“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to the old forms and systems of things,” Thomas Wolfe famously wrote. But perhaps Wolfe had it wrong. After visiting his hometown (population 1,765), author Rod Dreher saw his life take its most meaningful turn.

By Rod Dreher
Updated February 07, 2013
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Family standing in their front yard
Credit: Mike Sinclair

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.

I watched Ruthie suffer mostly from afar. St. Francisville was a five-hour plane ride from Philadelphia, where I was living with my wife, Julie, and our three kids. By the time Ruthie’s cancer was diagnosed in 2010, it was in its final stage. She lived for 19 more months and in that time met her illness with extraordinary courage and serenity.

The way my sister coped with her cancer inspired me. But the thing that changed my life was witnessing the outpouring of love for her from the folks in our hometown.

Four months after Ruthie’s diagnosis, the locals hosted a fund-raising concert and dance, which I attended. Well over 1,000 people in that sleepy country hamlet came out that night for my sister, who, in her 20 years in the classroom, had taught many of them or their children. They wanted to say thanks, and to show Ruthie that she wasn’t making her cancer journey alone. Their outreach didn’t end that evening. They stayed with her—praying, crying, laughing, bringing her family meals, picking her children up from school—until the day she died.

The day before Ruthie’s passing, Julie and I toured an 18th-century farmhouse one hour from Philadelphia that we hoped to rent. It was a dream home for us, and we wanted it badly. But when news of Ruthie’s death reached us, we had to rush down south before we could sign the lease.

Over the course of the next week, we met scores of people who had known and adored Ruthie and heard stories about the difference she had made in their lives. We were moved and overwhelmed.

By the time we flew back to Philly at the end of the week, we had decided to do what I, the city-mouse brother, had once deemed unthinkable: to move to St. Francisville. I’d gallivanted on a grand cosmopolitan path up and down the East Coast, but now my heart told me it was time to try a new path—the one my sister had shown me.

Cancer makes a mockery of the idea that we can stand on our own two feet. When we are rendered helpless by disease and mortality, we have nothing but our faith, our friends, and, above all, our family to carry us. What if I woke up one morning, as Ruthie had done, to learn from my doctor that I had incurable cancer? Who would care for me and my family? Yes, we had friends in Philadelphia, but we had not lived there long enough—had not lived anywhere long enough—to develop the kinds of relationships that Ruthie had back home.

As a young man, I saw the ties between me and the community into which I was born as both holding me down and holding me back. So I cast them off. In light of Ruthie’s suffering, I came to see those deep ties not as fetters that bind, but as the things holding my family together as we dealt with this tremendous blow.

I also came to realize that what I needed as a free-spirited 15-year-old boy was not what I needed as a 45-year-old man with a wife and kids. My parents, cousins, nieces, and nephews wanted me there, and I longed to be there as well. I never regretted having left in my youth, but now Ruthie had shown me why it was time to come home.

We expected our Philadelphia friends, neighbors, and colleagues to be sorry that we were leaving, and they were. What we didn’t expect was folks telling us how much they wished they had a place like St. Francisville to go to. One friend confessed that his parents had raised him to put professional success ahead of everything else in life and to always move for better jobs. And he had. Now that he and his wife were older and their children were gone, they had no real community in which to grow old. They were rich, successful—and alone.

We have lived in this small town on the Mississippi River for more than a year now. Are there times when we miss big-city life? Yes. You can’t easily satisfy a whim for Thai food, and movies, museums, and shopping require a day trip at best. But something always happens to remind us that Ruthie’s way—the road not taken for so many of us—is worth it.

One afternoon last autumn, my cousin Amy glimpsed Lucas, our nine-year-old, out her car window. He had wiped out on his bike and was weeping after getting banged up badly. She lent him a hand, cleaned him up, and brought him home—with the help of several equally well-meaning onlookers. As he was tucked into bed that night, Lucas told his mother, “I’m so glad we live here. When I crashed, so many people came to help me, and they all knew who I was.”

About the Author

Rod Dreher is the author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming ($26, amazon.com), which will be published in April. He has also written for the New York Post and The American Conservative. He lives with his family in Louisiana.