Georgia Ruth Turnbow Roth (1931-2017)

They dismissed school early, the day Georgia was born. That teacher knew something about teachable moments and the school of life.

It was a long, rich life, in all the ways that really matter. She touched so many of us, and leaves so generous a legacy of spirit and kindness and perseverance.

Georgia was born November 17, 1931 in Perry County on Sinking Creek, in the same house her mother was born in. The first child of James Turnbow and Clyde Graves Turnbow, she grew up on Swan Creek and later moved to Hohenwald, where she graduated from Lewis County High School. She married Freddie Roth on November 2, 1950. They were married almost 60 years.  

Georgia often recalled the thrill and wonder of first seeing humans take to the sky, though firmly and proudly planted in the soil of her native grounds.

Of course, that was nothing – speaking of legacy – compared to the thrill and wonder of the birth of a son, Frederick David, and then a daughter, Sharon Clydine; and later a pair of granddaughters, Emma Rebekah and Elisabeth Kathleen (Katie).

Georgia, like her parents before her, worked for many years at Genesco. She provided for her children not only materially but especially in the richness of an endless and daily nurturing love.  She loved keeping her home and cooking beautiful meals.  She is survived by her son F. David Roth, her daughter Sharon C. Roth (Phil Oliver), her brother Jimmy C. Turnbow (Ruth), and granddaughters Emma Rebekah Oliver and Elisabeth Kathleen (Katie) Oliver, and many beloved nieces and nephews.

When her daughter Sharon and I married, Georgia was about my age now. She struck me then, as she deserves to be remembered now, as youthful, kind, funny, curious, nurturing, and nourishing: she was a wonderful cook, in the traditional southern country style, and that – her cooking, my delight in her cooking – was maybe the first strong connection we made (beyond agreeing, of course, that her daughter was a pretty terrific person). Recalling that I bonded with Georgia’s mother, Granny Bo, over homemade GooGoo clusters, you might suspect a pattern here.

I gave her a copy of the Andy Griffith Cookbook, knowing she’d know just what to do with it. Every time we gathered over one of her and Freddie’s wonderful meals I’d have cause to effuse, in my best Andy of Mayberry accent, “Aunt Bea…!” And I tried not to be too much like Goober, when he briefly fancied himself a philosopher.

Georgia was funny, usually in a droll and understated way. She loved to laugh, and to make others laugh. She loved to repeat the inadvertently-funny things her granddaughters would say, like the time we were driving through the aromatically-bovine Vermont countryside when 3-year old Emma complained about something nasty “on her nose.” (That was a euphemism, I really didn’t want to talk about cow manure here.) Oh, and ask Emma about the Granny/leopard print lingerie story, I really can’t do it justice.

She also struck me, back then, as an auto-didactic, a self-educator and lifelong learner, a curious and eager reader, still working on her education. That was another strong and warm connection. I’m an auto-didact too, albeit an overeducated one. But Georgia was the sort of person who knew instinctively what Mark Twain meant when he said you should never let schooling interfere with your education.

So I didn’t just give her cookbooks. I gave her my book on William James, which she found a prominent place for on the coffee table, and a collection of some of his correspondence. He wrote delightful letters, back when people still knew how to write letters and treated them as a form of art as well as communication. I directed her attention to a couple of them in particular, that I thought she’d especially appreciate.

One was about the futility of trying to say everything, to put everything into words, because so much of life is too large to fit into words and sentences. There’s always something that “glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught.” She was one of the more perceptive people who seemed to me, somehow, to get that.

Another James letter was about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which he experienced at firsthand. Georgia back then seemed to me someone who’d also respond to unanticipated upheaval with more excitement and curiosity than fear, with “glee at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as ‘earthquake’ could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely.” (That was certainly the spirit in which she thrilled to her first bumpy ride in an ATV “mule” last Fall with Jimmy Fite at the wheel, a ride too bumpy for her daughter and me.) The philosopher described a feeling like a terrier shaking a rat, followed in the days ahead by the socially uplifting spectacle of strangers pitching in together to clean up and rebuild. There are people in the world who meet disappointment and distress with perseverance and resolve. She was one of those.

I also shared with Georgia an appreciation of the great chronicler of the American west Wallace Stegner, and a copy of his Angle of Repose. In geology the angle of repose isthe steepest angle of descent or dip relative to the horizontal plane to which a material can be piled without slumping.” In human terms, it’s “the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down.” The narrator of Angle of Repose is a stoical wheelchair-bound historian who must come to terms with his own present incapacity as he tries to understand the past. “Wisdom,” he realizes, “is knowing what you have to accept.” Georgia was wise in that way too.

Another Stegner character said, in  Crossing to Safety,

If you could forget mortality… You could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don’t warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn’t differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.”

There’s more than a bit of wisdom in those broadly geological and biological perspectives, reminding us that the sting of death is due mostly to excessive fixation with our linear individual destinies. Life’s a much bigger picture, a more epic adventure, than even the sum of all our individual stories. The adventure really begins when children and grandchildren enter the picture. If we can grasp that, then we can accept our mortality and be grateful for our “little life rounded by a sleep.”

Georgia did grasp and accept the bigger picture, and also knew that some individuals–the ones we call grandkids, for sure–definitely do warrant attention. Lavish, tireless, delighted attention.  How she loved and doted on her granddaughters Emma and Katie, loved to tell their stories, loved to dream of the lives they’d live and the love they’d pass along in their turn. It’s a long and often-dazzling (if finally wearying) parade, this human journey. We’re the lucky ones, we’re in the procession, we get to wonder what life may yet become, and to try and nudge it forward. Think of all the merely-possible people who’ll never get the chance.

One of her favorite poems, and mine, is William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” (his “consideration of death,” which Georgia committed to memory in youth and retained for a lifetime)-allegedly written when Bryant was just a teenage college dropout and inspired by one of my favorite poets William Wordsworth. He aptly said the best portion of a good person’s life is her little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love. We should remember. Wordsworth also said

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…

Life remains behind, here and now on this planet and, let us hope, for many tomorrows and many generations to come, newly invigorated by her memory. Bryant’s “consideration” lends strength to that hope.


To him who in the love of Nature holds   

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   

A various language; for his gayer hours   

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   

Into his darker musings, with a mild   

And healing sympathy, that steals away   

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts   

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight   

Over thy spirit, and sad images   

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,   

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,   

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—   

Go forth, under the open sky, and list   

To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—

Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—

Comes a still voice…

So live, that when thy summons comes to join   

The innumerable caravan, which moves   

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take   

His chamber in the silent halls of death,   

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,   

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed   

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,   

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch   

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Pleasant dreams, Georgia. The example of your unfaltering trust sustains and soothes us, in our grief for your passing. Grief will give way to gladness and gratitude for the privilege of sharing our too-brief time here with you. And, as I learned from the experience of losing my own parents several years ago, you won’t ever really leave us. Exemplary lives shine on, with an unshakable inspiring presence.

The great essayist Montaigne said he wanted death to find him planting his cabbages, not fretting about death or his garden. Georgia’s literal gardening days were behind her, but she still met death in the metaphorical cabbage patch. Now it’s up to us to harvest that crop and be nourished by it, and to cultivate our gardens in turn. Thank you, Georgia, for your nurturing example. We love you. We’ll never forget you.


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