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She sat across from me at the kitchen table, her eyes still bright, her mind still sharp. The walker and pink pajamas during the day are the only indication that age is catching up with her. She is a wisp of a woman, formidable still at half my size. Looking at her, it is hard for me to believe that this tiny, elderly woman has sparked decades of rumors and half truths.
I begin by telling Mrs. Ruby that I am there because she is a Florence legend and people are interested in her. She looks at me as if she is surprised. For a minute, I falter. Do I tell her the rumors? Do I ask her the unaskable questions? I pause, unsure of my next step. Her son brings her a plate of lunch and places it in front of her. The food is ignored as she begins to tell me the story that is her life.
Mrs. Ruby was born in Evergreen, outside of Florence. She was the seventh child, born in the seventh month in 1923. Her father did not like to stay in one place long, so they moved around a lot as she was growing up. She mainly remembers her life after they moved to Darlington. I listen without asking any of the questions on my list. I quickly realize that she will tell her story in her own time.
Mrs. Ruby was barely a teenager, a young woman coming of age during a time when money was tight and everyone worked hard for every penny. She worked hard, her mother worked hard, everyone worked hard. One of her most vivid memories was of a traveling Bible salesman that she met. He was going around selling bibles to raise money for the seminary. Every day he would pass by their house in Darlington, and she would invite him over to sit a spell. They would sit together and chat on the loveseat outside. Ruby felt like that young man was going to make an amazing preacher one day. Later on, she was delighted when she started to hear that same young man was being well received across the South. His name was Billy Graham, and he left quite the impact on a young Ruby. She talks about her faith freely and openly throughout the day.
It wasn’t long after meeting Billy Graham that her life changed forever. Her expression changes, and I see sadness when she tells me about the day her mother was injured. Her mother was working in a field picking cotton and fell down. It wasn’t even a bad fall, but when she fell, a cotton stalk went through her mother’s eye. Her mother spent a long time in the hospital, and came home an invalid and never walked again. Her father died shortly thereafter from a stroke, effectively ending any source of support for Ruby or her mother. Ruby grew up in an instant, transforming from the child to the mother and spent the next twenty years caring for her mother.
Ruby was always beautiful, though more important than her beauty was her brain. She was savvy in the financial arena, realizing quickly that she needed property to have financial stability. She worked shifts at the Boston Café on North Dargan Street in Florence and saved her tips carefully. She bought her first piece of property at 16 years old, moving her mother to a small house in Florence. That first house cemented her future as a player in Florence County real estate. She would pay off a piece of property and then scour the newspaper for auction sales. Her first love was farming, and she bought as much farmland as she could. She would buy land with timber, immediately clear the timber and pay off the land.
When she was a young woman, she met a nice young man named Joe one afternoon at a gas station. She stopped to get gas and stayed to eat watermelon with the young, charming owner. It wasn’t long before they married and had three children. Their oldest son served in Vietnam and later died from probable effects of Agent Orange. As we talk it is obvious that his death is still a troubled spot in her memory and her brow puckers as she relives the pain of the death of a child. Her son Kenny and her daughter still live in Florence.
It didn’t take long for her to make a name for herself as a farmer and landowner. People would flock to her truck in the afternoon to buy her goods. She smiled as she recollected a day when she realized they were going to be short on butterbeans. Without missing a beat she hopped in her truck and drove to the farmers market in Columbia. She bought 50 bushels of butter beans and headed back to Florence. Her husband was visibly relieved when she pulled up, he didn’t think she would be back in time. “I had to pull over” she told him, “and take the lids off so that it looked like the butterbeans were picked here.” All 50 bushels were bought immediately with no one being the wiser.
Men would ask her opinion and advice on land transactions and business deals. She would loan money, interest free, if she felt the investment was sound and would help someone get ahead. She enjoyed recounting the loans she made. I was amazed at the joy she had joy in their success. No matter how successful the business venture was, Mrs. Ruby never felt they owed her anything more than a straight repayment of the loan.
Mrs. Ruby’s life changed again when her mother died. She was used to caring for her mother day in and day out, so much so that she would literally pick her mother up and carry her to church on Sunday. “I was strong” she tells me simply. I know she had to have been, because the consistency of her life has always revolved around work. Farming, selling vegetables, providing for her family are the stalwarts of her life. After her mother passed away, Ruby decided that she was going to buy a car. She custom ordered the infamous pink Cadillac as a present to herself. When she “talked to the people at Cadillac, they told me that they had to make two Cadillacs at one time”. The other Cadillac that came off the line with hers was bought by Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, Elvis’ Cadillac died about three months after he bought it. As we talk, I watch her family move in and out. They add a bit to the story here and there, prompt her memory when necessary. The kitchen table is a comfortable spot; the family is open and welcoming. There is love here, a lot of love, but there is sadness. There are unasked questions and they silently wonder if I am going to ask them. They have lived their entire lives and raised their families under a shadow of suspicion and wonder. They read comments on Facebook, and they live in a town that does not know the real Ruby and has never cared enough to find out.
The conversation moves on to the time that she bought what she calls the corner house. The corner house now sits at the intersection of Cashua and Second Loop. When she bought the house, it was at the dead end of Second Loop; the road ended at Mrs. Ruby’s. The house was on sale at auction, the previous owner had come upon hard times. She looks at me then and tells me that no one would bid on the house at the auction and she had to bid against herself in order to buy it. Her son Kenny asks her to explain why no one would bid on the house. Mrs. Ruby pauses as if she hates to tell me. “No one would buy it because ___________** lived there.” That is all she says, as if that answers all the questions. Another prompt from Kenny, “Why is that?” She gets a twinkle in her eye then, she tells me “OH!! Well, she had GIRLS there!” I can’t help but laugh with her, her laughter is contagious. I also can’t resist asking, “What KIND of girls?” “You KNOW”, she replies but still hesitates to say the word. She leans closer as whispering, “The previous owner had prostitutes living there.” I ask her then, “You mean that is what the house was when you bought it?” There is no hesitation in her voice now, “It sure was. No one else would touch it for that reason, but I loved the corner house and I got it for a deal.” Her son looks at me then and quips, “Got it for a deal then, but paid for it for the rest of her life.”
Kenny is right of course, there is no price to be put on what stories then followed. Ruby doesn’t seem bothered. She is a simple woman, who does what she believes in and believes in what she does. I don’t think the opinions of others are high on the list of things that Mrs. Ruby worries about. Perhaps, the words of Margaret Mitchell are true of Mrs. Ruby, “Until you lose your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.”
Mrs. Ruby tells me of the late night knocks on her door. The caller would inevitably wonder what happed to the prior owner, and Mrs. Ruby would tell them through the door “If you want her or her girls, you better head on to Bennettsville, because that is where they moved.” She looks at me earnestly then, “I couldn’t live it down that I wasn’t a madame.” Her gaze doesn’t break. The reality is that as with every urban legend, Mrs. Ruby’s has taken on a life of its own.
Rumors aside, Mrs. Ruby loves the corner house. Years ago, when the city of Florence told her that they were going to bring Second Loop through her living room, she worried she would lose the charm of the corner house. While stories abound that she was able to keep the house in the county because of her connections, the reality is that there was nothing she could do to stop the expansion of Second Loop Road. If the rumors and stories of Mrs. Ruby’s connections were true, the road would stop at her house today. Instead, the road came straight through her property and the corner house was moved to make room. Kenny sums the situation up when he says, the truth is “Mrs. Ruby didn’t come to Florence, Florence came to Mrs. Ruby.”
As the seventh child born in the seventh month, Mrs. Ruby has connections all over town, but they are almost all through blood, marriage, or real estate deals. She doesn’t see me as an opportunity to set the story straight, she is more amused that anyone is interested in her or her life. Simple and straightforward she tells me all of her life that she can remember, and what a life it has been. When I first sat down at the table with Mrs. Ruby, I was unsure of what to expect. She was an enigma to me, part human, part living legend, part urban myth. I left with a very real sense of a woman that worked hard all of her life, a mother, a wife, a daughter. She is an example of hard work, fortitude, and perseverance. Her family may have lived under a shadow of suspicion and curiosity, but they can be proud to call Mrs. Ruby their own.
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