Ruth Turner, completely engaged, as usual, in a Yankees home game.
Ruth Turner . . . who, I wondered, is she? Dr. Pat, Publisher of Women’s Voices for Change, kept suggesting her to me as a woman worthy of a profile on our site. But why? Did she qualify for our series on “accomplished women,” like sculptor Carol Peligian? Or was she “a woman who’s made a difference,” like Liza Kramer? or Mary Moss Greenebaum?
I wanted to look her up.
“You can’t look her up,” Pat said, to my bafflement. “It doesn’t work that way. She’s my mentor. You’ll have to meet her. You’ll see.”
And so we made a date for dinner at the Brasserie. Waiting at a table, I saw them at the top of the staircase: Pat and a diminutive, gray-haired lady.
This was the mysterious Ruth Turner. I was meeting her, I would soon realize, not because she’s an accomplished woman (she is), or because she’s made a difference in the world (she has), but because she has a talent for life.
Early in our conversation, it came to me: I have met Lucinda Matlock.
Lucinda, the spirited heroine of the Edgar Lee Masters poem, has always been an icon for me—a woman with such unending gusto that she “rambled over the fields . . . shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.” After her peaceful death at 96, she chides her “degenerate sons and daughters” for their weariness, discontent, and drooping hopes. Her stern words end the poem: “Life is too strong for you—it takes life to love Life.”
That was what Pat knew I’d find out about Ruth Turner as soon as we met. And indeed, one of the first things she said to me was, “I’m 87, and I’m loving my life.”
Turner’s monthly calendar is so full that she had to cancel a dinner to meet Pat and me. She’s on three boards of directors (the Cosmopolitan Club, the Park Regis Apartment Corporation, and the Smith College Club of NYC). She lunches with friends from her old work life at Consumer Reports; she’s crazy about the Yankees (but follows the Mets and the Knicks with enthusiasm too); she goes to the opera and the ballet; she attends lectures “assiduously”; she loves dining with friends and seeing a play afterward. (“I have 11 or 12 subscriptions to theater companies. But the quality of the play isn’t that important; it’s being with old friends and catching up on our lives.”) She’s a volunteer reader/writer/editor at the Lighthouse. One Tuesday a month, she phones her former assistant at 7:30 in the morning; then at 9:15 she calls her “best friend from eighth grade.” Sometime during that month she’ll touch base with her ex-sister-in-law. And, her résumé notes, she works out seven days a week.
I picture her at the home games of her beloved Yankees—so totally engaged, she admits, that she doesn’t do much shouting: She’s too busy marking the scorepad on her knee and listening to the radio at her ear; she brings it because it lets her “get” the plays that cause her neighbors to grumble, “What just happened?” She loves “the rhythm of baseball, the logic of it, the unpredictability of it, the human factor. It’s magical.” She is pleased with her new, covered seats behind right field. “There was a three and a half-hour rain delay yesterday,” she told me, “and we waited it out in total comfort.” Her subscription gives her seats for every other home game (she gets two tickets, and goes with a “baseball buddy” each time.) How does she get there? “By subway, of course. There’s no other way to get to a Yankees game.”
This is the delightful life Turner created for herself at 64, after she left her “40-some-year” marriage in 1990. She had raised four daughters in suburban Westchester and worked at Consumer Reports, rising to Director of Consumer Reports Books. Her husband had left the marriage psychically for several years before she left it physically, she says. “And so I gave myself New York.”
She is joyfully urban. Living in New York City is wondrous to her. “My zest for life . . . I believe I was born with it . . . is also driven by the years I spent ‘wasted’ in suburbia, in which I consciously knew that except for bringing up my kids my life was limited and limiting,” she says. “I wanted to take so much advantage of the environment that excites me. I hate to let things go. I’m often booked for two or three things the same night, and you just have to make choices.
When her current husband proposed marriage, he added that, of course, they would continue to live in their own apartments. That was the clincher for Ruth. As a result, she sees her husband about twice a week—just about right for her. She calls it “marriage by appointment only.”
“I’m a bit of a freak, if you’ll excuse the description, in that nature does not enthrall me as it does many people. If I’m told to look at the gorgeous sunset or the phenomenal garden I will happily look, but it is not really my first impulse. I enjoy so much to walk out the door of my co-op and see shopkeepers and friends and neighbors and sights, so for me the suburbs were limited in what was visually interesting and rewarding.
Ruth Turner is a woman of both worlds—the pre-feminist era (she was born in 1926) and today’s era of opportunity for women. She got her master’s (in political science) at Yale in the late 40’s, before women were allowed into the undergraduate school. Was it different back then? “Oh, and how! We were banned from using the gym; there was no dorm for female graduate students; there were many limitations. I remember with some amusement that when I was a teaching assistant, the professor for whom I worked could not tell the students that a woman was grading their blue books.” (Ruth talks with the perfect grammar of the editor she is. She has the calm, confident delivery of a television newscaster—and I believe she wouldn’t need a Teleprompter.)
I asked her what she thought of The Feminine Mystique; it came out when she was a housewife in the suburbs. “It wasn’t relevant to me,” Ruth said. “I was very much aware of it, as a loyal Smith graduate, and I understood what she was saying, but it didn’t speak to me. I did not feel like a trapped housewife. I was expecting to work. And looking back now, I think I worked too many hours; who knows whether or not that was a contribution to the end of my forty-some-year marriage.”
Turner calls the opportunities for women in this country today “just phenomenal.” When she was pregnant with her first child, she was told she could no longer teach at what is now Lehman College, because the City University of New York did not allow pregnant women to teach. When she went back to work when her youngest daughter was “old enough to have the pleasure of reading,” her friends—her good friends—were shocked. They wouldn’t let her children participate in their car pools. She had to dragoon her oldest daughter to take her youngest to doctors and ballet classes. “She reacted by failing her driver’s test three times,” Turner says. “But my will prevailed.”
And, editor that she is, Ruth Turner knows a good closing line. “Maybe you’d like to hear my plan for when I get really old,” she told me. “When I’m no longer this self—when I’m a different self—I’m going to get a huge TV, one of those great, enormous ones, and I’m going to lie in bed and watch old movies, which I adore and can never get to see now, and read detective stories, because I’m terribly fond of them, and just have a lovely, leisurely, quiet life. I’m looking forward to it. When I get old.”