My friend Doug LeBlanc points out to some generous words our pal Ed Cullen, the Baton Rouge writer and sometime “All Things Considered” commentator, had the other day about my sister Ruthie Leming, who died this year. Ed was on The Jim Engster Show, a local public radio talk show last week, and the topic of “Most Admired People” came up. Here’s a link to the show. Ed starts talking about it at the 16:00 mark. Ed talks about how he and his wife went to Ruthie’s funeral,
I went to Ruthie’s funeral. It was a rainy day, a rainy fall day, in St. Francisville. The line went down the sidewalk and around the corner, people standing under umbrellas. And my wife and I talked about it later. It was such a peaceful gathering of people to celebrate Ruthie’s life. Ruthie’s life and death had a tremendous impact on that town. … That’s the kind of [person] that I think we should hold up.
I appreciate Ed’s kind words about Ruthie, and, of course, I agree with him. But I would, wouldn’t I? It seems we never hear enough about people like her. I can never be grateful enough to David Brooks for writing about Ruthie, and about the good people of this town, in his column on Friday. Thanks to David’s gift, I heard on Friday from major publishers, inviting a proposal to write a book about Ruthie’s life and the meaning of community in contemporary America. I would give anything never to have written a word about my sister, and to still be living in Philadelphia, if only she were still alive and healthy. But that was not to be. How good, though, that the way she lived, and the way she faced her death, inspired so much compassion from others that, thanks to the media amplifying her story, many more people will get to hear what she, and what her friends and neighbors, did — and perhaps be moved to do the same in their own lives and places.
My wife loves the George Eliot novel “Middlemarch,” and has remarked before on how what was said of the character Dorothea in the book could be said of Ruthie:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
The other day I was re-reading some of the blogging I’d done in the week after her death, and read again about the things people said to our family in the days after her death. For example:
Today, in the aftermath of Ruthie’s death and burial, this counsel seems even more sound than it did then. Along with my family, I’ve spent the last few days hearing from hundreds of people who have told us what a difference Ruthie’s goodness made in their lives. Going back through my writing from early in Ruthie’s cancer fight, I found an anecdote Ruthie told me back then. Her husband Mike had run into a man in the post office in town. The man told Mike how sorry he was for Ruthie’s cancer, but that reading about her heroic response to the news, he did something he hadn’t been able to do in years.
My mother received a phone call yesterday from a young man in Houston. “You don’t know me, Mrs. Dreher, but Ruthie was my sixth grade teacher,” he began. As Mama related the story, I remembered well this child. Ten or 15 years ago, Ruthie told me she had a brilliant little boy in her class, but he was picked on all the time for this and that thing. She could tell he was hurting, and she was determined to help him. She asked me for some advice. I never did hear how it turned out.
Now I know. This young man told my mother that he’s doing very well for himself. “Everything I am today, I owe it all to Mrs. Leming,” he said.
Yesterday my mom’s friend took her out for a ride, to get away from the hubbub around here. They stopped at the Sonic Drive-In for a Coke. The girl who brought their drinks to the car said, “Are you Mrs. Leming’s mom?” — and then started talking about how Ruthie had been her teacher, and all the wonderful things Ruthie had done for her. A man sitting in his car next to theirs, eating his burger, overheard this and said, “You’re Ruthie Leming’s mother? She taught my children.” And off he went, talking about what a difference Ruthie made in his children’s lives.
This keeps happening. This morning, I was talking on Mike and Ruthie’s front porch with one of our Texas family members. We were talking about how Ruthie had this uncanny ability to be patient with people. J. said that once he was talking with Ruthie about a problem he was having with a difficult person, and she counseled him to be kind. “She said, ‘You just don’t know the circumstances they’re in,’” said J.
Judge not, lest ye be judged. I believe I’ve heard that somewhere before.
I’m sorry to be going on about this. You’ve all read this before from me. Still, Ed Cullen’s words about how we never do seem to consider the value people like Ruthie — the quiet, modest servants, upon whom we all depend to keep things going — got me to thinking back about what I’ve learned about humanity this past 19 months, especially on the days after her death. I wish you could have been standing with me at Ruthie’s wake, or with me in that week after she passed, hearing from people telling us in detail how she had made a difference in their lives, or in the lives of their children, who had been in her class. You might wonder: will they say things like that about me at my funeral? If not … well, why not? As Leon Bloy put it, the only tragedy in life is not to have been a saint. I well know that my sister was not perfect, but boy, did she ever do far more than her share of good in this world, by easing the burdens of others, and helping them have better lives than they otherwise would have done.
I could do this too, if I wanted to. You could as well.
I hope I can spend much of this year talking to people who knew Ruthie well, and who know this town well, and find out more about how she did what she did, and why — and how and why they did what they did for her. If this little river town of 1,700 people can do so much good for a sick friend and her family, so can your town, or city. That’s the thing that knocks me flat about all this: it’s all so close, so attainable. We think things like this only happen in the movies, or happened in the past. It’s not true. It’s right here among us. I bet you know a Ruthie Leming in your life, in your family, in your town. Find her, or him. Cherish her. Learn from her, while you can. In my case, I will probably spend a good part of the rest of my life learning how to live and to love others from the woman who was my sister. I hope to tell you somehow, some day, the things I discover.