Extraordinary love

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (NetGalley)
Rob Dreher
release date: April 9, 2013

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, a moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.”

Writer Rod Dreher has turned my head a couple of times: once when commentator David Brooks called him “one of the country’s most interesting bloggers” (link) and again with what I think is his allusion to St. Therese, the little flower, in the memoir’s title. Because I’ve had a sort of a crush on David Brooks for years (my husband knows that Friday’s Newshour when Brooks shares a spot with Mark Shields is a sacred time). And as an adult convert to Catholicism, I seriously considered Therese as my confirmation name because of her devotion to doing ordinary things with extraordinary love.

Dreher recounts his life growing up in St. Francisville Louisiana and the restlessness and discontent that small town life brought him. As many young people do, he rather clumsily made his way out into the wider world, shaking the dust from his feet and  hurting (although never intentionally) the ones who loved him most. As a successful journalist, Dreher came to write for The National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Post, among others; he lived the life he loved in New York, Washington D.C., Dallas. Or so he thought.

It was the illness of his younger sister, Ruthie Lemming that brought him back to St. Francisville. Ruthie adored Rod as little sisters typically do, despite that fact that for all of Dreher’s turning inward, she was bent on reaching outward and touching lives, and just as he spurned small town life, Ruthie embraced it. And embrace it she did–because whether she was baking, fishing, star-gazing, or dancing, Ruthie lived life as few people do. She was head over heels for her high school sweetheart, her children were the apple of her eye, and friends were for life. Co-workers adored her and her church family was just that: family. Ruthie gave her heart to the children she taught with passion and there was no problem that couldn’t be fixed with love.

All this made reading of her illness (a particularly virulent lung cancer) even more devastating. For this Little Flower suffered much–physically, of course, but even more in the knowledge that her illness and death caused those she loved so much pain. Typical Ruthie, Dreher would say. But Dreher is wise enough to know that no saint, even Ruthie, is without those frailties that worry us all. There was friction with her teenaged daughter Hannah and an unspoken rift between Ruthie and Dreher for years. It’s that honesty that made Ruthie’s story so compelling.

The story of Ruthie’s life and death is especially powerful in the way it gives the reader (this one anyway) pause to examine his or her own life. That was certainly true for her brother, who mindfully returned with his family to the home town he once left. The question I kept coming back to was whether or not my life impacts others as Ruthie’s did. Sadly, many of us might not want to know the answer. I also became drawn to Dreher’s idea of community, something so lacking in contemporary American culture today. My hope for other readers is that Ruthie’s life, and Dreher’s, can serve as a road map of sorts, leading us to find that “place where you know, and are known … [where] we’re leaning on each other.”

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