What is the point of a Substack newsletter written by a guy who has no unblogged thoughts? Does Rod Dreher really need another place to write besides his American Conservative blog?
Well, no … okay, maybe. I’m going to try this for a few reasons.
First, I write a lot about religion in the news on my blog, but I keep my own personal religious beliefs and thoughts mostly to myself there. I take seriously the fact that I’m writing for an opinion magazine that focuses mostly on news and current events. It somehow doesn’t feel right to be too personal about my religious views in that space. I would like to have a spot to be more intimate about faith topics, in a way that makes more sense on a personal blog than on a blog hosted by an opinion magazine. To be clear, nobody at TAC has ever told me not to blog about any topic. This is a restriction I place on myself.
Second, I find that I often want to write about small things that don’t merit a full post at TAC, but that I find important or at least in some sense meaningful. As often as I post at TAC, a scan of the top of my web browser finds at least thirty, usually more, tabs open to essays, columns, blog posts, and the like that I couldn’t figure out how to write about in the space I have at TAC. Some of my TAC readers think I write way too much. This newsletter is not for them. You can expect this to be more diary-like.
Third, and along those lines, I was talking to my New Orleans pal Ken Bickford this morning who mentioned to me that the difference between the man I am in person, and the difference between my blog persona, is jarring. He knows me as a laid-back bourbon-sipper who would rather be in the kitchen cooking or at the table drinking and eating and telling funny stories with friends than grousing about the culture war, or politics, or the stuff that’s my usual grist at my blog. It’s not that I put on a false face on that blog. It’s that the things I write about are usually pretty serious, and I feel strongly about them. I have a gift for compartmentalizing, though. I would a thousand times rather be your friend and make you a drink and talk about how (in Russell Kirk’s phrase) the world remains sunlit despite its vices, than I would wish to lay into you about the usual topics on my blog.
Again, I’m not at all a cynic about my blogging — I really do believe the things I write there — but if all you know about me is my polemical self, you don’t really know me at all. I’ve been thinking all day about what Bickford said, and I thought maybe it would be fun to do a newsletter in a different key, for those who are interested.
What will you get here that you won’t get at my TAC blog? A more diary-like take on the day — smaller things that didn’t make my blog, but also more personal observations, written in a gentler spirit. I intend to write at least once a day, much less in a hot-take mode. You’ll know after a few issues if this is for you, or if you prefer to stick solely to the more combative Rod Dreher.
Today I drove up to the country, to my mom’s house near St. Francisville, because I had to take something to her. I brought with me a big sack of chicken and dumplings from Cracker Barrel, which she considers to be the best chicken and dumplings makers in the world. She was sitting on her front porch when I pulled in. Mama is always cheerful, and seeing me with enough chicken and dumplings to feed her for a couple of days lit her up.
It’s hard to tell how she’s doing in this Covid thing, precisely because she’s so talkative and lively. I know, though, that it’s hard. She goes out into town to do errands, wearing her mask, but she hasn’t had anybody in the house since March, and has only received guests on the front porch. She used to sit out there most of the day with my dad. He died five years ago this summer; she gets lonely.
We talk by phone at least once each day, sometimes more. She has lived long enough to see my late sister Ruthie’s kids grown and gone. Rebekah, the baby, left for college this fall. Hannah, the oldest, lives near Barcelona with her Catalan boyfriend. And Claire, the middle child, will graduate in December from college with a nursing degree, and the next day marry her sweetheart K., a kind-hearted, handsome musician from Colombia whom she met at church. She will be wearing her mother’s wedding dress, and standing in the same spot near the altar of the Methodist church where her mother and father were married, and where her mother Ruthie’s body lay in the casket at Ruthie’s 2011 funeral.
Last Christmas, K.’s mom and dad came up from Colombia for a long visit. It’s a testament to how warm and genial they are, and that my mom is, that they spoke no English, and my mom not a word of Spanish, but they got along famously. It looks like they will be able to fly to Louisiana for the wedding. How strange and wonderful it is that that branch of our family is opening to Hispanic culture (Claire’s Colombian husband, Hannah’s Catalan boyfriend). This would have been scarcely imaginable in my mom and dad’s generation, and not much more likely in mine. But these kids today, borders don’t exist as they once did. You know me: I see a blessing in a broader menu at family get-togethers on the holidays. Rebekah has to end up with a Frenchman or an Italian, if you ask me.
My mom is excited that she has lived long enough to see the first of her six grandchildren marry, but I can see in her face that she has Ruthie much on her mind. As I sat on the front porch talking with Mama today, I was thrown by how little affection I have for the house in which I grew up. I’m not like that usually about places; I typically get rather sentimental. When Daddy died, though, it’s like all the spirit left the house. I think she agrees too. She told me once that with Ruthie and Daddy gone, and now Ruthie’s girls moved away, home just doesn’t feel like it always did. It’s too quiet. She wants to stay there as long as she can, but I can tell she has detached from the place too.
What will happen to it when Mama dies? It doesn’t look as if any of the grandchildren are going to stay in St. Francisville. We tried to live there, but as readers of How Dante Can Save Your Life know, it didn’t work out, for complicated and tragic family reasons. I can’t help thinking of the little red brick house where I grew up in the same vein as I thought about the tiny antebellum cabin once standing nearby, where my Great-Great Aunts Hilda and Lois — both born in the 1890s to a Civil War veteran — lived out the final years of their life. I wrote about a melancholic 1992 visit to the ruins of the cabin in this passage The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (only $1.99 on Kindle now, I see):
At Thanksgiving, I made my first trip back home. Ruthie and Mike were talking about building a house on some land Paw had given them across the gravel road, a long stone’s throw from his house. Ruthie sketched the kind of house she wanted, and gave it to an architect. The house reflected Ruthie’s priorities. She wanted the two bedrooms they planned for children to be close to the master bedroom, so she could be near her kids. The kitchen and breakfast space was large; she wanted her friends to be able gather there and drink wine while she was cooking for them.
Late on Thanksgiving afternoon, I left Mam and Paw’s to walk over to see the house spot. The cleared plot took in most of what had been Aunt Lois and Aunt Hilda’s orchard. Their cabin itself sat on land that belonged to cousins who lived far away, and with whom we didn’t get along. Standing where the new house would be, near a barbed wire fence marking the property line, I could faintly see the outline of the cabin through a thicket. I decided to take a look.
I crawled through the barbed wire, and navigated slowly through the overgrown brush. Brambles, briars, and overgrowth had consumed the camellia bushes Loisie had so carefully tended. The orchard and her gardens were a ruin, and so too, I now saw, was the old cabin, which predated the Civil War. I had not laid eyes on it since Loisie died and Aunt Hilda moved to a rest home some 15 years before. The front porch was so overgrown by bushes and vines that I couldn’t reach it. A tree had fallen on the roof over Loisie’s bedroom, on the downstairs level, cracking open a window frame. I climbed through.
Had the old house really been this tiny? Two wee bedrooms downstairs, a bathroom the size of a walk-in closet, and up a short staircase, a galley-like kitchen, a small pantry, a sitting room, and a library. The whole thing felt like a dollhouse, but in my memory, it was much larger. Then again, it would have appeared so to a small boy.
The cabin was vacant and musty, but it still held the faint aromas I remembered from my childhood. The damp charry clay smell from the fireplace. The cracked corn dust from the bin in the pantry where they’d kept bird feed. That peculiar scent of their enameled cast-iron wash basin in the kitchen. If I closed my eyes, I could recall absent smells: cut jonquils and paperwhites in a Mason jar; the Keri lotion Lois kept by her rocking chair to keep her hands moist; the nutty, buttery pecan cookies baking in the kitchen, or golden cupcakes from Loisie’s 3-2-1 recipe. I would sit on her lap at her table in the kitchen and stir the batter in her pale green 1940s Fire-King mixing bowl. Batter. Loisie taught me that word. I loved saying it, and licking the spoon when we were done mixing, feeling the grains of sugar with my tongue against the roof of my mouth.
There, as a grown man, I stood in the dark, cobwebbed kitchen, wondering where it all had gone. There, on a board above the washbasin that served as a shelf, sat a relic: — Loisie’s Fire-King mixing bowl. I held it in my hands, a totem of my youth. It had once seemed as big as a foot tub in my lap. In truth, it wasn’t much bigger than an oversized cereal bowl.
Something must have unnerved me, because I felt the strong urge to leave. I took the pale green bowl in hand, went down the back steps, and stood for a last minute in Loisie’s bedroom. It was the size of a monastic cell, and now bare. But look, there is where she kept her carved Honduran wooden bobblehead of a Carmen Miranda figure, head piled high with colorful tropical fruits, which delighted me as a boy. Tegucigalpa, the word that tasted like the juicy fruits on the dancer’s head. There was once a bed in that corner, where Loisie and I lay down late one night when I stayed over and read a Wisconsin cheese catalog, me enchanted by the brightly colored cellophane wrappers. What kind of place is this Wisconsin, where it snows, and the cheese comes wrapped like a Christmas tree ball?
Out those French doors was the pocket-sized side porch where I fed Loisie’s cats with her, and where, after she was taken to the hospital in her penultimate illness, a wicked cousin came one Sunday afternoon, lured all the cats out with their dinner, and killed as many as he could with a shotgun. The rest ran away, and lived wild in the woods. Hilda had asked the no-good cousin to get rid of the cats, because she was tired of caring for them for her sister. That’s what he did, gruesomely. My mother, my father, my sister and I sat in our backyard that day, hearing what was going on, crazy with grief, powerless to do anything to stop it.
When we saw the cousin’s truck leave, Mam hurried through the pecan orchard to the cabin, and ran to the side porch, where the cats were accustomed to getting their food. She saw spattered blood, empty shotgun shells, and saucers of milk. He must have taken the dead cats with him.
Lois died not long after that, never knowing what had happened to her cats. Before she died, I went to Aunt Hilda, and told her I knew what had happened, and that she had ordered it. “Darling, please don’t be angry,” she said, but I was, and told her I hated her, and ran home. After Loisie died, that side of the family dispatched Mossy to the nursing home and looted the cabin of all the art objects and relics of their lives. I visited Mossy a few times, but her mind was starting to go in a serious way, and given what had happened with the cats, my heart wasn’t in it. Mossy died in 1988. I didn’t go to her funeral because I was backpacking around Europe with a college buddy. In a way, that was the most fitting tribute I could have given to what her life meant to me.
As I stood there staring at the side porch where the cats had been killed, I thought about the sad, grotesque ending to my love affair with the old sisters, and that house. There were three worn wooden steps connecting the painted concrete slab to the kitchen. I sat on the bottom one as a small boy, while a young cat I called Stripey sat on the top step, licking my hair. One day Stripey followed me home, and Loisie told me I could keep him. Stripey was my first cat, the first pet I remember loving with all my heart. But now the old steps had collapsed, the woods was about to overtake the side porch, and the ghosts in that ruin were starting to unnerve me.
I put those thoughts out of my head, climbed back through the bedroom window, slogged through the thicket, squeezed between the barbed wire of the fence, and was once again in the sunlight. I looked across the yard at Mam and Paw’s brick house in the near distance, as the evening began to fall. Suddenly it struck me that one day, their house would be as Hilda and Lois’s cabin was today. I could hear people inside, our Thanksgiving guests, laughing and talking, but they would all be dead one day. Perhaps some great-grandchild yet unborn, or one of his children, would come in through a back window and search for relics of a barely remembered past. I tucked Loisie’s mixing bowl under my arm and walked on to the house.
Hilda and Lois’s cabin was torn down and cleared away over two decades ago. There is no trace of it left. And the red brick house where I grew up, it’s already passing into history, just as I foresaw. This is not the future I expected when I moved back to Louisiana with my family in 2011, but this is the future into which fate threw us.
Here are Hilda (sitting) and Lois as Red Cross nurses in 1917, in France.
Here is their little old cabin, circa 1970, in the time that I knew it. I am shocked to see how poor it is. To little me, this happy cottage was magical.
And here is Loisie in her kitchen. Again, I’m shocked by the poverty. It didn’t seem poor at all to me as a small boy. It was where dreams lived.
This is what it means to get old, I guess: to think about how fast it has all passed through our fingers.
Gosh, I didn’t mean to end on a somber note. I don’t find it all that somber, to be honest. I find it beautiful and lambent, like autumn light.
See you tomorrow. Oh, by the way — I’m not going to enable the comments section here. It takes a lot to manage comments at my TAC site, and I don’t want to take on that labor here too. If you care to write to me, I will publish a selection of your letters in this space.