The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life
Grand Central Publishing, 2013
288 pp., 25.99
"Home is where you hang your head," my clever friend George used to say. Many of us know what it's like to have a vexed relationship with home—particularly if we are bookish types, and grew up among people who didn't understand that at all.
George fits that familiar pattern, though his story is more extreme than most. He grew up in Ulmer, S.C., which in the 2000 census boasted a population of 102. I met him in college—not any élite college, but just the University of South Carolina, in Columbia. Compared to Ulmer, it might have been Paris. And George was the most intelligent person I've ever met. For a paper on a novelist with a paradoxical bent, George wrote 100 pages (on an old-fashioned typewriter); on the 50th page, he began systematically refuting all his previous assertions.
Back home in Ulmer, George sold peaches from a roadside stand. The consensus was, "He's got school smarts, but that boy's got no common sense."
In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher tells a similar story. He grew up in a rural stretch an hour north of Baton Rouge, near St. Francisville, Louisiana. It wasn't a good fit. His Paw was an avid outdoorsman, but "[t]he last place I wanted to be on a wet, frozen Saturday morning was standing in the woods with a shotgun," Dreher writes. He'd rather be "in the warmth of the camp kitchen, drinking hot, sweet Community coffee, eating jelly cake, and listening to the crazy talk from Oliver 'Preacher' McNabb, the old black cook" who'd spent time in Angola for murder.
Rod's little sister Ruthie didn't agree. "She really did love all of it—especially the hunting. As soon as she was big enough to carry a shotgun, she did." Rod instead drank in the stories from his great-great aunts Hilda and Loisie, who had volunteered as nurses in World War I. He writes, "They caught the train at the bottom of the hill near their family home and didn't stop their journey until they arrived at the Red Cross canteen at Dijon, France." Time he spent in their tin-roofed cabin, listening to their stories and looking at old maps, whetted his appetite for the big world beyond the pecan grove. He grew into a teen who loved books and talking about ideas, someone his Paw found hard to understand.
Maybe Ruthie sensed Rod's advantage in intellectual things; maybe that's what spurred her to lifelong competition on other fronts. She was the superior athlete, and savored opportunities to prove it. One time Paw goaded Rod into doing some exercises to build up his strength. Dreher writes,
I was … struggling to heave out a pitiful few push-ups. Paw tried to keep Ruthie out of the house when this was going on, because he knew she couldn't resist trying to outdo me.
"There she came up the hall, saw you on the floor, then flopped down and started pumping them out," [Paw] recalls. "That was the end of that ring-dang-do. You just quit."
Bullied at school, falling into frequent arguments with his dad, Rod perked up when he heard of a new residential high school for sciences and the arts. He packed everything into the family pickup and stood at the bow of the car ferry, on his way to a better life.
Many of us don't feel at home until we leave home, and find out there are others like us. Like Andersen's Ugly Ducking, my friend George was beautiful to us on campus, but within the nest he looked bewilderingly strange. (Rod writes, "In one of our yelling matches Paw accused me of bringing all this on myself for being so obstinately strange.") And, as if one more alienating touch were needed, George was gay.
Rod went from the residential high school to Louisiana State University, to the Baton Rouge Advocate, to The Washington Times, where he could look out his apartment window and see the president's helicopter rising into the air. And his gifts kept him on the move, from Washington to the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, to the New York Post, to the Dallas Morning News, to a major blog at Beliefnet.com, to the Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia.
Ruthie, meanwhile, stayed close to home. She became a teacher in the local public school, and soon stood out as having a way with difficult children. When other teachers would start griping, Ruthie would stand up for the student and find a solution, balancing discipline with encouragement. The results could be remarkable. Before long, a lot of people in St. Francisville knew and loved Mrs. Leming.
With his wife Julie and their (eventual) three kids, Rod returned to the family home a few times a year. He sensed a mostly unspoken contempt for his supposedly wealthy, urban lifestyle. Rod could tell Ruthie thought he was "a snob and a fraud." She thought it was wrong for him to be paid for writing, because that wasn't real work. She didn't like his inclination to ponder great questions; one evening at dinner she said, "Rod, why don't you say the blessing, since you're so holier-than-thou?"
He couldn't figure out how to talk with her and resolve this. Ruthie argued the way her father did; if she felt strongly about something, that meant it was objectively true. His visits home were too short to spend in futile conflict, so he kept postponing that conversation.
In the fall of 2009 Ruthie was in her kitchen, chopping some fresh jalapeno peppers, and she began to cough. "She never really stopped," Rod writes. By the time she went to see Dr. Tim Lindsay "[s]he could barely complete her sentences without gasping or succumbing to her raspy cough." The diagnosis was cancer: a large tumor wrapped around a major vein. Ruthie's friend Abby asked a friend at the hospital how long someone with this cancer would live. He replied, "In cases like this? Three months."
Rod flew home immediately. He sat on the porch with Ruthie in the last hours before his return flight to Philadelphia. Aware he might never see her again, he tearfully asked her to forgive any bad thing he had ever done to her; he'd inflicted a hundred big-brother taunts and tricks. They hugged and wept, but she waved away any deeper conversation.
When news got around that Ruthie Leming was sick, the response was immediate and strong. One of her husband, Mike's, fellow firefighters, with tears in his eyes, turned his wallet upside down and shook out every bill. Another friend told Mike he'd never prayed before, but when he heard of Ruthie's illness, "I prayed twice, dammit." One of Ruthie's "most challenging students" stood up during school assembly and told everyone that now they had to "make her proud."
As Rod listened to the outpouring of love for Ruthie, he began to understand her better. She hadn't gone to the nation's capital and written influential columns. But she had done incalculable good, and changed the lives of many people. Rod was reminded of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who did not seek to approach Christ by great deeds or mystical rapture, but only by living in a simple, humble, helpful way—a "little way." Rod began to see that his sister Ruthie was another saint of the "little way."
Ruthie lived those three allotted months, and then she kept right on living. She kept leaping over months like a rider on horseback. A year passed, and then continued to turn. But she was weakening. One school morning she was sitting with Mike in her living room when she began coughing violently, coughing blood. "I can't breathe!" she cried, and fell into her husband's arms. The ambulance arrived too late.
Rod and his family left immediately for the funeral. Over the course of the next few days, Rod and Julie found they were having the same thought. The warmth and cohesiveness of the St. Francisville community was profoundly attractive. Ruthie's loss left a big hole in the family. Why not move here and help fill it? They could help raise their nieces and care for Mam and Paw. Circumstances fell together providentially, and Rod was given an editorial position at The American Conservative that made it possible to work from home.
And so, in December 2011, the Drehers moved to St. Francisville. It's a beautiful town, lush and flowering, and in the community there is a quality of steadfast love that is even sweeter. And yet—things haven't turned out exactly as they'd hoped.
They had trouble connecting with the younger nieces, Claire and Bekah. Some invisible barrier stood between them. One night, Hannah—Ruthie's eldest—told Rod that he should just give up that project, because it was never going to happen. All their lives their mom had made sharp and mocking comments about Rod. The girls had heard too much of that to like or trust him now. Ruthie had continued saying such things even after the day when Rod had asked her forgiveness and they'd made, he thought, a new start.
Rod and Julie were stunned. The central reason they'd rearranged their lives and moved a thousand miles was to be family to the girls, but Ruthie had apparently made that impossible even before they could begin. How could Ruthie be so kind to everybody she met, yet so unjust to her brother?
Rod still believes that Ruthie was a saint, but even saints aren't perfect. Perhaps he brought it on himself, with all the pranks and teasing in childhood. Rod knows she loved him, but that doesn't fix everything. Relationships are complicated.
Of course, given enough time, they can get better. But you don't always get enough time. George introduced me to my husband, so he was a treasured friend. We planned that at our hippie wedding in the woods he would walk ahead of us in the procession. But a month beforehand he drifted into oncoming traffic, overcorrected, and flipped over into a ditch. He went home to Ulmer suddenly—sightless, voiceless, and still.
Home is where you hang your heart. You hang it out helplessly, whether you want to or not, in full reach of ordinary human beings, not saints. Even when they are saints, you just might be their greatest temptation. And whether we like them or not, whether they understand us or not, we are linked to them forever by the mystery of blood. From the first of life to the last, we are bound to them by unbreakable claims.
When we're grown we can surround ourselves with whoever we like, but we all must begin life like this, vulnerable, in the midst of people we never chose. God chose them for us. If you have things to say, now is the time to say them. We will all be voiceless one day.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is the author The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God (Paraclete Press).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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