A grieving makeshift mother at 12, this Park Place resident is ‘busy all the time’
Sharing a crushing loss as a child was recalled in vivid detail.
Ruth’s longevity didn’t extend to her mother, Julia Suits Coker, who died at age 44.
Only 12 when her mother began a two-year battle with pneumonia and tuberculosis, Ruth had to become a makeshift mother to four younger siblings while growing up at Lowe’s Ferry Pike, along what is now Northshore Drive near Pellissippi Parkway (Interstate 140).
“It was very tough. I was the oldest and it all laid on my shoulders,” Ruth said during an interview July 11, just one month shy of her 100th birthday Aug. 11. “My dad (John Coker) just lost it, he didn’t know what to do.
“I’ve cried and I’ve cried over my mother,” she added.
“… She cut our hair, made our clothes, canned a lot of food.
“She worked so hard.”
But she had “taken pneumonia, and she didn’t take care of herself, and then she developed tuberculosis,” Ruth said.
As a result, Ruth and the other siblings could not console their mother with hugs and kisses — she was quarantined. “We couldn’t go see her — and when we did we had to look through glass,” she said. “I guess she died with a broken heart. It was awful.”
However, “We made it alright, considering everything. … We watched after each other,” Ruth said. “I think it’s made me a stronger person.
“Maybe it’s why I’ve lived so long.”
As for the most important element helping Ruth survive and thrive from the early 1930s into adulthood, its the same source of strength she credits for living 100 years: her Christian faith.
“Jesus has kept me alive. … The Lord is leaving me here for some reason,” she said.
Remembering Kingston Pike consisting of “real fine gravel” and along its path “nothing anywhere except cattle and horses,” Ruth spoke about her husband of 64 years, the late Fred Jenkins.
Ruth first met Fred among a bunch of teenagers who were running away from an angry man on Halloween. Ruth said she was 17. Fred was 20.
“We were running through this chicken lot — he thought I was a boy because I was wearing overalls and a cap,” she said.
With Ruth and Fred innocently mixed up with a group who were creating mischief, and fearing they would be caught, Ruth recalled Fred saying to her, “‘lie dead over there boy, (otherwise) you might get hurt.’ He thought I was a boy.”
Meanwhile, Ruth discovered Fred “was tall, dark and handsome,” she added. “And he was quiet.”
Fred and Ruth were married about two years after first meeting.
Parenting two sons, Richard Jenkins (79) and Steve Jenkins (67) while living in Thornton Heights, Ruth also has three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren who visit her regularly or periodically.
A housewife before becoming a salesperson at Miller’s department store in downtown Knoxville and West Town Mall, “I retired after 18 years,” Ruth said.
About any other special longevity secrets or advise, “I haven’t figured that out yet,” Ruth said.
Fred retired following a career at TVA.
On top of her community activities at Park Place, “I’ve been here three years and I’ve probably read 40 books since I’ve been here, “she said. “I like love stories and private investigators.”