What you have inherited from your fathers, earn it. Thus it will be yours. — Goethe.
Today is my family’s last day in St. Francisville. They are flying back to Philadelphia tomorrow. I might join them, or might come back sometime next week, depending on what my Louisiana family needs from me. I won’t be able to be at the Front Porch Republic conference this weekend in Emmittsburg, MD, but I strongly encourage my readers in the area to go. I am sorry to miss the chance to be with the FPR gang, and to meet some of them for the first time, but in the mysterious providence of God, I have learned more in the last week about place and the meaning of life, in an FPR chord, than I have learned from years of reading books about localism.
It will surprise no one who has been reading this blog for the past week, since Ruthie died, that Julie and I are seriously considering moving to St. Francisville. I don’t know if we can make this work. I do know we need to try. More to the point, we want to try. A week ago, that thought would have been alien to me. Now it seems like an imperative — a liberating imperative. I need to explain this.
The thought I keep having is: I want to be of service to my family. Ruthie and Mike were, and are, public servants. Ruthie taught school. Mike is a firefighter. For them, these are vocations. You don’t go into teaching or firefighting because you want to get rich. Mike also served in the Louisiana National Guard, and in Iraq, where he was awarded a Bronze Star for his non-combat role. He was so good at his logistics assignment — making the tanks run on time, so to speak, in a war zone — that the US Army pinned a medal on his chest.
As I write this, John Bickham and Steve Shelton are back in Daddy’s barn, working on something for him. John works at the Exxon plant. Steve is a firefighter. They both have today off. Daddy needs help with something they both know how to do. So there they are.
Last night I was in bed, reading, when I received a phone call from Ruthie’s daughter Hannah, a first-year French student at LSU. “Can you come over and help me with my French homework, Uncle Rod?” I couldn’t have been more delighted to jump out of bed and pad across the yard, and work with her until late. Nobody else around here can do that. I can do that. Believe me, I got more out of it than Hannah did. Ruthie isn’t here any longer, but here I am. I am not good with tools, but I am good at some things. Are there things that I can do for that family? You bet.
Folks around here make it so easy. Julie is about to go into town to deal with some complicated paperwork having to do with Ruthie’s insurance policies. Julie is good at that kind of detail work, and she wants to relieve Mike’s burden. So, off she goes. She was just telling me that the lady at the school board office assured her that they would do anything to make it go smoothly. “All you have to do is say the words ‘Ruthie Leming,’ and people jump to help,” Julie said. Turns out that when Ruthie was having some trouble with the insurance company, her local agent went to bat for her, and got things taken care of. When he learned that Ruthie had died, he wept openly.
“Don’t you worry about things with Ruthie’s bank accounts,” the lady told Julie. “If there’s any confusion, Conville will get it handled.”
Who is Conville? Let’s ask The New York Times, which, in 2005, wrote a story about how St. Francisville opened its doors to Katrina victims:
Wednesday morning, two days after the storm, Mr. Butler hurried over to the office of W. Conville Lemoine, executive vice president of the Bank of St. Francisville and a friend since first grade. “We’ve got to feed those people,” Mr. Butler told him. Mr. Lemoine set up a Katrina victim food fund to which donors gave $47,744 through Nov. 3. He called in the bank’s executive secretary, Kim X. Riggle, and asked her to work full time overseeing food services.
Wednesday evening, Mr. Butler and Ms. Riggle called a meeting in the West Feliciana Middle School dining room. Among those present were Bert F. Babers 3rd, president of the Police Jury, Floyd L. Younger Jr., the jury manager, Alline Baker, a school system food services manager, Lloyd Lindsey, the superintendent of schools, Pastor Ratcliff and clergy from three other churches. “Here’s my idea,” Ms. Riggle said Mr. Butler told the group. “We can feed these people.”
For nearly six weeks, starting at 11 a.m. after students’ meals had been prepared, volunteers took over the school’s industrial kitchen. They cooked 1,000 biscuits a day. They pitched a wide meal tent outside First Baptist. Inmates from the city jail cleaned it up and made $5 and $10 contributions from their work accounts into Mr. Lemoine’s fund.
The Times also reported:
At Fred’s Pharmacy, the Police Jury picked up the tab for filling prescriptions for the week until a foundation took over. The sick turned to the splendid new clinic of Chaillie P. Daniel and Timothy R. Lindsey, young family doctors.
“Everyone was seen,” Dr. Lindsey said. “In September we saw 250 evacuees. Of the 250, about half could not pay and had no insurance. For the most part they were people running out of medicines or needing preventive care, routine labs, tetanus, hepatitis.”
Dr. Daniel said, “We treated postoperative people.” One lady had had two knees replaced 48 hours earlier. “She had no follow up,” he said. “She came in in a wheelchair. We had a lady with acute pancreatitis, in a lot of pain. She definitely would have required a hospital. She wanted to fly to San Francisco. We looked up a doctor in San Francisco, and she had surgery the next day.”
As for the payments, Dr. Lindsey said: “We have kept track of it as office overhead. We will probably turn in some charges to FEMA, but we don’t know if we will be paid.”
That’s Ruthie’s Dr. Tim.
Conville, Tim, the lady at the school board office, all the people from the Katrina story — these are all servants. Also from the Times story, this telling anecdote about a decision the local Baptists made as Hurricane Katrina approached:
That Saturday, the Rev. Joe Ratcliff called the 15 deacons of his wide red-brick, predominantly white First Baptist Church. On a slight knoll, encircled by acres of lawn and asphalt and near the intersections of Highways 61 and 10, the church is a conspicuous port in a storm.
“They all said, ‘Open the shelter,’ ” Mr. Ratcliff said. “We chose not to be a Red Cross or FEMA shelter. We wanted our own people to sacrifice to take care of the needy.”
With that, First Baptist threw St. Francisville’s first spark to ignite the kind of ad-hoc, small-town philanthropy that would help hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Katrina’s accidental homeless restart their lives. For two months, West Feliciana Parish went to such lengths to succor evacuees – like scrubbing their clothes and commandeering a New Orleans school bus to deliver their meals – that some 300 are expected to try to settle here.
That, folks, is a conservatism of the heart. It comes from whites and blacks, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor in this small Southern town. Last night, I passed through the living room and saw the GOP candidates debating on Fox. I’m sorry, but they sounded like fools to me, and I couldn’t listen to more than five minutes of it. I have enough sense to know that what they’re talking about is important — elections are important, and so is politics — but what I mean to say is that they sounded so trivial after what I’ve seen here this week. Which town is more important to the future of America in these difficult next years: Washington, or St. Francisville?
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but I’m also being serious. These are the things that the conservatives at Front Porch Republic have been thinking and talking about for some time. These are the things that the loudmouths on talk radio and the cable news shows never pay attention to. But it is the story of our country — what it is, and what it could be. Recounting all the unbelievable things the good people of this community have done for our family this week, Julie said, “Wouldn’t this world be an incredible place if we lived like this all the time?”
I don’t want to give the impression that this place is perfect. Where there are people, there is sin, and where there is sin, there are problems. That’s not the point. The point is that people here are quick, as Scripture says, “to bear one another’s burdens, and so to fulfill the law of Christ.” I like the line from Auden: “You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart.” Yep. That poem is about how the passage of time, and the suffering it inevitably brings, compels us to recognize our own fallibility, and our duty to love each other in our brokenness. That is what I have seen here this week.
I have the opportunity to be a part of this. I have the opportunity to raise my children around their extended family, and among the people who love Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Mike, and Mammy and Pawpaw. I have the opportunity to serve my family, and to serve the people who served my family in their need. I have the opportunity to help Hannah with her French, and the opportunity to let Lucas learn how to deer hunt with Uncle Mike. (“Daddy, if we ever lived here, I would want to go deer hunting with Uncle Mike, and I think he would like that because he likes me.”) And I have the opportunity to write about the things I see here, far from where the professional conservatives live and yell and lobby, and to tell a story about life in America.
I did not see this coming. Nor did Julie. Barely a week ago, we were getting very close to signing a lease on a Bucks County farmhouse. We had to leave town quickly when Ruthie died, and the landlords rented it to somebody else. We got the news in an e-mail while we were at Ruthie’s wake. And to our very great surprise, both Julie and I were … relieved. Relieved!
(“Don’t you find the timing of that interesting?” said our friend Jason, sitting on the front porch last night watching the deer with us.)
I don’t know if we will be able to move here, but the possibility of it is Ruthie’s gift to us. I am from this place, but have been away from here so long I didn’t see this, and wouldn’t have seen it if Ruthie had not gotten sick. She said to me more than once that she did not know why she had cancer, but she was sure that God was in it, and that it would be for the good. I am going to write a book about the little way of Ruthie Leming, and the good that the people of this town do, so that others may learn about what is possible to accomplish if we live with faith, love, hope, and humility, and by an ethic of service. This is not something from a history book, or a nostalgic paean to a bygone era, or a sentimental painting hanging on a wall. This is really happening, right here, right now. I’ve seen it. I’ve tried to help you see it. I may have the chance to be a part of it. There is no reason why you, reader, can’t be a part of it in your place. The need is so great — and if you’re anything like me, the need is also in your heart. It is a need and it is a call, to service.
Having a cup of coffee with Hannah this morning before she got on the road to LSU, we were talking about how much she has feared life without her mother, but how the goodness of our friends in this community, and how her own prayers, have made her realize how strong she is. Said Hannah, “It’s kind of incredible how much good can come out of bad.”
It is. I am glad to have been reminded of what was there all along, for those with eyes to see.
UPDATE: Julie and I went to town after I finished this post. We stopped by the school board office to leave some of Ruthie’s paperwork. While Julie took care of that, I spoke to an old teacher of mine, who had seen us drive in and came back to speak. I mentioned to him that we are now considering the possibility of moving here, but there is such a bad housing shortage that we can find no rental properties. They get snapped up just like that. He and the lady behind the desk, who had taught for years with Ruthie, mentioned that a house had come open just down the street two days ago. I walked over and had a look. It is a beautiful place. I called the number on the sign. Turns out the place is owned by the son and daughter-in-law of one of my father’s old high school classmates. Julie arrived, and about 10 minutes later, in came the daughter-in-law to show the place to us. It was perfect — just the right size for our family. You could see Walker Percy sitting on the front porch here, sipping bourbon. Well, she’s going to have to talk to her people, and we’re going to have to talk to our people, and we’ll see, but, you know … how did that happen?