Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


Gracie Mae Kinchin

The approach of Mother’s Day made me think of the many mothers and grandmothers I have known over the years, including Gracie Mae Kinchen, who came into my family’s life  in the early 1960’s. She was recommended to me by a friend who had grown up on a plantation near Plaquemine,  where Gracie Mae was born.

At that time, she was a slender young woman of boundless energy and a will to work.  She had six children of her own, and added my five daughters to those she loved.  My youngest daughter was four.  All her sisters were in school at St. Joseph’s Academy, and since she was too young for kindergarten, she and Gracie spent a lot of time together.

One of my favorite memories is of Gracie and DeLaune walking from our home on Mouton Street to Webb Park on the other side of Claycut Road.  Gracie held DeLaune’s hand with one hand, and carried a picnic basket in the other.

My daughters were brought up on the principle that privilege is balanced by responsibility, and so they had a chore chart, which was posted on the kitchen wall. Every Sunday they gathered and decided who would do which chores in the coming week, writing their names next to the appropriate chore on the chart.  This freed me from having to nag, because if some chore that needed to be done hadn’t been, all I had to do was look at the chart and remind the daughter responsible for the chore to do it.

I told them that Gracie Mae worked for me, not them.  If she could vacuum their rooms and mop the bathrooms they used without having to pick up even one thing on the floor, she would do that.  If she had to pick anything up, she left it to them.  Further, since they used the bathrooms, they had to keep the tubs, the sinks, and the commodes clean.  They also made their beds every day except Friday, when Gracie Mae changed the bed linens.

The result of all this was that they not only loved Gracie Mae, but respected her as well.  Gracie Mae had great faith in God.  She was a strong woman, both physically and spiritually, and she lived her beliefs.

My first marriage ended, and I was the one who had to move out.  When I married my second husband, Dick, some years later, Gracie Mae came to work with us, bringing with her her cooking skills–I have never forgotten her chicken fricassee, which is still the best I’ve ever tasted–and her housekeeping skills, but the peace and calm she brought with her was the greatest gift of all.

When Dick’s health began to fail, and we needed 24 hour help, Gracie Mae’s sisters took over, so I didn’t have to spend hours interviewing people, because I knew that, like Gracie Mae, they were competent, compassionate women.

Gracie Mae was with us when Dick died.  He’d been in ICU in a coma for some time, and the prognosis wasn’t good.  My daughter Aimee was teaching at Tulane, so she drove up to be with me.  My second daughter, Pamela, and her husband Vic, had also come.  Though family members are not usually able to be in ICU, the hospital made an exception, so we took turns so Dick would always have a family member with him.

The night he died, Aimee and I had been sitting with Dick for hours when Pamela and Vic arrived.  Gracie Mae was also there.  Aimee and I went home to rest.  We’d barely got there when Vic called to say Dick had died, and that Gracie Mae had been holding his hand at the time.

I can think of no better guide into the next world than Gracie Mae, whose goodness manifested itself in every breath she drew, every thing she did.  When she died, I remembered that I used to tell her that if I got to heaven, and she was there first, she would be so high above me I wouldn’t be able to see her toes.

I consider Gracie Mae, like my mother and grandmothers, to be one of the people who has taught me that talking the talk is easy, but that walking the walk isn’t.  Thank God for these women, who taught me walk the walk.

I often told Gracie Mae that if I got to heaven, she would be so far above me I would hardly be able to see her toes.

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Books Do Furnish a Room

The above is the title of one of the twelve volumes in a series by English author Anthony Powell, published between 1951 and 1975.  The stories offer a comical examination of movements and manners, ideas and behavior, of people among the upper crust in England. I read each it them when they came out, and since AbeBooks has some very inexpensive ones, I think I’ll order them.  Perfect reading project for this isolation!

All members of my own family and also the extended family believed that books do indeed furnish a room.  Every home had book shelves filled with books, from picture books for children to fiction for adults.

I had always thought shelves of books revealed interesting information about the owners, as well as being the foundation for discussions about them.  I belong to a book club that meets nine times a year, and hearing the opinions of the various books has always given me new insights and food for thought.  It is on hold, of course, and I look forward to the day when it’s safe to meet again.

When my first husband and I moved to Baton Rouge, we rented a house on LSU Avenue, a wonderful two story house with French doors in the living room that opened to a screened porch.  It had a bedroom and bath downstairs, and two large bedrooms and a bath upstairs.  It also had built in book shelves on either side of the French doors, which were a gift to a book lover like me.

One afternoon, when my fifteen month old daughter was napping, I began putting books on the shelves, sorting them first by genres and then alphabetically by author. I heard the doorbell ring, and when I answered it, found a woman from the house across the street on the steps, a cookie tin in her hands.  “A welcome to the neighborhood,” she said, and I asked her in.

I saw her taking in the furnishings in the living room and adjoining dining room, the rugs, the curtains.  Then she saw the book shelves.  “What in the world are you thinking, putting books on those shelves?  You should have something pretty there.”

“Where else would I put them?

“Out of sight.”  She headed to the door, shaking her head.  I stood there, thinking about the Great Books Club I’d belonged to in Lake Charles.  Edith Gibson, a former librarian, had married Joe Gibson when he was a policeman.  They lived in Jennings, but then oil was struck on property he owned, and they moved to Lake Charles.

Edith settled in and then began forming book clubs whose members would read classic books and plays, beginning with Aristotle and  Socolese. Each club had twenty members, and the same rules, which included the one that said if a member arrived at a meeting in time to get coffee or a Coke from the hostess’ kitchen, well and good.  Otherwise, no.

If a member missed three consecutive meetings without cause, she would be asked to resign. All the members in our club were mothers, so if a child were ill, that was considered a cause for staying home.

Another rule was that members had to read the entire book, not just skim over it.   Even if they didn’t enjoy it, their negative comments would enhance discussion.

Edith Gibson had established forty of these clubs before I moved to Baton Rouge.  Hoping to find the same sort of club there, I checked with every library and asked people I knew if there were, but the answer was no.  The Main Library used to have a book discussion club, but there weren’t enough members to keep it going.

I truly felt like a sailor on a desert island, and began dropping Thomas Hardy’s name into conversations at parties.  Why I chose Thomas Hardy I’ve no idea, and I was about to change to someone else when a woman, hearing his name, said,  “Do you mean the writer?”  I said yes.  “I guess you read him in college.”  “I still read him.”  We stared at each other and she said, “What are you doing for lunch tomorrow?”  “Nothing I can’t change.”  That began a lifelong friendship.

I don’t expect everyone I meet to have the same passion for reading that I do.  But what a gift it is to find another person who does.

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The Doldrums

The definition of doldrums is this: a period of inactivity, stagnation,  and depression.  I think a great majority of people in this country are in the doldrums, and with good reason.  The coronavirus has changed our lives, and though there are optimistic projections of when the country can open up again, there are others which say the virus will return in the fall stronger then what we are experiencing now.

As long as the stay at home order is in force, we all will need to find ways to fight off the doldrums, I’m suggesting a few.

Reading is a great way to take us out of ourselves, and though libraries are closed, online sites like Powell’s and Abebooks have a huge variety of books, most of them at very low prices, and with free shipping.  Our own bookshelves probably have books we haven’t read in a long time, and are worth rereading.

I belong to a book club titled READING THE CLASSICS.  It’s on hold now, like everything else, and I miss the opportunity to discuss the current book with people who love reading as much as I do.

Amazon has a many books that can be accessed with Kindle, so I am going to list some fiction writers whose books I think would help the reader get out of the doldrums.

I love mysteries, so will begin with them.

Agatha Christie heads the list.  She has two major protagonists, Miss Marple and Hector Poirot, and each of these characters are described so vividly that we soon begin to think of them as real people.

Ngiao Marsh is an Australian writer whose novels have compelling plots and interesting people.  She was active in theatre, and so a number of books are connected to theatre and the actors in various plays.

Ruth Rendell has a unique style.  Her novels border on the grotesque, which sets them apart from other mysteries.

Marjorie Allingham’s Albert Campion is a perfect rendering of a certain class of English gentleman.  He is different from other protagonists because he is humble and does not put himself forward.  Delightful books with well executed plots.

Major Fiction Writers

Kurt Vonnegot’s books range from the tender THANK YOU, MR. ROSEWATER to the violent SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.  Vonnegot’s novels often seem to have written by a mad man, but the distinct style, the intriguing characters, and a sense of humor that has us laughing at some of the preposterous plot lines, make his works a treat from beginning to end.

Edith Wharton’s novels are set in the late 19th century in New York and New England.  She belonged to the upper class, as do her characters, and is the kind of observant writer who makes that stratified world, with all its flaws and foibles, compelling.

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