My Grandma Ruby

In a break from my traditional type post, my grandma Ruby passed away last week at the age of 102, and I was afforded the honor and privilege of speaking at her funeral yesterday in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.  Below is my speech…


Good afternoon and on behalf of the family, thank you so much for being here.

I’m Ruby’s grandson, Kyle Duke Kerwin, aka Kyle-a-roo, aka #1 grandson

She gave me the nickname Kyle-a-roo.  I gave myself the #1 grandson nickname for two reasons.  One reason was just a little dig at my less handsome but slightly younger cousin Kasey so he would always have to be #2 grandson.  But mainly I started signing cards,  and making phone calls to her by calling myself #1 grandson to make her smile or laugh.  And I loved to make grandma laugh because she had this wonderful, pure, big laugh that just made you feel good.

And that’s one of the difficult things about saying goodbye.  I will miss that laugh.

You know, there’s this beautiful poignancy at the end of life that brings about sadness and sorrow, but at the same time, in the right conditions, can bring about a strange sense of relief and even joy if allowed.

I found myself in that situation last week with my beautiful grandma Ruby.  It was just hours before she passed.  My wife and daughter had just left the nursing home, and I wanted to sit there with her by myself for a few more moments.  I didn’t know if I would see her again the next day or day after, but I just needed that moment with her.  It was the Holy Spirit nudging me to stay there.  I know it.

But as I reflected back on that moment in the days after she passed, the one thing I realized though is that it wasn’t just me that was there all alone sitting with her.  At that moment it was also my wife and daughter, it was my mom and dad there with me.  It was my sister Kari–Dairy, and my cousins Tina, Jennifer, and Kimberlee lee lee and #2 grandson Kasey-Doodlebug.  It was uncles, aunts, friends and relatives and lives she’s touched through the years.  It was all of you that were with me in that moment last week.

As I sat there I thought to read her the article from 2011 that many of you may have seen or read at one time.  Some of you may have actually been at her speaking engagement here in Pawhuska at the Heeko Club where they honored her.  The article is a nice recap of her life, and some of her stories that’s condensed into about a 7 or 8 minute read.  You can’t really fit 102 years into a 2000-word article or even into a brief 10 minute speech up here.  But grandma loved to tell stories, so I read her her story.

Grandma always told me she felt like she had lived 3 separate lives.  One life growing up in western Oklahoma with stories about her parents and her sisters and brothers and friends.  She had a good childhood.  They were poor, but they didn’t know they were poor.

Her second life was after she met and married that “misplaced Texas cowboy” who loved to dance named Kay Duke.

And then a third life since his passing in 1975.  She lived a widow’s life for over 40 years.  I barely remember my grandpa Kay as I was only 4 years old when he passed here in Pawhuska at their house on 7thstreet, but man it’s like he was around much longer because of grandma’s stories.

And she could tell some good stories all the way up until even a few weeks ago.

She lived in Bentonville, Arkansas for the past year close to my parents and close to my wife Rebekah and myself and our daughter Caroline.  And by the way, my wife and daughter were unbelievable this past year.  They would go visit her.  They would paint her fingernails and toenails and she was so, so appreciative of the visits and the attention from them, and from those of you that visited.  It wasn’t an easy transition or final year for her.

Honestly, many of her days were filled with feelings of sickness and helplessness, but she still managed to tell those stories.  She also managed to half-jokingly tell me it was my fault she was in Arkansas!  But I would kiddingly remind her – I would say ‘Grandma, you were the first of the immediate family to own property in Arkansas.’  She and grandpa Kay actually owned a lot in Bella Vista, AR for a short time, and I have the picture to prove it.  So I told her it was her fault that we all ended up in Arkansas and she would just laugh that big ol’ Ruby laugh.

My daughter was able to interview her last year for a school project about The Great Depression.  What’s ironic is I interviewed her for an English assignment in 8th grade back in 1985 about the Great Depression, and I still have that article (an “A” by the way).  But some 33 years later at the age of 101, the stories were still very similar from what she remembered to tell me and what she remembered to tell Caroline.

She could tell you stories about the Great Depression, about the Dust Bowl days, about sitting on her daddy’s lap and helping to drive a Model T car, and the invention of the television.  It’s amazing.  She was 53 when man first walked on the moon.  53!  Many of us in here were not even born yet.

She was just a great story teller, and not because she had these long elaborate stories, but because she had the ability to communicate them succinctly and hit the punch line at the right time.  I loved them.  We all loved them.  She had her favorites for sure.  She may tell you those favorites numerous times, but it didn’t matter because they just were classic Ruby Duke stories.

She could remember back to days of playing house in the basement with her sister Pearl.  They referred to themselves as Miss Chievous and Miss Stout, and they would take food down there and occasionally sneak a pint of strawberry preserves that their mother had jarred and stored in the basement, and grandma would eat some and put them back behind all the rest of the full jars, and she told me – “And I never got caught!”  And I believe her.

Of course, there were the stories of meeting grandpa Kay who was a well-known bachelor at the time.  Grandma told me that they were being followed one night and it was Kay and his cousin Jake Leemaster and they asked grandma and her friend out on a double date.  Well to hear grandma tell it – she thought she was going out with Jake because “he was a handsome fella and Kay was not good looking at all.”  Well she and grandpa grew on each other especially when they realized how much they loved to dance.  It was dancing that really brought them together.

And grandma could dance.  She won a dance contest one time doing the Charleston.  I showed her a black and white video on my phone just a few months ago of a woman doing the Charleston and asked her is this how you used to do it?  This made her smile, but in true grandma Ruby fashion she said – “yes that’s how I danced, but I kicked way higher than that girl does!”

Of course the great story about moving from Shattuck to Pawhuska after grandma had marveled at the beautiful scenery from their back porch in Shattuck at which grandpa responded – “Ruby, cattle can’t eat scenery.”

So they moved to Pawhuska and began ranching here with their mischievous first two sons Govan and Kelly and my perfect angel mom Gayle.  And she loved to tell about Govan’s and Kelly’s shenanigans like them sitting in the front row of church, and as my grandma would be singing this beautiful solo in the choir, because grandma could also sing, well, Govan and Kelly would be plugging their ears on the front row.  Or how those two tied my mom up to a rocking chair and put her in the front lawn in the freezing cold and held the other end of the rope from inside the house and would rock her as cars drove by.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Of course baby Ricky came along while they lived in Pawhuska and rounded out the family, and he also apparently got all the special treatment according to the others.

She loved the memories of all the grandchildren getting together and performing Christmas plays every year.  She would talk about those memories.

I don’t how many of you knew this, but Grandma and I were roommates one summer in Norman.  My parents had moved to Manhattan, Kansas for a job, but still owned their house in Norman, and I was on summer break from St Gregory’s College in Shawnee, so grandma moved out of her duplex a few blocks away and into my parents’ house.  We spent many an evening that summer eating some good home cooked food, because grandma could cook too!  We spent those evenings watching “Wheel of Fortune” and “Murder She Wrote,” and just laughing.

She loved to laugh.  She also loved fiercely.  She loved her family obviously.  But she also loves Jesus.  How many 95 year olds do you know that are, or were in a Bible study?  Well she was.  I found her Bible Study group sheet from 2009-2010 when she lived in Norman.  She loved to study the Bible.  She loved to talk to Jesus.

She loved to teach about the Bible and Jesus too.  She had one particular story from her Pawhuska days that she loved more than any other story in her final months here I’m convinced.  I don’t remember the boys’ name, but grandma would tell the tale of teaching the high school Sunday School class and asking the class if anyone knew what the Golden Rule was.  One of the boys in his class raised his hand and said “Do unto others before they do unto you!”  This made her laugh.  I still laugh and I’ve heard that story no less than 50 times through the years.

Oh the stories we’ll take with us and pass on to the next generations!  And I can’t wait to hear some of the other stories out here from you all when I end this two hour speech and we get out of here.

But going back to that moment with her last week, the thing I wished more than anything was not for a miraculous recovery that would just prolong the misery that she had been enduring the past year or so, but the thing I selfishly wished the most, and I think most of us have probably wished it at one time or another is – to be able to just get a glimpse.  Just 10 or 15 seconds.  I would have loved to see grandma Ruby from a distance cross to the other side.  I wanted to see who was waiting on her and the celebration that getting ready to happen.  I just wanted to see the welcoming party you know.

There’s a beautiful song from 2001 called “I Can Only Imagine” by the band MercyMe and there’s a line in there that goes “Surrounded by Your glory.  What will my heart feel?  Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still?”  Well, I think, no, I know grandma Ruby was tired of being still on this earth because her 102 year old body wasn’t meant to move like it once had.

So I like to imagine grandpa Kay was at the head of that welcoming party and I like to think that if I had got that glimpse, that 10 seconds or so, that grandma would have turned to me and given me one of those “Look at me.  I’m good.  You can go now and tell everyone how good I am now.”  She would have waived and blown me kiss as she Charlestoned off with grandpa and embraced her parents and her son Kelly and her brothers and sisters.

So even though we may never get a wish like my wish with grandma Ruby we can definitely rest easy and assured in knowing that – as my cousin Kim so accurately said in a recent Facebook post – it’s not goodbye, grandma.  It’s only see-you-later.



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