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The barefoot pallbearers

[1]

“It’s strange,” I told my wife late yesterday. “I find myself crying not so much because of Ruthie, but because of all the goodness of these people. It’s so … pure that it hurts.” And then I cried again. It was that kind of day.

On Sunday evening, the Methodist Church opened for folks to pay their respects to Ruthie and her family. For four hours, people stood in the rain, in a line that extended far around the block, to see Ruthie one last time. We counted over 1,000 signatures in the guest book. A town police officer told me the only thing she had ever seen comparable to this was the funeral event for Gen. Robert H. Barrow [2], the USMC Commandant, who lived and died in this, his hometown, after retirement.

One of the bravest things I’ve ever seen was Ruthie’s husband Mike, and their three girls, standing for all that time next to Ruthie’s open coffin, receiving mourners. Mike stood in pain; he threw his back out lifting his dying wife off the couch so he could perform CPR on the living room floor. Though he hurt, he wasn’t going to sit; he stood for Ruthie. Later that night, after everyone had gone and Mike, bent forward, hobbled out to his truck, I told him he looked like he was in pain.

“That’s not what I want to hear,” he said.

“You look great,” someone else said.

“Now that’s what I want to hear,” he said, smiling.

Everybody had left the church except for the handful of friends — most of them schoolteachers who had worked with Ruthie — who were there to begin the all-night vigil. It began informally, with one teacher reading the George Eliot poem The Choir Invisible. [3] It begins like this:

Oh, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge men’s search
To vaster issues. So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world…

“It made me think of Ruthie,” said the retired English teacher who chose it. I stood over Ruthie’s body and began to read aloud the Psalms. The intention was to have prayed them all over Ruthie throughout the night. After 25 or so, I passed the Psalter to other friends, and it continued. When I left at midnight, folks were still reading them, and telling stories about Ruthie. My last memory of the evening was watching Ruthie’s oldest friend, Sarah, holding Ruthie’s casket with one hand, the Psalter in the other, praying over the body of a woman with whom she had played as a little girl.

The next morning when all of us arrived early at the church for more visitation, then the funeral, my cousin Rae Lynn teased me about the Psalms. “We could have just killed you for that,” she said, ribbing me. “We got ’em all read, but my Lord, who knew there were so many of ’em? And they’re all so depressing, except for the 23rd and the last one. All this about sin. We halfway expected Ruthie to sit up and tell us to knock it off, we were making her depressed.”

It had been a great night in the church, despite the psalmodic buzzkill. Ruthie’s friends sat up all night remembering all the good times they had with her. At one point, they decided to paint her fingernails, as she would have wanted.

The next morning, the receiving line of mourners started again. There were so many of Ruthie’s former students there. One lady stopped me to say that Ruthie had been such a help to her son when he was her pupil. This sort of thing happened a lot. You expect people to say good things about the dead at funerals, but what emerged  so strongly was that the good Ruthie did was of a particular kind.  I’ve said this before [4] about Ruthie, but she really was like St. Therese of Lisieux, who said, “What matters in life are not great deeds, but great love.” St. Therese believed that because, as a cloistered nun, the opportunity to perform great deeds was denied to her, she could still perform small deeds of virtue with a heart full of love. Therese loved simplicity, and disdained the false, flowery piety that folks ladled like syrup over the lives of the saints. I hope that in remembering Ruthie, folks keep in mind how down to earth she was, and how the things she did in life that make us so confident that she is today a saint were incidents of ordinary goodness, made extraordinary by the purity of the love for others that inspired them, and her rock-solid steadfastness in doing these things.

A small example, shared during the all-night vigil by one of Ruthie’s teacher colleagues. Ruthie’s final year of teaching was cut short by her cancer, which compelled her to miss the spring semester. That year, she had struggled mightily with her class’s misbehavior, but persisted in patience with them, because Ruthie loved the kids given to her care. After Ruthie had to retire because of her cancer, the kids in the class wrote her a letter of apology, telling her how much they loved her and how sorry they were for making her life difficult (we have the letter in Ruthie’s scrapbook). Anyway, one of the children in that class is a girl whose mother is now on her second stint in prison. The girl lives in a poor part of town, and, because of the hardscrabble life she’s had, responds to stress by starting fights. The teachers were concerned that when she heard about Ruthie’s death, she was going to lash out at others. The girl demanded to be taken back to the middle school (where Ruthie taught her) to see her old teachers, and said that the middle school is where teachers loved her. This child, who has had so little love in her life. The girl told the teacher who accompanied her on this journey that she was going to honor Mrs. Leming by being good and studying hard.

“If you really want to honor Mrs. Leming,” the teacher told her, “you will be good and study hard, and go to college to learn how to be a teacher. Then you can come back here to work, and help other kids the way Mrs. Leming helped you.”

“I’ll do it,” said the girl.

Mind you, I saw this child pass in front of Ruthie’s coffin during the wake, and all I knew was that she was one of Ruthie’s former students. How many other little life-changing dramas occurred in the lives of these anonymous (to me) children who passed in front of her body in these past two days? What modest miracles in the lives of the children of this parish happened in Ruthie Leming’s classroom, because she loved those kids?

Harold Babin, the retired Methodist pastor who has known and served our family for decades, told me yesterday that in all his years of ministry, the sweetest, most loving people he knew were Lorena, our late grandmother, and Ruthie. And it was true — for many years, we’ve observed that Ruthie had our grandmother’s heart. But to hear that from a man who knew them both, and who, as a pastor, knew so many kind hearts over the years, was something else.

Ruthie’s dear friend Abby Temple gave a moving eulogy and Old Testament reading. Josh Gott, a dear, dear cousin of Mike’s from Texas (Ruthie and Mike were very close to Josh and his wife Karen, who poured themselves out in service to Ruthie’s family in the first couple of days after Ruthie’s passing), read from the New Testament. Then I stood behind the pulpit and delivered my own eulogy, in which I talked about Ruthie’s goodness as a sign to us all of God’s love and mercy in the midst of sin and suffering. I said, in part:

When I was a kid, I teased Ruthie all the time. It was said more than once that Ruthie and I were the second coming of Murphy Jr. and Ray [N.B., my father and my rascally uncle, who teased Daddy constantly in their childhood. –RD] — a comparison that in this context, was not complimentary to me, I assure you. One day, I had done something awful to Ruthie. I can’t remember what, but it must have been rotten, because our father responded by doing something he rarely did in our childhood: he told me to go lie down on the bed and get ready for a spanking with his belt.

I did as I was told, and knew, as I always did, that I deserved it. But little Ruthie, who couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time, ran in, threw herself on the bed, and asked Daddy to spank her instead.

Think about that: I was the one who wronged her, and wronged her in a way serious enough to draw the worst penalty in our house. But Ruthie demanded to take my punishment — the punishment I deserved for hurting her. That was how much she loved me.

Because of Ruthie’s sacrificial love for her undeserving brother, nobody in our house was punished that day. That is the kind of soul she had, even as a little girl.

I also said, referring to Ruthie’s favorite hymn, and her favorite song (by Van Morrison — it was her and Mike’s song):

You may not know this, but Ruthie was an organ donor. Ruthie gave away her eyes so that a blind person might see. It seems to me that in a spiritual sense, Ruthie has given us all eyes to see. I want to see the world as Ruthie did: as a place illuminated by love. I want to see every day as Ruthie did: as a chance to build others up, to make them happier, to ease their burdens,  to bring them peace.

I once was blind, but through Christ, now I see. And through His amazing grace manifest in the life of our brown-eyed girl, I have learned to see more clearly.

I didn’t know it was going to work out like this, but the next hymn on the schedule was “Amazing Grace.” I doubt I will ever hear that hymn in quite the same way again. Ruthie was baptized in this church, married in this church, and yesterday, was buried out of that church. She is and always has been a girl of this town.

The procession to the Starhill Cemetery was 75 cars long down Highway 61. As it drew closer to Starhill, the small community outside St. Francisville where Ruthie grew up, and where she, like all our family, was to be buried. To honor Mike, a firefighter, fire trucks and ambulances sat in the median along the last mile, lights flashing, firefighters and EMTs standing at attention. Some people who lived along the route stood in their driveways to pay their respects. Miss Clophine Toney, an elderly Cajun sharecropper and a widow who has known hard work, poverty, and suffering all her life (but who also has known the love and devoted friendship of my mother) sat on the hillside near her cabin, waving in salute as we passed. That got to me.

Ruthie was known for not being overly fond of wearing shoes. Mel Percy, one of her closest friends and pallbearers, observed Ruthie’s girls standing in the church during the visitation, their shoes cast aside. The girls did that because Claire had the idea that to do so would honor their mother. Mel was inspired by their example, and made a suggestion to the other pallbearers. And so, when the hearse settled in next to the cemetery, the six men took off their dress shoes, rolled up the legs of their trousers, and carried Ruthie to her grave across the damp cemetery grounds in their bare feet. It was the last tribute to her, and it was a thing of great beauty.

I will never, ever forget the barefoot pallbearers.

We all ended up at Mel and Tori Percy’s house for a much-needed, post-funeral drink. There were mountains of food there, much of it courtesy of the women of the Methodist church, and lots of beer, wine, and whiskey. Crowds drank and ate and told even more funny stories about Ruthie and her life. At one point, I was telling a group of friends and family how much Ruthie’s sickness, and how especially in these past couple of days, has made me realize what a remarkable community this is. I also snorted about the One-Legged Stripper of Woodville, and how oddly comforted I was by the deep eccentricity of the South. Someone remarked that he and some friends had stopped into that strip bar once for kicks, on a road trip during the holiday season. The club was hosting a Christmas toy drive. My friend called it “Tits for Tots.” If Ruthie had been there to hear that, she would have collapsed with laughter.

And then came the story of the wedding in Angola. Our cousin Kevin, who was for many years the Justice of the Peace here, performed countless weddings in that capacity. Sometimes these weddings took place in Angola State Penitentiary, which is in the northern part of West Feliciana Parish. Kevin said yesterday that the most unforgettable of these weddings took place between a very pregnant young black woman, and her white, heavily tattooed inmate boyfriend, a north Louisiana redneck who went by the name of Cracker. Kevin did his duty, and forgot about it. A few years passed. One day, Kevin received a phone call.

“Mr. Dreher, you might not remember me, but you married me and my husband at Angola,” she said, then reminded him of the particulars. “Well, we got divorced, but we want to get married again, and we’d like you to do the service.”

So back to prison Kevin went. In the time that had passed, ol’ Cracker had acquired even more tattoos in prison. As they stood before the JP, the bride unveiled herself, and displayed her own new tattoo, splayed out like a banner advertisement across the top of her chest: C R A C K E R.

Now you know, that is true love: for a black woman in Louisiana to have the word CRACKER tattooed across her chest.

I’m telling you, this is a great place.

As we left Mel’s party yesterday, I was thinking about Mel, and John Bickham, and Steve “Big Show” Shelton, and Dr. Tim Lindsey, and his wife Laura, and  and all the men and women of this community who have rallied to the Lemings, and to my mom and dad, not just in the aftermath of Ruthie’s death, but from the beginning of this long cancer journey. That’s when I told Julie about the purity of the love these people have, and have shown, for Ruthie and for our family, and how it was a thing of such intense beauty it’s hard to look upon it and hold yourself together. In fact, writing this now, I am not holding myself together, and that’s fine, because the light bursting forth through all this bright sadness may be blinding, but it’s also illuminating, and healing. Ruthie was an extraordinary example of this kind of goodness, but she was by no means the only one around here with hearts as big as hers. West Feliciana is not a wealthy parish, but I tell you, the people here make it one of the richest places on earth.

Mike and Ruthie have a large teepee in their backyard. Julie said to Mike today that we’re loving it so much here that we might just move into the teepee and never leave.

“Sometimes,” Mike said, “you have to follow the buffalo.”

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32 Comments (Open | Close)

32 Comments To "The barefoot pallbearers"

#1 Comment By Hunk Hondo On September 20, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

How I wish I could have been there. What a town, what a family, what a lady.

#2 Comment By Brian Poole On September 20, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

Rod, All I can say is WOW! I knew your sister and how sweet she was but the story about her wanting to take your place really got me. I hope I can be just 10% as loving as she is. What an example of being like Jesus!!

#3 Comment By John E On September 20, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

I don’t think I’ve seen you write anything about your life in Pennsylvania that has anything like the vibrancy and enthusiasm that shines through in your writings about Louisiana.

#4 Comment By mdavid On September 20, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

Rod, I’m telling you, this is a great place.

Flannery O’Conner made me see it:

All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.

and

“The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all.”

#5 Comment By Tammy Gustafson On September 20, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

ROD.
Thanks for the tears and the laughter. Wish we could have been there. Our thoughts and prayers will continue to be with you, Ray & Dot, Mike and girls.. She will be missed! Hugs to all of you! Love y’all.

#6 Comment By Wendy Braun On September 20, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” ― Flannery O’Connor.
You found it. I spent a part of my childhood in the South, in a town that sounds a lot like this. Memory Eternal for your dear sister, Ruthie. I didn’t know her, but this story touched my soul. May you find some small comfort in that.

#7 Comment By Flannery O’C. On September 20, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

Rod,
Maybe it’s time to return home.

#8 Comment By Hannah Leming On September 20, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

Claire had the idea to take off our shoes in the church for Mama and made Rebekah and I do it as well. She didn’t do it because her feet hurt. Just so you know.

[Thanks for clearing that up — somebody in the church told me y’all’s feet hurt from standing so long, and that’s why you did it. I changed the original to reflect the truth — Uncle Rod.]

#9 Comment By Todd On September 20, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

God bless.

#10 Comment By Deborah Hughes Duvic On September 20, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

Rod, thank you so much for sharing. It broke my heart that I could not be there yesterday b/c work has taken me out state for a few days which is why if was insistent that I had to be there on Sunday. She was such a beautiful, loving person, I just wanted to say my last good bye. I would have loved to have been there for the evening of reading and remembering, the last time we did that was when my great-grandmother passed away and we were in Liberty, MS. I think it is a wonderful tribute and wish people would go back to the days when we honored our dead to that degree, I think it is a beautiful sentiment. I knew that the funeral would be nothing less than the best that it could be when you all were having to give your final goodbyes and the barefoot pallbearers is wonderful. It is just something we would do, improvise and move on and I know that Precious Ruthie was was smiling down on her support network and you are right, I could just see her losing it completely over the Tits for Tots, sorry, have been to too many sweet swaps and bitch switches with her not to know that she would have thought that was absolutely hysterical. Just so you know here in TX trying to prepare for my next meeting I am trying to dry my tears through the bursts of laughter. I love you all and my prayers are continuing and I will be bringing Hannah some of my crawfish ettouffe, she love it, and God knows I would do anything to put a little bright spot into their lives. Safe travels to you as you head back to your family. Love and Prayers Deborah

#11 Comment By Bryant Laiche On September 20, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

What a beautiful recount of the events of the weekend. I was so sad that I couldn’t be there to honor one of the most beautiful, caring and talented people I knew. I was a former student of Ruthie’s and will forever be changed for knowing her.

#12 Comment By Eric Hoffman On September 20, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

Mike God bless you and your family. Your friend class of “86”

#13 Comment By Jeanne Morris On September 20, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

Rod, your posts about Ruthie have been inspiring to read through her illness; this one is exquisite. Thank you. The story about Ruthie throwing her five-year-old self down to save you is beautiful. What an example she has been for all of us, even at five…

I also have to add to Deborah’s comment about our decades of sweet swaps. The pain in Mike’s face was heartbreaking to see yesterday. After I prayed by Ruthie, I approached Mike and gave him a hug and told him that Ruthie was the sweet in our sweet swaps. All his decades of loving her, I knew I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t know, but still, it made him smile. It did my heart good to see that shine through his sadness and hear his little chuckle. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the name pretty much officially changed the year Ruthie stopped going. We have lost our sweet. God rest her precious, sweet soul. My prayers are with you and your entire family.

#14 Comment By Chris Andrews On September 20, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

Ruthie was a beautiful person–so pure and so kind. It was my blessing to know her for a short while. Thanks for the writing and the tribute to your sister.

#15 Comment By Danielle H On September 20, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

Rod,
My husband left home before we were dating, after college. When his mother got very sick he decided to move back home. He has always told me since that being around family and friends who love you and are always there for you is more important than a better job or more money. In fact, he took a pay cut to move back. I’m sure you have reasons for living away, but if you are happier here then what is keeping you from staying and how much more important are those reasons over you being happy?
Danielle

#16 Comment By Rachel Dillard On September 20, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

Very beautiful. It mean so much to you and your family now, but you are also making a record that genealogists down the road will treasure. How I wish I had access to ancestral wedding toasts and eulogies. Notes written in family Bibles and prayer books mean so much but leave so many questions unanswered. Your children’s grandchildren will love such stories as these and will look back at old photos and see far more than images frozen in time. Hannah and Claire will treasure these stories forever that will, for their children, bring to life the woman who brought them into the world and laid the groundwork for the women they will have become.

#17 Comment By Amy Daigle On September 20, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

Rod, what a beautiful tribute to your wonderful sister. So sorry we could not be there this weekend with the rest of WF to say our good-byes, but know our thoughts and prayers are with you and all of your family. Ruthie blessed the people back home and “home” will forever be enriched for having had her. God bless…..
Amy

#18 Comment By Deborah Kenney On September 20, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

Rod
I have enjoyed your Blog that you have been writing about Ruthie. I moved here to St Francisville August of 2001 and Ruthie was one of my sons teachers. Your sister an her family have been some of our favorites here. My younger son Blake did not have the privilege of having Ruthie at the Middle School and it made him sad. Yesterday was one of the most loving and moving funerals I have attended for a friend. And you are so right there is something wonderful and special about this wonderful community. Only being here for a short time we have been on the receiving end of some this sharing and love. What occurred when Ruthie got sick and then after she passed is so touching and special and a wonderful reflection of Ruthie. What you shared as well as what Abbie shared was so so touching.

#19 Comment By Ebankston On September 20, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

Rod, my heart breaks for you and your family. I did not personally know your sister. But, I worked with Mike’s mother and I know your parents. We used to live in the trailer park on the highway. I always felt like I knew Ruthie, though. She taught my sister, Claire. Claire just loved Mrs. Leming. It’s so inspiring to hear your kind words about our sleepy little town. It makes me want to do more and reach out further in our quaint community. Thank you for sharing your strengths and trials and God Bless you and yours!

#20 Comment By InChristIlive On September 20, 2011 @ 11:01 pm

When life gives them lemons they make lemingade. I love y’all.

#21 Comment By Morgan On September 20, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

She really was one of the best people I have ever met in my life. I never really understood how someone could care so much for people they had never even met before, but she did. I will never, ever forget her. She taught me so much more than math, And I can’t wait to see her beautiful face in heaven again one day! Until then I will just keep my memories of her locked away some place very safe. Thank you for sharing this Mr. Rod.

Love,
Morgan D.

#22 Comment By MichaelS On September 20, 2011 @ 11:33 pm

“…but I tell you, the people here make it one of the richest places on earth.”

Rod, I’m clearly reading this between the lines — you want to go back there to live. And why not? If you’re an independent writer now, mightn’t it work? Seems like a wonderful community. I hope you do whatever is best, in LA or PA.

#23 Comment By Surly On September 21, 2011 @ 12:55 am

I’m not sure what to say about the grace and beauty of your family’s journey, so I will share this lovely prayer:

Saints of God, come to her aid!
Come to meet her, angels of the Lord!
Receive her soul and present her to God the Most High.

May Christ, Who called you, take you to Himself;
may angels lead you to Abraham’s side.
Receive her soul and present her to God the Most High.

Give her eternal rest, O Lord,
and may Your light shine upon her forever.
Receive her soul and present her to God the Most High.

Let us pray:

We commend our Sister Ruth to you, Lord.
Now that she has passed from this life,
may she live on in Your presence.
In Your mercy and love, forgive whatever sins she
may have committed through human weakness.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

#24 Comment By bob c On September 21, 2011 @ 7:40 am

what a blessing to read this

#25 Comment By BJ Knight On September 21, 2011 @ 8:28 am

Thank you for your beautiful words. Cannot help but be moved by reading this. Your Mom and Dad raised some fine people. My heartfelt prayers for all of you.

#26 Comment By jen d On September 21, 2011 @ 9:24 am

I wanted to thank you for giving this glimpse into Ruthie’s life and your family. I have cried so many tears, and laughed through those same tears reading your blog over the past few days. ( I seriously may have to go check out this one-legged stripper myself just so I can say I saw that!) I had the honor of meeting your sister on a few occasions and it was so clear to me, from just those times that she was such a fun, kind hearted, sweet soul. If I’ve learned anything over the past few days from reading your words, and the words of so many others on facebook, it’s that we should all laugh as often as we can, love as hard and as pure as we can, and strive to live as fully as your sweet sister, Ruthie, did.

#27 Comment By Melody E On September 21, 2011 @ 11:02 am

Rod,
First, thank you for sharing Ruthie’s story. What a legacy she has left and how dear of you to document it for us and her children to look back on. There are so many lesson layered within your words for us all to see.
Second, I wanted to let you know that I have been sharing the link to your article not only with all my friends, but I have also placed links on all the medical sites I could think of.
Your posts remind me of a quote that a dear friend Lori Waslechuk shared with me while working on a project at LSP Angola Hospice Program ‘Grace Before Dying’. “A person is a person through another person…my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.” Desmond Tutu

Thank you again for inviting us in, introducing us to Ruthie and encouraging us to be more.

Melody

#28 Comment By T. Bradley On September 21, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

Rod,

I only knew Ruthie a short time …..but long enough to feel blessed that her light inspires me to a higher humanity and an even greater appreciation for the beauty all around us. Ruthie was lovely, and courageous, and grace personified. This loving tribute will stay with me always with the hope that I can always see the world and others the way Ruthie did.

#29 Comment By Emily On September 22, 2011 @ 9:58 am

This whole collection of writing is so moving. Personal, inspiring, with just enough foibles to make us laugh — that’s what you do best, and why we’re all here to support and learn from you.

Your next book should be Louisiana-based: a cleaner, warmer, more uplifting version of your beloved Dunces. Not that you asked, but here I am telling you.

#30 Comment By Johnna Hyde On September 22, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

Rod,
Thank you. From all of us who were touched by your sister, but were unable to make the services, you have given us a gift. Your story took us there and made us feel a part. My vision was clear and the personalities profound. Ruthie is forever a part of us and her influence, like the ripples on a body of water, endless.

#31 Comment By Joyce Saenz Harris On September 23, 2011 @ 11:40 am

I never knew Ruthie except through your writing, but this was maybe the one piece above all that made me feel I was there to celebrate her life with all of you. Thanks for sharing her with us, Rod.

#32 Comment By Linda zaner On December 30, 2011 @ 10:26 am

Please write a book; as a northerner who has lived most of my adult life in the South, I want a book based on your experiences. The south has a legacy the north can just aspire to.