The word “saint” does not typically conjure up images of a Harvard alumna and New England housewife, but it may begin to do so if Ruth Pakaluk’s story gets around. She was only 41 when cancer claimed her life. Her husband Michael has now collected the letters she wrote throughout her adulthood, and her own words compose the bulk of this biography.
In his introduction, Peter Kreeft of Boston College writes that, soon after her death in 1998, “people in Worcester [Massachusetts] wished to consider opening her cause for sainthood.” So the reader wonders, was Ruth Pakaluk a “saint,” or wasn’t she? There’s no question that this extraordinary, complex, outspoken woman is well worth getting to know. She came to Harvard as a nominal Presbyterian and practical atheist, but converted to Roman Catholicism and married her classmate in their junior year. He became an academic, while she raised their six surviving children and took an active part in local anti-abortion politics. Not much given to emotion, or what she called “ditsiness,” Ruth Pakaluk is not a gushy, stereotypically “saintly” writer but a sensible, plain-spoken woman who offers matter-of-fact advice and unvarnished opinions, even when she and her correspondents markedly disagree.
She was something of a political junkie and in many letters comments on current events with shrewd humor. Regarding Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy unexpectedly sided with the pro-choice majority, she writes, “I would not want to be in [Kennedy’s] shoes on Judgment Day.” She is often funny—“One essential lesson for successful parenting is not to scruple about bribery. It works”—and one one occasion she refers to “modern man” as “that shortsighted, hedonistic idiot.” Candid to a fault, she informs a school principal that her son will not be participating in health class because “there is virtually nothing of academic merit in this program” and she considers it “a waste of the students’ time and the taxpayers’ money.”
Yet shining through her correspondence is a deep joy in living and ability to see what is good in life—and in other people. “The life of an academic’s wife is really the absolute best,” she writes, but one senses she would have said the same if she were married to an architect or auto mechanic: “Life really is just as exciting and meaningful as a Wagner opera.” In the literature of bereavement these are not the clouded memories of a grieving spouse—as in Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy or C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed—but a distinctive voice that speaks for itself, with humor, deep insight, great sorrow, and transcendent joy.
“If the fallen world is this pleasant,” she writes, “what could heaven be but irresistible?”
Theresa Civantos is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.