Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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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 eldest 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, Louisisana, 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 weekend, 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.