January 1, 2016
During the news conference announcing Ron and Ruth Knutson’s land donation for a new St. Mary’s Central High School, the youngest of their five children took the microphone.
“My Dad said he never had the benefit of speech classes with Mr. Arnston or Mrs. Dietz, so he asked me to speak,” Cam said. He had clearly benefited from those classes, easily mixing memories of his years at St. Mary’s with appreciation for his teachers and loving parents.
But when he got to his mother, Ruth, he paused slightly and looked into the audience. He directed his comments to coach, Dan Smrekar, “If you ever want to have somebody come and talk about adversity to the football team,” he said, “feel free to ask my mom to come….” He explained that Ruth had learned to survive that adversity as she raised herself growing up in foster care homes. And so, at Cam’s suggestion, Ruth was asked to share her story in greater detail.
Only the beginning
Ruth began by pointing out that everyone has a story, but the one we are born into is only the beginning. “It’s what we do with the rest of it that is
our story,” she said.
Growing up in Williston, Ruth’s alcoholic mother was not married to the father she never knew. There were four half-siblings—an older brother and younger sister and two younger brothers. “My house was a disaster,” she said. “If I put stuff in the laundry, I never saw it again.” But, unwashed clothes were the least of her problems.
One of Ruth’s earliest childhood memories was at five years old, pleading with her mother not to leave her with the abusive stepfather. Her mother wouldn’t protect her. When his violent rages became known by social services, he was deported back to Canada, but occasionally sneaked back. “In second grade, I remember feeling terrified on the way home from school that he might be there.”
Ruth’s mother was a daily drunk and also had a bad temper. Two of the houses they lived in burned down—one from electrical problems and the other because her 3- and 4-year-old little brothers were home alone playing with matches. A neighbor lady saved them from their hiding place under a blanket.
Amid the chaos and pain, there was her grandmother. Her grandmother had 11 kids and her grandfather had died of cirrhosis of the liver from alcoholism in his late forties. “My grandmother always made me feel safe,” Ruth explained. “She took us to church and convinced my mother to send us to CCD classes.”
Years later, when Ruth married Ron, she joined him in the Lutheran church, but she had been baptized Catholic and her relationship with Jesus began at Mass with her grandmother.
“Going to church is where I fell in love with Jesus,” Ruth said. “I thought, Jesus suffered and made it through, so I can make it through, too.”
As a third grader Ruth recalled telling God, that she had enough. “I told him I didn’t want this life and that I wanted to die and be done,” she said. “I felt God tell me clearly, ‘This is not your life.’ ” It gave Ruth awareness that she had a future to live for and that her terrible home life had nothing to do with her.
Years of looking out for her siblings and trying to keep the home in order were overwhelming. By sixth grade, Ruth walked to her social worker’s office and asked to leave. She and her sister, who was 18 months younger, were placed with different relatives for what became the first of Ruth’s four foster homes.
When her sister was 16, she ran away to Wyoming and eventually had two children—one she gave up for adoption and the other the father raised. Her sister died three years ago at the age of 49 of cirrhosis of the liver. Ruth’s three brothers have also struggled with addiction.
She reached out to help them, but they made other choices. Ruth does not judge, however. Much of their lives was beyond their control, such as getting drunk for the first time at two years old or being drinking buddies with their mom in junior high. Ruth attributes her own happiness and fulfillment to God and family, but ultimately, she said there is a lot of randomness we cannot control.
Starting her own family
While in high school, Ruth met her future husband Ron, who was two years older. “He knew my mom was a character and that I was in foster care, but he didn’t run away,” she said. By the time she was a senior in high school and he was a pre-med major in college, they married. Ron graduated from the University of North Dakota College of Medicine in 1985. He specializes in anesthesiology and pain management.
“I can’t emphasize enough the love and support that Ron has had for me and how blessed I feel to be a wife, mother, and grandmother,” she said. Their five children are Jessica, 35; Brita, 33; Braun 31; Mamie, 28; and Cam 26, and they have four grandchildren.
“I have always recognized what a gift my kids and grandkids are and the responsibility that goes with that,” Ruth said. She devoted herself full-time to the family until Cam began school. Then, she earned degrees in addiction counseling and social work at the University of Mary, and worked for seven years as an addiction counselor at the Heartview Foundation in Bismarck. “I loved working with patients and realized we are more alike than we are different,” she said. “I really think the 12 steps [to sobriety] is a spiritual journey; one that we can all take by surrendering to God.”
Reconnecting with her mother
Ruth had already surrendered so much of her past, but 20 years ago, she was confronted with a difficult choice that took her breath away. After her grandmother’s funeral, an aunt told her, “Ruth, if you want to see your mother again, you don’t have much time. She has lung cancer.”
At this point, Ruth did not want to see her mother, but she knew she needed to. “It’s easy to say you forgive someone, but when presented with the person, it’s a whole ‘nother thing,” she said. She drove to Minot and brought her mother back to Bismarck for a visit. “God’s grace filled me with peace,” Ruth said. “I felt so sorry for her. She never experienced how much love children give you and you give them.”
Her mother had been sober for 10 years, had gotten a math degree, and worked as a tutor. “I wanted her to say she was sorry and ask my forgiveness, but I had a light bulb moment and suddenly understood that she never saw me as a child,” Ruth said. “She was never able to be my mother, but I realized I had a small window to be her daughter.”
And so, as a daughter, Ruth traveled through forgiveness with her mother during the six months she had left; visiting, taking her to lunch and for haircuts—and saying “I love you.” It was something Ruth had only heard once from her mother from behind a door during her childhood.
But, Ruth kept telling her mother that she loved her. Soon, her mother started saying it back. When her mother died in October 1995, it seemed both mother and daughter were at peace. “That time was a gift,” Ruth said. “It’s so much better to get to the other side of forgiveness rather than keep the past locked inside.”
Heart full of gratitude
There is one more part to the story, however. “The story would not be complete without forgiving yourself,” Ruth said. She explained that she had to forgive herself for not being there for her sisters and brothers and for not trying to start a relationship earlier with her mother.
In the end, Ruth said that her past has given her a heart full of gratitude. Even the bad things are part of the blessings of her life today. For instance raising her children, she was able to teach them compassion in a meaningful way. “If you make fun of someone for dirty hair or messy clothes, know that you would have made fun of me when I was a little girl,” she taught them.
“I always ask God what I’m supposed to see,” she said. “I’ve come to understand that there is something to learn in every circumstance. My prayer has always been, ‘Dear God, give me eyes to see, a mind that is open and a heart filled with compassion.’ ”