Seeing his hometown rally around his dying sister prompted a journalist to move back to the Louisiana community in which he had grown up. But as he writes in his memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” reconciliation was not easy.
Rod Dreher was a successful journalist who had spent his career in big cities -- Dallas, New York, Philadelphia.
He had left his hometown of St. Francisville, La., at the age of 16 and never thought he’d return. His younger sister, Ruthie, never left -- after college at Louisiana State University, she married her high-school sweetheart and became a teacher.
When Ruthie was diagnosed with cancer, Dreher’s view of his hometown shifted. Where he once saw only narrow-mindedness and conformity, he now saw a deep wellspring of love that poured out for his dying sister.
After she died, he and his wife and children moved back to St. Francisville.
“I didn’t come as the prodigal son who was admitting the error of his ways,” Dreher said. “I came back because I saw something beautiful and even holy here in my hometown and in my family that I hadn’t been able to see before and that was only revealed to me by the way my sister died.”
But his homecoming also was difficult, as he explains in his book, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.” He found out that his sister had never forgiven him for leaving home, and his relationships with her husband and younger daughters weren’t as close as he had hoped. And tensions with his parents -- unspoken during many years of visiting -- also came to the surface.
Dreher spoke with Faith & Leadership about his struggles to reconcile with his family and what community means to him now. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: You think you know what this story is going to be when you start it, but it turns out to be more complicated than the simple, heartwarming tale you’re expecting.
I’ve heard that a lot from people. They thought it was going to be a sweet story about a saintly woman dying early, but it turned out to be a lot more than that. People say over and over again they appreciate the rawness and the pain and the complexity there.
Q: Why was it important to you to return to the community you came from?
I was raised here and had a happy childhood, but I didn’t quite fit in. This is rural South Louisiana. The town is only 1,700 people, and we lived 6 miles out of town.
For boys growing up here in the 70s, if you didn’t hunt and fish or like athletics you were automatically on the margins of the community. I was more of a bookish kid and wanted to go to the city and go to museums, bookstores, movies. But that really wasn’t available.
So I left here when I was 16. I had the opportunity to go to a state boarding school called the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, and it was my salvation. The school gave me a sense of finally finding my real community, and I never looked back to St. Francisville after that.
My sister was very much a girl and a woman of her town. She loved all the things that people in our town loved -- the hunting, the fishing, the athletics -- and she could not have been happier here. I was so proud for her and happy for her that she could find a sense of peace and at-homeness in St. Francisville that I could not. I knew I had to leave.
I always had this deep, deep longing to return home, but home for me was an emotional concept, a philosophical concept and even a spiritual concept. I was a restless seeker. I was raised Methodist and became a Catholic and then became Eastern Orthodox.
But more than that, I wanted to find a place in the world that I could call home and where I felt like I fit in.
Then Ruthie got sick, and I was able to witness from afar the incredible things that people in this little town did for Ruthie and for my mom and dad and for Ruthie’s family.
It was just jaw-dropping. I can’t say that it surprised me, because I knew these were good people here. But to stop and realize how unusual it is and to realize, too, that the choices I had made to move away had repercussions -- I could never have counted on that level of support if I fell terminally ill or my wife did, because I just didn’t have the roots there that Ruthie did.
Now, we could have stayed in any one of those places where we lived -- New York, Dallas, Philly -- and over time could have put down some roots. But we didn’t do that, because I did like so many professionals do today and kept chasing the better job. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that per se, but I failed to account for the cost to myself and my wife and kids.
Seeing that happen to my sister, who was only 40, 41 when she was diagnosed -- nobody could have predicted that -- it made me focus on how vulnerable all of us are.
I stood there at the front by my sister’s casket and greeted all of these people -- many of whom I hadn’t seen since I was a child, many of whom I didn’t even know. Strangers would say, “Sir, you don’t know me, but she taught me --” or “she taught my children -- and here’s what she did for us.”
I began to see that my sister’s very small life (small by the standards of the world) of just living at home quietly with all the people she had grown up with, surrounded by her family and teaching in the local school -- there actually was an enormous hidden greatness to it.
There was spiritual grandeur to it that I had not appreciated before, and by the time we left Louisiana after burying my sister, Julie [my wife] and I knew that we were being called to live in this community.
It wasn’t that I realized I had been wrong about St. Francisville as a child, but I saw it transfigured. I saw it in a different way. I saw that the same weaknesses that drove me away were turned into strengths that pulled me back in middle age, and I felt like I was able to come home again. We did move home about three months later.
Q: Has it proved to be what you expected?
Yes and no. The great thing about it is we’ve found so many friends here. The town has changed a lot in 30 years. Life beat us all up, and we get along much better now. There are a lot of new people here. It’s easier to be bookish and nerdy in our town now than it was when I was growing up, and we’ve found arts organizations here for kids.
I have so enjoyed getting to know my extended family here, my cousins and their children whom I had never really gotten to know.
But it hasn’t been easy becoming reconciled with my family -- my mom and dad or my sister’s children and her husband -- because a lot of the brokenness that existed within my family, I didn’t find out about fully until after Ruthie died.
My sister harbored a lot of resentment against me for leaving home -- moving away and, as we say colloquially, getting above myself. She could not imagine that there was anything justifying my leaving home, and she thought I was a fraud for having turned my back on what we had been given here in Louisiana.
But she never shared that with me.
Right after her diagnosis, we had a very emotional moment together on her front porch in which I asked her forgiveness for all the wrongs I had done her, and I wanted to start fresh, and she wouldn’t talk about it. She just cried and held me, which I took to mean, “All is forgiven. Let’s start over.”
But I found out after she died from her [eldest] daughter, Hannah, that in fact Ruthie carried these grudges until the day she died.
That was so hurtful to me. Not only the sense of personal rejection but the possibility that my sainted sister’s example to her children could prevent the reconciliation that I so hoped for and thought I was going to have.
We get along fine. I don’t mean to give the idea that we’re all harsh to each other, but it’s just I don’t have that closeness that I thought I did.
Q: Do you think your faith influences the way you look at your community?
I do, and that’s a complex answer. I think that I’ve gone from Protestantism to Catholicism partly in search for beauty but also in search for intellectual security. It was a good thing for me, and it gave me a depth of intellectual challenge and satisfaction as well as aesthetic satisfaction that really spoke to who I was.
However, I think what I did is I made a false idol of the institutional Catholic Church, and that’s not the Catholic Church’s fault. That’s me.
When I had to write about the abuse scandal as a journalist, I was not prepared for the depth of the darkness that I found.
I lost my Catholic faith after about four years of this. It felt like a death. It felt like it was the worst thing I had ever gone through. But God gave me another chance in Orthodoxy.
I came into Orthodoxy very chastened and humbled and determined not to make an idol of the church itself. That relates to my family because I feel like in many ways the idea of family and place were false idols in my own life and false idols in my sister’s life, too.
Q: You wrote this book pretty early in your experience of being back home.
I wrote it in the first seven to eight months of being back, and so it was all pretty raw.
I’m glad I did it that way, because it allowed me to talk to people who had been close to Ruthie, friends and family, who still had their memories unchanged by time. The passage of time causes our poetic memory to kick in, and people filter out the bad things.
Q: So the truth has turned out to be messier than the story you thought you were going to tell.
Absolutely. I feel like I am outside that circle of blessedness of everyone who knew Ruthie. Everyone in town had an uncomplicated, straightforward relationship with my sister, and she was good to everybody. I’m the only person in the world she didn’t get along with.
Everybody in town can remember her with nothing but good, clean, clear emotions, and for me it’s a lot more complicated, and that’s something I have to work out myself.
I didn’t exaggerate one bit in that book, and I didn’t tell any lies in the book. She was and the family is every bit as good as I testified to in that book, but there’s a shadow side, too, and that’s a legacy I myself am dealing with.
Q: You also had another complicating moment in this sort of nice story of homecoming, when you talked to your dad and he told you that he actually wished he had left. How has that played out in the intervening time?
It has been a good thing, a healing thing, between me and my dad. My father’s views are much like my sister’s views. They really could not see my having left as being anything other than a moral failure and a failure to love and a failure of loyalty.
For him to have the humility to tell me that I did the right thing after all and he wishes he had had the courage to do what I did -- that was absolutely wonderful, a great gift.
Q: And your wife points out that even that conversation in which your dad gives you a kind of retroactive permission to leave might never have happened if you hadn’t gone back.
He stayed here out of duty, and he was giving permission for me to stay here out of love.
I didn’t come as the prodigal son who was admitting the error of his ways. I came back because I saw something beautiful and even holy here in my hometown and in my family that I hadn’t been able to see before and that was only revealed to me by the way my sister died.