A Family Tribute to Ruth McDowell

On Saturday 10th September we gathered together to give thanks to God for the life and witness of our beloved sister Ruth McDowell. Her nephew, Martin, paid this touching and personal tribute to her and we post it here for those who were unable to attend. It is a beautiful picture of a special person:

The question I’ve been asking myself these past few days is “how do you sum up 68 years in a matter of minutes?” And when those 68 years are lived by the whirlwind that was Ruth McDowell, it becomes almost impossible.  Memories of Ruth are too numerous and almost too personal to each one of us that were blessed to know her; for that reason, I thought it more important to speak of the little things, the passions and pastimes, that I know meant so much to Ruth, and to us.  I hope you can all reminisce and remember the times you shared with Ruth as I speak today.

There are countless ways or reasons why you came to know Ruth intimately; she was a self-confessed social butterfly, and she proudly garnished her membership and leadership across numerous groups over the years.  The Girls Brigade, Friday Club and Youth Fellowship, Sunday School and Crèche, Baptist Youth Camp, the Mothers and Toddlers’ group “Little Acorns”, Caring for Life, and most recently volunteering at Practically Perfect (a local charity shop), all with her nearest and dearest next to her.  This is to name but a few pockets of friendships, and I’m sure there are others I’ve neglected, nor even heard of. 

Regardless, all who encountered her through these groups and activities remember her for her raucous laughter, her attention to detail and organisation, and her grace and patience in any situation.  At home we were all roped into helping organise this or that activity; be it a table quiz, for instance, or sampling three separate coffee shops in preparation for a day trip away with the ladies.  Planning had its upside, I suppose. And I’m sure there are some ‘forgotten’ or incriminating photos of Ruth and her cohort of comics participating in the obligatory sketches on church weekends away – usually with her sidekick, Rosemary, no doubt.   

The meticulous organisation certainly poured over into the cleaning regime at home.  She had a remarkable habit of throwing things out, if she felt it had lost its purpose. Of course, it wasn’t soon after that you’d ask for the flour sifter or a certain Tupperware box, and a notable hush would descend in the room.  Of course, Mary would suffer the blame first, but in the end we all quickly realised who had given the item away to charity or to the car boot, or the skip. All things considered, though, she kept the things that really mattered: the pictures drawn and given her by her adoring infant fans, the small tokens of appreciation for this or that favour, the childhood awards and prizes.  In pride of place on her bedroom shelf still resides the Sunday School prizes won in Killaughey by Ruth and my dad, Michael, showing a girl dressed as a nurse tending a blond curly-bapped cowboy.  The photo perfectly sums up the lives both Ruth and her younger brother Michael would grow up to become.  Never far apart from each other, Ruth took to the eldest child duties suitably, and forever held her mother and siblings’ best interests as paramount to her existence.

A nurse in picture form, therefore a nurse she would become, and the dedication to her profession followed the same resourcefulness and care Ruth provided in all aspects of her life. She was remembered by so many she looked after, so much so that as a child I used to complain about going shopping with her in Newtownards.  We wouldn’t have taken two steps through the door of the shopping centre before we were stopped in our tracks with a “I’d know that face, you looked after me in Male Surgical twenty-five years ago!” It wasn’t ten seconds after we’d broken away from this or that gentleman that Ruth would exclaim, “he was given a handful of weeks to live, and sure look at him now”. 

Ultimately, though, Ruth was our nurse.  Scraped knee, nosebleed, asthma attack, pneumonia. She was the person we in the family called for first to look after us, and her presence in any situation always gave the best comfort and calm to anyone in the simplest and most direct of ways.  For all who worked with her over the years at both Ards Hospital and the Ulster, I know Ruth was held in such high regard, and the bond that comes from a vocation in nursing and healthcare was unwavering until the last.  She loved and appreciated her former colleagues’ presence at her side throughout her treatment, and the enduring friendships she had nurtured over the years offered her great comfort until the last.

Nevertheless, Ruth was a great believer in the saying that you ‘Work to Live, not Live to Work,’ and I struggle to think of anyone who managed to make the most of her spare time and holidays when still working, and she certainly took to retirement like a duck to water.

Ruth had always known how to keep herself busy. Not a day passed where she didn’t have an errand to run, or a task to fulfil, be it knitting her baby blankets, or making wedding invites for the latest celebration.  She was a craftswoman through and through, her eye for detail and dexterity of hand meant she could turn her hand to card-making, sewing, and hand-making whichever Christmas decoration was currently on-trend. You name it, she could do it and did do it.  I’m sure we’re all in possession of some trinket or garment that was created by Ruth over the years, and no doubt they are treasured. At home, evidence of Ruth’s handiwork is never far from view.  While June is the chief decorator in the family, Ruth was invariably in charge of the curtains, and there was ultimately no argument to be had in the matter.  In truth, I will miss her sat at her Singer sewing machine, the steady thrum of the machine, the intermittent cutting of the thread, the constant checking and rechecking of the measurements under her breath, and the whoosh of the iron as she steamed perfect lines into her curtain and cushion hems.  She had the most skilled hands, and put her years of training and service at Gebretta’s to good use.

Ruth had an adventurous spirit, a passion for travel and seeing all that’s beautiful in the world, taking the adage “Thursday’s Child has far to go” greatly to heart.  Be it a beach holiday or an excursion around the world’s greatest landmarks, Ruth loved exploring landscapes new, and she and June made marvellous travelling companions together along with the others who joined them over the years. Those special excursions will be fondly remembered by all.  Her visit to Peru left a lasting impression on her, and she counted herself lucky and blessed that she could make such a journey with a supportive team of friends from the church fellowship.   Her trips to Canada, however, were certainly the most cherished, and she kept a special journal for her Canadian excursions specifically.  Visits to her Aunt Mattie and cousins Norman, Dianne and Kenny, and their families, were like a second homecoming for her, and she loved seeing them all so dearly. Dianne and Jennifer’s recent visit to us brought Ruth immeasurable joy, brightening her time in Marie Curie entirely.  Dianne’s homegrown lavender pouches were never far from her, and the fresh scent gave her such calm, an escape to the outdoors when relief was sorely needed.  No-one maintained the close relationship with Canada more so than Ruth, she was fiercely proud of her close family across the Atlantic, making it feel more a like puddle’s distance away compared to an ocean. I know today they feel her loss as keenly as us gathered here today.

There’s a common saying in the family that “You’re not really a McDowell unless you’ve food on the brain,” and with Ruth I think it’s safe to say she fed our appetites accordingly.  Ruth and June together were a force to be reckoned with, and it’s little wonder I’ve ended up the shape I am, when you always have a tin or a box of homemade goodies to come home to!

Ruth knew everyone’s weakness, everyone’s favourite, and in the past few days I’ve had so many comments about which of Ruth’s homemade treats people looked forward to on special occasions.  I must admit my belly grumbles when I think I’ll never sample them made by her hand again.  In a strange way, I thought I might list just some of the specialties, I’m sure those of you here will know to whom each one refers, you were all her favourites:

Banoffee pie, Mississippi Mud Pie, cinnamon scones, snowballs, pineapple delights, fifteens, cupcakes, fruit scones, apple crumble, rhubarb fool, pavlova, mince pies, shortbread, rhubarb tart, apple pie and custard, pancakes… the list goes on and there are too many to mention.

I’m not the only assistant here who was roped in to rolling out the digestive biscuits for another pie or traybake, there’s plenty of us who as children have all been stood at the kitchen bench with the apron on and the rolling pin at the ready. We loved it though, there was something deliciously edible waiting for us in the end, and we got to spend the day with our favourite, Ruth.

The treat I’ll miss the most, though, is Ruth’s blackberry jam and jelly.  Ruth delighted in nothing more than walking along the Islandhill Road with her dear friend Helen picking the wild blackberries on a warm September day.  They’ve sadly both left us now, and this month’s harvest will go amiss.  In her last few days, Ruth took great comfort and found great relief in remembering those days spent surrounded by the good country air where she was raised, and the family and friends she loved beyond measure.

Even to those not related to her, Ruth was family.  To those nearest and dearest to her, she was honourably given the titles big sister, nanny, and a second mother.  She filled the gaps others had left, and will remain forever family in our hearts.  We’ll miss her wisdom and counsel, her dry observations and that bounteous laughter.  And perhaps most particularly, we’ll miss the ever-present ticking of her heart.  As a child, I always believed her heart ticked because it needed a helping hand it was so big.  I still believe it today.

We’ll love you, Ruth, always.

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