Ruth, mother of Nate, David and Claire, has spent most of her life taking care of other people. For the majority of her teen years she cared for her grandmother, whose legs had been amputated. She got married at nineteen and spent the next thirty-odd years keeping house, raising her children and tending to the grieving people who passed through Fisher & Sons Funeral Home. When she got the phone call that informed her she was a widow, Ruth's immediate reaction was to hurl a roast - and everything else she could get her hands on - onto the kitchen floor. Since then she has been trying to build a new life and reconcile feelings of guilt from her old one.
The guilt stems from the fact that for the last two years of her marriage Ruth had been having an affair. She met Hiram Gunderson, a chef-turned-hairdresser, at church, and they went on clandestine camping trips together. After Nathaniel Sr.'s death they began to date openly. When Hiram eventually broke up with Ruth, she didn't really mind; by then she was busy with other pursuits, notably her first job outside the funeral home. As a part-time employee of the Blossom d' Amour, Ruth discovered she has a gift for flower arranging. She also discovered that, against her better judgment, she was attracted to Nikolai, the flower shop's hot-blooded Russian proprietor, with whom she had a brief romance.
What Ruth wants more than anything is to feel close to her loved ones. "All I want is for us not to be strangers," she tells David, Nate and Claire in a moment of exasperation, "I want intimacy!" In order to achieve it, she tried "The Plan," a cultish, 70's-style self-help program that exhorted her to approach her life like a building renovation; but her convert's zeal only further alienated her children. When she tried to build an emotionally intimate relationship with Nikolai, her neediness caused him to pull away from her, too. An infatuation with Arthur Martin, an intern at the funeral home, led to another short-lived and unfulfilling pair-up. Ruth finally found a connection when she met George Sibley, a geology professor who had attended a funeral at Fisher & Sons, and comforted Ruth in the wake of Lisa's death. Over the protests of her children, she married George after only six weeks of dating. But no one knows better than Ruth that life is short and as she puts it, "...that's precisely why it's important to keep on living."
Her determined optimism is put to every test once George moves in, as his eccentricities multiply and secrets are revealed - an alarmingly hostile son, a trail of broken hearts, and a propensity to withdraw deeply into his own bewildering world. After several attempts to draw him closer, Ruth gives up and leaves George -- escaping to Topanga to stay with her friend Bettina. The two set out on a liberating adventure south of the border, but when the horse she's riding dies unexpectedly, Ruth is ready to go home to her family again. She returns to find her husband preoccupied with apocalyptic visions as he stockpiles a "bomb shelter" in her basement. After an encounter with George's daughter, who cryptically inquires about her father's "problems," Ruth finds him in a heated conversation with an imaginary person.