To repeat from the weekend: Hey Monroe, Louisiana, area readers, please come out and hear me talk on Monday about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. On Monday, I will be speaking at the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum, 701 Kansas Lane, in Monroe. The talks will cover what my sister’s story teach us about faith, family, and a sense of home. The first one will be at 3:30pm, and then I will repeat it at 6:30pm. Each talk will last about an hour, and include Q&A. From 4:30 till 6:30, I’ll be meeting and greeting and signing books, which Books-a-Million will be on hand to sell. I hope to see you there.

If you’ve read the book, you will know the character Mam, who is my and Ruthie’s mother. She’s with me on this trip. Come out and meet her and say hello. She will call you “honey” and “sugar,” and she will mean it. Here’s something from Little Way about my mother’s character, and its effect on my sister:

Ruthie had a big heart for the poor. She came by it honestly. Our mother grew up very poor in Woodville, Mississippi, a hardscrabble sawmill town up Highway 61 just north of the Louisiana border. She remembered well what it was like to want. Mam often told us that when was six years old, she had to walk a mile to school, past a sawmill, all alone. If it rained, she had to cover her head with a paper grocery sack, if they had one to spare, because her family couldn’t afford an umbrella. She spent more than one winter without a coat. Her mother made her dresses from flour sacks.

Her father, Burney, worked as a mechanic in the local Ford garage. Mrs. Tolbert, whose husband owned the dealership, taught Mam’s Sunday school class. One Easter, Mrs. Tolbert gave all her students a large, pastel-colored egg made of sugar candy. There was a hole in one end through which you could peer and see a diorama

Mam lighting a candle on Ruthie's grave

Mam lighting a candle on Ruthie’s grave

inside. It brought so much color and magic into my mother’s life that she kept it until the fall, when the ants got to it.

Her father brought the magic too when he would make what he called “toodlum-toot gravy” to go with cathead biscuits (so called because they were as big as a cat’s head). That was a special treat for my mother and her siblings. Not until adulthood did she realize that her father told that story to disguise the fact that all they had to eat that night was biscuits in plain brown onion gravy. His imaginative care transformed what could have been a humiliation into a blessing, and distracted the children from grasping how poor they really were.

The empathy my mother has always had for underdogs, and for the marginalized and excluded folks, comes from her own childhood. As a boy, I couldn’t figure out why when school holidays came around, she would spend time and money making cloth Christmas stockings for all the kids on her bus route. For some of the children, she explained to me one December, the stocking was one of the few things they were going to get that year. When she was a girl, Santa left her treats in a shoebox. As a grown-up, she didn’t want any child to want for a stocking on Christmas morning, not if she could help it.

Ruthie took Mam’s memories and example to heart – and into the classroom.