Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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Home Gardens

The first garden I had after my marriage ended was at a place a mile off Rosedale Road in West Baton Rouge. George Richard, who later founded Balloon Fest, moved the Acadian cottage he’d grown up in in Donaldsonville and restored it from top to bottom.   I found it in the Rental ads in the ADVOCATE, and called the listed number immediately.  Marie Richard answered the phone, and mid-conversation, she said, “Didn’t you write CAJUN?”  I said I had.  “That book presented Cajun culture the way it should be.  I think that house will be perfect for you.”

And it was.

The spring after I moved in, I planted what I intended to be an English Cottage garden.  George obligingly built a picket fence around the garden to keep his horses out  I tended it until July, when keeping it clear of weeds became so difficult I knew I needed help.  I called Gracie Mae Kinchen, who had been with us for years, and later would be again, and asked if she knew anyone who gardened.  She said Emile Clark would be a good choice.

But when Emile came out the next day, it turned out that he had never planted a garden in his life.  Still, he was there, so I showed him the difference between a weed and a wanted plant, and he never looked back.

When I moved from Rosedale Road to Le Havre, where there was a lake. I got permission from the president of the association to plant roses outside the wall enclosing my patio, though the rules forbade it.  Emile planted a slow growing wisteria on the second floor balcony, and when I remarried and moved to Sweetbriar Street in Baton Rouge, the wisteria came with us.

Finally, Emile had the space to create a number of gardens.  He built a picket fence around the front yard, then made an English garden.  He also planted a row of holly bushes that grew high enough to block out the view of the house next door.  When the man of the house asked Emile why I wanted something that high, his reply was that Mrs. B. loved her neighbors but she didn’t want to know they were there.

A rose garden had its own space off to the side of the courtyard.  Dick loved tulips and so every year Emile planted 600 bulbs.  Wisteria grew on the back fence that overlooked a large pasture, climbing roses filled other spots, and there was always space for zinnias and daisies.

A few years after Dick died, I moved to New Orleans because my daughter Aimee and her husband John Lawson were having my first grandchild.  Sebastian was born on January 21, 2000, and since my house, was only nine blocks from theirs, I saw him almost daily.  Emile drove down twice a week to prepare and care for gardens.  The first week I moved in, I told Emile I would buy some hanging baskets to put in front of windows, as we had at Sweetbriar.

Emil said, “People in our neighborhood who live in raised houses like this one don’t have hanging baskets.  They have window boxes.”

Needless to say, window boxes it was.

That garden was the smallest I’ve ever had, but there was room for roses, and spring bulbs, and Emile made a Knot garden in the front which was delight to behold.

After three years, though I enjoyed living in New Orleans, I decided to move back, not to Baton Rouge, but to Prairieville.  My close friend Henry Avery was in real estate.  I described the house I wanted, he went online to see what he could find, and I drove up one day to see them.

None of them had trees.  All of them had the cookie cutter designs so prevalent then.  There was only one left, on Bluff Road, and when we got there, the owner had forgotten we were coming and wasn’t there.  Discouraged, we turned back.  Then, as we passed Ridge Road, I saw a sign.  House for Sale.

“We don’t have anything to lose,” I told Henry.  So we drove to the address, and the minute I saw the house, I said, “That’s it.”

The house had a lock box, so Henry called the realtor and got the code to go in.  It had a long, peaked ceiling living/dining room area.  It had a compact kitchen.  It had a large master bedroom with it’s own bath, and two smaller bedrooms that shared a hall bath.  Long porches with deep eaves across the front and back of the house.  “This is my house, but it’s way too small.”

By the time we got back in the car, I’d figured how I could add on to the house.  My offer was accepted, and as soon as the house was mine, Emile started on the gardens.

The property is almost an acre, with a wooded area and a large area in front.  Lots of sunshine for roses, shade for plants that aren’t happy in the sun.  Emile was in his element, turning grass into fern filled spaces, training Honeysuckle over arches, and planting a vegetable garden that kept us in vegetable well into the fall.  He also planted two fig trees, and manfully battled birds to pick buckets full.

There came an unhappy time when Emile could no longer work as hard as he had been.  Finally, he couldn’t work at all.  He was and is one of my best friends, and when I think of him, I think of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s ROAD OF THE LOVING HEART, which the natives of the island where he lived and died built in his memory.  This smooth shining road is a metaphor for the love the natives had for Stevenson. In Emile’s case, I think of the ROAD OF A GARDEN LOVER.

 

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Gardens

A.A. Milne’s quote –  “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them”  – describes my feelings perfectly.

The property my home is on is almost an acre and every inch of it is part of a habitat for birds, dragonflies, butterflies, numerous crawly things and even a turtle.  My front yard is the only one on my street that isn’t an expanse of grass which has to be mowed – rendering it useless for insects and putting diesel fumes into the air.

The first garden that I remember is the Victory Garden my father planted when we lived in Baton Rouge in the early days of WWII.  It had carrots, tomatoes, summer squash, eggplant, cucumbers and snap beans.  I remember how good these fresh-from-the-garden vegetables tasted.

When we moved to Lafayette in 1943, there was no need to plant a Victory Garden because men with wagons full of vegetables drove through the streets every morning selling their wares.  My father made a rose garden for my mother and also planted zinnias, daisies and cornflowers. I have tried without success to grow cornflowers in my garden but they refuse to come up. Perhaps my Garden Angel will have more success. ‘Garden Angel’ is what I call Katie: a wonderful young woman I met because we both had cloth bags as we entered a local grocery store.  We talked about saving the environment and that led to finding out she was an environmental gardener – and now she comes weekly to weed and water.

I have seen many of the famous gardens in this country and abroad. My second daughter and I were in Philadelphia to see a Cezanne exhibit and drove to Winterthur to see the garden there.  I have also visited the Botanical Garden in New York, a lovely place that has a train show in December with many trains on many tracks running through the plants setup with this annual special exhibition.

When I went to Nova Scotia with two of my daughters (the oldest and fourth), we saw the magnificent gardens at Annapolis Royal as well as the many cottage gardens in front of homes as we drove through the countryside.

I am particularly fond of cottage gardens.  One of the highlights of trips to Ireland and Scotland were the gardens filled with local favorites including asters, pinks, phlox, delphiniums, and, of course, roses in abundance (as we visited in June).

On my first trip to London, I toured Westminster Cathedral with a crowd of other tourists.  It is indeed a beautiful place filled with history.  But I had a private mission.  I had read that there was a walled garden on the Cathedral grounds that dated from 1100, and I wanted to see it.  I left the group and walked down the hall that would lead me to it.  A man dressed in a tartan kilt, a white shirt and a black coat approached me. He asked me what I was doing there, and I said I wanted to see the walled garden. He said nothing was in bloom, as winter had set in. I said I didn’t care, I just wanted to see the place. And so I did.  I still remember looking at that square of bare dirt and thinking it dated to the days of William the Conqueror

I visited Kew Gardens on another trip to London, this one with my second husband.  Dick and our driver went to a pub while I wandered the gardens seeing not only flowers but also benches with plaques on them naming the person in whose honor they had been placed.

When my fourth daughter and I were in Paris, we visited the Tuileries Garden. But the one we loved best was Claude Monet’s garden which supplied not only beauty to view but was also the subject of many of his paintings. Here a riot of flowers bloomed—anemones, asters, bellflowers, dahlias, rudbeckia, clematis, nasturtiums  and, of course, roses.

My gardens are nowhere up to these gardens, however, they still give me the gifts all gardens do — peace, content, and joy.

 


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Father’s Day

My first remembrance of my father is connected to my remembrance of my first pet, a fluffy small white puppy he brought home one afternoon.  There is a photo in a family album of me dressed in a wool outfit consisting of a cap, jacket, and long pants knitted by my father’s mother, who never met a knitting, sewing or crocheting project she couldn’t master.  I’m looking down at the puppy and she is looking up at me, two very young creatures—I was two years old, the puppy was two months old—sizing each other up.

My father squatted on his heels and patted the puppy.  “What shall we name her?”  I had no idea, but he came up with one.  “Her black eyes look like buttons against her white fur.  We’ll call her Buttons.”

Buttons and I became friends, so when Daddy took her away one day and returned without her, I was heart-broken.  He took me to the grape arbor and we sat on the seat inside it.  He could have told me any number of things: her owners had claimed her, she ran away, etc.  He chose to tell the truth, which was that Buttons was very sick, she was in a lot of pain and would never recover, so the veterinarian put her to sleep.  “Will she wake up?”  “No, baby, she won’t.”  This incident was the first step into a life-long trust in my father, a trust he never let down.

Another memory is of me sitting on my father’s lap while he listened to the news on the radio.

I heard the words, “The German army has marched into Poland.”  The day was September 1, 1939, the beginning of what would become World War II.  I didn’t understand the words, but my father’s face told me they were serious.

We lived in Lake Charles, LA, at that time, and my father, who was a civil engineer, headed a crew of surveyors for Stone and Webster.  These crews measured easements and got the proper permissions for Gulf States Utilities, the precursor of Entergy, to cross private lands.  One of the crew members was a friend of Daddy’s, and sometimes came home with him to have a beer or highball.  One afternoon he said he was going to tell Andre’s family about an incident that had happened that day.  The land they were to survey belonged to a black farmer.  When he opened the door and saw my father standing on the porch, he put out his hand and my father shook it.  The crew was barely out of earshot when one of the men criticized the handshake.  “You shook hands with a nigger.”

“And who would have been the gentleman if I had not?”  At the time, I was too young to understand the implications of that conversation.  A few years later, my father passed his attitude toward all people on to me.  “If I ever hear you make a slur against someone because of a physical condition over which they have no control, you will have crossed a line with me, and I’m not sure you can cross back.”

My father was a font of practical advice, and without it, I doubt I would have survived the many storms I’ve endured if he hadn’t been my father.  He taught me how to drink moderately, saying if I were going to drink, drink like a gentleman, which meant bourbon and water, because you could tell how cheap the liquor and how strong the drink.  He forbade me to ever drink the punch at a fraternity party.  “Everything with alcohol including shoe polish may be in there.  Also, never drink from a bottle if you didn’t hear the pop when it was opened.”

Two pieces of advice taught me how to deal with difficult people.  The first one is brief:  “Put a poker down your spine, hold your chin up, go in and give the S.O.B.’s hell.”

The second one is longer.  “If you find yourself at the bottom of a big hole, there are three things you don’t do.  You don’t philosophize about how you got there. You don’t open the bottle of bourbon  And you don’t criticize the color of the rope thrown to you.  You grab hold, climb out, get a hundred yards away, and the open the bourbon while you figure out how not to get in that hole again.”

My father died on Bastille Day, July 14, 1963,  an appropriate date, as one of his ancestors had fought at the battle of Bastille for the losing side.  He had had a long bout with cancer, and his doctor gave him six weeks to live.  That week-end, my husband and I had come to offer love and moral support to both my parents, but when we heard what the doctor said, we planned to move to Lake Charles for the duration.  My husband could work out of his office there, and a friend offered us the use of  a model apartment in a complex he had built.

My father’s three sisters and one of their daughters were driving down from Shreveport, and knowing how stressful this time was for my mother, I said I would sit with Daddy while she had a nap.  He was asleep, as he was so much of the time, so I sat in the chair by the side of the bed and waited for him to wake up.  Then I heard the death rattle.  I took his pulse and found none.

I put my hand in front of his mouth and there was no breath.

Knowing the grief his death would cause, and sad because his sisters wouldn’t be able to tell him good-bye, I decided to take a little time to pull myself together.  Then I felt a presence come into the room.  I knew it was my grandmother Jessie Dubus, come to take her son home.  The presence vanished, and my father opened his eyes.  He looked puzzled.  “Where am I, Beth?”

“At home.”
“I thought–.”
“Not yet.”

My husband and I drove home to Baton Rouge and made preparations for the move to Lake Charles.  My brother called me early Sunday morning to say our father had died an hour before.

I hung up filled with grief for, not only my father’s death, but that I wasn’t there where he died.

Then a little voice inside said,  “But you were.”

A final gift, one I still treasure.

 


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PORCH TALK Revived

It has been a very long time since I last wrote a PORCH TALK, due to “a series of unfortunate events” that, once dealt with, need not be remembered. Though life still has its ups and downs, the beauty of my garden, the peace of this home on a dead-end road off a dead-end road, and the variety of inhabitants on my almost an acre of property provide a particular kind of joy always at hand.

During those unfortunate events, I thanked God for my parents. My mother taught me to live in this world, my father to survive in it. But besides them, there were many remarkable role models in my extended family, and today I will write about one of them, my great-aunt Pamela Burke Souberville, who was my grandfather Walter Burke’s sister.
Aunt Pamela was a highly intelligent woman, strong in her opinions, firm in the way she ruled her household, with a sense of humor that could rise to any contretemps and conquer it.

There are many stories I could tell, but there are two favorites that still make me laugh.
She lived in New Iberia, with a population that was almost entirely Catholic.

Still, there were churches for other faiths, but none of these affected Aunt Pamela’s life until Seventh Day Adventists arrived in town. Pairs of young men in suits and spotless white shirts knocked on doors, handed out pamphlets, and were sometimes invited in, not because the householder wished to be converted, but because the weather, too hot or too cold, motivated a charitable impulse to give the young men a reprieve from the weather.

When a pair appeared at Aunt Pamela’s door, she invited them in, not for a reprieve from the weather, but to engage in one of her favorite activities, a spirited debate. Her knowledge of Scriptures astonished her callers, as did the way she could quote from both the Old and the New Testaments when developing her arguments.

Many of the beliefs of the Seventh Day Adventists conform to standard Protestant Christian beliefs, but distinctive teachings include the unconscious state of the dead, and the doctrine of investigative judgment. Aunt Pamela was intrigued by these teachings, because they had no connection to other Protestants faiths.

Seventh Day Adventists believed that people did not die, but went into an unconscious state until the day of Resurrection. My aunt challenged this concept, saying that if a person was in an unconscious state, medical science said they were still alive.

Investigative judgment taught that Satan was present when people were judged, accusing them of transgressions and unbelief. However, since Jesus was both the Attorney and the Judge, there was nothing to fear. This was the doctrine Aunt Pamela most loved debating, digging for its beginning, relying on law learned from both brothers to point out its fallacies.

I was fortunate enough to hear one of those debates on a visit to our New Iberia grandparents. I think that watching and hearing Aunt Pamela’s techniques settled somewhere in my brain, resulting in my own love of debating in high school and college.
As the summer wore on, new pairs of young men continued to visit Aunt Pamela. The faces were different, but the debates were much the same, and Aunt Pamela grew wearied of them.

She told her callers they would never convince her to change her religion, and that they mustn’t come anymore, nor would she welcome anyone else.

The two young men were stunned. They looked at each other, then one of them spoke.

“But Mrs. Souberville, you’re our final exam. Our leader says if we can stand an afternoon with you, we can stand up to anyone.” A compliment, but not one that changed Aunt Pamela’s mind.

The other story is about when Aunt Pamela had pneumonia and wasn’t expected to live. Her family was devastated and made Novenas, said the Rosary, and went to Mass daily to pray for her health. I’m sure these prayers helped, but what really made Aunt Pamela recover was my father’s visit to her. They adored each other, and when Aunt Pamela heard his voice, she opened her eyes and said in a weak voice that she appreciated his coming to tell her good-bye.

“That’s not why I came. I came to tell you I always thought you were shanty Irish, and now I know you are, succumbing to pneumonia without the least fight.”

Since Aunt Pamela was proud of the distinguished family to which she belonged, this statement set the adrenaline flowing. She sat up, rang the bell on the bed-side table, and when a daughter came in, demanded a glass of sherry for her and a bourbon on the rocks for my father.

Needless to say, she recovered and lived for several more years.


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The Not So Great Divide

This country has not been so divided since the Civil War, and the seeds of that division still flourish.  There have been many calls for the nation to pull together, bury the hatchet, move forward.  None of these appeals have worked, in my view, because they ignore a basic fact of human behavior: change is real only when the individuals involved each decide to make it so.

Two quotations express my feelings about individual change.  The first is from Polonius’ advice to his son,  Laertes, in HAMLET;  the second is my father’s advice to me and my siblings.  “Be true to thy own self, and as night follows day, thou canst then not be false to any man,” Polonius said.  My father told us that we could hold and express any opinion that had a rational foundation, was based on evidence that was recent, accurate, and as complete as possible, andappealed to reason, not emotion.

When I look back over the campaigns in the 2016 elections, I conclude that very few candidates had read Polonius’ advice and taken it to heart, nor had fathers like mine. To be true to oneself begins with knowing who one is, something this culture of group think and group behavior and group influence doesn’t encourage.  No matter the size of a group, its purpose or the personalities of its members, group dynamics take over,  One or two people become the decision makers, another few win the leaders’ approval easily.  Some struggle to receive crumbs of approval, and some have no hope of even that.  Still, they stay in the group as best they can, adopting the behavior, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs of the chosen few, because it is much easier than becoming an individual who may get left out in the cold.

Madison Avenue has been using knowledge of group dynamics since it first began gaining power over consumers in the early 20th century through the new national force of radio.  Then came television, and social media, with the result that the opinions of non-professionals became as influential of those of professionals.  “The Dumbing Down of America” was hastened when newscasters became less journalists and interpreters and more entertainers.  In such an atmosphere, it was inevitable that personal bias, vulgarity, and hate became standard items on the daily news menu served to audiences who were mostly group thinkers with a small proportion who–what a concept–think for themselves.

These people, this “band of brothers, we happy few,”  act as individuals, even when being members of groups.  Their purchases are based, not on what’s “in”–and will quickly be “out”, so the sellers can use group think to convince consumers to replace perfectly good items with those that ubiquitous “everyone” is buying–but because the item fits their needs and possibly their wants and their budget allows it.

There are many dangerous results when group think is ranpant in a society, but one of the worst,  I think, is that group thinkers are more likely to submit to emotional appeals and not ask for rational statements supported by solid evidence.  When one of the emotions is hatred, the result is what we have been seeing throughout the campaigns.  I grew up in Lafayette.  In the fall of 1954, over one hundred black students enrolled at what was then SLI, and is now U of L at Lafayette.  Not only was there not one incident, but the entering black women had white Big Sisters–mentors guiding new female students through the shoals of campus life–who were members of the Homecoming Court, cheerleaders, officers of every sorority–in a word, girls who believed acceptance and goodwill are better than predjudice and hate.  To look down on anyone because of a physical characteristic over which they have no control, or belong to a religion one knows little about, but judges just the same, was a mortal sin in our family, and I feel that way to this day.

It will take millions of people who have the courage to determine if their thoughts, attitudes, and behavior are consistent with the values in which they believe, or are those they adopted because to be a group member, one had to pay that price.  As to whether millions of people will find that courage depends on me, and you, and you.

 

 

 

‘out


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Porch Talk – On Hold

My daughter and I are dealing long distance with the details of getting my house back in order.  Fortunately, an amazing friend is handling what needs to be done there.  The work on the house should begin in the next week or so and I hope to be able to get back to my normal routine.  I also hope that others affected by these floods are moving on, too.

 


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WILL POWER

Many of the people who know my home flooded and the subsequent disruption in my life praise my strength.  Actually, I owe any strength I have to several factors: first, when I bought my home. the flood plain map showed the property in the last area that could flood.  This meant I had to buy flood insurance.  Neighbors who had built their homes in the late ’80’s told me the neighborhood had never flooded, so the fact that it did came as a surprise.   Knowing that I had insurance that would pay for the restoration of my home reduced the stress of restoring it, a luxury thousands of people don’t have.

Another factor in my “strength” is that I grew up in, first the Great Depression, and then WWII.  Millions of people were out of jobs; homeless roamed the country, finding food and shelter where they could; and those families fortunate enough to have an employed member, as ours did,  counted their blessings, and shared what they could.  WWII brought rationing at home and anxiety about fathers, husbands, sons and brothers fighting in places formerly unheard of, but now the center of the universe for worried families.

Thus, for the first thirteen years of my life, I had the examples of the adults in my life to follow.   I saw them bear up when a loved one was killed, or wounded, or captured.  I saw that their faith kept them going, and also learned that these remarkable people felt it a solemn duty to show the young in their lives how to develop moral fortitude.

The nuns at Mt. Carmel convent taught us how to develop will power,  day by day.  “Will power is like a muscle,” we were told.  “If you don’t exercise it every day, it won’t be there when you need it.”   We started with small goals, like doing our homework without our parents telling us to.   We were encouraged to visit old relatives, bringing a breath of youth into their confined lives.   We  learned to use will power to keep from saying or doing something that would hurt a classmate.   And we found that the will power we developed was a huge asset when we got to college.  Tempted by the new diversions, we might have left papers to the last minute, gone to class without being prepared, or, worse still, not gone at all.

One example of how will power can achieve seemingly impossible goals is the experience two of my close friends and I had with our biology professor our first semester in college.  Dr.Clayton was something of a martinet, and his tests were considered some of the most challenging on campus.  This is because he gave five tests with ten  questions that required a one word answer,  and one fifty question final, again with one word answers. After each ten question test, Dr. Clayton would call out the names of those students who had answered all of them correctly; the students would then stand up and give the name of the high school from which they had graduated.

I’ve no idea if my friends and I would have turned in perfect papers for every test if we hadn’t learned that Dr. Clayton strongly disliked the Catholic church, and in particular, Catholic nuns.  Proud of our school, the three of us resolved to study as hard as we could so as to earn the right to give the name of our high school.  I can remember how we felt when each stood up and said “Mt. Carmel High, Lafayette.”

The first two times, Dr. Clayton said nothing.  But when we stood up the third time, and spoke the name of our high school, he relented.  “Well,” he said, “it seems those nuns do know how to teach.”   That was part of the reward will power earned.  The best part came when we went to Mt. Carmel and told our principal, Mother Dolores–still one of the most brilliant educators I have had the privilege to know–what we’d done.  “Girls, I’m proud of you,” she said.  “See what having will power can do?”

I feel sorry for anyone who grew up without having adults who were models of will power, nor training that helped develop the will power that gets us through life’s trials and tribulations.    Indulging children’s every wish and whim is the very worst thing parents can do, because there will come a time when these children will be in situations other people control, and where carrying out one’s responsibilities is expected.

Will power is not something one can create overnight.  And the longer it takes to begin building it, the harder the task will be.

Were it not for the many people who have shown their concern, my will power would not be enough to get me through this unexpected event.  But every time someone expresses concern, it is though that person has sent me some of his or her own strength, and that is making all the difference..