Daddy died at home in Starhill this afternoon, just before four. It was a beautiful death. Mama was holding his right hand, and I was holding his left. He was surrounded by friends and family. As he drew his final breaths, Hannah had us pray the Our Father. We told him we loved him, and he gave up his spirit. A more appropriate passing for that old country man is inconceivable. He left this world only two miles from the hilltop on which he entered it. When Father Matthew and Anna Harrington came to visit him last night, Father kissed him on the forehead and said, “Thank you, Mister Ray, for showing us how to live in Louisiana.” Yep.
From The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:
The boys were born at home in the teeth of the Great Depression. Everyone was poor. You had no choice but to rely on your neighbors. When our father was very small, his house burned to the ground during the night. My paternal grandparents were virtually penniless, but that didn’t matter. The men of Starhill came to their aid, and built the Drehers another cottage.
Murphy was away from home for much of the boys’ childhood, on the road, working, sending money back to his family. Murphy Jr. and Ray learned to hunt and fish, which often meant the difference between having meat on the table, or not. Many nights, dinner was cornbread soaked in buttermilk. Murphy Jr. teased little Ray unceasingly, even though Ray was stronger. Clever Murphy knew how to set his brother off. It was too much for my grandmother Lorena to handle. She finally bought two pairs of boxing gloves, and would send the boys outside to settle their differences.
As they grew older, the brothers did not grow closer. Clever Murphy Jr. was a peerless prankster, a dubious gift that often got him into fights on the schoolyard and, later, in barroom parking lots. Ray, a fiery redhead whose hard work raising cattle made him strong as a bull, always fought for his brother -‐-‐ even when Murphy Jr., the provocateur extraordinaire, had a beating coming to him. For Ray, nothing was more important than family loyalty.
“That’s how it was with Murphy and me,” he tells me. “One time up at the old Julius Freyhan school in town, Murphy got into it with Talmadge Bickham. When I saw Murphy in trouble, I ran over there and started whipping on Talmadge. That was my big brother, even though he was as mean as hell to me.”
Ray was the first in his family to go to college, though against his will. He wanted to be outside, building things and working with his cows. But after returning from a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, Lorena insisted that her son take advantage of the G.I. Bill and enter Louisiana State University. In 1958, while working on a degree in rural sociology, Paw bought 67 acres in Starhill from Aunt Em Simmons, Uncle Clint’s widow – the asking price was forty dollars an acre -‐-‐ and began small-‐scale farming. He also started a job as the parish sanitarian, which, in a rural parish like West Feliciana, meant he was not only the health inspector, but often the public official who helped impoverished families get running water and sewerage into their houses.
Dorothy, Ruthie’s and my mother, moved to town with her family from Mississippi at age 11, when her father took a job at a sweet potato canning plant. She was nine years younger than Ray. One day in 1962, he walked into Robb’s Drugstore, and was startled to learn that the beautiful young woman behind the counter was Dorothy Howard, all grown up. They began courting, and married in the summer of 1964.
Dorothy and Ray – Mam and Paw, as everyone calls them now – built their Starhill house when I was two years old. It sat in an open field at the edge of a pasture where Paw grazed his cattle herd. Paw would raise his children in the country, a mile as the crow flies from where he had grown up. His parents, Murphy and Lorena, still lived in the old cottage on Highway 61, and Murphy Jr. was raising his family across the road from them.
The point is, Starhill was where all the Drehers lived. There were fields and forests everywhere. For us, going to town meant driving the six miles north on Highway 61, in those days a two-‐lane blacktop, to St. Francisville. Baton Rouge, 30 miles in the other direction, was an exotic journey. New Orleans, an hour and a half further downriver, might as well have been Paris.
And, when he confesses to me about his disappointments in life, because he gave up everything for family and place, because he thought it would all work out for him — but it did not:
I sat there across from him as he spoke, imagining that stout, barrel-‐chested boy of 12 who was my father, riding high on his little tractor, a shock of fiery orange, cowlicked hair jammed under a straw cowboy hat, dragging a plow across a Starhill field, laying the groundwork for what he thought would be an empire. He would have his family and he would be loved and respected by them all, and everything would work out the way it was supposed to because that’s how things turn out for good men who do right, stay loyal, and follow the rules.
It did not work out for him as he hoped. But as my mother said to him as she kissed his craggy face for the last time, “We had a good life together.”
And we had a good death together with him. For me, it was only possible because I listened to Dante, and I listened to Father Matthew, my confessor. From How Dante Can Save Your Life:
After vespers one warm October night, I took my spiteful passions to Father Matthew in confession.
“I know my anger is wrong, and that’s why I’m in confession,” I said. “I realized, reading Dante this week, that I resented all of them for being happy without us. I know it’s not right, but I can’t get out from under this anger.”
I explained that I felt like I was living the prodigal son parable, but in this telling, the father is not running out to welcome the long-lost son but rather taking the side of the bitter older brother and not letting the younger one come through the gate.
“That’s tough,” Father Matthew said. “So what do you want?”
“I want justice. It’s not fair, the way they do me.”
“You want justice?” he said, chuckling. “What is justice? You have no right to
expect justice. It’s nice if you get it, but if you don’t, that doesn’t release you from the commandment to love. The elder brother in the prodigal son story stood on justice, but his father stood on love.”
“Okay, but I think that if I do that, they’re going to win.”
“Win? This is a contest, Benedict?” he said. “I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, it doesn’t look to me like you’re winning much of anything by hanging on to all of this.”
“I know,” I sighed. “All I can do is lay this at the foot of the Cross and ask for God’s help.”
And He helped me. He healed me. And because of the healing love He gave to me — through the Church, through my wife, through my priest, through my therapist, and through Dante’s imperishable verse, I could be by my dad’s side on the final week of his life, comforting him, serving him, praying with him and for him, thanking him for all he did for me, and telling him how much I love him. There was no anger, no regrets, no I-wish-I-had-saids. Only love and peace, here at the last. That is a surprise ending.
A friend texts tonight:
I keep thinking these months have been the conclusion of Little Way. They round out the story, previously jagged and unsettled, with peace. That story has finally found its ending, one in which the Lord triumphs. Love conquers bitterness and pain.
Readers of Little Way will recall that my sister Ruthie and our father loved to spend time on his pond together, fishing. And they loved hunting deer together. This afternoon, within an hour of Paw’s passing, our cousin Jake, who loved him fiercely, drove his pick-up to the pond just to look at it and remember him. As he sat quietly in his truck, he saw two deer emerge from the woods on the other side of the pond. They strode to the edge of the water, drank together, and then grazed on the levee, in the quiet of a late summer evening.