Ruthie's father, baiting a fishhook

Ruthie’s father, baiting a fishhook

From The Little Way Of Ruthie Lemingthis insight into how and why Ruthie and our father were so close. She was a natural-born country girl, and those two spent countless hours together on his pond, fishing. This passage describes life when we were both teenagers growing up in the country during the summer of 1986. Mike, then Ruthie’s boyfriend and eventually her husband, was away that summer at Army basic training:

Ruthie, though, may have been lonely, but she was rarely bored, and she doubted nothing about life. Everything she had, or could have, sufficed. She was the kind of person who would never grow up to write a memoir about her life because she was too happy and involved in living it. I didn’t want what Ruthie had, but I was jealous of the way she had it. How did she do it? She made everything look so effortless. On some mornings she would wake up at daylight and get a couple of hours in fishing for bass and bream on the pond before she went to the law office. On weekends she played golf with her and Mike’s buddies, babysat for extra money (she was already saving for her and Mike’s future), or went bowling with friends. She went to parties every now and then, but it didn’t feel right without Mike there.

Ruthie and I got along surprisingly well that summer, no doubt because I stayed out of her way. One Saturday afternoon we drove into Baton Rouge to go shopping, and I told her about the dream I had the night before.

“I dreamed that you and Mike got married,” I said. “Is that weird? Are y’all thinking about it?”

“We’ve talked about it,” she said nervously, “but I think we’re going to wait until we get a few years of college behind us.”

“Did I tell him the right thing?” she later asked Mike in a letter. “That’s one dream that I wish would come true! What I want most in life is to spend it with you. I love you more than anything in the world. I always daydream about what we’re gonna do on our honeymoon and what our house is gonna be like. I sure hope we can make my dreams come true…. I’m ready to start school and get it over with so we can hurry up and start our life together. It is gonna be a damn good one too! I can’t wait!”

Though Daddy’s little girl had lost her heart to Mike, Ruthie and Paw grew even closer that summer. They spent many afternoons on the pond together after work, casting for bream. On Father’s Day weekend Ruthie washed and cleaned out the inside of Paw’s Bronco, as his gift. Meanwhile I had promised to mow the grass for Paw that day, but instead holed up inside the house watching the live MTV broadcast of the eleven-hour Amnesty International benefit concert from Giants Stadium, starring the Police, U2, and Peter Gabriel.

“Rod says it’s great music, but I don’t know,” Paw wrote to Mike. “That still don’t get the grass cut. Maybe tomorrow.”

I had no interest in going fishing with Ruthie, so she often went up to the pond with Billy Lawton, a neighbor kid. One afternoon Billy and Ruthie floated in the middle of the pond in Paw’s aluminum boat, their lines dangling in the water.

“Ruthie, look!” Billy whispered.

Billy thought he was looking at a cow standing at the water’s edge at the pond’s other end.

“Billy, that’s a buck!” Ruthie gasped.

The big deer, antlers coated in velvet, studied them closely. A fish took Billy’s cork under and ran with the line, but Ruthie quietly ordered him to ignore it. She was afraid he would scare the deer away.

The buck dipped his head to drink, then raising it, concluded that the people in the boat were no threat. He ambled down the raised levee that was the pond’s west bank, marching toward them. No fear. He finally found his way into the cornfield, and was gone.

“All I could think about was how you would have fainted,” Ruthie told Mike, in a letter. “Maybe you can get him this winter. I can’t wait!”

She was overcome by excitement at the buck spotting. Me, I would have had to see Elvis Costello in the car next to me at the Sonic to have registered similar glee. No surprise then that I declined to accompany Paw, Mam, and Ruthie on a weekend trip to Holly Beach, a rustic Cajun coastal community in southwest Louisiana, near the Texas border. Some family friends had a camp in the remote and fairly desolate stretch of sand and invited them to make the four-hour drive down. Mosquitoes, alligators, heat, humidity, and no girls? Could there be a more dismal way to spend a weekend? I chose to take my chances at home with gin, air-conditioning, and the English Beat.

Ruthie had a blast. She fished, sunbathed, and learned how to use a throw net to catch crabs in the surf. They ate a fish stew called court bouillon over rice, crawfish crepes, boiled crabs, T-bones, and leg of lamb. She took a drive with Mam and Paw down the Holly Beach main drag to eyeball the gators living in the ditches on either side of the road. She was shocked to see a pickup passing the other way nearly run over a four-foot gator on the asphalt. Paw stopped the Bronco to see if the gator would move. Ruthie leaped out and chased the big lizard out of the road.

“Ruthie!” Paw said when she climbed back in. “You would have died if that thing had started chasing you!”

“I didn’t think about that, Daddy,” she said. “I was just worried that somebody was going to run over the poor little thing.”

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Incidentally, here’s what I looked like back then. Keep feelin’ fascination, I say:

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