South toward home
Yesterday I rented a house in the historic district of St. Francisville, my hometown. I was on the phone with Mr. Walter, the owner, settling the terms. He was incredibly gracious, and I was tickled to learn that he and his wife will be living just down the street half the year. “Your daddy and my wife Puddin’ were classmates all through school,” he said. “He raised her 4-H Club hog for her when they were children, and she won first place.” I interviewed Miss Puddin’ years ago about the time she spent as a child in an old plantation house in town that is said to be one of America’s most haunted houses. She’s the daughter of the late Mr. Davis Folkes, a Louisiana state senator and dear friend of my late grandfather Murphy Sr., whom he called “Mercy” because he couldn’t quite say the name right. They spent their last years every day sitting with their friends on a bench in town on the front porch of the real estate office, watching the world go by.
I love the South.
So we are moving to St. Francisville at the end of the year. If you had said to me two weeks ago that I would be writing that sentence, I would have thought you drunk or crazy. But then two weeks and one day ago, my sister Ruthie died. And then life changed for all of us.
I have chronicled on this blog — especially here, here, here, and here — what I’ve seen in St. Francisville in the aftermath of Ruthie’s death. Julie and I knew something was going on inside us when, at Ruthie’s wake — which was over four hours long, to accomodate the long, long line of people who waited in the rain to pay their respects — Julie took a break, checked her e-mail, and learned that we had lost the Bucks County farmhouse we loved, and were one day from signing a lease on. Our startled mutual response: Relief.
Why? We explored that question. The obvious answer was that we both wanted to be part of what we saw in West Feliciana Parish. It’s one thing to know that good people live there, and that the community has been behind your family throughout this crisis. It’s another thing to live it up close. Standing in Ruthie’s kitchen the day after she died, laughing with all of Mike’s friends, who had surrounded him to hold him up (“We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other,” Mike later said), I thought, “Even with all the sadness, there’s no place else in the world I’d rather be.”
You can say that I was caught up in the emotion of a traumatic event, and you would be right to a certain extent. But only to a certain extent. It took 19 months for Ruthie to die, and though news of her sudden passing was a shock, it wasn’t a surprise. I had had time to prepare. And I had had time to consider the amazing things the community had done for her, including the concert that drew half the town, and even a West Feliciana expatriate from Houston who came from five hours away out of gratitude for how good Ruthie was to her children when she taught them, and to marvel at what life in a small town can mean.
I knew it, but I didn’t know it. You know? I moved away at 16, a restless and unhappy teenager, and never looked back. Ruthie and I were water and oil in this way. She was happiest in St. Francisville. The only time she ever lived away from there was her four years at LSU, only 30 miles or so away in Baton Rouge — and even then she came home every weekend to be with Mike, her high school sweetheart and eventual husband. This was her place on earth. I didn’t have a place on earth, but I was sure that if I did, it was in the big city somewhere. Willie Morris’s evocative memoir “North Toward Home” was my guidebook. And off I went.
It was a wonderful trip, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When I was a little boy, no more than three feet high, I stood by my great-great-great aunt Hilda Moss, as she sat on her red leather sofa in her little country cabin, reading my palm. “See this line?” she said. “It means you will travel. You’ll travel far.” I hoped so! She and her sister Lois filled me with so many glorious tales of their adventures in France serving as Red Cross nurses in the Great War. I wanted to follow in their footsteps somehow. And I did. I lived in Washington DC, the Miami area, New York City, Dallas, Philadelphia, and traveled to Europe many times. Non, je ne regrette rien.
Years ago, before I met my wife, I was home visiting from some far-off place, when I decided one afternoon to crawl through the thicket surrounding the now-ruined cabin where my long-dead aunts had lived, and explore what was left of the place. I wrote about that memory here, recalling it in light of my sister’s cancer. I said, in part:
I made my way through what was left of the orchard, but which was now merely an overgrown thicket. Lois had been an accomplished amateur horticulturist, and it stung to see the beautiful japonica and camellia trees she so carefully cultivated now consumed by brambles, briars and overgrowth. The orchard was a ruin, and so by now was the cabin where I spent so many happy days as a very small boy. The front porch of the house was so overgrown by bushes vines I couldn’t reach it, so I climbed in through an open back window. I hadn’t realized how tiny the cabin was — two wee bedrooms downstairs, a bathroom, and upstairs a galley-like kitchen, a small pantry, a sitting room, and a library. The whole thing couldn’t have been more than 650 square feet, but in my imagination, it was much larger. Then again, it would have appeared so to a boy of five.
The cabin was vacant and musty, but it still held the faint aromas I remembered as a boy. Even recalling those memories now, sitting at my desk, I have to fight back tears, simply because those thoughts are so dear to me. Sitting in Loisie’s lap at her worktable in the kitchen, helping her mix pecan cookies, or relaxing on the red-leather couch between the two women, a Rand McNally Atlas spread on my lap, listening to them tell stories of the places they’d been in the world, or bringing in wood from the front porch for them to stoke the fire … all these little things, and many more, added up to a life. I learned to love newspapers listening to Hilda point out mysterious words like “Moscow” and “Kissinger” in the headlines. As I type this, I can remember the quality of light in her bedroom as I sat on her bed staring at a story about Henry Kissinger, trying to figure out why he mattered. I must have been four. Those frail elderly ladies, born on Starhill plantation in the 1890s, and now living out their final years in that shoebox cabin under a rain tree, opened up an imaginative world for young me — one that charted the course for my life. (“You’ll travel far,” Hilda told me one day, reading my palm). It was an enchanted place, that cabin.
And there, as a grown man, I found myself standing in the dark ruined kitchen, wondering where it all had gone. I saw on the shelf there a single item — Loisie’s pale green Depression glass mixing bowl. I held it in my hands, a totem of my blessed youth there. Something must have unnerved me, because I felt the urge to leave. I took the mixing bowl in hand, went down the back steps, and stood for a last minute in Loisie’s bedroom. It was the size of a monastic cell, and now bare. But look, there is where she kept her Honduran wooden bobblehead of a Carmen Miranda figure, which delighted me as a boy. And when a bed was there, that’s where we laid down late one night when I stayed over and read a Wisconsin cheese catalog, me marveling at the bright blue and red cellophane that looked like Christmas tree balls). Out those French doors is the back porch where I used to feed her cats with her, and where, after she was taken to the hospital in her penultimate illness, an evil cousin came one Sunday afternoon, lured all the cats out with their dinner, and killed them all with shotgun blasts — this, on Hilda’s orders. She was tired of feeding them for her sister. All of us, sitting in the backyard nearby, heard what was going on, and went crazy with grief — but could do nothing.
Lois died not long after that, not knowing what had happened to her cats. After she passed, with me knowing what Hilda had done, I wanted very little to do with the surviving sister. The other side of the family moved her to a nursing home at last — not an unjustified move, I must say — and took control of the cabin and the orchard. And that was the end of that chapter in my life.
I put those thoughts out of my head, climbed back through the bedroom window, slogged through the thicket, and squeezed between the barbed wires of the fence, and was once again in the sunlight. I looked across the yard at my mom and dad’s brick house in the near distance, as the evening began to fall, and I realized that one day, their house would be as Hilda and Lois’s cabin is today: a ruin. I could hear people inside, all our dinner guests, laughing and talking, but that too would fade in time. One day, maybe some grandchild yet unborn, or one of his children, would come in through a back window and search for relics of a barely remembered past, or at least totems testifying that the stories told about this place really had happened. That they weren’t rumors whispered by ghosts. Someday that would happen. But not today.
I put my glass mixing bowl under my arm and walked on to the house.
I thought about this memory this weekend, visiting Ruthie and my family. Ruthie and Mike bought part of what was once the orchard from our distant cousins, and built their house there. The rest of the land that had once been Lois and Hilda’s was sold to strangers. The cabin has long been gone; a nice big brick house belonging to someone I don’t know is now where the cabin was. True to Hilda’s palm-reading prophecy, I traveled far in my life. I have now spent well over half my life living away from there. Yet that is home for me, because that is where my family is, and the landscape of my childhood. Now, though, my parents are getting up in years, and my younger sister, at age 40, is battling a disease that may take her life. I hadn’t realized until this crisis with Ruthie how much I had counted on the continuity of her remaining there, even after our parents pass away, to anchor that place as the center of my imaginative universe. She, who has always loved the land and her place there far more than I, and she, whom I could count on to always be faithful to it, however unfaithful I was, sits in her armchair in what was once the orchard, coughing and straining for breath. We hope and we pray for healing, but now the way I thought the world would be may not be the way the world is, or will become. And I am having a hard time coming to terms with that, as both an emotional and a philosophical matter (i.e., trying to understand how to relate to where I come from now that the permanence I assumed would always be there is threatened).
Nothing lasts. It’s one thing to grasp that intellectually, but to live through the impermanence of things is something else.
Lyle Lovett said it so beautifully once upon a time, in a song I haven’t yet been able to listen to since Ruthie’s passing. “Family Reserve” is about the illusion of permanence with which we comfort ourselves against the terror of loss and death. For these past 19 months, I’ve been pondering that message, and what it might mean for me and my children, growing up so far away from their family, their people, and the South.
But there are so many opportunities for them here in the North said the voice in my head. And that is true. But what is the cost to them of those opportunities? What will they not know of their heritage, and what it means to be in a big family? What won’t they understand about the experience of living in a place where your people have lived for five generations? Is that important, or is it not? Does it matter that they live in a place that doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras? Is it important that these boys will never have the chance to go deer hunting? It seems trivial that the kids’ only acquaintance with LSU Tiger football is through seeing their father get sentimental in the autumn, but is it really trivial that they won’t know anything of the rituals of that tribal south Louisiana religion?
And: Why do people tell me that I do my best writing about the South? Is there a reason for that?
Ruthie’s slow dying raised those questions in my mind in a way they hadn’t existed before.
These are the questions I took with me down to Louisiana for Ruthie’s burial and the aftermath. They weren’t front to mind, but they’ve been there for a while. You readers, you’ve seen through my dispatches here the kinds of things the people of the community did for Ruthie and Mike, their girls, and my mother and father. Since I returned to Philadelphia, I received a stunning letter from a woman who grew up down the road from me, but who was much younger than I, and whom I therefore didn’t really know as a child. She told the story of how, as a teenager, she had wanted to escape the boredom and the claustrophobia of our small town. Some years later, when she was a nurse, her brother got cancer, and died young.
It was, for the most part, the same story my family had just lived. The outpouring of love and support from the community was identical, right down to the fundraising concert. When a call went out for blood donations, the hospital in Baton Rouge sent a mobile unit to receive gifts of blood from local folks. For the first time ever, said my correspondent (now a critical care nurse), the hospital’s mobile blood unit had to shut down because it ran out of supplies. When the van drove off because it could handle no more donors, the remaining line was a quarter-mile long.
My correspondent, who now lives in St. Francisville, writes that she has seen this compassion play out in other local families in crisis. The teenager who couldn’t wait to get away, and who thought her elders’ talk about how good the community is was just so much blah-blah-blah, now lives there, and considered herself blessed to be part of it all.
“My husband served 3 tours of duty in Iraq with the USMC as a regimental field surgeon,” she writes. “He came back to the USA to complete his residency in emergency medicine. He turned down many offers for much more money than he currently makes — all to live here, and be a part of this little stretch of land that we call home.”
I haven’t yet had a chance to respond to my letter-writer, but my guess is that she and I came to see the same thing (though she did so far earlier than I did): that the bonds of community that seemed like prison bars to our young eyes appeared to our older, wiser eyes as the pillars that held up our families in their time of great suffering.
When you are young, you think you can do anything. Living with the limits imposed by a small town can be hard. It was, for my own reasons, intolerable for me. It wasn’t resentment, necessarily, but rather restlessness. Bright lights, big city, and all that. That was as much a part of who I am as Ruthie’s abiding and uncomplicated love for small-town life was part of who she was. I don’t come home as a prodigal, let me assure you.
But halfway along my life’s path, I find that the road ahead leads to a strange and unexpected place. The things and places I once loved have faded in my affections. I find myself searching — always searching, me! — for something deeper. My longtime readers will know that I have written for years about the loss of community in American life, and of my longing for it. Standing in the receiving line at my sister’s wake, greeting old friends, some bent and withered by age, I wondered if all my intellectual musing on this problem was a way of searching for a way to return from self-imposed exile.
If you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us modern Americans, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a 40-year-old woman, a wife and mother and schoolteacher in good health and in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then? The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists. But who cooks for you when you can’t cook for yourself? Who cleans your house? Who picks your kids up from school, and takes them shopping when you are too weak and sick to get out of bed? Who comes and sits with you? Who prays with you, and serves you, and channels the grace of God to you through a thousand acts of mercy and love, if only by simply being there? Who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because you know that you will not leave your spouse and children behind to face the world alone?
No man is an island. We live in a time and in a place that encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the therapeutic demands of the sovereign self. But no man is an island. Suffering and death comes for us all. When it comes for you, you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want, you need, to be able to say, as my brother-in-law did, We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other.
The example Ruthie’s friends and family gave to me caused an epiphany. The door is open to me and my family to be part of this community, to take up our part in caring for my mother and father, and for Mike, and his and Ruthie’s girls, and also for other family members, and for people in the community who will get sick, and who will know grief. Understand, it’s not from a sense of duty that we do this, though there is that: those people were there for my family in a time of great need, and I need to be there for them. No, it’s more from a sense of opportunity, of privilege: those people where there for my family in a time of great need, and by the grace of God, I am given the privilege of being there for them.
Do you see the difference? I have long been grateful for the fact that Ruthie planned to live her entire life right across the yard from our parents, because I knew that she and Mike could be counted on to take care of them in their old age. This left me free to live wherever I wanted to, and do pursue my own goals. That’s not going to happen now. The thing is — and this is not something I could have anticipated — the transformation that took place within me, and within Julie, over the course of this life-changing nine days in St. Francisville is that we started to see the duty to return and care for family not as a burden, but as a blessing. Or rather, a burden that is at the same time a blessing, in the same way that the bonds of community that once felt like intolerable restraints now, in a different context, feel like the only thing holding us up.
For my yoke is easy, my burden is light.
The other day, having lunch with Tim and Laura Lindsey, I asked if they knew my cousin, Guy Ruth, who lives down the street. Cousin Guy and her husband Ted moved to St. Francisville after their lakefront home in New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina. Guy and Ted, in their early 80s, stepped out of their second floor window into a rescue boat. Back in 2005, my father phoned to say they had been watching a CNN report from the Katrina aftermath, and saw video of the boat reaching the landing. Onto dry land stepped Guy, who, being the fabulous New Orleans lady that she is, dressed up for her own rescue.
They built a house in St. Francisville, but Ted died shortly after they moved in. On one of our visits home, I took Julie and the kids by to meet Cousin Guy. She showed Julie her closet full of gowns and evening wear from her and Ted’s glamorous life in “Mad Men”-era New Orleans. Cousin Guy is full of colorful stories about a time and a place that has passed. Telling Tim about her, I found myself thinking that I wish I could see her more often, and hear these tales while she is still around to tell them, because when she leaves, she will take them with her.
Tim told a story about Miss Adele Percy, who is no longer with us, wearing a black leather jacket to a concert in town in her old age, and telling folks that the only reason she wasn’t climbing onto the bar to dance is because she didn’t know if she’d be able to get down. We laughed, but behind the laugh I thought about how all these people are passing into history. What do they know? What have they seen? What do they have that they can pass on, that the rest of us and our children need to know? And what is my role, as a writer, to gather this wisdom and share it?
Writing in this space the other day, I speculated that the town of St. Francisville, pop. 2,000, give or take a few hundred, might mean more to the future of America than Washington, DC. Here’s what I meant by that. It’s not that St. Francisville is uniquely virtuous — believe me, it’s not. There is vice there too, and even horror: for example, the serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, now on death row in Angola, was a classmate of my sister’s, and we now are certain that during his killing spree, he knocked on my sister’s door one night while she was newly married and home alone. It was only her vocal threat that she had a gun (as she did) and was prepared to use it if he came through that door, that saved her life. More recently, there was this unspeakable crime.
The point is surely not that small towns are a haven from violence, death, and sin. No such place exists this side of heaven. The point is how the community works to lessen these evils, and how the community reacts when such evils manifest themselves.
It’s not that St. Francisville is some sort of Thomas Kinkade fantasy village (unless Kinkade can figure out how to paint the One-Legged Stripper of Woodville in pretty pastels). It’s that this is a town that still has the resources, at least for now, to resist what Robert Nisbet identified as the catastrophe of modern American life: the loss of community, and the stability that makes a decent life possible.
It has been very hard for me, professionally speaking, to see the good and not just the bad in the world. Could it be that my calling now, as a writer and a journalist, is to look for reasons to hope amid suffering and disorder? The men and women who surrounded my sister provided it then. I have a lot to learn from them. Fortunately, I will be living near an airport and only about half an hour away from TV studios if I need to use them for my work. In fact, it would take me just as long to get to a TV studio in Baton Rouge as it would to get to downtown Philly. But I would be living a world away.
Anyway, I said the town has the resources to resist the loss of community “for now,” because without some sort of economic development, and more affordable housing, the sons and daughters of the townspeople will not be able to afford to live there. The only reason I can move there now, to care for my family, is because I have a job as a writer, an editor and a cultural journalist that allows me to live almost anywhere. If I need to fly to Washington or elsewhere, the airport is 25 minutes away. If I need to be on national TV, studios are 40 minutes away. I have never before been in this position, and I don’t know how long it will last. But it is here now, and if I can support my family while living and working in my hometown, and helping out with taking care of my folks as they age, and with my sister’s girls, why not?
Besides, one of the great problems of our media culture — and the conservative media is just as guilty here — suffers from living within the Bubble. It’s the DC-NYC-LA bubble where the Media-Political-Financial-Industrial Complex lives and moves and has its being. Because the media are part of this, it works to make our politics Washington-focused. We naturally become obsessed with what happens in Washington, because our media frame our national drama as a play that takes place on one stage. Back in the 1990s, when I worked in Washington covering politics, I used to fly home to St. Francisville and be so frustrated with my folks for not paying closer attention to the Very Important Things happening there, and that I was a part of. Don’t y’all know that there’s a Republican Revolution underway? I thought. Speaker Gingrich is going to make everything different, and better.
Well. To be sure, it would have done my folks some good to have paid more attention. But it would have done me more good to have gotten over my vanity, and to have realized that the things that matter most in the life of our country were not happening on Capitol Hill, or inside the Bubble, but in towns and villages and communities — even communities within big cities — far from the eyes of the media and the politicians, businessmen, and celebrities they serve.
I’m not trying to be a Romantic about this. Life in a small town can be dull and draining. I was lucky to be able to see it at its very best in these past 19 months, especially in these past nine days. What I am saying is that Ruthie’s death occasioned for me an epiphany, one that brings to mind a thought experiment Walker Percy concocted in his “Lost in the Cosmos”:
Imagine that you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look — it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on the serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions — good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide — be a bore?
Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.
Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?
Ratchet down the high drama, and you get an idea of what Ruthie’s death did to change my perspective about my hometown. I always thought of it as a good place to be from, and a wonderful place to visit, but it took the catastrophic loss of my sister to expose what exists beneath the humdrum everyday of life there. It took this death to make me see, in the 45th year of my life, what a treasure I still have there in my family, in my cousins and their children, in old friends, in new friends I’ve made along Ruthie’s journey, and in poor old south Louisiana itself, that sweet land of magnolias and mosquitoes. Again, I don’t return as a prodigal. I don’t regret having left; in fact, to have left was a great blessing. I learned so much from living away, did great things, made good friends I will love for the rest of my life. It was all for the making of my own perspective.
My only regret when I think of my sister is that Ruthie, as much as she loved me, never understood the value in the life I have lived and the things I have done. I hope she can see more clearly now. I tried to return home in 1993, out of a sense of guilt-ridden responsibility. That didn’t work out, unsurprisingly, and I went back to Washington five months later. That unhappy experience did free me from an unhealthy burden that, had I remained in place, would have deformed and embittered me. In the time that has passed since then, I have lived in other places, married, started a family, and have come to understand things about myself and about life that puts me in a position of strength for this second return. I come back now not out of anxious obligation, but out of love and gratitude. That makes all the difference.
Besides, to paraphrase Walker Percy, where would you rather be as a writer today? Stalking the halls of Congress between committee meetings and CNN appearances, or sitting on your front porch on Fidelity Street in St. Francisville? Which offers a better perspective from which to understand the times in which we live? I suppose that depends on the kind of writer you are. I know what kind of writer I am.
I am pretty sure that we are all going to live through an economic disaster of which the previous three years were just the opening act. I hope not, but I fear we will. And if so, all of us are going to need to learn what it is like to take care of each other, with less. I want to watch, and learn, and write about that. Even if it doesn’t come — and let us pray that it doesn’t — the catastrophe of the loss of community and stability remains with us in the postmodern age. I have been so busy theorizing about constructing an enclave to withstand the battering of the Dark Age barbarians upon us that I did not see, until now, that there is already a place on this earth where I can take my stand, if only I had the wisdom and the humility to see it and to know it and to make it my own once again.
And so, in a few months, you will be able to see me on my front porch, being Walker Percy (but without the talent, alas), learning as much as I can and writing as much as I can and helping out as much as I can while I can. The day may come when I can no longer afford to live there, and we have to move on again. I hope not, but we live in unstable and uncertain times. When we told the kids last night that we were moving to Louisiana, Lucas pumped his fist in the air and said, “Boo-yah!” There will be Mammy and Pawpaw in my children’s future, for as long as they are alive, and cousins, and crawfish, and deer hunting, and LSU football, and all the good things that I had growing up (and, I hope, fewer of the bad things I had). And if they want to leave when they are grown, they will leave with my blessing. They may need the grace and the encouragement to go out into the world, to travel as far as their imagination and hard work can take them, because, in the providence of God, that may be the only way back home.
This arrived in my in-box last night:
I just wanted to tell you how happy your mother and I are to know that you and your family are coming home.
I have prayed for this to happen for years. Now it is finally happening. I realize that it could not happen before, but now my prayers are being answered. We love you and your family, son, and welcome home.
All of this is a gift from Ruthie. She lies today in the ground near the crape myrtles in the Starhill Cemetery, where all the dead of our family are gathered round. And even from the grave, she bestows life on those who are able to receive it.