But a recent visit to St. Francisville reminded my wife and me that Ruthie’s little way, writ large across the community, is a thing worth protecting from threats real and perceived. We stayed at our favorite bed & breakfast, K.W. Kennon’s Shade Tree Inn, a rustic but luxurious hillside retreat in the same neighborhood where Rod Dreher now lives. At the coffee shop in the town center, we enjoyed a Bird Man Blast and later dined at the Magnolia Cafe, where Baby and the Boomers played a kaleidoscopic mix of George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dwight Yoakum and Van Morrison hits for patrons aged eight months to 82 years.
Upon departing Sunday, we drove down Royal Street and I spied through the open doors of the venerable First United Methodist Church sanctuary a sight of standing bodies singing their final hymn. An iridescent light filled the stained glass behind the altar, where Ruthie Dreher’s friends kept an all-night vigil before her 2011 funeral.
You should come to town and see this place and meet these people. It’s something special. This afternoon I got a call from Nancy, the shop manager at Grandmother’s Buttons, where you can buy or mail-order signed copies of Little Way, saying that a couple had stopped in, and were talking about the book. Could you come over to the shop and say hello? she asked. So I went over there, and had a fantastic conversation with these tourists, who, it turns out, are the parents of a friend who lives in DC. The lady told me that one aspect of the book that got to her the most was how emotionally intense it was.
“It was so … raw,” she said. “It really touched some deep places inside of me, and I can’t stop thinking about them.”
I get that a lot. It’s funny how you live with a story long enough that you lose a sense of its power. It’s good to see and hear so many people talking about this. Ruthie’s story itself really is raw, and it truly happened just like I said it did. It’s inspiring to me to see so many people responding to it like this. The other raw stuff — writing about the complex and at times painful emotions that families go through in working out their own issues — came about because I did not believe that I could tell the story with integrity without telling the truth to the best of my ability. I come from a culture in which people do not like to talk about unpleasant things, because unpleasant things cause disharmony. But as I see it, you can’t work your way through to the deeper harmony if it’s more important to maintain the appearance of harmony than actually to do the hard work of learning to harmonize. People get this, and tell me often how much they appreciate how true the story is to the experience of being part of a place and a family and a community, as opposed to some idealized, sanitized version — or, conversely, a dystopian version in which everything is terrible.
It is odd how so many of us can’t handle complexity. We demand that everything be great, and anything that complicates the positive, upbeat narrative we want to believe be banished. Or we insist that everything is rotten, and that good things that contradict the miserabilist story we want to believe are really just lies to conceal the ugly truth of things. Neither are true to life, at least not my life, or, I think, most lives. No joy without pain. Life is raw. Life, as my friend Edie Varnado says, is hard, and real, and big, and dirty.
Ruthie was many things, but she was real. I found out yesterday from a friend whose wife died a long time ago, leaving him and their daughter, Ruthie and her girls prayed for those two for years. She never told him. Just did it quietly and faithfully. Beautiful. That was her little way.
I drew a map to Ruthie’s grave in case the visitors to town wanted to stop by on their way south. I wonder if they were able to make it by. Ruthie’s birthday is today, May 15. She would have been 44. A year ago today, the men from the monument company set the headstone. From Little Way:
The two men showed up just before 10, as planned. I rolled up right behind them, and saw Mike standing in the shade – it was a hot morning – in a t-‐shirt and jeans, watching the pair turn the earth at the head of his wife’s grave, preparing it for the dark granite stone. I walked down the hill toward him.
“Mike, if you’d rather be alone, tell me,” I said. “I just didn’t want you to be by yourself this morning.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
Mam and Johnette Rettig drove up, and joined us, and then Paw stopped by in his pick-‐up, on the way home from his doctor. He stood at the top of the hill, leaning on his cane, and said he didn’t think he could stay. We waved him off. Johnette said goodbye as well, leaving just the three of us, and the workmen.
The two men, the younger one black, the older one white, were soaked with sweat by the time they heaved the headstone into place. They wiped their faces, then stood by us at the foot of Ruthie’s grave. The monument read:
LOIS RUTH DREHER
May 15, 1969 – September 15, 2011
Beloved Daughter, Sister, Friend Wife, Teacher, Mother
“Today was her birthday,” said the young black man. “That’s something, ain’t it? Sound like she was a good woman.”
“She was,” said Mike.
I looked at the black man. He was crying. Mike thanked them for their work, they said goodbye, and drove away.
Mike, Mam, and I stood alone at the foot of Ruthie’s grave. Then I recited the Lord’s Prayer, and Psalm 23. We remained there quietly for a moment, then Mam tapped me to indicate that we should leave.
“I love you, buddy,” Mam said to Mike. “Thank you for making her life so happy.”
Happy birthday, little sister. We miss you, and can’t wait to see you again.