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99-year-old’s birthday wish includes you

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JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhel@charlotteobserver.com
“I just don’t want (extreme poverty) to happen again to my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren. We have come so far with having necessities. But I don’t want them to have to go backward instead of forward,” says Ruthie Houston, 99, with daughter Gloria Houston, who made her mother the protagonist of the best-selling “Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree.”

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ASHEVILLE Ruthie Houston has a birthday wish, and though she doesn’t celebrate until March, she believes it’s prudent to make her request early, given that she’s a 99-year-old woman with heart problems. Plus, the wish isn’t for her. It’s for everyone else.

For her 100th birthday, Houston is asking people to donate money to reduce the national debt. A couple of months ago, a friend recorded her request, which you can watch on YouTube.

“We need family and friends to give at least 100 pennies,” she says on the video, “or if any of you have millionaire friends, maybe they can send more.”

You may already know something about Ruthie Houston, especially if you’ve been a child or read to a child in the last quarter-century. She’s the mother of Gloria Houston, author of 11 books, including her most famous, “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree,” a best-selling picture book set in the North Carolina mountains during World War I.

Since its publication 25 years ago, Houston’s Appalachian tale has sold millions of copies and become a holiday classic. It’s a story about love and sacrifice and keeping one’s promises. Its main character is a little girl named Ruthie who’s supposed to play the heavenly angel in her church’s annual Christmas Eve play.

The book has been adapted into a musical, an opera and a ballet. Ministers use it for their Christmas Eve services. And it has made the real Ruthie a celebrity.

It helps, of course, that Ruthie Greene Houston, born on March 9, 1914, is memorable in her own right. She’s a natural storyteller who for years entertained schoolchildren who visited her Sunny Brook Store in Avery County to hear the stories of mountain life that inspired her daughter’s books.

“As the old saying goes, I’ve lived through it all,” she said during a recent interview in her daughter’s Asheville home. And what she has lived through, she says, is her reason for addressing the nation’s $17 trillion debt, which works out to $54,000 per person.

Ruthie is unconcerned for herself. She is grateful for her Medicare and “little Social Security,” as she calls it. But she can tell plenty of stories of hunger, poverty and suffering from a time before government programs and regulations gave people a social safety net.

Her grandmother, for instance, died from asthma because she couldn’t afford medicine. And in the late 1800s, as the railroad was being laid into Asheville, Ruthie’s paternal grandfather died in a tunnel explosion when he was ordered to check dynamite that failed to ignite.

With no insurance or compensation from the railroad, her father’s family grew up so poor that he and a brother ate gravy and bread on a single plate to make the portion seem larger. “And they would watch very carefully. One would get a bite, then the other would get a bite, to make sure one wouldn’t get more.”

“I just don’t want those things to happen again to my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren,” she said. “We have come so far with having necessities. But I don’t want them to have to go backward instead of forward.”

Ruthie wants to make sure the progress she’s witnessed over the past century – paved roads, Social Security, free public libraries – won’t be reversed. Though she requests pennies in her video, Gloria Houston suggests using a U.S. Treasury website that accepts donations. Gloria has emailed Ruthie’s request to friends and family, but she can’t measure the response.

Writing Ruthie’s story

Even before Ruthie Houston was immortalized in her daughter’s book, she was well-known around Avery County, about 120 miles northwest of Charlotte. For decades, she and her late husband, J. Myron, ran the community’s general store, known as Sunny Brook Store.

Built in 1937, Sunny Brook was the heart of the community, where people gathered in the ’40s to listen to war news on the radio and where kids waited for the school bus and bought Brown Mules, Kits and Hershey bars from the couple known as Aunt Ruth and Uncle Myron. Journalist Charles Kuralt featured the store in his 1986 book, “North Carolina Is My Home.”

By the late 1980s, supermarkets had claimed much of Sunny Brook’s business. But Gloria and her brother, Jerry Houston, who lives in Charlotte, convinced their parents to turn Sunny Brook into a used bookstore that would also sell Gloria’s books.

When J. Myron died in 1993, Ruthie kept Sunny Brook going, annually selling several thousand of Gloria's books at the store and through a mail-order business. Ruthie lived in the white house beside the store and served as tour guide and storyteller for children and fans who’ve visited from around the world.

In many ways, “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” is Ruthie’s book as much as it is her daughter’s. Gloria Houston was a broke doctoral student when she got the idea for the story in early December 1984. She grabbed a yellow pad and began writing. The story became her mother’s Christmas gift that year.

At that point, Gloria wasn’t an established writer. She’d been a flight attendant and music teacher. The one book she’d published, the novel “My Brother Joey Died,” had attracted little notice. But her goal was to write.

When “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” came out in 1988, it was an immediate hit. Gloria credits its success partly to the beautiful illustrations by the late Barbara Cooney, a Caldecott-winning artist who spent days in the mountains taking photographs, asking questions and making sketches.

The story itself, told in a lyrical Appalachian cadence, is equally beautiful. “It was getting toward Christmas in the valley of Pine Grove,” the book begins. “The wise folk said the old woman in the sky was picking her geese, for the Appalachian Mountains lay blanketed with snow. …

“It was getting on toward the Christmas Ruthie would never forget. The Christmas when the village almost did not have a Christmas tree. It happened this way. Ruthie told me so.”

The Christmas tree is in doubt, the reader learns, because Ruthie’s father has been called away to be a soldier. He and Ruthie had chosen the village’s tree the previous spring, climbing Grandfather Mountain on their horse and marking a fine balsam with a red ribbon from Ruthie’s coal-black hair.

While the story is fiction, Gloria borrowed details from her mother’s childhood, including “toe sack,” a term Ruthie Houston still uses to describe a burlap bag.

The story has a happy ending, but its poignancy touches adult readers. “Children are not sentimental,” Gloria Houston says. “It just happened and everything's wonderful and people got all their wishes.”

But adults often tell her they cry when they read the book. And, interestingly, different people cry in different places.

‘I need your help’

Nearly five years ago, with her eyesight and health declining, Ruthie Houston finally closed Sunny Brook Store and moved in with Gloria in Asheville. She uses a walker and receives Hospice care because of her heart problems, but she continues to keep up with the news and voices strong political opinions.

She’s tired, for instance, of the way men have been running the country. “I think it’s time the ladies take over,” she said during the interview. “I want to see the country being sure we talk things over with our neighboring countries and make sure all the young men and ladies are not being butchered.”

Ruthie has kept her video request to reduce the national debt simple. “Hello. This is Ruthie from ‘The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree,’ ” she begins. “The book is 25 years old, and I am celebrating my 100th birthday March 9, 2014. I need your help. To celebrate I would like for my friends and family to help get America out of debt one more time.”

As she makes her plea, Ruthie holds a copy of “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” in her lap. Gloria dedicated the book to Ruthie. That seems fitting. The story’s central character is a little girl. But readers discover that the real heroine is her mother.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271.
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