The Eulogy for Ruthann Stefel
(July 15, 1945 – September 19, 2020)
1Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 18:1-8
You know how we get all these cards at Christmastime in which the sender includes a letter summarizing the events of the past year in their family? Maybe you’ve done this yourself. I have.
They’re nice to receive – reading them we get caught up on what has transpired in the life of the family. The letter paints a picture of life in the family, and generally it’s a portrait that seems flawless. We hear of wonderful trips taken and promotions and awards received.
Occasionally reading such a letter can leave us feeling a little inadequate. Geez, in comparison my family doesn’t measure up!
In actuality, the picture has been photo-shopped. Editing has been done that cuts out the struggles, the conflicts, the failures that inevitably are a part of every life story — the not so good stuff that tends to occur right there beside the undeniably good stuff.
Ruthann sent out the best Christmas letters because she told the unedited, unvarnished truth. My wife said she always looked forward to Ruthann’s Christmas letter because it didn’t pull any punches, and JR tells me my wife wasn’t the only one. You might say it took courage on Ruthann’s part to write such vulnerable Christmas letters, but she probably wouldn’t have thought of it that way. She would have probably said, “What the point of going through life as a bull-shitter?”
And so I’m going to try and give a little summary of Ruthann’s life story in the same spirit. It’s a remarkable story, one in which as I listened to JR and Ginny tell details I didn’t know left me feeling in awe of this woman.
So let’s start at the beginning. Ruthann was the first born child to Harry and Joy Frandsen, born in Brooklyn on July 15, 1945 just six weeks before the end of World War II. During the first years of Ruthann’s life the family lived modestly. Harry wasn’t home much, starting his career by day and going to school by night.
The family moved to Long Island, and then when Ruthann was a teenager they moved to Framingham, Massachusetts. Adolescence is a socially awkward time for anybody and a particularly hard time to leave all your friends behind. In Framingham Harry’s career began to take off and the family seemed well on the road to attaining the great American dream.
Except there was this little bump in that road and that was that Ruthann found herself pregnant at the age of 16, a fact that did not sit well with her parents in the world of suburban America in 1961.
Getting pregnant at 16 was what we would generally call a “mistake”, and yet in life things that can seem like mistakes in the present can in the long term turn out to be great blessings. Ruthann gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Debbie who would grow up to be a very loving, giving woman – much like her mom – marrying a very kindhearted man named Dwain – a union that would produce for Ruthann three wonderful grandchildren and three delightful greatgrandchildren – some of the greatest treasures of Ruthann’s life.
Nonetheless, in the short term the conflict between Ruthann and her parents over her pregnancy led Ruthann to move out of her parents’ home to live with relatives George and Olga up in Massachusetts. After Debbie’s birth, Ruthann moved with her baby down to West Orange, New Jersey.
Life as a single, teenage mom was very, very hard but Ruthann embraced her roles of both devoted Mom and hard-working breadwinner. Her capacity to make friends proved invaluable. She found an apartment living above a couple named Nancy and Sammy, who became adopted family for Ruthann and Debbie. Sammy taught Ruthann how to cook Italian food, and though Ruthann wasn’t Italian under Sammy’s tutelage she learned to cook Italian food better than any Italian. When Ruthann was working out of the home Nancy and Sammy would help Ruthann with childcare.
Just nine months after Debbie was born, Ruthann’s parents had another baby, Ruthann’s little sister Ginny. In a perfect world Ruthann would have been there to share fully in the joy of her little sister’s earliest years. But the strife with her parents didn’t make that possible. I’ll return to this part of the story in a little while, but suffice to say that there was a commitment to family and a raw determination in Ruthann that would make sure that over time Ruthann and her sister Ginny would grow to become very close.
By the time Ruthann was 21 she had fallen in love, gotten married, and given birth to a second child, a son named Charlie. Unfortunately Ruthann’s husband was abusive. The marriage lasted only four years, and scary though it surely must have been, Ruthann found the courage to leave the abuse behind and strike out on her own with Debbie and Charlie.
Ruthann was as a hard a worker as there ever was. In the morning she would get Debbie and Charlie up, dressed, and fed, pack their lunches and send them off to school, after which she went directly to the job by which she supported her family, returning home in time to be there for her children as they returned home from school. Ruthann would made sure they did their homework, serve them dinner, get them in their jammies and kiss them “good night” and then with Aunt Nancy and Uncle Sammy watching over her children head back to work.
Ruthann worked as a salesperson selling appliances, a job that back in the sixties was typically considered work reserved for men. She got some push back from the male salespersons who resented her presence in the store. But there was this quality Ruthann of eventually winning people over, and before long men who had told her she didn’t belong were treasuring Ruthann as their friend.
Through these years, Ruthann persisted in slowly re-establishing a connection with her parents and her little sister. Knowing Joy, I’m sure that she was full of regret regarding how things had played out. Ruthann would pack her kids in the car and drive to Massachusetts for weekend visits. When Ginny was twelve she spent an entire summer living with her sister Ruthann in New Jersey, a summer marked by lots of trips to the shore.
From that point moving forward in life, Ruthann became the person Ginny would turn to when she needed emotional support and advice.
Ruthann always had a tremendous capacity to listen deeply that made people feel safe to share their struggles with her, and once she had truly heard what they had to say Ruthann would proceed to give them honest feedback – as I said before, no bullshit. Wherever she worked, people always valued this quality in Ruthann.
At the age of 29 Ruthann met Jimmy Stefel on a date set up by friends. Ruthann liked Jimmy and enjoyed his company as a friend, but she didn’t see herself marrying him. Jimmy however had other ideas and for three years he pursued Ruthann. Over time Ruthann succumbed to Jimmy’s charms, and on June 25th, 1977 they were married at the West Orange Presbyterian Church. The wedding was delayed a bit because Ruthann’s father apparently forgot he was supposed to pick her up to bring her to the church. Nonetheless they made their vows before God to love one another for the rest of their lives – vows they would never break. A reception was held at the West Orange Elks Club. Afterwards, the couple honeymooned at the shore.
With Jimmy at her side, life became a good deal happier for Ruthann. One of the most appealing qualities Jimmy brought to their marriage was the fact that he readily gave himself over to the role of step-dad to Charlie and Debbie, which proved to be a bit more of a challenge with Debbie who by the time of the marriage hitting adolescence. But gradually Jimmy’s innate goodness won Debbie over, and she would adore him for the rest of her life.
Jimmy and Ruthann wanted to have a child together, but the doctors who examined Ruthann told her that problems had developed in her body that would make it pretty near impossible for her to conceive and give birth to a child.
And so it was considered nothing less than a miracle when in 1983 Ruthann gave birth to the baby boy who they would come to call JR.
For the first time in her adult life – an adulthood that began earlier than most at age 16 – Ruthann stopped working outside the home, with the one exception being the babysitting she did of a couple of neighborhood children to help earn some money for the family. For five years Ruthann was a stay at home mom. JR remembers his mom taking him to every single amusement park that was within driving distance.
During this time Ruthann’s father Harry’s health declined. JR also remembers many weekends in which his mom would drive him to Massachusetts so they could be with her father and lend support to her mother in caring for him. The shared delight in little JR helped with the ongoing process of knitting this once very broken family back together again. JR’s presence brought a lot of sunshine into the lives of Harry and Joy.
Ruthann’s Dad died in 1988 when JR was five. The life of Ruthann’s mother had totally revolved around her beloved husband during the last ten years of his life, and there was concern regarding how in her isolation and great grief Joy would survive.
And so it came to pass that Joy, Ruthann and Jimmy bought a house together in Parsippany with this great pool out back. A new chapter began in the family’s life. It provided an opportunity for Ruthann and Joy to continue work on their relationship together and to form many happy new memories as a family together. Living with Ruthann, Jimmy and JR and connecting with our church Joy truly blossomed as a person.
Ruthann loved feeding people. A tradition was soon established of the family throwing a great end-of-the-summer pool party to mark JR’s birthday — August 31st. Ruthann would cook for a week and on the day of the party there would be 5 or 6 picnic tables laid out with food she’d cooked with love, and a steady flow of people coming by the house through the course of the day. I remember those parties. They were so light-hearted and fun.
In Parsippany Ruthann went back to working in sales beginning with Topps. It was said that Ruthann could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo. She really enjoyed her work – enjoyed interacting with the customers and the sales team. For several years Ruthann won awards for her sales record that earned her something like a dozen different cruises for Jimmy and her — and occasionally JR — to go on – vacations they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.
For a time Ruthann worked doing kitchen design for Home Expo bringing her interior decorating sensibilities into play. Later she worked at PC Richards.
Wherever she worked Ruthann made friends. She was so easy to talk to. At summer and holiday company parties Ruthann would share her culinary gifts.
Typically Ruthann would work from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., doing laundry and cooking dinner before she left for work. JR has fond memories of the nightly routine that took place when his mom would get home from work. His parents would sit down at the kitchen table over pot of coffee, each taking turns sharing with the other how their days had gone. It was so clear to JR that his parents were each other’s best friends.
But as I said at the outset of this eulogy life inevitably contains not only joy but hard times as well – that truth Ruthann didn’t gloss over in her yearly Christmas letters.
Along with the happy times, there were times when Ruthann with her best friend at her side endured unimaginable heartache. On March 9th, 1998 Ruthann’s daughter Debbie died in a car crash. It absolutely broke Ruthann’s heart. This isn’t the natural order of things. A parent should never have to lose a child.
And then twelve years later the unimaginable happened a second time. Charlie died unexpectedly on February 12th, 2010.
As JR put it, there were many times in the course of his mother’s life when she could have just laid down and simply given up. Many of us could imagine ourselves doing exactly that in the face of what she was forced to endure. But Ruthann kept going, kept showing up for those she loved. She persevered. That’s why I read the passage from Luke 18:1-8 about the poor widow who kept banging on the unjust judge’s door, never giving up. Ruthann persisted in the face of all that was going against her in life, and a quality Jesus identified as being closely akin to “faith.”
Among those Ruthann loved were her sister Ginny, and her children, Jessica and Derek. Regardless of the distance between them, for the past 25 years Ruthann and Ginny would spend time every morning talking on the phone. In the course of her life Ruthann persevered so that the initial barrier that stood between them in Ginny’s earliest years was overcome overtime with Ginny becoming Ruthann’s other best friend.
Ginny moved to Florida, and when she was married Victor in October of 2004 Ruthann, Jimmy, and JR flew down to share in the celebration, spending two weeks in Florida, beginning a tradition that would continue for years to come. It was a special time of devoted to having fun together, which was another thing Ruthann was good at. In spite of all the challenges she dealt with in life, Ruthann could be so funny – so fun to be with it. She had this great, contagious way of laughing.
As time passed, Jimmy and Ruthann began to make plans to retire in Florida to be near Ginny, Victor, Jessica and Derek.
In 2012 however Jimmy was diagnosed with liver disease. And then a year later Ruthann was diagnosed with both Scleroderma and Raynaud’s Disease. She was told by her doctor that she could expect to live only another 3 to 5 years.
But there were people relying on Ruthann so she had to stay strong. Jimmy worked for as long as he could, grateful for the accommodation the Township made in transferring him to a less physically demanding job. By December of 2014 however Jimmy had become too weak to continue working. In the last months of his life Ruthann took such tender care of her beloved husband.
As weak as Jimmy was, he wanted one last trip to Florida. And so it came to pass that in late April of 2015 Ruthann somehow managed to get Jimmy on a plane to Florida where upon arrival at the airport he was surprised to be greeted by his son JR who had flown down ahead of him from Delaware. Jimmy had a bucket list of things he wanted to do before he died. He wanted to sit on the beach and feel the warm sand beneath his feet. Jimmy wanted to go fishing and eat stone crabs and eat ice cream with jimmies. He got most of the list accomplished before dying on May 3rd. When he finally departed this world, Ruthann and JR were by his side, accompanied by Ginny, Victor and Jesse.
Two years later Ruthann finally made the move to Florida in order to be close to Ginny and her family. By this time she had lived for four years with two diseases her doctor had told her would allow her to live at most five years.
But Ruthann lived another three years.
JR had been living and working for five years in Delaware. Whenever JR had truly needed his mother, she would drop everything and fly to be with him in Delaware. Now for the last year of his mother’s life, JR moved to Largo to live with her – to be there for her in her need.
Accustomed to being so independent — so there for others — it was very hard for Ruthann to accept the limitations imposed by her declining health.
In the last six months she required several hospital stays, but each time Ruthann returned home with what seemed like a boost of energy, inspiring her to be up and doing more than her doctors probably would have wanted her to be doing. She cooked. She planned for visits by her family, especially her three great grandchildren. They were supposed to have come for Easter, but then the pandemic struck. Ruthann made sure JR shipped them the Easter baskets she had prepared for them. When an Easter family get together didn’t happen, Ruthann began to set her heart on the family coming for Thanksgiving.
JR tenderly cared for his mother. The one benefit of the pandemic was that it allowed JR to work from home, so he could keep his job but still be there at his mother’s side whenever she needed him. Ginny, Victor, Jessica and Derek were there to also lend support.
Ruthann was discharged from her final stay in the hospital on a Friday. Once again she seemed to have rallied some. On Wednesday JR cooked scallops and Ginny and Victor came over for dinner. Thursday there was conversation about Thanksgiving and Christmas and where to set up the tree.
Friday though, Ruthann deteriorated drastically, drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point she asked JR what day it was. JR believes his mother was determined that she wouldn’t die on her granddaughter Nicole’s birthday. In the early morning hours of Saturday Ruthann died with her son JR and her sister Ginny at her side.
She was met on the far side by Debbie, Charlie and Jimmy, by her parents, Joy and Harry and countless others who had shared love with her in this life.
Ruthann knew how to love in this life.
Among those she loved were her son-in-law Dwain and her daughter-in-law Lisa and with whom Ruthann stayed made the effort to stay connected long after their spouses – her children — had passed. She cherished her six grandchildren: Jennifer, Nicole, and Christopher and Anthony, Tiffany and Juliana. She adored her great-grandchildren – Jennifer’s kids — Gabby, Brody and Everleigh.
And reflecting upon Ruthann’s story I find myself in standing in awe of her. She knew what the Apostle Paul was telling us in 1Corinthians 13 – that love is why we are here. There are echoes of Ruthann in Paul’s words:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
She modelled for us how to endure all things, how to let go of resentments, and how to forgive and reconcile. She showed how to be truly authentic in this world — showed us what love looks like when the rubber meets the road.
There is another verse from the Apostle Paul in which he speaks of how “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
When Ruthann departed this world, she entered the glory of which Paul speaks – that ocean of pure love and light that makes the suffering of this life seems ever so small – a mere drop of water in comparison. That is impossible for us to grasp. This life can be really hard sometimes, and Ruthann knew some really, really hard times. But the suffering is not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed to us. This is truth – a truth Ruthann now knows face to face.
And this is also true. Love never ends. Ruthann loves you still, and heaven isn’t far away, which means though you cannot see her, she is close at hand as well. She was always easy to talk to, so talk to her whenever you need somebody to listen. And after you’ve talked your piece, take time to listen because if you listen hard enough you will hear her speaking to you with the assistance of the Holy Spirit — telling it like is – no bullshit – pointing to you the way forward.
Ruthann’s rooting for you to keep on loving — come what may.