My little sister, Ruthie, never understood why I left our small, rural Louisiana hometown after graduating high school and never looked back. And I didn’t get what she didn’t get. I was a restless misfit, a bookish, urbanity-craving geek who was an outsider in a place where hunting, fishing, and the simple life made folks happy. Why isn’t Rod satisfied? Ruthie wondered. What is wrong with him? Isn’t what we have enough?
Ruthie stayed in St. Francisville, married her high school sweetheart, taught math in the local school, and raised her three girls across the gravel road from where she and I grew up. I never begrudged her the life she had chosen, but I didn’t question whether I had taken the right path for myself. I lived and worked as a journalist in big cities—Washington, D.C.; Miami; New York City; Dallas; and Philadelphia— and found personal and professional fulfillment there.
And yet, when I came home for the holidays, there was tension between Ruthie and me, an anxiety that came across to me as judgment. She wouldn’t talk about it; that wasn’t her way. But it was obvious to me that she believed her brother had adopted uppity big-city ways.
It was more complicated than that, though. As Ruthie’s husband, Mike Leming, told me after her death from an aggressive form of lung cancer in September 2011, Ruthie had taken my departure as a personal rejection. “It hurt her that you left,” he admitted. “She had the sense that family was everything, and we all stay here on the ridge together. Nobody ever leaves.”
Last spring, six months after Ruthie’s passing, Mike showed me a box of letters that she had written to him back in the summer of 1986, when they were high school sweethearts. He was 18 and off at basic training for the National Guard, and she was 17 and still at home, preparing for her senior year in high school. Ruthie would tell Mike about life in town, about fishing on my dad’s pond, going bowling with girlfriends, road trips to the Gulf of Mexico. Their stories were perfectly ordinary, and yet there was such unadorned joy in them. I was struck by the way she would say over and over again how much she looked forward to marrying him and starting their lives in St. Francisville.
I thought about how I had behaved at 17. I was in constant emotional turmoil, anxious over my loneliness, my future, my uncertainty about the meaning of life, my doubt about my place in the world, and whether or not the Talking Heads were the best band. That sort of thing. In short, I was a typical American teenager. Ruthie was extraordinary in that she knew what she wanted out of life, and she knew she had it right in front of her for the taking.
She took it, too. Until it was snatched away by cancer.