Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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Summer at the Beach

My family and I spent many summers at the beach, first at Pensacola Beach, and then, when my daughter Aimee and two friends discovered Navarre Beach, we went there. At the time Navarre Beach wasn’t well known; it is now. Thanks to a law that prohibits high rises, there are only a few at the end of the beach near the bridge that crosses the Santa Rosa Sound.

In late February of 1983, a party of ten pooled money and rented a house that would accommodate all. My good friend Henry Avery and one of the Baton Rouge Little Theatre’s best actors, whose name I don’t remember, were part of the group, as were Aimee, her friend Chris Waters, my daughter DeLaune, a good friend, and her twin first cousins.

Despite a stiff breeze blowing in from the Gulf, Henry would marshal a group to sunbathe, making it more tolerable by finding a depression in the sand where they could get sun, but also some protection from the wind.

Each of us were responsible for cooking the main meal one night. I remember all the meals as being good, but the most interesting one was the blackened redfish Chris Waters cooked. Paul Prudhomme had just introduced blackened seafood and Chris decided to try one of his recipes. We were all gathered at the counter that separated the living/dining area from the kitchen, watching Chris. All of a sudden, heavy smoke blew towards us, so heavy some of us began to cough. Henry tied a napkin over his face, got down on the floor and started crawling to the door, followed by the rest of us. The smoke cleared and lo and behold, the redfish was edible, though we all agreed there must be some way to cook it without driving people outdoors.

Chris, Aimee and I were the last to leave. For some reason, instead of taking the main road to the bridge, we traveled on a parallel road, and toward the end of it, we saw a house with a for rent sign, one so perfect that we parked in the drive, climbed the steps to the deck around three sides of the house and peered in windows to check the place out.

The furnishings were lovely, there was a wet bar in the living/dining area, and two bedrooms downstairs. We could see stairs leading up to what must be the master bedroom. I took down the number of the rental agent, sure I couldn’t afford such a wonderful place, but curious about the price. To my amazement, the owner wanted only $400 a month, and this included all utilities. I asked the rental agent why the rent was so low, and she replied that the owner sent employees to the house in mild months deducting expenses as being business related.

I rented it for two months that summer. A son of the rental agent carried my luggage and heavy typewriter upstairs, placing the typewriter on a table in front of a window that looked out on the Gulf. I was doing a lot of technical writing and editing at the time, and assured my clients that they would get their work on time. A few sounded grumpy, admitting they were envious that I could do my work at the beach while they were stuck in hot humid Baton Rouge.

I did have visitors. Three of my daughters came for a week, other friends for long weekends. My life had been difficult in recent years, to be able to take long walks on the beach at sunrise and watch stars at night helped me find peace that I hadn’t had in a long time.

Later my second husband, Dick Baldridge, and I bought a condo on the beach at Navarre, and when the one next door was for sale, we bought that one, too, planning to knock through walls and make it one large place. Then Opal came, and destroyed them both. Anything built to replace destroyed homes had to be on the original footprint, but since we had the double space, we were able to rebuild one house instead of the two.

The contractor, Joe Faulk, only built houses for people he liked. Fortunately, he liked us. I think the turning point came when he learned that all the rooms would be painted the same light blue, and all the Formica countertops would be the same light blue. He told me that usually he had to work with decorators from Atlanta, whose ideas of what wallpaper and countertops were suitable for a beach house drove him crazy.

I have many happy memories of that house which I had for nine years. However my daughters’ lives made it impossible for them to visit me except occasionally and so I put it on the market just before Ivan struck.

All the houses Joe built survived the hurricane with little to no damage because unlike others which had peaked roofs, Joe used hip roofs so that the wind couldn’t blow them off.

The days I packed up that house were some of the saddest in my life, but I knew that was a chapter I had to close, so I did.

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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.