Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tribute to remarkable sister, her values

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AS a bored teenager, Rod Dreher couldn't wait to escape the confines of his small American town. For Dreher, St. Francisville, La. (pop. 1,700) was parochial, dull and insular.

The wider world held more appeal for the ambitious journalist. As soon as he could, he left friends and family behind to seek out success in the newspaper business.

Dreher's career took him to New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington. In the meantime, his younger sister, Ruthie, married, had kids, became a popular teacher and never strayed far from home.

The two siblings could not have been more different. Ruthie craved stability and a rustic lifestyle while Rod travelled and enjoyed gourmet dining. The siblings grew apart but were brought together once again by tragic circumstances.

At age 40, Ruthie was diagnosed with a deadly strain of lung cancer. Dreher was devastated. His baby sister would soon leave behind a husband, Mike, and three daughters. Like any good journalist, Dreher decided to take notes.

The result is this moving memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.

When news of Ruthie's terminal illness spread, the close-knit community rallied valiantly around Ruthie and her extended family. Their generosity made Dreher question the wisdom of his urbanite lifestyle.

As his sister underwent treatment, Dreher kept in touch by phone. He also returned home to visit. After one poignant encounter, Dreher recognized that he longed to return home permanently to Louisiana with his wife and kids.

It turns out that Rod Dreher wanted what his sister chose, after all. He craved the close friendships that Ruthie had cultivated.

"Ruthie wasn't the kind of Southern woman who would tell you something honey-dripping to your face, then wield a stiletto when you weren't looking," writes Dreher, perhaps best known for his American Conservative blog.

"And Ruthie was wise. She had strong convictions, but if you went to her for advice, she listened, really listened, and withheld judgment until she had thought long and hard about your problem."

What sets this memoir apart is Dreher's self-effacing and relentless approach to his subject matter. It's a "warts and all" account of family divisions, death, spiritual seeking and his midlife desire for community linkage.

Acting as Ruthie's self-appointed Boswell, Dreher recounts his sister's early life and her stable marriage. Ruthie is kind and generous yet impish. A dedicated educator, Ruthie is revered by students and colleagues alike.

If there are dark shadows in this portrait of his sister -- like the lifelong tension between the two siblings -- they are outshone by Ruthie's generous spirit.

For Dreher, Ruthie's optimistic approach to her illness distinguished her in her last months. She refused to be angry about the diagnosis. She retained her dignity, poise and a sense of humour.

As Ruthie held court in her sickroom, she comforted friends, family and colleagues instead of seeking solace. Ruthie never gave in to self-pity nor did she relent in her faith in a possible remission.

Ruthie, by example, taught her elder brother that he could have a very good life in a small town. So he relocates his family and spends time with his grieving nieces. He also struggles to redefine his relationship with his aging parents.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a tribute to his remarkable sister and the traditional values she held dear. Thanks to Ruthie, Rod Dreher is home for good.

Journalist Patricia Dawn Robertson grew up in Winnipeg but now lives in small-town Saskatchewan.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J8

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