A timeless message

'When We Were Colored,' Eva Rutland's newly reissued 1964 memoir, tells of raising childen 'not to return hate with hate'

Dixie Reid
Bee Staff Writer

Publication Date: 4/20/2007

As a true Southern lady, Eva Rutland is never without her lipstick and, to the amusement of her children and the handyman, she applies it in front of a mirror.

Rutland is blind.

And she's 90 years old, and she's working on a new memoir called "The Trouble With Being a Grandma."

This morning, she's having a late breakfast at her south Sacramento home with daughter Patty-Jo Rutland, one of the twins. She says offhandedly that her children may not have had as much fun growing up as she did. Her daughter fairly explodes.

"I had an idyllic childhood. It spoils me in my adulthood," says Patty-Jo, a lawyer who works with her lobbyist brother, Billy.

"I lived the life of Riley, I had the greatest time. I always had fun. It's all I can remember. I lived a sheltered, wonderful life. Wonderful."

Eva Rutland beams, a proud mama.

The reason for this morning's visit is the reissue of Rutland's first book, the 1964 memoir "The Trouble With Being a Mama." The reprint, with a new introduction by Rutland, is called "When We Were Colored: A Mother's Story" (IWP, $12.95, 152 pages).

In it are the stories she wrote as a young mother in the 1950s, as she struggled to raise her children in a time of rampant racial discrimination.

"You not only had to deal with the ordinary problems of being a mother, but you had to deal with the prejudice and the integration problem, and getting them to fit into places where they were not wanted or not accepted," Rutland says. "And you wanted them not to return hate with hate. I really had a double job."

 

The stories are both funny (she gets hopelessly lost during the PTA open house at her children's school) and poignant (no matter how much parents provide for their children, she learns, what they most want is their parents' love and attention).

Despite being written a half-century ago, her experiences are timeless.

"Mamas have the same troubles today they had yesterday," Rutland says.

She and her late husband, Bill, had four children: Elsie, Billy and the twins, Patty-Jo and Ginger (who is a member of The Bee's editorial board). Rutland and Ginger will be at Time-Tested Books on Saturday for a book-signing and family slide show.

Rutland began writing as a young girl in Atlanta, growing up in the house her grand- father, a former slave, built six years after the Civil War.

"I was always going to make a lot of money for my parents," she says. "I was always writing and sending (stories) off to magazines. I never sold any."

In 1943, she married William G. Rutland, a civilian logistics officer for the Tuskegee Airmen. His work eventually took the young couple and their growing brood to Xenia, Ohio, and, in 1952, to Sacramento, where he worked at McClellan Air Force Base.

All along, Rutland wrote humorous, touching stories about their lives.

In 1951, a friend urged her to enter a contest in Writer magazine, and Rutland won first place for both fiction and nonfiction. The true story "Elsie and God" (which appears in "When We Were Colored") got the attention of an editor at Redbook magazine, who not only paid Rutland a princely $400 to publish the story but sent a photographer to Xenia, Ohio, where the Rutlands lived at the time, to take pictures of Elsie and her mother.

 

Ginger Rutland, the caretaker of her mother's literary legacy (she, her mother and nephew John Hooper created IWP Book Publishers to reissue Rutland's out-of-print books, including her numerous Harlequin romance novels) recently discovered that the photographer was Martha Holmes, one of the first women on the staff at Life magazine. Holmes, who died last year, took a famous photo of the artist Jackson Pollock that was made into a 1999 postage stamp.

"I loved that lady," says Eva Rutland.

Holmes' photo of a snuggled mother and daughter ran alongside "Elsie and God" in Redbook.

After the day's shoot, the Rutlands wanted to take Holmes out to dinner, but no restaurant in Xenia allowed blacks and whites to dine together, so Rutland served her special pot roast at home.

As she raised her brood, Rutland continued to send slice-of-family-life stories to women's magazines. Ladies Home Journal in June 1952 published the short piece "Taught To Hate," and the following year, the story about the morning the swings were empty appeared in the June issue of Woman's Day. (Both are in "When We Were Colored.")

 

Rutland directed many of her articles at white mothers.

"I wrote them because, at the time, it was so difficult with my children going to an integrated school where other children couldn't play with them," Rutland says. "I wanted white mothers to understand that my children were just as good, just as precious, as theirs."

"Her idea was, 'If I could just talk to them,' " says daughter Ginger. "In the early days of integration, she's not storming the citadels of discrimination. She just wants her kids to be happy, and she knows they're going into this integrated world, and she doesn't want their feelings hurt. She thought she could break down all these barriers, and that's what this book is about."

At her father's funeral last year, Ginger read excerpts from "The Trouble With Being a Mama," and their friends' interest in the book, which has been out of print for years, prompted the creation of the family IWP Book Publishers.

Meanwhile, Rutland is writing "The Trouble With Being a Grandma," working at an ancient computer outfitted with a voice synthesizer.

"Unlike many of today's young, with-it grandmas," she writes, "I'm from the olden days when grass was on the lawn, pot was a cooking utensil, and a real person answered the telephone."

In "Grandma," Rutland addresses the botched surgery that left her vocal cords paralyzed when she was a young mother. She later underwent a tracheotomy and must place a finger on the hole in her throat when she speaks. In another chapter, she talks about her blindness, caused by retinitis pigmentosa that came on when she was about 50.

"I had all these ailments, and it's hard to write because I want to make it funny," Rutland says.

Meanwhile, daughter Patty-Jo comes into the house with a handful of perfect red roses she picked from the yard.

"I can't smell a darned thing," Rutland says gently as she touches the petals. "Now, I would like azaleas brought in for the entry hall. It bothers me not to have flowers there."

Her daughters nod obediently.

MEET THE AUTHOR

WHAT: Book-signing and discussion with Eva Rutland, author of "When We Were Colored: A Mother's Story"
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Time-Tested Books, 1114 21st St., Sacramento
COST: Free
INFORMATION: (916) 447-5696

The Bee's Dixie Reid can be reached at (916) 321-1134 or dreid@sacbee.com.