Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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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.


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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.

 


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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.


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The Not So Great Divide

This country has not been so divided since the Civil War, and the seeds of that division still flourish.  There have been many calls for the nation to pull together, bury the hatchet, move forward.  None of these appeals have worked, in my view, because they ignore a basic fact of human behavior: change is real only when the individuals involved each decide to make it so.

Two quotations express my feelings about individual change.  The first is from Polonius’ advice to his son,  Laertes, in HAMLET;  the second is my father’s advice to me and my siblings.  “Be true to thy own self, and as night follows day, thou canst then not be false to any man,” Polonius said.  My father told us that we could hold and express any opinion that had a rational foundation, was based on evidence that was recent, accurate, and as complete as possible, andappealed to reason, not emotion.

When I look back over the campaigns in the 2016 elections, I conclude that very few candidates had read Polonius’ advice and taken it to heart, nor had fathers like mine. To be true to oneself begins with knowing who one is, something this culture of group think and group behavior and group influence doesn’t encourage.  No matter the size of a group, its purpose or the personalities of its members, group dynamics take over,  One or two people become the decision makers, another few win the leaders’ approval easily.  Some struggle to receive crumbs of approval, and some have no hope of even that.  Still, they stay in the group as best they can, adopting the behavior, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs of the chosen few, because it is much easier than becoming an individual who may get left out in the cold.

Madison Avenue has been using knowledge of group dynamics since it first began gaining power over consumers in the early 20th century through the new national force of radio.  Then came television, and social media, with the result that the opinions of non-professionals became as influential of those of professionals.  “The Dumbing Down of America” was hastened when newscasters became less journalists and interpreters and more entertainers.  In such an atmosphere, it was inevitable that personal bias, vulgarity, and hate became standard items on the daily news menu served to audiences who were mostly group thinkers with a small proportion who–what a concept–think for themselves.

These people, this “band of brothers, we happy few,”  act as individuals, even when being members of groups.  Their purchases are based, not on what’s “in”–and will quickly be “out”, so the sellers can use group think to convince consumers to replace perfectly good items with those that ubiquitous “everyone” is buying–but because the item fits their needs and possibly their wants and their budget allows it.

There are many dangerous results when group think is ranpant in a society, but one of the worst,  I think, is that group thinkers are more likely to submit to emotional appeals and not ask for rational statements supported by solid evidence.  When one of the emotions is hatred, the result is what we have been seeing throughout the campaigns.  I grew up in Lafayette.  In the fall of 1954, over one hundred black students enrolled at what was then SLI, and is now U of L at Lafayette.  Not only was there not one incident, but the entering black women had white Big Sisters–mentors guiding new female students through the shoals of campus life–who were members of the Homecoming Court, cheerleaders, officers of every sorority–in a word, girls who believed acceptance and goodwill are better than predjudice and hate.  To look down on anyone because of a physical characteristic over which they have no control, or belong to a religion one knows little about, but judges just the same, was a mortal sin in our family, and I feel that way to this day.

It will take millions of people who have the courage to determine if their thoughts, attitudes, and behavior are consistent with the values in which they believe, or are those they adopted because to be a group member, one had to pay that price.  As to whether millions of people will find that courage depends on me, and you, and you.

 

 

 

‘out