Life’s Greatest Lesson

By Nelda Rachels


(This story was first published in 2001 as the

award-winning essay in Expressions from Home, a

publication of the Weakley County Arts & Humanities

Council. The essay had to be a very short 250 words, a

very difficult assignment indeed! Ruth Rickman passed

away just a few years after this essay was written,

perhaps about 2004. Everyone misses her.)


      My friend Ruth Rickman, who would soon turn

ninety-five, needed someone to stay with her while she recuperated from pneumonia. I felt close to her, but I’d begun work on a book, and too much had already interrupted the writing. What if those two requested nights turned into four, five, or a month of nights? However, I knew the thoughts were selfish ones, so I put them away and stayed. I’m glad I did.

      I’m afraid I’m a poor caretaker though. The first

night I kept her up too late. She loved to talk about

the old days, and since I’m a lover of history, I

listened, enrapt. A question, such as, “Do you

remember what year electricity came to Palmersville?”,

netted the answer “1940” and the story of her young

son who had died in ’39, how she had sat at his

bedside waving a cardboard fan for days, and how it

was too bad electricity hadn’t come a year earlier,

when an electric fan could have relieved her feverish


      She also told me the gruesome tale of a local man who

had come to her grandfather’s store to buy fresh meat

from a hog killed that frigid morning and how he’d

left with the meat in his Model T but never made it

home. He and his car drove off a levy and into a

swamp. When the community searched and found him stiff

and frozen near his car, they took his body to his

widow’s house where they stood him in a corner to


      Before I left that first morning—late, since we

stayed up till 11:00 p.m. talking—she reached for my

hand and pressed it with her own, blackened by the

needles and tubes of her recent hospital stay. She

thanked me for staying and said she loved me. I hugged

her ninety-two pound frame. When she kissed me, I

wondered why I had ever thought I was too busy to stay

with her. Ruth had taught me the most valuable lesson

of all: love is everything; take time to show it, for

nothing, nothing else at all really matters.