A Tribute to George and Anne Woodruff of Woodruff (near Bridgeton), New Jersey
A letter written when my aunt Anne was dying.
Belatedly, I want to say what it has meant to me to have had a peek into your life and to have been made a sort of honorary Woodruff in the years 1960 to 1965 in particular and of course ever since.
"Being Woodruff" has come to mean certain things to me, all of them admirable, all of them a sort of benchmark of what it means to be above average. I do not associate it with "Being American" or "Being from New Jersey". Rather I think of it as a family: the sum of what it meant that there was a George J. Woodruff who by irresistible gut instinct chose, adored, married, and loved Anne Shillingsburg, a woman of incredible beauty, charm, intelligence, grace, and kindness, and who together had Jody, Jon, Bob and Tricia, whose shortened nicknames showed only the confidence with which they reflected "Being Woodruff."
To begin with the obvious, the Woodruffs who opened their home to me in the summer of 1960, when I was seventeen and they were in their fifties, were awesomely superior to any family I knew. Uncle George was handsome, in spite of thinning hair and gathering girth. (I'm not trying to be nice, just accurate. One does not need to exaggerate the good or hide the "warts" to produce an extraordinarily attractive picture of Woodruffness. He weighed 180-185, which I'm closing in on myself.) He was, for all I could tell, rich: He had a farm, a business, a new car every year or two, memberships in country clubs. He was talented: He could sing, direct singers, play the organ. He was a leader: He could organize anything from choirs to civic clubs, corporations, townships, and churches. He was endlessly curious: His interests included local Native American history, golf, advertising, golf, world travel, golf, cattle breeding, golf, energy systems, and golf. He was both generous and demanding: I had never met a person so capable of giving and so willing to give, who at the same time expected nothing less than one's best effort. Best effort was usually enough. He was not unreasonable; he did not expect what could not be given. But his standards for himself were very high, and his ability to make high standards contagious was greater than that of anyone I had previously met and very few that I've met since. His sense of social responsibility began at home, where the needs of his family, including the encouragement to do well, were, as far as I could tell, always met. This sense extended to his business where providing the best possible service to his customers ranked right up there with providing the best possible working conditions and recompense for his workers. Were all employers like George Woodruff, there would have been no need for a communist manifesto just as, among his employees, there was never felt a need for unionization. What would a union gain them that they did not already enjoy? Mine is an outside view, and I may be wrong about that, and such a statement is bound to encourage skepticism. Could it be, for example, that he was good to his employees, not because he thought that was consistent with "Being Woodruff" but because he feared and wished to stave off unionization? I'm not sure it makes much difference. All people's motives are complicated. But Uncle George, more than most, seemed to me to deserve the reputation he had for generosity and fair dealings. And though I do not remember him as the person with the biggest laugh (that was Abner Kobernick), nor the one with the greatest desire to tease (that would be either my own dad or Al LiCalzi), yet he had a good sense of humor that ran to a quiet delight in irony. I remember these things about Uncle George because he always noticed my presence and made me feel welcome and did not rag me for my inexperience, my ignorance, my manners, my ineptitude with girls, my poverty, or my dependence. He never reminded me that the Woodruffs were doing me a favor by letting me spend my summers with them. He always made me feel as if it were treat to have me around or at least that he thought I earned my keep—though how that could be I never understood. The blessings always seemed to be flowing my way.
There is one nagging and possibly unhappy thought lingering in my mind about Uncle George. From 1961 to 1967 I was of draftable age during the Viet Nam War. My selective service status was II-S (Student in good standing) until the draft was turned into a lottery system. My number never came close. Uncle George was on the Selective Service Board for the district in which I was registered. I have no idea if there was or even if there could have been a connection between his presence there and the fact that I never had to put into action my plan to migrate to Canada. I do not really want to know. I think I was just lucky.
For all his accomplishments and honors, I think Uncle George's greatest move in life was to marry Anne Shillingsburg. I first met the Woodruff's in 1955 when I was seven and Aunt Annie was thirty-seven or thirty-eight. To be honest I have no recollections of that time other than the TV set and, I think, a pink Packard. But when I returned in 1960 to spend my first summer, Aunt Annie was still a stunningly beautiful woman. I don't think I fell in love with her, but I soon loved her and would have done anything she asked. In fact, I believe I can say that I did do everything she ever asked me to do and did it with pleasure. She never once told me to do something; she always asked. I imagine I was a nuisance, but not because she made me feel so. Perhaps it was the constant reminders from my mom and dad that I should ever be grateful and never be a nuisance that made me imagine that I might be in the way. As for being grateful, one does not need parental encouragement to feel gratitude to people who hold one only to those standards of grace, generosity, and hard work to which they hold themselves.
My admiration for Uncle George's choice in mate does not, however, derive only from my admiration for her. She adored George; she loved him with great home cooked food, with perfect huswifery (as the old-fashioned arbiters of good household management called it), with joyful companionship: walking the links with him, playing cards, watching TV (frequently while shelling beans), hosting groups interested in George's Indian relics, putting on family dinners, maintaining the yards, dealing with the farm help, and doing all these things in some measure out of love and devotion for George. Lucky man.
I am trying to recall a flaw in Aunt Annie's character. I have seen her indignant but never beyond the call of the situation for indignation. If anything, she erred on the side of tolerance. I have seen her disappointed, but never in a way that showed discouragement. While I lived "At Woodruff", the greatest trial of living for Aunt Annie may have been the proximity of Nana Woodruff. Nana was a remarkable woman, one whose own "Woodruffness", though acquired like Aunt Annie's through marriage, was legendary. But by the time I knew her, her greatness was not tempered with charm or grace. She had dignity; she knew and did her duty; but she was more demanding than generous. If she had always been that way I did not know. But I did know that, for Aunt Annie, Nana was a bit of a trial and may always have been. Years later when Uncle George died, I reflected often on the fact that when he brought Aunt Annie home from their wedding, he brought her to his mother's house. And because Uncle George died before his mother did, Aunt Annie never lived with her husband except under his mother's roof. As Nana aged, her dependence on her daughter-in-law increased. But Aunt Annie never, to my knowledge, let Nana know that she was a burden. I remember, too, Aunt Mae, who lived her life as Nana's companion and helper, as one who lived in perpetual fear of Nana. Other burdens or irks there must have been. Aunt Annie had the intelligence, energy, love of society, urge to do good, and capacity to perform that must surely have been stifled by the prevailing view that women stayed home and played second fiddle. If she felt repressed she never let me see it. What I saw was a woman who took advantage of her opportunities without ostentation, who did good without piousness, who enjoyed life without vulgarity, and who wore her faith with sincerity and grace. She took me to a country club poolside lunch one day with some women friends I cannot remember. In the pool a young couple obviously in some form of love or lust suddenly embraced with the young man's ear firmly lodged in the young woman's bikinied cleavage. I was surprised and confused by Aunt Annie's almost chortled outburst of approbation, which she quickly followed by the never to be forgotten though at the time perhaps not fully understood remark that of course I was too young to understand. Nothing more. But I remember it as an indication of Aunt Annie's genuine joy in other people's enjoyments. The truth is, I don't ever remember her angry, though Reed and Frank were capable of aggravating her, so that she would mutter inaudibly.
One thing about the Woodruff household that I remember, originally with some shock, was their utter candor about disease. No one had hidden or secret illnesses. Even at dinner table, news of hospitalizations were graphic: appendixes, gall bladders, kidneys, livers, ulcers, even cancers were named and discussed as if they were no more than vision corrections or haircuts. There was one taboo subject: that was Anne's father's (my grandfather's) first, apparently annulled marriage. No one knew the date of marriage or annulment, the name of the lady, her place of origin or retreat, whether there was any issue, nothing. Many years later, in a Greek restaurant in Sydney, Australia, Aunt Annie and I puzzled over her father's dates. He was born about 1873; he attended a military academy in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he must have graduated in 1890 or 91; and then he married for a second time in 1900. What did he do for nearly ten years before the beginning of his recorded history? Well, about all we know is, he married and then somehow became free to marry again.
It is so tempting to digress. Being Woodruff seemed, to me, to come naturally to my cousins. Jody was married and gone by the time I came along and I didn't ever get to know her well, though her children Randy, Kirk, and Ted were frequent visitors and obviously came from a superior genetic stock. Jon Alan (Alan really) married Gussie (Grace really—why did she leave off a name that served so well as a description?) and had two kids. Mark was three and could not stop saying "Hi, Pete" and John was just beginning to show signs of an extraordinary memory. Bob married Merry, aptly named and spelled. Both lived near, visited often, usually at lunch. Alan's record collection and stereo-systems and his ability to play the organ took one side of his father to a higher level. He loved music, he knew music, he performed, he soaked it in. He made others feel the joy. And he read. If anyone gave the lie to the stereotype of the ill-educated money grubbing businessman is was Jon Alan Woodruff. He was capable of being short tempered, true; he was not all fun and games, though I remember well his laugh. But he embodied "Being Woodruff" in the way he lived, played tennis, won salesman's awards, and carried himself in relation to Woodruff employees. I think he may have chaffed against his father, but he was a chip off the old block.
Bob may have been a somewhat better athlete than Alan though I don't remember ever keeping score. Alan may have been a better musician. I liked Bob's politics better than Alan's; he seemed more philosophical, more thoughtful about his reading. It would be very hard to say which of these successful businessmen was more unlike the stereotypes. Cultured, curious, open-minded, responsible, upright, fun-loving, family men. And generous and demanding, just like Uncle George.
I got to know Patricia Anne (Trish, really) best because she was still home the first two summers and made me her honorary brother in fact if not in name. Being Woodruff means not being over demonstrative. It is quite possible that I am being NOT Woodruff in writing this. One of them never would. To me, Trish was oh so sophisticated, intelligent, beautiful (she would say no, and the truth is she was not as beautiful as Aunt Annie—nobody was). There was no end of boys who thought so.