern gentleman husband could not reconcile himself to my being ‘color blind’ and a pacifist, and finally told me at the dinner table one evening that anyone who believed the way I did didn’t deserve a home and children.”
The pair eventually divorced and Ruth continued to pursue her degree. Author and poet Peggy Pond Church, whom Ruth met at a seminar, convinced her that Taos was the place to be, so on May 26, 1943, Ruth and her sons moved there. “For me,” Ruth wrote, “Taos was love at first sight and the only place I’ve ever been homesick for.”
Ruth’s friend, Mary Baca Olguin, told Alden, “Ruth did a lot of community volunteer work. She was always helping the people who needed it the most, and she never wanted pay.”
Olguin was one of many of Ruth’s acquaintances who benefited from Ruth’s expertise as a self-taught nutritionist. “Ruth made it her business to study nutrition, and she helped a lot of people with her knowledge,” said Olguin. “She was a great believer in good eating habits. I got very sick, and it’s because of her that I’m still living.”
Susan Mooney, an artist who lived in Taos in the late 1970s and early ’80s, credited Ruth with saving her life. “I had terrible asthma, and I was taking prescription drugs,” Mooney said. “I told [Ila] I didn’t think I could live much longer, and doctors didn’t know what was the matter with me. Ila told me to talk to Ruth, because she knew a lot about nutrition.
“Ruth changed my diet. A year and a half later I got off the medication, and then I got over asthma and recovered.”
The “Ila” Mooney mentions was painter Ila Mae McAfee, who moved to Taos in 1928 to open the White Horse Studio. Ruth became her personal secretary. McAfee was known for her pueblo paintings and her depictions of horses and other animals as well as Native Americans, ranch scenes and landscapes. She was a WPA artist in the 1930s, painting murals for various post offices in the region, and in 1981 was named Taos Artist of the Year.
Though no mention is made in the story of Ruth being the painter we thought she was, Alden does state that Ruth was a craftsperson who knitted and did tin work and helped to form the Taos Craft Guild. And given that she was friends with poets and painters, it’s clear that at the very least, Ruth ran in artistic circles.
She also was a charter member of the Little Theater in Taos, played in music groups, tutored reading students, helped start a natural food store and later a natural food co-op, Amigos de Salud.
All in all, a life well-lived and definitely an existence that differed noticeably from the lives of her siblings, who lived on farms and small towns in Oklahoma and Kansas and who didn’t, so far as we know, have an artistic impulse between them.