The Little Metal Suitcase

I was born in 1961, and grew up in Toluca, Mexico with my mother, father, my four siblings, and my father’s family. We lived in a tiny, one-bedroom abode, because my father did not make much money being a school teacher. He was often innovative, once using newspaper to keep our feet safe when our shoes had torn. As a child, I didn’t know we were poor, I just knew we were happy.

City of Toluca, Mexico.

Around the time I was eight years old, my mother’s parents challenged my father to go to the United States of America to become a pastor. They wanted more for our family. My father took the challenge and moved to Texas despite not knowing any English. There, he taught Bible school while the rest of the family stayed in Mexico until the proper legal papers were created for us to join him. When I turned nine, we were able to move to San Antonio, Texas to be with our father.

I remember the day we came to America. I held my mother’s hand, watching the small metal suitcase she held. It glistened in the southwestern sun. My mother packed all our possessions, for five children and a baby on the way, into that suitcase. My mother, the bravest woman I know, came to a new country with little to no belongings, and was not afraid. We had no idea what America would be like, but we followed our mother, who followed our father, who followed his calling.

At first, America was strange. There were strange foods I had never known, like lemons and sunflower seeds. I used to swallow sunflower seeds whole, shell and all, until I was advised differently. I thought English sounded weird, and since I couldn’t speak it, school was difficult for me. I started as a third grader at a local elementary school. The teachers didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t know what to do with me. They put me in a corner all day. The only times I could join my classmates were during lunchtime, recess, and reading group.

But I had a secret, for I listened to every word around me, learning English little by little, absorbing everything. One day, we had a substitute teacher who called on me to read out loud. An uproar ensued among my classmates. They shouted, “she doesn’t know how to read,” and “she doesn’t even understand the question.” The substitute just looked at me and said, “let her defend herself.” And I did. Though my Spanish accent was heavy, and though I did not know what I was saying, I read an entire page aloud. The room was silent. I was taken from the corner after the teacher saw that I was able to participate with the rest of the class, simply because she had given me a chance.

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From that day until the sixth grade, I was an excellent student. Middle school brought back obstacles stemming from English being my second language. Algebra was difficult because I couldn’t comprehend word problems. Instead of my teacher helping me, he placed me in the class that was “least likely to succeed.” From that the moment, I knew I was going to have the spend my life as a fighter.

In 10th grade, my family and I moved to Houston for a new pastor job for my father. At my new school, I met my best friend, who was also an immigrant, but from Cuba. She was amazing. She taught me how to do makeup, braid my hair, and how to take care of myself. I am forever grateful for her. But I knew that once graduated high school, college wasn’t going to happen for me. College was for smart people, and I didn’t consider myself smart enough. So, I took vocational courses that helped me land a job at an insurance company.

Two years later, a friend introduced me to a man that was the opposite of my type. He was tall with curly hair and big glasses — with tape on them! He was so nerdy! But, I was interested anyway. On our first date, he kissed my cheek, gave me a single rose, and held the door open for me. He’s been holding the door open for me ever since. We dated for a little over a year before getting married in 1982. On our wedding day, he was offered and accepted a job as a college professor for sports medicine in a different town, so we had to move. I had a difficult time finding a job, and I felt so lost. I searched for something to do with my life.

With my husband, 1982.

One day, I went with my husband to help him clean up his office and classroom at the college where he worked. After we finished up, we left the building so my husband could turn in his final grades. It was in the parking lot that a student stopped him and pleaded with my husband to change his grade. My husband told the student that he had taken the course too many times and didn’t put in very much work to keep a good grade. Something clicked inside me. I looked at this boy who was irresponsible, and I saw myself. I thought, “this boy is dumb! But if he can go to college, then I can, too!” So at the age of 24, I enrolled in college for an administration degree. No one in my family thought I would finish, but four years later, I got my degree and proved everyone wrong.

After I graduated, my husband and I moved back to Houston. We continued trying to start our family, but after nine years of infertility, we decided to adopt. We adopted a baby girl in 1991 and a baby boy again in 1993. I didn’t get the nine months of training like a pregnant woman does, so I felt a loss of identity at first. I didn’t see how I could be a mother and still a working woman. Part of me wanted to stay home with them but another part knew that I had a financial responsibility to work. Upon further reflection and remembering my mother’s tiny metal suitcase all those years ago, I realized that life isn’t about money. It’s about faith. I decided to be a stay-at-home mom, and my husband supported me.

With my family.

Before my oldest child’s first day of kindergarten, I felt the sudden urge to home school both of my children. I had no idea why God would call me to this! I couldn’t teach them! Without confidence in myself, I chose to obey anyway. I knew that if God wanted me to, he’d show me the way, and he did. A week after my choice, I met a woman through my church that helps homeschooling parents develop lesson plans. It was perfect timing.

Not long after this decision, my husband was called into mission work after a conference abroad opened his eyes to the rewarding experience. When he first told me, I didn’t think he was serious. He didn’t waver in this passion. As time passed, I grew scared. I wasn’t sure how we were going to live off a ministry salary. I didn’t trust my husband’s judgement, but I trusted God’s. Once more I thought back to my mother with her suitcase and felt motivated to have that same faith in my husband’s endeavor. Eventually, my husband and I developed a successful ministry foundation, traveling to over 18 countries since it was created. After a few more moves, we settled in Athens, Ohio.

Stafford, England, 2006.

When I go through dark times, I don’t keep to myself. I share with others, so I may to have their strength to lean on. I tell about those hard times in hopes of helping others see that they aren’t alone. When my son was 19, he attempted suicide. He has since attempted two more times. Through my talks with him, I learned that the church hadn’t been a safe space for those with mental illness. The pain and desperation has motivated me to advocate for better representation of mental illness within the church.

In my life, I have had to be an overcomer. When something was blocking my way, I found my way around it through determination. I did not give up when teachers refused to educate me in my youth, nor did I give up when my son wanted to end his life. God knows how much we can handle, and even in times that we think we can’t, He knows that we’ll get through it. To think, it all began with a little metal suitcase, and big faith.

This is the story of Ruth Russell

Ruth lives in Athens, Ohio with her family. From a young age, Ruth saw by example that having faith that things will work out makes a huge difference in the quality of life. Her faith has helped guide her in troubled times. Ruth is the cofounder of the Kardia foundation and continues advocating for mental illness. Ruth also loves to cook, read autobiographies, canoe, spend time with her three-year-old grandchild.

Ruth with her husband and grandson, 2017.
This story first touched our hearts on April 12, 2018.

Life Log #67

|Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker; Manqing Jin |




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