Meet author Wallace Peters, and a wonderful woman whose life touched many, his wife, Ruth.
Although my wife and I were a very disparate couple, we both were privileged to lead unusual and full lives. I was a medical scientist specialising in exotic diseases, especially malaria, as well as an entomologist. Ruth was a brilliant and imaginative art embroiderer, although only when we finally returned to Europe in 1960 did her latent creative skills have the opportunity to blossom. Because of the peripatetic nature of my career her existence was submerged in mine but we shared rich and varied experiences for over 50 years. Then in 2006 Ruth developed what appeared to be a difficult but controllable illness. We could not have known that her condition would prove to be masking an underlying and deadly malignancy.
One cold Sunday morning just before Christmas 2007 I woke up after a brief but deep sleep and was hit by the shattering memory that, a few hours earlier, Ruth had quietly died. I knew at that moment that once more, after over half a century of sharing life with a wonderful woman, I was alone. Henceforth my existence would revert to an unwelcome dimension that had been only too familiar in my early years. From now on with whom could I share everything, every thought, every word?
There is the simple answer to your question.
How did you originally envisage that retirement would change both your lives?
In 1989 I reached the age of 65 when the rules demanded that I should give up my academic post and, officially at least, enter the world of the retired. We knew that, in reality, this could have been an intolerable situation for both of us. Although we were very close we had radically different personal interests and personalities. Undoubtedly we would have to make many adjustments. Ruth was by this time well entrenched in her creative work and had become embedded in a valuable group of like-minded women. I succeeded in retaining a succession of laboratories where I and a small team of loyal assistants could extend some of my research. Moreover I still had numerous professional relationships with fellow scientists and organisations, continued to tutor senior students and to travel widely. Whenever possible Ruth would accompany me.
From home we were able to observe and absorb the life around us. I could indulge myself in writing, scientific papers, reviews, reports, critiques and books. Eventually for practical reasons we agreed that we should move from our simple house in the Hertfordshire countryside to a nearby retirement village, a move that we accomplished early in 2007. We envisaged enjoying a quieter but fulfilling future.
Why and when did you have the idea of writing your memoirs?
This was never seriously in my mind. From about the time of my retirement from my university department I had been maintaining, in an irregular fashion, notes on my computer concerning both my professional experiences and our personal lives. There seemed no reason why any should be made public. After Ruth’s death the notion of publishing a memoir formed itself slowly as a form of catharsis, a subconscious process of self-healing of the deep psychological trauma I suffered when Ruth died. It was during that period that I recognised around me, in many of the bereaved individuals who are fellow residents of the retirement village in which I now dwell, reflections of similar feelings.
Gradually, usually in oblique references to their own histories, as well as the evident relief that I observed many of them felt when finding a sympathetic ear, I came to realise that the sharing of one’s experiences of both life and death can bring a certain solace to many aging people. From that time on this book took on a momentum and purpose of its own.
You say in your book that your original objective was to explore the intimate changes in your life styles and especially the manner in which you each had to adapt as the years passed. Yet the bulk of your story contains a series of accounts of your early lives and of people and places that you encountered along your first six decades. Why did you take this approach and not just tell the “post-retirement” story?
It soon became evident that, to put everything into perspective, it would be necessary to give an account of our formative years, including the unconventional career that I had followed and that had been both tolerated and actively supported by Ruth. We had both had the exceptional good fortune, during our wanderings, to encounter a wide range of people, places and events. We shared a great love of Nature; each of us in our own fashion and in different ways were able to express this, Ruth through her imaginative embroidery and I through many scientific observations and writings. We had encountered a broad cross section of human experience, from primitive peasants in hovels to presidents and princes in their palaces, from the great illiterate to Nobel laureates, from peace to war – much of my own life was enmeshed in a battle against disease, especially malaria. Many stories were there for the telling.
Almost without my realising it the book took a long leap into the past in order to catch up with the middle, our mid – life crisis. With a certain amount of prompting I came to accept that sharing some of our past and present histories with my contemporaries might be at least of interest to some, and even stimulate others to appreciate the richness of their own past and potential for their coming years. I hope this will prove to be true and will vindicate some of the very personal relations between Ruth and me that I have included in this account. Sadly I will never know how this wonderful and loving human being might have felt had she survived to read what I have written.
What in your heart of hearts do you think that Ruth and you achieved and where will you go from here?
Ruth’s greatest achievement was to enrich the existence of many, many people whose paths she crossed. She had a natural generosity of spirit, warmth and empathy for most of those whom she met, simple or sophisticated, honest or criminal (she had for some time, as a volunteer probation officer, at least one ‘client’ who was a murderer). In her later years when she was able to give free expression to her practical creativity Ruth shared the products of her art with those around her – to such an extent in fact that today little of her output remains in my hands except photographs and memories of their production.
My own achievements were mainly related to my scientific research but this I feel is not the place even to summarise them. Let me say only that I hope I have been able to add a morsel to the sum of human knowledge and well being, as well as to guide a few of the generation whom I taught and who succeed me to do likewise, each in his or her individual way.
Where do I go from here? There is only one direction but I hope that the road will be long, peaceful and productive.