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Ruth Marian Day

Jackson Street has lost its queen.

Yet the tradition Ruth Marian Day helped start – an annual block party – continued this past Saturday, a tribute both to Day’s memory and to the vibrancy of the street where she made her home for decades.

“She loved that party,” said Day’s daughter, Marcia Gross of Portland, Ore.

As did her Lower Rattlesnake neighborhood.

Day lived on Jackson Street for 62 years, Gross said, in a house built by her father and husband. The mortgage was $7,000; the original color, “flamingo.” Day loved the fact that she could see Mount Jumbo from the living room, and hear Rattlesnake Creek from her bedroom.

“She said she remembered when Jackson Street was Mrs. Greenough’s meadow,” said neighbor Jeremy Smith, who was still in his 20s when he moved next-door in 2003.

“I was told by the people we bought the house from that she was a special neighbor,” said Smith, a writer.

To know Day was to know the entire street, he said. “Other people see numbers in front of houses. She saw names and faces, and she would just say who was from where and what they did and even … what their kids did.”

Not in a nosy way, but a deeply caring way, Smith and Gross agreed.

“She always paid attention to how you were and what you were doing … wishing the best and praying for you,” Gross said.

When she told stories about people, said Smith, “it was always about people’s positive side, her hopes for the best for them.” Smith recorded some of those stories in a long prose poem that Day dictated to him before she died. “The smartest thing I did,” he called it.

Gross described her mother as a “proud Christian in a very humble way. She wouldn’t talk much about her faith unless you asked her, but she would embody it in everything she did.”

Day’s memorial service at Immanuel Lutheran Church was packed, said Smith, with a contingent from Jackson Street in attendance.

Day’s pride in her Swedish heritage – she grew up in a home where Swedish was spoken – ran deep, and it was an emotional moment in her memorial when a friend stood and sang an impromptu version of “Children of the Heavenly Father” in Swedish.

Lest Day begin to sound entirely too angelic, she had her quirks, said Gross, who enumerated them at the memorial service:

She was a Democrat.

She could drive a ski boat.

She could square dance.

She could take on City Hall.

She could bake blind.

She could drive blind.

She could make a great sandwich out of cow tongue and a pie out of kidneys.

She wanted her ashes to be buried in a paint can.

She thought she never did enough for the people she cared about.

She had oatmeal every morning.

She didn’t trust anyone who didn’t read the funny papers.

She did her grocery lists in shorthand.

And so on.

For the record, said Gross, her mother was not buried in a paint can – although the family felt obligated to tell the funeral director about her wishes. “With a perfectly straight face, he told us where we could find one at Home Depot,” she said.

Day’s life wasn’t easy. She fell ill as a young mother and spent months going from doctor to doctor in Missoula until the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota finally diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis.

“She never complained” about her own pain, “but would always observe if somebody had a struggle they would have to bear. … She had an eye for the underdog,” Smith said.

When he first met Day, she reminisced wistfully about the block parties that she and her other next-door neighbor had hosted. The two shared a large backyard and for years, until the neighbor died, the entire block would gather on a summer afternoon.

Smith impulsively volunteered to pass out invitations. The block party has been held annually since.

“It’s one of those really wonderful lazy convivial experiences. It’s like river time in a backyard. You see the flow of people coming and going and try the 14 different kinds of coleslaw,” he said.

When Day went into Bee Hive Homes a few months ago, her neighbors vowed they’d bring the block party to her this year. But she died July 15 at the age of 89. Her children – Gross; son, Stephen of Polson; and daughter, Joanne Tabor of Haleiwa, Hawaii – take heart in knowing the tradition will continue.

Saturday’s party, said Smith, was to be “a real celebration of her,” with old black-and-white photos of Day and of the street.

That way, even people who didn’t know her will be able to get a sense of what it was like to, as Smith called it, “to be drawn into the court of the Queen of Jackson Street.”

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or gwen.florio@missoulian.com.

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