This was my life now, and I thought I must be in a kind of paradise. In retrospect, I think this is when I began to lose my sister.
The following is an excerpt from How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher.
One Friday night, after I had been there for about six weeks, Daddy and I were out driving down a country lane. “I’m so glad you came home, son,” he said. “You finally realized that I was right.”
I didn’t say a word, afraid of what might come out. I thought about what I had given up to come home. A journalism job in the capital. Good friends. Bookstores, coffee shops, movie houses, a city life I had long dreamed of. I hid my panic for the rest of the evening, but that night in bed I tossed until I could no longer stand it. I arose, dressed, and drove my old blue Chevy pickup into Baton Rouge, where I sat in an all-night coffee shop near the LSU campus and pondered my future.
The sun came up on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I was the first one in the church of St. Agnes downtown for the morning mass. I knelt at the communion rail and prayed for deliverance from this mistake. After mass, I drove back to Starhill and went to Ruthie’s house, which she and Mike had recently completed in a grove across the yard from our folks’ place. I found her and baby Hannah still under the covers on that chilly morning. I sat on the edge of their bed.
“What’s wrong?” Ruthie said.
I told her, and broke down over the mess I had made of my life, trying to do right by my family. I told her I now knew I could never live around Daddy, because he could not keep himself from trying to control me.
“Why can’t he just accept me like I am?” I said.
Ruthie just shook her head and cried. She and Daddy were quite close, but she was aware of how strong-willed and demanding he was. She knew that my situation was impossible.
Two months later, I was back at my desk in Washington, grateful for a second chance. Four years later, I was newly married and a film critic at the New York Post. My wife, Julie, and I were discovering the joy of married life and falling head over heels for New York: film screenings, picnics in Central Park, the Union Square Greenmarket, mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, our favorite French café on Madison Avenue. This was my life now, and I thought I must be in a kind of paradise.
In retrospect, I think this is when I began to lose my sister. She was teaching math now to middle schoolers; I was going to movies for a living, interviewing Hollywood stars, and turning up on cable TV shows. When Julie and I visited Starhill, Ruthie would be polite, but she was increasingly on edge the longer we lingered. “How much did you pay for that fancy haircut?” she might say snippily. Or “I guess y’all aren’t worried at all about buying a house”—as if renting were no better than throwing our money on the sidewalk and setting it on fire.
On the first Christmas after Julie and I were married, we returned from Manhattan to spend it with my Starhill family. I phoned in advance to ask if Julie and I could make a bouillabaisse for them one night. I explained that it was a fish and shellfish stew with tomato, garlic, and onion, just like they’re used to in Louisiana. It was the first fancy dish Julie and I had learned to cook together, and we were eager to make a pot of it for them if they were game.
My folks said yes. Julie brought special stock from New York on the plane; and once down in Louisiana, we drove into Baton Rouge and spent an entire morning buying the fish, shrimp, and crabs. We cooked all afternoon, and even made the traditional roasted red pepper mayonnaise the French serve with it.
And then it was dinnertime. We set down the black iron cauldron on a trivet in the middle of the table, aromatic steam rising from the rich, saffron-tinted broth. Nobody would eat it. My father tried a couple of spoonfuls, but he was the only one who would go that far. Ruthie took the opportunity to praise a family friend for being “a good cook—a good country cook.” Mama sat quietly.
They saw this gift of love my wife and I had prepared for them as nothing more than uppity Rod inflicting his snooty cosmopolitan tastes on them.
Julie was taken aback. Within me, confusion turned into humiliation, and then to anger. I held it in. It was Christmastime, and I did not want to fight with my family. All I wanted was to get back to New York as soon as I could.
Despite occasional incidents like that, we had a good relationship with the family back in Louisiana. It was much easier to love each other if we didn’t have to be in one another’s company more than two or three times a year. Distance made it possible for all of us to believe the stories we wanted to tell ourselves about our family, and not test them against reality.
Ruthie and Mike had another daughter, Claire, and a third, Rebekah. Julie and I had our first child, Matthew—Daddy’s first grandson. I thought about how much Matt would miss by growing up far from his grandfather. That old familiar longing came over me again, but there was no moving to Starhill now, not with a wife and a child to take care of.
Although we loved New York, we knew we couldn’t afford to raise a growing family there. A year after 9/11, I landed a job at the Dallas Morning News, and we moved to Julie’s hometown. This delighted my folks, who would be seeing a lot more of us now that we were within driving distance.
Over the next six years, we had two more children, Lucas and Nora, and spent a lot more time in Starhill. Still, an uncanny distance persisted between Ruthie and me.
In the fall of 2009, not long before we were to move to Philadelphia for my new job, we were in Starhill sitting down to Sunday dinner. “Rod, you say the blessing,” Ruthie announced. “You’re so holier-than-thou.”
I chose not to respond, but after lunch I asked Daddy, with whom I was getting along well now, what Ruthie’s problem was. “I don’t know, son,” he said, “but there’s something there.”
Maybe she was feeling bad; she had developed a persistent cough. Still, I hated moving far away again with this unacknowledged hostility between us.