Sunday, July 18, 1999

Dinner's 'chaos' is a family tradition

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BELLEVUE — Every Tuesday night, chaos comes over to Ruth Hill's house for dinner. She insists on it.

        Her preparations begin at 10 a.m.

        The bread ingredients go into the bread maker. Ten pounds of potatoes go into a slow-cook pot. She and her sister, Shirley Rouse, take turns with the main courses. Last Tuesday, they fixed ham and bean soup, chicken and dumplings, roast beef, rice, meatloaf, cottage cheese with tomatoes, cucumbers, pasta salad, chocolate fudge, carrot cake, key lime pie and lemon cake.

        Chaos begins arriving at 4 p.m. By this time, Mrs. Hill is happily ensconced in her living room, where she can see all the action.

        By 6 p.m., it's common to find 30 people stuffed into her tiny house. They range in age from 10 months to 89. In between eating, they laugh, argue about basketball and pass babies around like mashed potatoes.

        They are an extraordinary clan, these Hills. For one thing, they haven't moved far from home base. For another, they get along.

        Even the kids are into it.

        “Can we go to Old Grandma's house tonight?” one 7-year-old is always asking his mother. He calls Mrs. Hill “Old Grandma” because she is his great-grand.

        Mrs. Hill is 79. She has 16 grandchildren, 11 great-grands, assorted nieces, nephews, children and siblings. This is how she keeps track of them of all.

        For the last three years, she has never missed a Tuesday. Even on election days, when she volunteers at the polls. Her clan insists on coming over anyway, and she concedes to order pizza.

        “If we say, "No, we're not going to have dinner,' you never heard so much carrying on,” Mrs. Hill says.

        Her husband, Bill, is 89 and goes by the interesting nickname of “Humpy.” When I stopped by last week, he shook my hand and said, “Want something to eat?”

        This is how it goes at the Hill house.

        The tradition began with one of Mrs. Hill's daughters, Kay Harris, coming over to take her to bingo games. Mrs. Hill invited her to stay for a home-cooked meal.

        “We all got wind of it and said, "Wait a minute!'” says Linda Hill Dragan, another daughter. “We just kind of called Mom and said, "We're coming, too.'”

        “I don't know how they do it,” says a grandson, Jim Harris, who shows up on Tuesday carrying a toddler and a diaper bag.

        When latecomers arrive, somebody is likely to call out, “Here comes two more!” which leads to traffic jams in the hallway. Women greet the new arrivals while holding babies in their arms and feeding cake to babies in other people's arms.

        Friends have a hard time believing so many Hills get together once a week, much less have such a good time.

        “If you get into a fuss and you're upset about something, you just don't show up,” says Bill Hill Jr., the couple's only son. “This is one thing they really look forward to doing, and we don't want to hurt their feelings in any way.”

        Bill Hill Jr. is forever trying to convince his work colleagues that the Tuesday dinners are for real.

        “C'mon over,” he tells his single co-workers. “It don't make no difference. Whoever comes to the door is welcome to come in and eat.”

        None of the Hills could be described as “waif-like.” The food never runs out, and it's always made from scratch. Mrs. Hill has the timing down so that nothing goes into the refrigerator before people arrive to eat it.

        “Everyone's mouth is so full, we don't have time to argue about anything,” says Cari Cavanaugh, the granddaughter who invited me to check out her family's tradition.

        If it sounds like chaos, there is always a calm center. That's Ruth Hill.

        When she was 19, her mother died of cancer and she was left to raise three siblings, ages 9, 4 and 10 months. At the time, she was engaged to Humpy Hill, who helped out with the little ones.

        Mr. Hill made his living as a union carpenter. Mrs. Hill was an executive secretary. Now they sit contentedly in their favorite chairs. Mrs. Hill holds out her arms, and people bring babies for her to kiss.

        “We've just been a close family,” she says. “No reason for it, other than we just pursue it.”

        Mrs. Hill loves Tuesdays.

        When she smiles, the wisdom shines in her eyes.

        Karen Samples in Kentucky columnist.


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