Of my three kids, Lucas, the middle child, was closest to Ruthie. They had a lot in common. Lucas has a deep instinct to care for people, an instinct that blossomed in a special way around his aunt after her cancer diagnosis. I write about this in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. Julie and I have observed over the years how Lucas is the most rough-and-tumble of our kids, but also easily the most tender-hearted, and eager to help whenever anyone needs it.
Two nights ago, I read a bedtime story to him and his little sister: Eudora Welty’s 1941 short story, “A Worn Path.” I had never read it, but found it in a compendium of tales called The Moral Compass, and figured, oh, Eudora Welty, I bet I’ll enjoy this one too. You can read the entire text of the short story here. If you haven’t done so, Lord have mercy, please do. It is unforgettable. At least I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all day, and neither has Lucas.
It’s the story of a very old and weary black woman, Phoenix Jackson, and her Odyssey-like walk through the woods and into town, on a mission of mercy. I won’t tell you how it ends, by which I mean, what her mission was about. The story is about the enduring power of love, and how for people like the old lady, after all our other senses are burned away, love — fearless love, love that has been practiced for so long it moves by instinct — endures. The story is luminous, and has about it the power of myth.
When we reached the end of the story, and Lucas, who just turned nine, understood what old Phoenix had done for love, he burst into tears, and ended up in my lap for consolation. The thing is, the story is not a sad one. What made him cry was understanding how sacrificially Phoenix loved someone, and thinking that that’s how much his own parents love him, and that that’s what love is. It almost made me teary, just watching how Welty’s story affected this little nine-year-old boy, who has such a pure heart.
The next morning Lucas and I were out hitting a tennis ball, and talking about A Worn Path. “Dad,” he said, “did that really happen?”
“You mean, did Phoenix Jackson really exist?”
“No, she didn’t,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t true. That’s how love really is.”
He held the tennis ball and thought about this for a second.
“Dad, do you ever notice how the best stories are the ones that are made up?”