Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks

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Happy Memories

Before the recent flooding, my husband and I lost two town homes on Navarre Beach to Hurricane Opal.  One was totally destroyed, the second partially, but it still had to be demolished.   We saved nothing from either one, because climbing through rubble to salvage anything was too risky.   Looters had taken that risk in the second town home, and a daughter and the two men who had come to help us wondered why anyone would risk their life for a microwave and other kitchen items.  Though I still remember how the destroyed town homes looked, what I remember most is the happy times we had there.

My husband had his boat taken down there, and he and a friend took her out frequently.   He had friends from the Power Squadron who lived nearby, so we met them for meals and visits, always enjoyable.  We’d also made new friends, and blended social occasions with time on the beach.  One evening toward sunset we set up chairs on the beach, watching the sky turn purple and pink and gold and orange–and then, to our amazement and delight, we saw the green flash sometimes seen when the sun drops past the horizon.

I remember, too, the response of our eight month old Lab, Morgana, to her first introduction to the beach.   I took her to the National Seashore right up the road, parking near the Sound side where the water was calmer.   Sandpipers were thick on the sand, and Morgana, who had never seen so many birds walking, hurtled herself toward them.  Of course they all flew away, the beating of dozens of wings sounding in our ears. Further up the beach, a Great Blue Heron stood near the water, watching for fish to come.  Morgana saw it, rushed up to it, and then stared in astonishment as what she thought was a tree flew away.  The heron did indeed look like a tree–perfectly still, its legs looking like a trunk, it body the top of the tree.  Determined to get near this object, Morgana stretched out on her belly, her four legs on the sand.  Inch by inch she sneaked forward, only to see the heron take off again.  Undaunted, she then went into the water, sank into it until only her nose showed, and again, sneaked forward.  At the very last minute, the heron flew away.  She came to me, her eyes asking what had just happened.   I dried her with a towel, and let her run along the beach until even this active, enthusiastic puppy was ready to go home for lunch and a nap.

The EPA allowed us to build one single family home in place of the two town homes so long as we stayed within the footprint of the original buildings.   We lucked upon a contractor who had been recommended as the best on the beach, and he proved to be just that.   The pilings were driven in June.  By mid-July, the framework had been completed and the Tyvex put in place.   We moved in in early August, still astonished that our neighbors, who had begun building new town homes in February, still hadn’t completed construction.

Thus began nine of the happiest years of my life.  I had renovated many homes, but this was the first house I had a part in designing.  When I think of it, I remember good times birding with a new friend, house parties when Baton Rouge friends filled the guest rooms, times when various daughters and their friends visited–and also times when I had the house to myself, and could watch the ever-changing views out of my bedroom window as I worked.

That house escaped the havoc of Hurricane Ivan with minimum damage, despite being in the northwest quarter where the Hurricane’s force was the worst.   All nine of the houses my contractor built on that beach survived, though many others were destroyed.  The house sold the next March, and I went down to pack it up.   Those few days were hard.  That house had nothing but good memories, and it took me a while to conquer sadness with the gratitude that we had had such a haven for so long.  Much of the furniture and other items ended up in various daughters’ homes, because I had no room for them.   The daughter I’m staying with has some of them, and seeing them triggers so many memories, including my first grandson’s first visit to the beach house.

These experiences reinforced something I had realized many years before.: when we weigh the grief the death of a loved one brings against the joy we had because the person was in our lives, I think most people would say the grief is worth the price.   I feel the same way about those beach homes.   Their loss is more than balanced by the peace, content and joy they provided, and that is what counts.





One of the Lucky Ones

I am writing this in the dining room of the Albuquerque home of my second daughter and her husband.  From where I sit, I can see the majestic Sandia Mountains, and on the patio, hummingbirds hover at feeders.   I arrived here on Saturday, having stayed with friends from Monday until I flew from the Great Flood of 2016 to this peaceful haven.

The road I live on in Prairieville has never flooded, even during Hurricane Allison, which occurred before I moved there in 2004. So when daughters called telling me there was voluntary evacuation on my street, I had a hard time taking the news in.   However, between persistent daughters and good neighbors, I gave in, called friends who lived not far way, packed a few things, and left.  My friends live 20 feet above sea level, but some of their road was part of the flooding caused by backwater,  so they were able to walk down to the flooded area and monitor water levels.

On Wednesday, my friend, who is also my lawyer, drove us to my street to see what we could learn about my house.  (My lawyer is the kind my grandfather, who is still considered one of Tulane Law School finest  graduates, would have taken into his firm immediately.)  He had duckwaders, which was fortunate, as he had to wade the last block to my house.  He returned with the good news that the water had not risen enough to get into my house.  On Friday, my neighbors took me in on  a flatboat, and by then, several inches of water had gotten in.

Since these good neighbors had 18″ of water in their house, and another lost almost everything, I consider these inches to be minor.  The man who has substituted for the gentleman who has been a best friend, gardener, man of many talents and source of both laughter and solace since 1988, was able to get into my house yesterday, thanks to the good neighbors who had done the same for me. He did a few necessary and helpful things, and reported that the water was about the same level I had seen, and almost no mold–though I’m sure more will come.

There is no question that there will be damage.  But in June, 1983, I went through two days that taught me the folly of getting attached to material things, even if they are family antiques and long-cherished books, photographs, furnishings and memorabilia.  My marriage ended in September, 1980.  I moved out,  because I had to.   My soon to be ex-husband had court orders forbidding me entry to my home, so when the community was finally settled, I would be entering a house I had been in maybe six times in almost three years.  A date for dividing the contents of the home in which our children grew up was agreed on.

My lawyer came; his didn’t.  But his second wife did.  She had a list of what she wanted.  Fortunately, I still had the wedding gift book, so could find whose family and friends had sent which items.  By noon, I thought if I heard her say, “I want that, and I want that,” one more time, I would scream.  But somehow, I didn’t, nor did I give any sign how I felt.

At the end of the day, when they left, my lawyer said he couldn’t understand how I’d held up.  “Every time I’ve gotten you in here before, you cried most of the time.”  “I don’t mind crying in front of people I trust and respect,” I said.  “But I don’t cry in front of barbarians, and we are in the hands of the Visigoths.  I wrote myself a script–Mary Queen of Scots by Noel Coward.”  Majoring in theatre does have its uses.

When it was over, I wrote to my girls, listing  what was salvaged.  At the end I wrote, “The rest went down with the Titanic.  But Mother was saved.”  Not once has any of them mentioned lost items to me, though knowing the home in which they grew up was no longer there had to have been some of the worst pain they suffered during those long, hard years.

Since that day, while I have enjoyed my home and hope to enjoy it again, I have dropped the burden of thinking material goods define us, and picked up another one: the horrific conditions of millions of people on this planet.  These conditions are created by people to whom power, wealth, and winning are more important than the lives of the people their choices affect.  Every morning when I wake up I pray for these people, and because there is little I can do for them except support organizations that help them, I try to help people here.

This flood has brought out the best in so many people, and it is heartening to see how generous and selfless they are.  (My lawyer, like hundreds of others, is helping clean out damaged homes.)  It is difficult to find a lesson in a disaster like this one   But I think there are at least two.  First, the flood did not spare expensive houses nor luxurious cars.  It ignored ethnicity, religion, education, and socio-economic standing.  Second, human beings prove over and over again that we can rise to such disasters for the short term, so why can’t we try to be our best selves all the time?






Montage of Memories

I have just returned from visiting family in the northeast: I spent ten days in Irvington, NY, where two daughters, one son-in-law and two grandsons live, and another ten days in Sheffield, MA, where another daughter and grandson welcomed me.   My daughter’s husband was in my house during that time, working on commissions from New Orleans’ clients.

My five daughters are scattered across the country–the oldest and youngest in Irvington, the middle on in Santa Monica, the second one in Albuquerque, and the fourth one in Sheffield.   Lovely places to visit, as my recent trip proved.

On top of the joy of being with family, I have memories of a wide variety of activities.  I watched a twelve year old grandson and his partner take on a much more experienced tennis team, and give them a fight that ended with the other team winning by one game. Later that week, I watched his father and his partner defeat the top-seeded team in another tournament, and beat them.   Good sportsmanship from all players, which is, for me, the most important element of any sports competition.

My fourth daughter and her two sons and I took the Staten Island ferry one day, a trip I’d never experienced despite many stays in the city.   A gorgeous day, sailboats and other vessels providing a lot to watch, and the second best sighting of the day, Governor’s Island, which has recently been turned into a fabulous park with all sorts of interesting trails and unexpected views.   I had read THE NEW YORKER’s article about the renovation, designed and executed by a Dutch landscape architecture firm, and so was even more interested in seeing the “real thing” as we went by.

The best sighting was the Statue of Liberty, with Ellis Island just beyond it.   I thought of the famous words, “Give me your tired and your poor,” and of the millions of migrants who left Europe behind to find better lives in the U.S.  I am a history buff, and the history of the settlement of this country has intrigued me since I knew what history is.  Novels like Ole Rovaggd’s GIANTS IN THE EARTH, or the Conrad Richter trilogy depicting the progress of one migrant family, or my own trilogy following two French families’ lives in Acadiana for 150 years, help us understand the trials and tribulations our ancestors encountered, and we come away from these books feeling connected to them.

The Sheffield visit combined relaxed fun with family and friends, and cultural events.   My fourth daughter and her fourteen year old son and I saw a magnificent exhibit at the Clark Museum in Williamstown.  It displayed 28 nudes from the Prada, which have never left Spain, and which only the Clark will exhibit.  The artists were from the High Renaissance–Titian, Tinterreto, Rubens, Zubarin and some lesser known but still highly talented others.  Phillip II and his grandson Phillip IV collected these paintings, though because of the nudity, they were kept in rooms that only those with the king’s permission could enter.

On another day we saw a delightful and very well done performance of PIRATES OF PENZANCE, and on my last day there, my daughter and I went to a lecture held at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home, given by Charlotte Gordon, the author of a dual biography of Mary Wollenscraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley.   Gordon is an erudite academic, and also a warm and open human being who clearly is more interested in engaging her audience than proving how great she is.

A memorable evening was spent at a local restaurant which has “family night” on Thursdays: for twenty-five dollars, families purchase a meal for four, but there is so much food that it would easily feed six.   Friends of my daughter and grandson joined us; we sat on a deck surrounded by flowers and talked long after everyone else had left.

On Sunday, my youngest daughter, her husband and two sons came to spend the day.  An old friend of both me and my fourth daughter came for the day, bringing her eight and a half year old son, who began his visit by being very shy, and ended it saying he didn’t want to leave, and when he could come back.

It’s such a pleasure to watch children of various ages getting along amicably, and I had that pleasure on Sunday afternoon.  Another pleasure was the family dog, Sunshine, who my son-in-law rescued from an animal shelter in New Orleans after Katrina, and brought her home to Sheffield, letting her stay in his lap so she wouldn’t be afraid.

Sunshine is a New Orleans’ blend dog, but she has enough Lab in her to have all that breed’s best traits.  For one thing, Labs think they are people.  For another, they want to please their owners and are thus very easy to train.   They are also quite smart, and know well how to beguile a house guest into sharing bits of toasted baquette she is eating with her morning coffee.

Thanks to Skype, I can have talk and see visits frequently.  But there is nothing like being there with my family, and I rejoice that I was able to do that, and add yet another set of memories to the place where my most cherished ones are stored.



Self-Perpetuating Vices

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I believe the same primal impulses that our first human ancestors had are still in full force, beginning with the most important one: self-preservation.  Decisions about which cave was the safest, which club the most effective, which tribe members would be loyal to you as you were loyal to them, all rested on the need to stay alive.

That need was the origin of an ethical system in which the question–does the end justify the means?–is primary to decisions.  In an ideal world, such an analysis would be fair, honestly addressing the probable losses compared to the probable gain.  But there is no such thing as an ideal world, as the origin stories of many ethnic groups occupying spaces far from others, prove.  Man wakes up in paradise, and then the need to survive at any cost overules everything else.

All  too soon, one group’s need to survive becomes the impetus for aggressive behavior meant to take land, resources, captives, from another one.  A close to home example is the migration of Europeans who, not being aristocrats, could not own land in their native countries.   Tempted by the vast undeveloped and allegedly unowned lands in American, they came in droves, heading west and fighting Native Americans with weapons more powerful than those of their opponents, speading disease and disaster wherever they went.  I am convinced that the treatment of Native Americans since the last tribe was vanquished stems from a lingering guilt that their land was stolen, and since it is an unfortunate human trait to resist taking responsibility for our actions, far better to continue to view those we have injured as not deserving an apology, and, what a concept, restitution.

The seven capital sins pretty much cover the flaws that keep human beings from creating a gentler, kinder, fairer world.   But while some of them–lust, pride, anger, gluttony and sloth-can be mastered, envy and greed cannot.   There is always something else to envy, there is always something else to want.

The instant envy or greed, or both, enter the equation that determines whether the end justifies the means, any hope of a decision that causes the least harm with the most benefits is over.   GENERALS is a book that makes this point over and over again.   The book looks at the accountability for troop losses demanded of commanding officers from World War II until the present.   The author provides example after example that in WWII, generals whose troop losses exceeded the amount predicted were removed from the battlefield and given administrative positions   Now, this doesn’t happen.  The statistics were both astonishing and extremely depressing–how could someone who clearly ignored information that should have resulted in another decision keep his command?

But in a culture where envy and greed no longer have to conceal themselves, where a few powerful people can authorize sub-prime mortgages even though they were warned that our economy would suffer a major blow, no holds are barred.  I want, not only what you have, but what your neighbors have, too.   You think you’re better than I am because your net worth is more than mine.  But just wait, I’m going to leave you in the dust.

Someone is building what purports to be a precise copy of a French chateau a few miles from where I live.   It is a hideous structure, growing worse every day.   It may have the bones of a French chateau, but it doesn’t have the heart or soul. The one good thing about this monstrousity, in my view, is that it has provided work for many craftspeople for a very long time.

I have often credited my father’s wisdom and honor as being important survival tools that have served me well.  He gave me a whole tool kit when I was in fifth grade and disturbed by the amount of envy that had reared its despicable head in our class.   My father listened, and then set me straight.  “Beth, there will always be girls smarter than you, more talented, prettier, with more money.  There will always be girls not as smart, not as talented, not as pretty, with less money.  Now–do we ever have to have this conversation again?”

We didn’t, because I had learned a lesson that I try to abide by to this day.   Depending on who you compare yourself to, you’ll feel like the Queen of May or the Ditchdigger’s Daughter.   But no matter which, you will still be you.