Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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R.I.P.

Mother died on Sunday August 30, 2020 at 5:05 pm CDT.

A Memorial Mass was held on Tuesday, September 8th and streamed via Zoom.  To read the tributes and homily given at the service, click on Memorial Service along the top of the website.

Those who knew and loved Beth will recognize her in her own words. 
 EJ Michel

I grew up in a family whose ancestors were as much a part of daily life as morning coffee, where stories were told to instruct, inspire, educate and entertain, in the kind of small town that needs no police force–though it had one–because of the cadre of little old ladies whose sharp ears and eyes and sharper tongues made them as formidable as the F.B.I.

That small town was a microcosm of civilization, an extension of French New Orleans, with ballroom dancing classes, afternoon teas where young girls learned manners, and debuts at a ball on Mardi Gras night, a rite of passage that signaled that a girl was ready to be a well-mannered, civilized adult guest at any event.

My family were all great readers–my father, sent to Vanderbilt at age 14, had Ransom Crowe and Allen Tate as English teachers. My maternal grandfather’s private library served the town until the founding of New Iberia Library in 1947.

Taught by Catholic nuns whose independent minds encouraged us to become individuals, not just members of a group, and blessed with a father who loved intelligent women, I grew up without knowing that women weren’t equal to men. (The fact that, in a French culture, women have a great deal of power didn’t hurt, either.) The three Dubus aunts were women of energy, great courage, and the ability to laugh in all but the most tragic circumstances. My Aunt Roberta, a true grande dame, wrote for local newspapers and was furious that her byline read “Robert” because no respectable woman’s name appeared in the newspaper except at her birth, marriage, and death.

Looking back, I see that in many ways I grew up in a sort of Camelot, an especially kind Camelot where generosity of spirit and a belief in the dignity of every human being prevailed. Racism had no place in my family, and anyone guilty of a racist remark learned very quickly just how wrong that was.

The one bad thing about growing up like this was learning, when I left Lafayette, how rare a place it truly is. While in many ways, Thomas Wolfe’s book title–YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN–is true; for me, it is only by going home, at least in my mind and heart, that I see the world in a way that helps me write about it.

 

Momma dancing with Lucien and Sebastian at Walter’s Bar Mitzvah Party the last time all the family was together


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Autumn Leaves

This is one of my favorite songs, especially when Nat King Cole sang it.

To me, it holds the nuances of autumn, a transition from summer’s heat and greenery to displays of colored leaves. St. Francisville, being north of us, seems to have more colorful leaves, but there are enough in Baton Rouge and surrounding areas to provide a show. I read once that the most colorful leaves occur when there is a long spell of cooling weather, because instead of leaving the leaves all at once, the chlorophyll leaves slowly.

I like to change my interior décor according to the seasons, and the living/dining area in my home is now filled with decorations from leaves and fall vegetables on the mantel to autumn arrangements on the dining table and a serving table behind it. A runner I purchased many years ago has pumpkins and other symbols of autumn. I use brass candlesticks and a candelabra with candles in a rust shade. There’s a bowl shaped like a leaf on the coffee table with fake acorns, a candy holder shaped like a turkey with candy corn in it, a bunch of colorful leaves in a large pottery basket, and a wreath on the front door.

Since I don’t expect company until Thanksgiving Day, people may wonder why I go to all this trouble – it’s because I was brought up to live in as gracious and pleasing way as possible, despite the amount of money available.

I once lived in what the girls and I still call the “rotten apartment.” It was in a quite nice complex, which still exists, in a very nice neighborhood. The apartment across the hall, rented by two decorators, was a picture of creative taste.

Mine, however, had an avocado sculptured rug that looked as though it had never met a vacuum cleaner. Three walls were a shocking pink and the fourth bright orange. Still, since I might end up living there forever, I determined to “rise above it,” as my Aunt Roberta would advise, and to behave as though I lived in a tasteful place.

Three of my daughters still lived in Baton Rouge and I wanted them to know that true friends don’t stop seeing you when you have fallen on hard times. I began a series of small gatherings on fall Sunday afternoons. I would call people and invite them to come at five.

“It’s not supper,” I would say. “Let’s just say you won’t be hungry when you go home.”

I would make a hearty soup, have slices of ham and roast for sandwiches, some favorite dips, and liquor with the appropriate mixers. Most of the women had been in the apartment but none of the men had. As each walked through the door, his face had the same expression as did all the others. I knew he was thinking about the parties at my former home with sometimes as many as 200 guests, two bartenders, waiters passing hors d’oeuvres—the whole works.

I could also see them resolving that if I could entertain them here, they would make this one of the best parties I’d ever had. They told wonderful stories. They waited on the ladies. They spent quality time with my daughters. They brightened our spirits and warmed our hearts.

Not long after one of these gatherings at Calandro’s, I ran into a woman who was one of those who gloated over my troubles. I am not exaggerating this. I got many calls that made this plain.

“We’ve heard you have Sunday afternoon parties,” she said.

“Just good friends for little gatherings.”

Oh, but the–.”

She recited the names of well-known people in Baton Rouge in a tone that was a cross between puzzlement and a desire to be included.

“As I said, just a gathering of friends.”

Instead of depressing me, I was sad for her. My friends were there, not because of their wealth, prominence, or the good they did, but because we had bonds made from similar interests, similar viewpoints, similar ideas about honor and humility.

I cannot see how one could form true friendships in any other way.

 

 


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Jed Harris, Broadway’s Golden Boy

I have met many interesting people in my life, including Jed Harris, Broadway’s Golden Boy.

He began his career in the mid 1920’s, directing stars like Charles Laughton, Ruth Gordon, and other Broadway stars. None of the people he worked with liked him. They found him self-centered and rude, but they also knew that when he directed a play, the result was first class.

I met him in 1978.  I was working on a Master’s in Psycholinguistics, Communication Theory and Theatre at LSU at the time, and had become friends with a young woman named Margret.  Her thesis was on Jed Harris.  She had done all the research, but she had never met him, and she thought it essential she did.  She wrote to Harris’ agent, but received a letter saying Mr. Harris didn’t want to see her.  She persisted, and one day the agent called and said Mr. Harris would give her a one hour interview, period.

Margret flew to New York in the dead of winter. By that time, Harris was an old man, and had long stopped directing plays. He liked Margret, and when she suggested he spend the winter in Baton Rouge, he agreed. He rented a town house in the same complex as Margret, and settled in.

One day Margret invited my husband and me to have dinner with her and Harris. Over dinner, I told a story about life in the French underground during World War II, describing the experiences of a good friend of my mother’s.

Harris said it would make a great play, and we should write it together. I agreed, not knowing that Harris would soon become a fixture in my life, as well as my daughters.

His town house wasn’t far from our home, and a pattern began. Several afternoons a week, I would pick Harris up and we would go to my house, where we had coffee. Mine had only sugar, Harris’ had Courvoisier.  Very little was done on the play, but I heard many stories of life on Broadway.

One afternoon we had talked longer than I thought. It was time to pick up the girls at St. Joseph’s Academy, and I told Harris he would have to come, because I didn’t have time to take him home. He sat up front with me, and the five girls sat in the back seats of the station wagon.

Harris began charming them immediately, and when I said I’d take him home first, one of them asked if he couldn’t come home with us and share an after school snack. He did, and from then on, on the afternoons he was at our house he went with me to pick up the girls and then stayed to have a snack and a visit.

When my youngest daughter was in an acting class in New York, every new student told why he/she wanted to act. She mentioned that Jed Harris had carpooled with her mother, not expecting the teacher’s reaction. “Jed Harris?  How did that happen?” Clearly, he couldn’t believe that a girl from Baton Rouge, LA had not only met Harris, but considered him one of the family.

Jed loved to cook, mostly Northern Italian dishes, but one day he insisted on making gumbo. He added an ingredient no self-respecting Louisiana  cook would:  rhubarb. We ate the gumbo, but we left the rhubarb in our bowls.

I had mentioned Jed Harris to a few friends, and my husband I decided to have three couples for dinner. A new audience spurred Jed to tell stories, dropping big names like powered sugar on a cake. No one got a word in, though the other guests were well-informed, cultured and civilized people. Several days after the dinner, I received a letter from Adelaide Brent, an artist of note and a sophisticated woman. She and her husband Allen were among the guests at the dinner. The message follows:  “Thank you for An Evening with Jed Harris, produced by Melvin and Beth Michel, starring Jed Harris. Supporting cast, and here she wrote a list of the other guests. Not only a fine artist, but a witty one.

Jed and I never finished the play, but after he returned to New York, my good friend Henry Avery, who was the Artistic Director of the Baton Rouge Little Theatre before he moved to Albuquerque, and I co-wrote it. We titled the play MIXED DOUBLES, and Henry directed it at the Baton Rouge Little Theatre. It was a huge success, and is still one of my favorites.

After Jed died, there was program on one of the major TV networks featuring his life. My husband and I and the girls watched it, and for the first time realized what a celebrity Jed was.  But to all of us, he was just a very nice man who had brightened and informed our lives, whom we had the good fortune to know.


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The Magic Gardener

Emile, one of my closest friends who had been in my life for thirty years, died last week. 

It was a blessing as his health had been declining for several years.  No one who loved him wanted him to suffer any more. He was loved by everyone he knew, because he was one of the most honorable, happy, skillful, generous-hearted, and helpful person I have ever known.

He came into my life on a hot July day in the late 1988s. I was living in a restored Acadian house off Rosedale Road. I wanted a garden.  George Richard, the owner, had a white picket fence built to protect the garden from his horses. All was well until the weather got hot. I called Gracie Mae Kinchen, our housekeeper for many years, to ask if she knew anyone who could help.

“I think Emile could,” she said.
“Is he a gardener?
“He’s a carpenter but he catches on quick.”
As he did.  

The first day I showed him the difference between a weed and a plant we wanted and he never looked back. 

When I tired of country living and moved to a townhouse in Le Havre, a place near one of the LSU lakes, Emile made a patio garden and started an Everlasting wisteria on the iron work on the second floor balcony.  I convinced the president of the association that if he allowed me to have six roses on the ground next to the wall that created my patio, Emile would see to it that they were well-cared for and would not allow weeds to take over. And so I had my roses essential to any garden.

Another move came when I became engaged to my second husband, Dick. We hunted for a house and found the perfect one on Sweetbriar. Lots of room for gardens there and Emile made the most of every bit of land. He designed an English cottage garden for the front yard bordering it with a wooden picket fence. He grew roses in an area that backed up to our bedroom with climbers on the fence that separated our property from next door. And because Dick loved tulips, Emile planted 600 bulbs every year.

At that time, the Ford property hadn’t been sold and was still a pasture with cows. What a gift to have that stretch of pasture giving us complete privacy. It also offered wild flowers that bees flock to and so I got a beehive. The bees were Italian Golden, very aggressive, but none of us ever got stung. A beekeeper who lived on the Gulf Coast robbed the hives and processed the honey. 

The first time Morgana, our mostly Black Lab with a chocolate tabard she could thank a Catahoula hound for, saw the beekeeper in his white one-in-all, thick gloves and a helmet with plastic goggles, she raced to the door and barked until he left.

My daughter Pamela, who lives in Albuquerque, has three hives. She’s learned to care for them herself, does the robbing  and processing, then seals the honey in jars to give to family and friends.

Emile worked for us two days a week, another two for good friends of ours and the fifth day for an elderly lady who lived next door to them. One day he came to work and said the lady had died and did we know anyone else who might need him.

Dick said he did.
“Who?” I asked.
“Me.”

By that time. we had a country place near New Roads and having a third day of Emile’s time was a huge help in keeping up. 

The two of them and Morgana would drive out there beaming at the joys that waited for them at AVALON. Dick was a huge fan of King Arthur so of course his dog was Morgana and his country home AVALON. I would wave good-bye, telling them to have fun knowing that a highlight of their day would be lunch at local seafood restaurant where they ate every fried thing in sight with no one to shake her head and suggest a salad.

I stayed in Baton Rouge some years after Dick’s death, but then my daughter Aimee and her husband John were going to give me my first grandchild. So I moved to New Orleans where Aimee was the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and also taught theatre. 

John had a studio separate from the house and there he first began his beaded pieces, incredibly complex and colorful works of art, all made of Mardi Gras beads. He beaded an upright piano that is in a jazz club in Los Angeles, and another that is currently at a restaurant in Baton Rouge. He also painted landscapes, and made montages into portraits. He and Emile were like brothers. Aimee and John lived only eight blocks from me and Emile was always available to help them, too.

Emil and Sebastian, my first grandchild, bonded right away, as did all the neighborhood children when we lived on Sweetbriar. My grandson Noah was here for lunch a few Sundays ago and he talked about the wonderful tree house Emile had built. He and his friends spent many pleasant hours up there, some of which were dedicated to water balloon fights whose limp remains stuck to the courtyard pavers.

The New Orleans home was a raised cottage on Jefferson Avenue. Emile drove down twice a week. First he put a knot garden in the space in front of the house. The backyard was small, but not so small that we couldn’t have a rose bed and a perennial bed. 

A few days after I moved in, I suggested to Emile that we get some hanging baskets to put around the porch and living room walls. 

“I’ve been driving around our new neighborhood to see what people do. They don’t use hanging baskets. They use window boxes.” 

Needless to say, we bought window boxes.

When I left New Orleans the year before Katrina hit and moved to my current house, Emile had more space – nine tenths of an acre – to garden in. He installed a vegetable garden on the side of the house: okra, tomatoes, summer squash, eggplant and string beans. He also planted two fig trees. He put in a rose garden outside my office window. There are irises and other perennials, and vines like Clematis, Morning Glories, Honeysuckle and Moon Flowers climbing on arches.

After the 2016 flood, Emile and his crew worked tirelessly to get me settled back into the house before Christmas. We picked out the tree together.  As I watched Emile string the lights and hang the highest ornaments, I knew that despite many more boxes to unpack, I was home. 

There is a quote I think of when I remember all those joyous years with Emile.

“One is closer to God in a garden than any other place on earth.”  

It’s a great comfort to know that for many hours in his life, Emile was just that.

I know Dick and Morgana were among the first to welcome Emile in Heaven. I can hear Dick saying, “What took you so long?  We have work to do!”  Two incredible men, joined once more.  

My eyes are full of tears, but they’re happy, not sad. 

Emile may be physically gone, but he will never die in my thoughts and heart, spirit is alive and well.


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Memories of School

At this time of year, when the school year is beginning, my thoughts turn to memories of my own school days, beginning with kindergarten when we lived in Lake Charles. 

At that time, kindergartens were held in private homes; usually a retired teacher offered classes from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. My mother enrolled me in one such kindergarten.  After the first day, she came to walk me home and asked how I liked it. 

I replied that it was ‘quite the silliest place I’d ever been’.  A boy was playing the piano and everyone pretended he played real music, not just a mishmash of keys.  To add insult to injury, the teacher wanted to teach us how to tell time. She had us lie on the floor in a circle, each representing one time on the clock, while two students stood in the middle representing the two hands.  The teacher would call out a time, and the “hands” would move appropriately. 

“There was a perfectly good clock on the wall,” I said.

“Do you want to go back?”

“No.”

And I didn’t.

I began elementary school in Lake Charles whose school system required students to be six by June 30th in order to start school the following fall.  I wasn’t six until October 26th, however they would allow students who were not eligible in June to enter the following January. And so I did. 

This was all well and good until we moved to Baton Rouge the next April.  I entered first grade at Bernard Terrace, then the newest elementary school. I could only print up to the letter H, but my classmates could not only print, but they could write in script. I had no idea this deficit would threaten my promotion to second grade until I heard my mother and our principal, Mrs. Daniels, talking in the hall. Mrs. Daniels was telling my mother that I was well qualified for second grade, but could not be promoted unless I learned to write in script. (It took many years for the penny to drop that Mrs. Daniels meant for me to hear this.)  At any rate, I spent every spare minute learning to write script and was promoted to second grade.

However, the haste which I toiled has resulted in handwriting that can vary from excellent to adequate to poor. For many years friends have told me that when they received a note or letter addressed in what looked like the handwriting of a third grade boy, they knew I had to be the writer.

When we moved to Lafayette at the end of my fifth grade year, a friendless summer stretched ahead of me. Fortunately one of my parent’s friends with a daughter my age had also moved to Lafayette only blocks away. We both had large collections of movie star paper dolls and spent the hottest part of the days dressing them and making up lives.

Friends told my parents that they should enroll my sister Kathryn and me at Mount Carmel, and my brother at Cathedral School, which they did. I knew nothing about Lafayette. My ideas about its culture were based on a book titled “Bayou Suzette” which my father had given me. Suzette and a Native American friend went barefoot, fished off the bank of the bayou, picked wild blackberries, killed snakes, and lived in a small house with a long pier to the bayou.  Their English was a patois that I had to learn to understand. Still, it was a fascinating book, introducing me to a way of life as opposite from mine as possible.

My first day at Mount Carmel, I braced myself for a classroom filled with girls like Suzette, and wondered how I would be accepted.  This assumption was blown to bits that day in the principal’s office.  Mother Dolores had arranged for a girl in my new class, Mary Alice Blanchet, to come take me to the classroom. When Mary Alice walked into the room, she was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen with long black curls and fair skin. She was wearing an exquisite dress with embroidery around the neck and sleeves and a blue silk sash around her waist and black patent Mary Janes with white stockings.

As we walked to the sixth grade classroom, I banished all thoughts of there being a room full of Suzettes; instead, there was a class of normal looking girls, all of whom welcomed me.   Not only did they welcome me, but the second week of school, in an election for class officers, I was elected president, though there were two other girls they could have chosen.  

Some years later, I asked my best friend Gale Dugal why they had done such a thing. 

“Well, Dubus, (she always called me Dubus) we could see you were different, but we didn’t know if you were good different or bad different, so we decided to elect you president to find out.”

“But what if I’d messed up?” 

“You didn’t.”

I still marvel at the wisdom those sixth grade girls showed, and I am still grateful for their trust.  Our class small class of only twenty-three girls stayed together all the way to graduation.  My memories of those seven years are among the happiest of my life.

In the flood of 2016, I lost my only yearbook from Mount Carmel.  It was the school’s first yearbook, created in my  senior year of which I was editor.  With that loss, I felt that I had lost many of the classmates I loved.


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Summer is the Time for Books

​Since I was in elementary school, I have equated summer with books because in summer one can read what one wishes, a luxury to be thoroughly enjoyed. Even now, years out of school, summer still gives optimal opportunities for reading. The long hours of daylight allow daily routines and tasks to be dealt with early leaving plenty of time to read.  Read in a hammock or on a screened porch with an overhead fan or inside near a window that looks out on birds, butterflies, and dragonflies combining the gifts of Mother Nature with the gifts that  books are.

At bedtime during the school months, my mother read to me, my older sister and my younger brother.  In summertime she also read to us at naptime. As the rhythm of her voice and the slow whirl of a ceiling fan blended, sleep came easily.  Later at bedtime, we would hear the parts of the story we missed by drowsing off.

My parents were both great readers as were other members of our family. Katherine Anne Porter’s comment about Eudora Welty  – that she came from a family whose members all read the same books so that when they visited each other they didn’t have to take their current book because they would find it on their hosts’ library shelves –  reminded of my family who also read the same books. My maternal grandfather, William James Burke, had a personal library so extensive that it served as a sort of public library in New Iberia until the city built one.

One of my most pleasurable memories of reading is of sitting in a seat formed by the meeting of three large sycamore branches – shielded from the sun, and high enough to catch a passing breeze. My father tied a ladder securely to the branches so I could reach the seat. If there were any place more conducive to peaceful reading, I don’t know it.

We lived in Baton Rouge from 1940 until 1943 where my brother and I went to Bernard Terrace, the newest school in the city. Our sister went to Baton Rouge Junior High so we braved our new school together. The principal, Mrs. Daniels, is still one of my models of effectively educating children. She recruited superb teachers – one of whom was Miss Causey who taught geography with such thoroughness and creativity that I still remember many of her classes.

Mrs. Daniels considered reading and math the foundations for all learning, devising ways to make them interesting to us. One semester, she chose the best readers in each class to pick a book to review at a school assembly and, if possible, to wear a costume the main character would have worn.

I chose to review BETSY AND TACY, the first book in what would become a popular series written by Maud Hart Lovelace. Set in Minnesota in the late 1800’s, the imaginative and spunky Betsy caught my attention because she had two qualities that I wished to have. My mother made me a costume copied from an illustration in the book. Until I outgrew it, I called it my “reading dress.”

I hardly need mention that Louisa Mae Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN, and the following books in the series, were required reading.  Not by a teacher but by the fact that just about every girl I knew had read them, and discussing the various characters and their choices could occupy hours.

A series by Annie Fellows Johnston followed the life of Lloyd Sherman beginning when she was five and stood up to her formidable grandfather through to her wedding to the boy next door.  Starting with the first book, THE LITTLE COLONEL, they are set in the fictional town of Lloydsborough Valley, KY (based on Peewee Valley, KY, the author’s home) and reflect the manners of mores of the late 1800’s-early 1900’s. When my daughter Aimee worked at the ACTORS’ THEATRE in Louisville, we visited many of the homes which still existed that had been featured in the books.

Such innocent books were all based on an ethical code to be upheld at all costs – drawing a line between what was right and what was wrong. In my view, this country desperately needs reminders that if one doesn’t have an ethical code – consisting on one hand of those things you would always do, no matter what, and on the other those things you would never do, no matter what – then one will soon make decisions based on less noble reasons.

I think watching a video is nowhere near as effective as reading a book. The brain has only the time of the video image to process the intent and meaning; however by reading passages of books repeatedly one can processes them.

One of the most significant days in my daughters’ lives was the day they could get their own library card – an opening to a boundless world, a magic carpet that could take them anywhere, and into any time. I think any avid reader sees their library card the same way.

My second husband, Dick Baldridge, was a great reader. He credited his aunt, a librarian in Alexandria, with introducing him to books. I went with him to her funeral and was moved to tears by the memories he and her remaining friends shared. I like to read aloud, Dick loved it. I was reading THE THREE MUSKETEERS in the weeks before he died, a book we both thoroughly enjoyed. Those hours together with the companionship of a favorite book are some of my happiest memories of our time together – another gift from books.

One can hold a book in one’s hand and open it to passages that take one back to significant moments in one’s life – no video can do that.