In the light of what has transpired just over the past year, it is impossible for me to write about a trip that took place nearly two years ago purely in the present tense. Time is forcing me to change my format, just as it is also, like the force of a little stream, slowly, sometimes abruptly affecting the shape of my perceptions.
One of my memories of Tennessee, etched into my mind like a boulder, is a day we spent in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg was, to me, an in-your-face redneck town. I most definitely do not see myself as a redneck person. Does anyone, really? I don’t know. Since returning, since witnessing the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, I have done some thinking.
I have to admit that I, an alumnus of a post-graduate university program, carry an attitude of superiority if I even deign to enter such a milieu. I don’t think I really paid much attention to my attitude before. As I looked, watched and smiled, perhaps condescendingly, I didn’t think about the fact that I saw myself as better than the people who built or frequent such places. No wonder there is such resentment from the other half of America! I find my ideas reflected, dressed up and polished, listening to NPR, and my cultural craving satiated by PBS. But what about the other half of America, the half I can’t relate to? How are we to become a more perfect union, or to unify at all, if we don’t want to associate with each other? I have the feeling that the people I don’t understand resent people like me at least as much as people like me have despised them.
But, the whole reason for my trip was to understand members of my family I don’t necessarily agree with politically, and to see parts of America for myself we Northerners tend to ignore. I am trying to understand. I don’t want to be condescending.
So, how to come to terms with Gatlinburg?
My first visit to Gatlinburg was really a quick drive-through on a family vacation our family took in 1964, when I was a teenager. Our destination was a campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All I can remember seeing of the town was the Great Western, wishing we could stay there and enjoy a hot shower, a real bed and pancake breakfast in a restaurant instead of having to set up camp in a campground. But once we arrived at our campground, just a few miles outside of Gatlinburg, we marveled at the lush beauty of the Smoky Mountains. I don’t know if I had ever seen such dense, thick, friendly forests, where trees blossomed! There were flowering mountain laurel bushes everywhere. Rhododendron trees were also blooming, with showy pink and purple flowers. Minnesota winters are too cold for rhododendron trees.
Coming from Minnesota, with its harsh, cold winters, we weren’t used to lush, flowering forests. Minnesota does have beautiful flowers in its forests, but not flowering trees.
But then we went for a drive along some mountain roads outside of the National Park. Dotted along the hillside were flimsy, broken-down shacks I imagined a big storm would wash down the hill. These tiny houses had porches with wringer washing machines like my family had exchanged years before for automatic machines and tumbler dryers. There were abandoned cars, couches, and appliances marring the land surrounding the houses. My brothers and sisters and I were shocked that people could live like this. My parents told us about the term “white trash”. I was reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, a saga about the American South during the Civil War. I think the term “white trash” may have been mentioned in the book. I think my parents tried to be neutral when talking about this group of people, but I also remember feeling that these people were not only disadvantaged, they were somehow deficient.
We stopped at a Dairy Queen for ice cream. A teenage girl appeared at the window of my father, who was driving. She held a pad and pencil ready and asked what we would like to order. “Nine chocolate ice cream cones, please,” my father said. She looked at him uncomprehendingly and said,
My father repeated the order. “I still don’t understand you,” she said in a thick Tennessee accent.
My father sat there, puzzled, for a few seconds, trying to fathom how he could communicate with the server. Then he grinned broadly and said, “Oh!” Something had dawned on him. “Naahn chaaawklit aahs crim kah-oons, plah-ees.” We spoke the same language, but didn’t understand each other.
There is a big divide among Americans. I felt it during that first trip to Tennessee. I sensed it on this day fifty years later, revisiting Gatlinburg. But this gap isn’t only about North and South, I am coming to see. It is about those with a college education and those without. It is about those with secure jobs and those without. It is about whites and minorities who are quickly becoming majorities. It is about city people and rural people. It is about the religious right and those of other religions and Christians who are not on the right. It has come to be about Democrats and Republicans, bringing the divide even into families. How can we ever bridge this divide? How can we ever come to understand one another? This is my concern as I write about my day in Gatlinburg.
The sun is still bravely trying to brighten my day as I drive out of Natchez, but rain is forecast, and the skies are darkening. And I have no GPS, only an old map of the Southeastern States Robert gave me. I have studied the map and have an idea of a route I could take to reach Tennessee. From the map, it looks like the most direct route might be a road outlined in green called the “Natchez Trace“. The scenic route, no less! I will try and find that, but I’m never completely sure of where I am without Google Maps. If only I had internet! But at least as far as my phone is concerned, I am in a foreign country with no mobile program including roaming. I am left at the mercy of an old, outdated roadmap and the sun, which threatens to leave me at any moment.
Outside Natchez now, the road is lonely, with few cars on the highway. I turn on the radio and decide to listen to a country-western station to get an idea of the life I imagine Southerners to live. Then I switch to right-wing talk radio, then some Christian station, then NPR. Surely with all these choices, I will get some idea of how people in Mississippi live and think. I feel a little nervous, driving along the highway. Will I really find my way into Tennessee? Will all go well? But my curiosity is stronger than my fear, and I am intrigued by the hilly scenery, the little villages, the farms, and the wooded pretty countryside – and the many churches I keep passing. Most of them are Methodist or Baptist.
In my tummy I feel a mixture of fear and pleasure at finally being completely on my own, free to explore as I will, but afraid that I might get lost, or somehow end up in a car accident. It’s been wonderful visiting family and friends, but I’ve had very little time to myself. Now here I am, on my own! But unsure of how to get to where I want to go in the country I grew up in. My thoughts range between inner commentaries about what I hear on the radio, little snatches of fear about whether I will arrive at my brother’s and how many mistakes I will make getting there, and enjoying exploring a region I have never visited.
My thoughts are focused almost entirely in the present. The only thoughts about the future are about whether it will rain, and whether I will arrive at my brother’s house today or tomorrow, at the latest, with no accidents or problems with the car. There are no thoughts about how my life will look in a year from now, let alone in a month. At this moment I have no clue that life for everyone I know, as well as for myself, will become much more frightening in a year from now than my present little tugs of apprehension. I have no inkling that it is a luxury to even be driving across a part of America. The talk on the radio is about blackfacing, racism, and whether or not a wall will be built to keep the illegal immigrants away from the Southern border to Mexico. I cannot imagine that tiny, microscopic invaders will build a much stronger, far more effective barrier to migrants than any wall. Depending on whether I’m listening to a conservative radio station or liberal, the speaker is either proclaiming Trump to be truthful or a liar. I can’t imagine that in one year there will only be one news item across the entire world. I can’t imagine that everyone in the entire world who doesn’t live in America will be denied access into this country, including wealthy Europeans.
I drive along a country road, US Route 84, which will take me, hopefully, to a freeway, Interstate 55, and onto the Natchez Trace in Jackson. Just at the intersection of Route 84 and 55, near a town my map and the road signs promise to be Brookhaven, I finally spot a place where I can probably eat. By now, mid-afternoon, I am truly hungry. Here is a big Chevron station with a large cafeteria inside. Everything there looks delicious! Pork and red beans, potato casserole, peach cobbler. I haven’t had any Southern fried chicken during my time in the South, and I see this being served. It looks so good! And others around me, many of them black, are eating this crispy chicken. I order some legs and fries and a diet Coke. They give me some cornbread along with the chicken. There are free local newspapers available. I take one and read between mouthfuls of delicious chicken. I find an article written by someone who confesses to having belonged to a sorority during her time as a student in a college in Mississippi. She couldn’t remember what happened while she was going to college, so she went through old yearbooks. There, she discovered that she had witnessed blackfacing during her college years, thinking nothing of it at the time. By now she is ashamed of what went on during her youth, as well as her own indifference. Blackfacing, for any readers unfamiliar with the term, is the act of painting one’s face black to imitate the appearance of a black person. It was apparently a big joke in years past for white people to attend parties dressed in blackface. Thankfully, by now it is considered to be racist, insulting behavior. I am really happy to discover that people in the South, which I am coming to like more and more, want to be rid of racist attitudes.
It never crosses my mind that I am eating in the presence of strangers, that our bodies occasionally brush one another as we reach for ketchup or stand in line to pay. Focused on blackface, racism and getting into Tennessee, I cannot imagine that in a year’s time this cafeteria may be closed down, or that no cars will be lined up to buy gas, or that the employees here may well be at the unemployment office, filing for unemployment insurance or fighting to stay alive, or dead. I have no thoughts about whether many of these people of color around me may be either unemployed and unable to afford a meal of fried chicken at the local restaurant, or may even be dead, because good medical care is not there for those in America who can’t afford it. Those at the bottom of the heap, and those include black people, are the ones who will die first from this invasion of microscopic intruders, only because they can’t afford good medical care.
I fill up with gasoline, holding my bare hands to the pump, not imagining that there could be any other way of filling the gas tank, and swipe my credit card over the pump to pay, bare-handed. No one here is wearing a face mask or seems to be obsessed with hygiene. Surgical masks are not part of American life. No one has ever heard of home-made masks.
I climb back into the car and prepare for a long drive. By about five pm I’m encountering a bit more traffic from Vicksburg. How far am I from Tennessee? I need to find the Natchez Trace! Hopefully driving along there, I’ll soon be in Tennessee. Finally, I see a sign instructing me how to join the Natchez Trace. I turn off Interstate 55, onto the Natchez Trace. It is indeed green and beautiful. I am driving along a beautiful lake surrounded by pine trees. It is really getting late, but the speed limit is only 50 miles per hour, and this is only a two-lane highway! This is like driving to my grandparents’ house as a child, before there were any freeways and it took three hours to drive 120 miles! At this rate I will never reach Tennessee! But at least there is plenty of time to read the signs along this beautiful lake. I am driving along the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
There are no towns, no restaurants, not even any hotels as far as I can see. Only beautiful parkway. This was a mistake. How to get off this road? If only I had decided to pay for a toll road! But I thought the Natchez Trace would be my most direct route. Yes – if it were only a freeway.
Later I discover that this truly beautiful stretch of road was originally a footpath used by Native Americans for hunting. The parkway was built during the 1930s during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I am unaware that I am driving along a national monument of sorts, and also that in one year’s time our country may be experiencing a depression more severe than the Great Depression of the 1930s. I don’t consider the fact that in a year’s time more people will be applying for unemployment than in the 1930s and that even more businesses may go under than during that period.
I see road signs announcing a town coming up – Williamsville. Hopefully I can get off this Trace there and rejoin Interstate 55. This proves to be possible. One hour later, by now around 6 pm, I am back on the 55, heading north. Now and then my windshield wipers swipe off a few sprinkles. A road sign tells me I am about 152 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. Well, here I can drive faster, since I’m on the freeway. Maybe I can reach Memphis, or somewhere near Memphis and stay the night there. I should be able to make it by about 8 pm, I figure.
But then it begins to rain in earnest. Rain as heavy as an ocean crashing onto the windshield. Sometimes the showers are so heavy I have to stop the car and wait for the rain to lessen in intensity. At one of these stops I phone my brother. I apologize, saying I had wildly underestimated the time it would take to reach him. I will have to find a motel somewhere to sleep in.
The next morning the rain has stopped, for now, and before nine I am back on the 55. My roadmap has shown me that in Memphis I can branch onto the Interstate 40 and drive along there until I reach Knoxville, my destination. I drive along the 55, and before I know it, I see that I must be in Tennessee because most of the license plates now are from Tennessee.
Wow, are these roads in Tennessee treacherous! Huge potholes as big as cars, at least six inches deep, keep slowing me down. Don’t they improve the highways in this State? I later read that in 2018, the city of Nashville had 9,179 potholes, compared with over 5,000 in 2017. In 2019, today, there are more than in 2018. 2019 has seen the heaviest precipitation in Tennessee on record. By 11 am, it is raining heavily again, increasing the record margin. As I drive along, the radio blaring to keep me awake and alert as much as anything else, I hear talk of highway closures. One of them is my interstate! Then I see flashing lights warning the same, with a detour sign. I am going to have to take a detour into Knoxville. How will I ever find my way to my brother on a detour without a map? On and on I drive, anxiety mounting by the minute. There is flooding on the highways. I slosh along. The water is too deep to see the potholes. Traffic is very slow, visibility poor. Sometime in the afternoon, on my detour highway, I see a little snack bar and filling station. I stop there and buy a sandwich, diet Coke and a big package of M & Ms. Hopefully, this will keep me until I reach Knoxville.
Finally, at around 5 pm, I reach the Knoxville city limits. Visibility is poor, but I think I see my exit, and leave the freeway, hoping to find the car rental agency, which is almost certainly closed by now. I can only hope that there will still be someone working in the office. There is such major flooding along this road, portions of it are closed off and I cannot find the car rental agency. Besides, there is some big road construction project. I drive into a mostly deserted strip mall, and find a bar that is open. I ask about the car rental office. The man instructs me where to go. I arrive there, and find it closed, just as I feared. Not a soul in sight. But there is a sign saying that rental cars are to be delivered at the Knoxville airport. Yikes! Where is the Knoxville airport? It is not on my map! I phone my brother for the third time today, and he tells me how to get to the airport, and says he will be there to meet me. Hurray! I have almost made it to the end of a harrowing journey. I am unaware that the entire world will be experiencing something that goes much deeper and stretches much wider than what I have just been through. When I am relieved to almost be out of danger, I do not realize that many will die or lose loved ones from something that kills more people in one month than car accidents do in one year.
I arrive at the car rental at 6 pm, and there are my brother Jason and Ron, one of his sons. I throw myself into Jason’s arms in relief. The car didn’t break down, there was no accident, I am in Knoxville. We are all alive and well. Jason’s wife Lucy has cooked us a delicious, comforting lasagna dinner. We sit at the table, a happy family reunited. I am relieved to find both well. Each of them has been battling cancer and Lucy will have to go to the hospital next week for another round of immunotherapy. We are all unaware that another disease even deadlier, even swifter to kill than cancer, will be threatening us all in one year from now. I do not know that I will later savor these memories as perhaps the last time I was able to see my brother and his entire family because a disease disrupted all travel plans.
We are also unaware that in a year’s time we citizens of the world will value our families and friends much more than we have ever before. We will treasure phone calls, Skype and other video conferences, savoring little tidbits of each conversation. We don’t know then that much of the world will begin to linger over the little things, learning to be grateful for sunny weather and Skype or Zoom conversations. We don’t realize that in a year’s time strangers will greet strangers with a smile, wishing them a good day and good health. We don’t yet know that an afternoon bike ride along the river close to home can be just as beautiful, just as meaningful, just as full of discovery, as a drive along the Natchez Trace.
Today involves a tour of Northwestern University, where Robert taught until retirement at the Scholars College, a sort of elite college within the university.
He taught there for over twenty years, and still advises students there. What is it about people like Robert and Natalie that I lack? Robert subscribes to the alumni magazine at Macalester College, our alma mater. I made a conscious decision not to be too involved. In any of the places I have ever studied. I think my parents were like that too. Maybe I inherited this indifference from them. I just can’t identify with them.
I remember when I was a high school student and my family had just moved to a new home in a different school district from where I had previously lived. It was, however, very close to where our former school district was, and the school sports teams were rivals. I was talking to another new student and told this person that this school was okay, but the previous school was better. The assistant school principal overheard me and reprimanded me. “Where’s your school spirit?” he said. I had never even considered the concept of school spirit, or loyalty to an organization. I suppose that later led to my hippie phase. But that is all in the past, from another life. Now I am in Louisiana with my former classmate.
Robert tells me there is close collaboration at the Scholars College between professors and students, and that many courses are interdisciplinary. It sounds exciting, like a college I would have loved attending. Everywhere we go, people recognize him, calling “Robert!” joyfully. Many even hug him, and they engage in conversation. This was definitely home for Robert. I see aspects of Robert I had never discovered. I see how he shows affection, interest and respect for everyone he encounters, from the dean of the college down to the black cleaning lady. Everyone seems to love him, and everyone has a kind word and a special message of gratitude for his impact on their lives. I am deeply impressed. We visit the student union, as I did with Natalie, and an honors high school attached to the university. I meet more colleagues and friends. By this time, I think I must have met all of Robert’s friends, and feel honored to be able to meet them all.
After this we walk around Natchitoches, getting to know this town that is apparently quite a tourist attraction. It is just as charming in a different way as Georgetown, Texas was. Lots of red brick homes. We stop and look at the home where the film “Steel Magnolias” with Julia Roberts was filmed. I haven’t seen the film so the house doesn’t mean much to me other than that it appears to be a comfortable southern home.
The shops are unique, the way a town center ought to be. An upscale hardware store that seems to have all you could ever need. A chocolate shop, gift shops with Louisiana hot sauce and other condiments from the area. I buy some gifts to bring my brother, whom I will visit next week.
We join a friend of Robert’s in a pub. I am the only woman among a bunch of men. One of them looks quite down-to-earth and speaks with a very pronounced, charming gentle southern drawl. He smiles wryly from time to time as he recounts his tale. His accent sounds almost English to me at times. I am mesmerized more by his accent than by his story. Robert tells me later he comes from a very old Louisiana family and that he owns sixteen acres of land. I must have met someone from “southern gentry”. Another friend joins us later. What a lot of socializing gets done here!
I make German pancakes for Robert in the evening and we watch the film “Steel Magnolias”. Now I understand the context of this house. The movie is both funny and sad. I observe that the only black people in the film are servants. I have met only white professors and black cleaning personnel today. Oh yes, the owner of the chocolate shop was black. But generally, the people I meet are white. I think, Germany is more integrated than this. I must say, this separation of groups appears more accidental, a product of socializing and education, than intent. But I do get the sense that the 80 per cent of blacks and 20 per cent of whites living in Louisiana inhabit generally separate worlds, except at the supermarkets and local shops.
Robert’s plan for today is a visit to Melrose Plantation. Visiting a plantation is on the top of my priority list for my trip to the South.
When my son was small, and my husband came back from his business trips, I always asked him to bring back something that my son could relate to, something symbolic of where he was. Later on we began collecting these symbols. We have an Eiffel Tower from Paris, the Brandenburg Gate from Berlin, the Colosseum from Rome, and so on. My symbol for the South would be “Tara”, the beautiful antebellum (pre-Civil war) plantation house where Scarlett O’Hara lived, in Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel “Gone With the Wind”. I read the novel in high school and later relived the anguish of watching Scarlett self-destruct in the film. What is it about this story that makes us WANT to watch someone so beautiful cause so much pain and later reap at least as much as she sowed? Some people read the book or watch the movie over and over again. For me, once of each was enough to sear an image of Southern life onto my brain. Now it’s time for me to see if my image is anything like reality.
No sooner are we out of the driveway, than we drive past dozens of the same live oak trees lining the street that I saw in Texas. But the branches of these trees are not naked brownish black. They are dressed in thick, furry green velvety stuff. This strangely beautiful plant is called “resurrection fern”. It clings to all the oak trees I see along our drive. I admire their gentle, muted appearance. With the ferns coating the branches, they look dreamy and romantic. The reason it doesn’t grow in Texas is that the air there is too dry for it to survive. It needs the humidity of air like that in Louisiana to thrive. We also see many magnolia trees in bloom too. February is not a bad time to visit Louisiana!
Our drive takes us along the Cane River. Robert explains that it is not really a river anymore, but is a thirty-plus mile-long “lake”, also called “Cane River Lake”, diverted from the Red River.
We arrive at Melrose. It is white, with the ubiquitous Greek revival pillars supporting the house, but not as grand as I had expected. It is also surrounded by outhouses, seemingly plopped down onto the property, with no roads connecting these buildings to anything. “The Cane River is their road,” Robert explains.
On the tour, I learn that this plantation was owned and built by a freed slave who was a “Creole of color” – in other words, by someone we would today call “black” or of “African American” descent. And that four generations before the Civil War! I learn that Creoles are anyone of European descent, especially French or Spanish, usually Catholic, and they may or may not have mixed Native American or African American blood. The land on which this plantation was built was owned by Louis Metoyer, one of the sons of French trader Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer and his common-law wife, Marie Thérèse Coincoin. Marie, now also affectionately called “Coincoin”, was a slave Métoyer lived with for several years before he finally bought her as a slave in order to free her. In those days whites and blacks were not allowed to marry. But there was no law against mating and conceiving. This couple had ten children together, one of whom was Louis. He purchased the land and began to build the house. It was finished by his son after his death in 1833. Many generations of Metoyers lived in this house.
Before Claude Métoyer died, he had purchased and freed five of the children he and Marie had together. At one point he left her and married a white woman. Marie, a freed slave, became an entrepeneur skilled in the healing arts. She bought land and managed to free many of her children, also some born to a man previous to Métoyer.
Two of her children, Louis and Augustin, became especially prominent -and wealthy. Augustin donated land for a church, and he and Louis built the local parish church, possibly the first church in America built by freed slaves for people of color.
I never knew that blacks owned plantations! Or that freed black people, like the Metoyers, also owned slaves. I love how Robert has not given me any spoilers, leaving me to be delighted or surprised. Just when I’m beginning to register the distasteful fact that black ex-slaves could even consider owning slaves, our tour guide says that some think the Metoyers, like the original Métoyer, purchased the slaves in order to free them.
The house was later to become an artists’/writers’ colony. Anyone could live there as long as they could prove they were working on something. One of the servants there, Clementine Hunter, a Creole of color, lived there from around 1902 until well after the 1939. In 1939 she was able to take paints and brushes left by a visiting artist. She became a self-taught artist and is now the best-known native artist in Louisiana. Some call her the black Grandma Moses. Her paintings depict many of the scenes and daily events she saw and experienced while living at Melrose.
Robert and I visit her tomb, and I get a glimpse of a Lousiana cemetery.
By now evening is approaching. Time for a meal. We eat at a nearby restaurant called the “Commissary”. From the outside it looks like a tin shack, but it is apparently a very good, popular restaurant, with genuine Louisiana cuisine. Let’s go!
I have a Creole combo, and we share appetizers and each gets wine. A Creole combo consists of jambalaya, with a lot of sausage, Natichoches meat pies, apparently famous, and Creole fettuccini studded with crawfish. The food is great – unhealthy, mostly fried, but delicious – and very filling. Our conversation is fulfilling.
We drive home stuffed, mellow, me a bit tired, and satisfied. My first plantation was not at all what I had expected, but that’s okay. I’m learning a few things about life in Louisiana as it is, which is quite different from knowledge gained from a novel.
One of the things I like about Robert is his gusto for life. I think he’s game for just about anything. Before I even left Germany, we discussed one of the things he thought I must do – experience Mardi Gras. I wouldn’t be there during the main celebrations, but it would still be the Mardi Gras season. And, he explained, people celebrate Mardi Gras during the entire season, which runs from Epiphany (January 6) until Ash Wednesday. Would I like him to host a ball? A ball, to me, is some huge gathering in a ballroom big enough for at least a hundred people, with some sort of band or orchestra, and where people dance. Not so in Louisiana.
So, Robert had begun teaching me about Mardi Gras even before I left Germany. A ball, he said, is simply a gathering where all the participants wear formal attire, and may or may not wear masks. They do wear evening gowns and tuxedos. But there doesn’t necessarily have to be dancing at all, nor does there need to be live music, nor does it need to be in a ballroom. We could have a ball in his home! Knowing Robert, I was sure of that, but I don’t possess an evening gown. So we settled on a party. Less formal, but we’d still have fun. “Can you make a King Cake?” he asked. I had never heard of King Cake, but I promised him that I would try and make one. I love baking, and I, like Robert, will try almost anything within my power to do. I looked up recipes for King Cake online. Making this cake looked difficult, but doable.
I learn throughout this day how Mardi Gras is similar, yet also quite different from Karneval in Germany. They both have a long season, but in Germany it begins on November 11 at 11:11 am. I have no idea why, but that’s the way it’s done. In Louisiana it begins on January 6. In both places people wear costumes, but the costumes are very different in Germany. In Germany the idea is to look ridiculous, so people get dressed up as pigs, or Miss Piggy, or Kermit the Frog, or Donald Trump, or a clown, or whatever. Instead of wearing masks, they paint their faces. In both places there is partying all the way through the season, and in both places there are organizations sponsoring these parties as well as designing and creating their float for the parade. It’s as though there were a sort of template – an outline – for the season, but the layouts differ entirely, depending on where they celebrate. In Germany there is no such thing as King Cake, although people eat other cake-like things throughout the season. As soon as Ash Wednesday hits, these items are no longer available. And so it is with King Cake. When I lived in Belgium, I discovered something called galette des rois, a sort of cake filled with a bean. I read that they’re now filled with things like Disney figres. This cake is eaten on January 6, Epiphany, the day celebrating the visit of the three Magi to Jesus. Galette des rois is a cake eaten in many of the traditionally Catholic European countries and Mexico, so it is logical that this custom should have spread along with French and Spanish people to Louisiana.
Saturday morning we go shopping for the ingredients listed in my online recipe on my cell phone. I see you need yellow, green and purple colored sugar. The supermarket has the green and purple but has run out of yellow, so I have to settle for another kind of yellow sugared decoration. Robert is not dismayed. “It will have your distinct touch,” he say.
Making this King Cake is a huge project. I need to make a yeast-based cake batter, and the batter takes a couple of hours to rise the two times necessary. Finally, the cake is ready to bake – two long ropes, one filled with apples, cinnamon and pecans, and the other with a cream-cheese filling. I manage to twist it into a sort of wreath-shape. Into the oven. Then, when it is baked, it has to cool before I can decorate it and hide a plastic baby Jesus figure inside. The person who gets the figure is supposed to provide the next King Cake. And to have good luck for the coming year.
Finally, late in the afternoon, the cake is done! It looks pretty much like the ones in the photos, just not professional. Still, I’m pretty proud of myself! I did it!
“Now we have to decorate and set out food for the party,” Robert says. I have no idea how to decorate for a Mardi Gras party, but Robert knows and has exactly what is needed. It’s fun placing little chains of gold, purple and green beads everywhere. I ask what the colors symbolize. “No idea,” Robert says. Not satisfied with this answer, I Google the answer. Purple is for justice, green for faith and gold for power. This explanation was arbitrarily chosen in relatively recent history, however, in 1892, by the Rex – the Mardi Gras king for that year.
The people arrive, most of them teachers or professors or with partners from Robert’s university or the school attached to it. I find them really friendly and easy to talk to, and they all love my King Cake, which makes me feel appreciated and accepted. I can feel intimidated by intellectuals, although I could have become one myself, but chose not to. I married one, though, one who had the amazing capacity of living intensely as well as devouring hundreds of books – maybe over a thousand – about many aspects life. I don’t have that capacity. I love the experience of life too much to spend most of my time reading and thinking about it. When I read, I tend to choose books that will touch my heart. So I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as Robert and his friends. But I discover that Robert’s friends, just like Robert himself – and as my husband was too, for that matter, are not intimidating. They also simply love life, and they are a diverse crowd.
I meet an expert on the author Kurt Vonnegut. Luckily, I have read and enjoyed the book “Catch-22” and seen the movie. We have something in common. When he hears that I live in Germany, he tells me that Vonnegut was of German descent. We talk about my week in Texas. He seems to be trying to figure out how a person like me would choose to spend a week in Texas. Is that prejudice? I don’t know. When I tell him where I was, in Georgetown, near Austin, he nods vigorously. He thinks he understands my cousins and my experience. “Ah, that is a completely different Texas than the rest of the State! That entire area is really liberal.” I guess he has pigeonholed my cousins into that category. “And in Texas, you should hear some of their country music. Really complex, sophisticated stuff. And you should see them dance their Texas two-step. It’s amazing!”
I meet someone who grew up in Houston. Her accent sounds even stronger than Natalie and Rhett’s. And she is definitely not intellectual. She has fantastic stories to tell about her colorful life.
I meet an artist-professor couple. When Robert introduces the wife to me he says, “She comes from Palestine.” I am startled. Why did he say Palestine and not Israel? In New York City, at least when I lived there, she would have been introduced as someone from Israel. I learn that she is a Palestinian Christian, not Jewish, and she identifies with the suffering Palestinians have endured at the hands of Jewish Israelis. I have some knowledge of this history too. I once heard a Palestinian Christian talk about how Arabs convinced his family to leave Israel temporarily during the time of its foundations as a nation. They should return when things calmed down. His family, as with all other returning Palestinians, returned only to find their house occupied by Jewish Israelis. There was no explanation, no apology, no effort to resettle them. I understand the concerns of Robert’s friend. I detect no hatred of Jewish Israelis in her voice or demeanor. Just the conviction that Palestinians have rights which have been denied them and the hope that they will be restored. I often wonder myself why the current Israeli goverment so brazenly chases people even now from their homes in order to build Jewish settlements. Perhaps they are offered compensation. But even so, they seem to have no say in the matter.
I talk to another of Robert’s friends, who comes from Louisiana. I learn that she suffers from what she calls “white guilt” – the guilt of being white in a State with so many blacks. Around one-third of the population in Louisiana is black or African-American. Two-thirds are white. But Robert tells me that Natchitoches is only about 20% white. She suffers, feeling the pain of blacks who have been discriminated against since the very beginning , when they were brought to Louisiana as slaves.
One of Robert’s close friends has been his travel companion on several trips to Europe. She also has stories about some of their experiences. There are other friends I’d love to talk to, but don’t get much chance to interact.
The last guests leave at around 2 am. It’s been great party! I am stimulated by all the conversation. I like Robert’s friends. I am very relieved that the King Cake was a success. We leave most of the clean-up for the next day. We each go to bed, satisfied with the day.
We are scheduled to depart by around noon. Rhett is sadly not up to the trip. Natalie will be driving over four hours to get me to Shreveport, Louisiana, sleeping overnight in some motel in or near Shreveport, and then driving back to Rhett. She rarely leaves him alone for more than a few hours. You never know with a lung condition like this. I feel some unease, putting both of them out like this. But this is Texas hospitality, I guess.
Before we leave, though, I have to get my daily exercise walk in. There is enough time for me to walk the mile loop around their home. The weather is spring-like today, sunny and warm. I don’t even need a jacket today! Finally, we’re getting the weather I had expected to find in the South.
Rhett and Natalie live in ranch country. Even it it is part of Georgetown, it feels far away from any cities. There are houses with large lots on the block, but it doesn’t feel suburban to me, I suppose, because there are no lawns, just scrubby brush. There are some horses grazing in fields, and each house seems to have at least one recreational vehicle in the drive. There is a large “RV park”, what they call a trailer park in Minnesota, and the largest number of mailboxes, all lined up, that I have ever seen!
A road trip with two like-minded retired women. Fun! It’s almost as though there weren’t a care in the world. We have plenty of food packed to eat along the way, lots to drink. We are relying on my Google Maps, which I have downloaded, and Rhett’s GPS, which is not entirely reliable. But for the most part, our instructions match up.
We drive for ages along stretches of countryside like where Rhett and Natalie live, interspersed with lots of churches, strip malls, huge parking lots and chain stores like Best Buy and Home Depot. We pass chain restaurants like McDonald’s and the southern Chic-fil-A. Natalie tells me about the good Chic-fil-A does, how they went out to drivers stranded in a snow storm in Alabama once, donating hundreds of sandwiches. “They get a bad rap from the liberal press, though, because the owners are Christian.” She tells me a story of how some atheist went into a Chic-fil-A restaurant on a dare and came out, surprised at how normal everyone was. This is painful for me to
listen to. I can feel her pain. The pain of not being understood, the pain of being intentionally misrepresented. Why can’t people talk to each other anymore? Aren’t they even trying to understand one another? Do they only have pejorative clichés to lash out at each other? I thought tolerance was one of the definitions of liberalism. Aren’t the liberals the good guys I always thought they were? The reasonable ones? Except for the subject of abortion, I seem to always side with the liberals. But how much of this is simply due to the media I read and watch? Things don’t seem to be as simple as we make them out to be.
I wonder what it is going to be like staying with Robert. He is a good friend of mine who has visited Peter and me several times in Germany, but I have never visited him. He invited both Peter and me several times to his home in Louisiana, but we never made it. He is, like Rhett, Natalie and me, now retired, but he was a professor for over twenty years at a college in his town. He is gay, so there will be no tension because of my being suddenly single. But very liberal politically and culturally, probably much more so than me. He knows that, though, and he likes me, and I like him, so at least we have that.
Robert and I met at Macalester College as undergraduates fifty years ago. At that time we were going out together. I certainly had no inclination when we were dating that Robert would turn out to be gay. I suspect that Robert and I are more aligned politically than my Texas cousins, but I have spent the past week having stereotypes popped like bubble padding, one after another. Where do I stand, after all? Am I only a product of liberal propaganda? But I truly am appalled by the words I hear coming out of our President’s mouth. I believe most of what I read in the New York Times. Does that make me a liberal? On the other hand, Robert no longer claims to be Christian. This is an essential part of who I am. Will we get along? I’m planning to spend an entire week with him! Tiny feathers of anxiety flit around in my stomach.
Eventually, we leave the churches, strip malls and parking lots and drive past mile after mile of relatively flat terrain, scrub and live oaks. “Watch for the landscape to change,” Natalie says. “It will get flatter and flatter, and the trees will turn to pine. That is the landscape of Louisiana.”
Every few miles there is a gigantic billboard advertising some casino or other in Shreveport. “Gambling is illegal in Texas, so people drive across the border to gamble in Shreveport,” she says. “It’s a big business there.”
Gradually, the countryside flattens even more and the oak trees yield to pine forests. And with only a road sign to mark this event, we slip almost secretly into Louisiana – for me, my first time in what I would call the deep South.
We are to meet at a Burger King near a junction of the freeway with a major highway. We are late. Robert wanted to take me to an art theater to see a specific movie, but by now we won’t make it in time for that. I text him as we drive along. No problem, he says, there is another movie showing later that also looks good. Or we can skip the movies altogether. A movie sounds good. It is a neutral way to mask my anxiety about spending a week as a new widow with her gay ex-boyfriend.
Natalie will look for a motel nearby in Shreveport to spend the night. Shall we eat a meal together? We don’t know any restaurants, but there is always the Burger King, where we’ll soon be meeting.
How will it be between Natalie and Robert? She’s not as conservative about the subject of gays as I had imagined. She’s told me about their gay choir director at church, so I guess their church isn’t opposed to gays working there. But Natalie is conservative politically. Robert isn’t sure about any faith anymore, and he’s very liberal, from all I’ve ascertained from talking to him. Well, we’ll soon see.
We drive into the Burger King parking lot. I see other cars parked there, but assume Robert is waiting inside the restaurant. We get out of the car and walk towards the entrance. Suddenly a car door opens up and there is Robert, rushing toward us! I haven’t seen him in years, not since at least a year before my husband had his stroke, so it must be over five years. He has that big warm smile on his face and the bouncy, almost clumsy, vulnerable walk I had forgotten about. How could I have forgotten? I’ve always felt safer with Robert than just about anyone else! We run towards each other and give each other a big hug. Robert turns his head towards mine. Oh, no! He’s going to kiss me on the lips! I have only kissed Peter during my entire marriage! What’s this? I turn my head away, and the mouth kiss becomes one on either cheek, very European, sophisticated. The other side of Robert.
But he has a warm smile and handshake for Natalie. We exchange pleasantries for a few minutes. We talk about how to pronounce the name of the small city Robert lives in, Natchitoches. Natalie says, “There’s a town in Texas with almost the same spelling. Nacogdoches. There they pronounce it , “Nack-a-DOATCH-es.”
Robert laughs. “Yes, that’s the way you’d think they’d pronounce it here. But here they say, NACK-a-dish.” We all laugh. Yes, I remember. Robert is a very warm, hearty person. No wonder we’ve been friends for so long.
He says, “We missed my first choice for movies, but that’s OK. There’s another one showing now that I also wanted to see. ‘Green Room’. Have you heard of it?”
I have never heard of it and have no idea what it is about. “Oh, that’s a movie I’ve been wanting to see!” exclaims Natalie. “I saw a discussion about it on TV. A sort of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ in reverse.”
“Yeah,” answers Robert, offering her his charming smile. “Natalie, would you care to join us?”
“Robert, neither of us has eaten,” I say. “Shall we eat somewhere and then go to the movies?
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Robert says. “I haven’t eaten either. Natalie, how about coming with us for dinner AND the movies?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass on that,” Natalie says. “I’m pretty tired after that drive. I think I’ll just find a nearby motel and rest.”
“What about just dinner then?” I ask. “We could eat here at the Burger King. That’s really close! And fast.”
Robert turns up his nose a little. Well, I don’t usually eat at Burger King either. But, in a pinch…And sometimes in Germany, I’m just in the mood for junk food. I give in to my urge, and really enjoy my junk food burger.
“I think we can find something better than that,” he says. “There’s a restaurant right in the cinema complex where we’re going to the movies. You can bring your food into the theater if you’re not finished by the time the movie starts.”
Natalie interrupts. “Look – I’m really tired. Why don’t you two just go on ahead, and I’ll find something around here.” She’s so sensitive and thoughtful. Actually, all the people I met in Texas were very warm and friendly. But Natalie has that grace – and a Texas twang – that feels sort of Southern, as I imagine it to be. And she had a copy of “Southern Living,” a magazine that I studied while with her and Rhett. Natalie is from East Texas, also considered, at least by Texans, as part of the South.
A few more minutes of cajoling, and “Are you sure?”s. And then Robert puts my luggage into the trunk of his car. More kisses and hugs and thank yous, and it was nothings, but it really was a huge thing Natalie did for me, and then we’re off.
Robert has never driven into Shreveport from this location, and we have to drive around a bit before we find the Robinson Film Center, where “Green Book” will be showing soon. I look out my window at the buildings. Shreveport looks a little like a smaller version of some medium-sized city, like St. Paul, perhaps. There are a few tall buildings, but not that many. I don’t know what a Southern city should look like, so all I can tell is that this city looks American.
We enter the building, buy tickets for our movie, and head for the restaurant.
“They have some Cajun-Creole things on the menu you might like,” Robert says. He orders a jambalaya and I order Cajun pasta. It is delicious! But there isn’t enough time to finish our meal. The food is definitely different than food I’ve ever eaten in the North, and much better than the food at Burger King. But the restaurant has that trendy industrial feel you see in many restaurants in the North. Sort of casual hip, with young servers of various colors but no southern accents. So far, the South doesn’t feel that much different from anything else I’ve seen in the North. There isn’t enough time to finish our meal. We take our food into the theater and finish it as we watch the movie.
We both enjoy the film very much. The subject, racism in the North and South, is exactly what I’d like to find more about while here. We discuss the film during the hour’s drive to Natchichoches.
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a green book blacks had to go by in the South,” I say. We agree, even if there is still inequality in the South, at least the legal oppression has ceased.
“You’ll see a lot of African Americans in Natchitoches,” Robert says. “It’s about 80% black. I have a black cleaning woman. There’s a story behind that.” And he tells me the story of his black cleaning lady. There is a sort of caste system in Louisana, Robert discovered after he moved there from the North. He was told that he should get a Creole cleaner because they were supposed to be better and more reliable than blacks. A Creole, says Robert, is anyone who is mixed-race. They can be black, Native American, Asian, whatever – with white mixed in. There are a lot of Creoles in Louisiana, he says. You can recognize them because they are lighter-skinned than the people they call black, or African American. Robert dutifully hired the Creole cleaning lady recommended to him. But she was lazy and often didn’t show up for work, or did her work sloppily. He had to let her go. He found the black cleaner he has now, and they love each other. She often brings her grandchild to keep her company as she cleans, and everybody is happy.
As we enter Natchitoches, Robert explains things as we drive past. I see a river sparkling from the light of street lights and lamps illuminating it. “That’s the Cane River,” he says. And, “That’s the house where they filmed ‘Steel Magnolias’. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you?” Well, yes, on the plane to Texas someone talked to me about what to see while in Louisiana and she mentioned the film. Julia Roberts stars in it. I like her. Maybe I’ll have a chance to see the film, I think to myself. My cousins had also mentioned the film. But I can’t see anything – it’s been dark for hours, and now it’s going on midnight.
Robert’s house appears to have been built just after the second world war, perhaps in the late nineteen-forties or fifties. When we enter the house, it feels much more spacious than it looks like from the outside. It smells of lilies. Robert says, “You noticed! My boyfriend brought them here to me last weekend when he was here for a visit.” I love the color themes Robert has chosen – brightly colored walls in every room, with furnishings to fit the color of each room. The floors are all hardwood. I have never been Robert’s houseguest, and I am delighted to discover his taste. There is a distinct feel of Italy here. Robert is an expert on Italian history and has been there countless times. Occasionally his travels have taken him to Germany, to Peter and me.
The guest room, my room, is painted a deep aubergine shade, with a big poster bed, a gorgeous Tiffany lamp and a potted plant. It is very late. I brush my teeth quickly and flop into into bed. I’m too tired to worry about differences between Robert and my cousins, or between him and me, for that matter. Seconds after my head touches the pillow and I have found a comfortable sleeping position, I am dead to the world.
I lie in bed this morning a little longer, listening to the strangely comforting drone of the oxygen machine. We have no plans for today. Today it’s family time. It will be an up-day for Rhett, and there is time for me to read some of the magazine articles Natalie has written, chat with Rhett and Natalie, and share photographs of my family over the past year. Perhaps I can show them a little of my life before Peter died. I can show photos of family members who traveled across the world to attend his funeral. Perhaps I can go for a walk in Rhett and Natalie’s neighborhood, exercising off some of all that delicious food I have consumed in the past five days.
I think about Rhett and Natalie’s life. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have a terminal illness and be sick, year after year, wondering when the last breath will be. It has always my worst nightmare thought, as an asthma patient who suffered horrifying asthma attacks in younger years, to think of inhaling less and less air until you finally suffocate. Thank God I haven’t had one of these in decades. Still, the fear lingers. Rhett tries to reassure me, telling me he feels no pain. His oxygen machine can always adjust, giving him the level of oxygen he needs. Still. What a life. To have ever-diminishing energy.
I find in Natalie a kindred spirit and an inspiration. I have always found her to be gracious, calm, even-tempered, kind, and able to joke about some of the less pleasant things she is forced to endure. For me, she is the epitome of the devoted Christian wife, as I also strove to be. She has to constantly adapt her life to the ups and downs of her husband, as I had to do after Peter’s stroke. She has to find a way to live a life of her own, while always being available for whatever could befall her husband. And she does this with apparent ease, at least as far as I, an outsider, can see. She sees people. I have already met some of them – her cousin and her dear friend, both of whom she is close to and sees regularly. She does get out and take part in interesting things of life. She is active in their church, she sees the grandchildren whenever possible; she talks to her friends, her kids and grandchildren on the phone when too busy to get together. She reads and watches television sometimes. Natalie is beginning to feel more like a sister-in-law than a cousin-in-law. I guess that is only fitting, since Rhett was the brother I never had until I was six. In spite of the hardship each of them has to face, I find myself a little jealous of one thing. They are both of sound mind. They can carry on an adult conversation. This was hardly possible for me after Peter’s stroke. He was often in an entirely different world and unable to grasp his situation. It was a gift from heaven to have a husband I could care for and share some things with, after the agony of watching him in a waking coma for months, but I often felt lonely not being able to talk about my life with him in a way he could respond to. I missed my husband, even as he sat before me, even as we sat at the dinner table together, eating meals he helped me prepare.
I get up and walk into the kitchen, where Natalie is preparing breakfast. I share some of my thoughts with her. She laughs. “I’m no hero,” she says. Exactly what I told people who told me the same thing.
Rhett joins us for breakfast. It feels almost normal.
They tell me about a cruise they took to Alaska last year. Rhett would like to be able to travel with Natalie to Europe and go to England with me, where we could visit the homes, farms, churches and towns in Cornwall our ancestors dwelt in. Could he do this? They tell me how they traveled to the West Coast with oxygen machines, apparatus and all equipment necessary for survival, in addition to their suitcases. “A cruise is a great way to travel when you’re disabled,” they assure me. Rhett slept in the berth in their cabin on his down days, and on the up days he could participate fully in life on board. They met and became friends with another couple – it was wonderful! But could we do this? Rhett assures me he could, by flying first-class to England. Natalie’s expression reveals skepticism.
We look at family photos and then chat about this and that, and various family members. Eventually we get down to the subject I’ve been hoping to talk about – their view on the political scene in America.
“What do you think about Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border?” I ask. “You live in a border state. You see how many Mexicans and Hispanics are here.” Knowing that my cousins are politically conservative, I assume they will agree with Trump on everything.
“We don’t need a wall,” both chime in with one firm voice. “Even our Republican Governor doesn’t think we need one.” I feel reassured again. Maybe we’re pretty much on the same page.
I mention that I have downloaded the audio book Becoming, by Michelle Obama, onto my cell phone. I know my cousin doesn’t think much of President or Michelle Obama. This leads to a discussion of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I have read a little about it and about police brutality, but I must admit, I am not very well informed. Here I get a very different response to the one about immigrants and the wall. “I think Michelle Obama has been a divisive force on this subject,” they say. “She approves uncritically of everything this movement stands for, and this movement is divisive. They have spread outright lies about some of the stories you hear in the news.” They go on for a while about how divisive America has become.
“Why can’t people just listen to each other, even when they disagree, without tearing each other apart?” they say. I heard the same thing from my sister when I visited her at Christmas. I decided while visiting her and her family that I would ask my questions of everyone I talked to on this trip, whether it raised hackles or not. I would express my opinions as well, in as kind and inclusive manner as possible. Why be part of the silent, frustrated masses, afraid to open their mouths because they have been shut down the few times they dared to talk about the issues that matter to them? Surely it is possible if we remain polite and respectful. I will not keep silent. I say to Americans, keep speaking. But even more than that, keep listening, and always stay respectful. I hope this culture of mutual respect and honest sharing of opinions while listening to one another can grow in the land I am proud to be a citizen of. I may not live there anymore, have questions about where home is, and been influenced by my life abroad, but I am still a loyal American. And I want to see our country’s people open up to each other! I am sure we have more uniting us than dividing us.
Rhett tells me about one of the favorite causes of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the killing of black man Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson. He defends the policeman, who he says was terrified for his own life, and did what anyone would do in self-defense. I haven’t followed the story carefully, living in Europe, so don’t really have an opinion one way or another. But I tell Rhett and Natalie that my black relatives have told many stories about how they have experienced racism. We are listening and speaking respectfully to each other.
For the record, here is what former President Obama has to say about “Black Lies Matter”. I found this quote in an article in the online publication “The Undefeated“.
“I know that there’s some who have criticized even the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ as if the notion is as if other lives don’t matter. We get ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter.’ I understand the point they’re trying to make. I think it’s also important for us to understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African-Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability and so we shouldn’t get too caught up somehow in this notion that people who are asking for fair treatment are somehow automatically anti-police or trying to only look out for black lives as opposed to others. I think we have to be careful about playing that game because, obviously, that’s not what is intended.”
Rhett then goes on to tell me a story of something that happened in his own childhood, while living in Virginia. His father, my uncle, was a US Naval officer and the family was continually on the move. They lived in Brazil, Portugal, and various parts of the United States. I believe travel broadens one’s perspective on life, and so it was with my aunt, uncle and their family. At this time, my uncle’s navy career had brought him and the family to Virginia. My aunt and uncle didn’t believe in school segregation, so they sent their all their children to public desegregated schools. Almost everyone they knew was sending their children to private, segregated schools, but they courageously chose a different path for their children. One evening the family looked out their living room window to see a cross burning on their lawn. The Ku Klux Klan had targeted their family. The children remained in their public, integrated schools.
We go out that evening for dinner, oxygen machine and all, with a family friend of theirs. Over dinner I learn that this friend, a stranger to me, prayed for my husband with Rhett and Natalie faithfully for four years after he suffered his stroke, until he finally passed away last year. Something melts inside my heart. This is family, here in Texas, so far away from the northern State I grew up in, but we are tied together. Their lives are very different from mine, and we don’t always agree about everything. But here are people I can truly count on. I feel more settled and relaxed than I have felt in a long time.
Now we’re finally getting weather more like I hoped to find in the South! I brought along clothes for every kind of weather imaginable – from bitter cold and snow, which I experienced in New York City for a couple of days, to sleeveless tops. We’re not there yet, but the sun is shining, and I only need a light jacket or sweater on top of my normal winter clothes when outdoors. Not so bad! And the sun is shining.
Rhett will be down for most of the day today, so it’s a day out for Natalie and me. We join her friend Jill and head for the Texas Hill Country, a geographically unique area and the border between the Southwest and the Southeast. It’s a pleasant drive through rolling hills wooded with live oak trees. Live oaks, I have been told, are oak trees that don’t shed their leaves in winter, hence the term “live oak”. You can find huge oak trees here that are hundreds of years old.
Our destination is Myrtle Falls, where we are booked for lunch at the famed Blue Bonnet Café. Apparently this restaurant is so popular, you have to book days ahead of time to get a table here. “Wait till you try their pies,” promises Natalie. “They’re spectacular.”
There is a line outside the café when we arrive, but we don’t have to wait long to get inside, where we have to wait several more minutes. We peruse reviews of the restaurant posted on the walls from newspapers as far away as New York City’s Wall Street Journal.
We peer at the pies displayed in the glass cases along the corridor. Massive piles of meringue or whipped cream alongside more modest-looking fruit pies. Hm-m-m. What kind of pie shall I order for dessert? But first we need a table, a menu, and then we can order.
I’ve been seeing catfish on the menus of the restaurants I’ve been in thus far in Texas. Apparently catfish is a popular southern, or Texas item. I’m familiar with catfish, having grown up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. But in Minnesota, with its huge northern lakes and Lake Superior, the largest fresh-water lake in the world, catfish is considered inferior. In Minnesota, walleyes, lake or river trout and northern pikes are much more prized. But we’re in the South – or rather Texas, where the lakes seem to be man-made reservoirs. I order fried catfish. It comes with corn on the cob, green beans and a salad. It’s not bad, much better than I had imagined. Jill has ordered deep-fried okra as her vegetable. I try a piece. Wow! I thought I didn’t like okra, but this has everything – mushiness, rich flavor and a crispy crust. All the meals come with tender, luscious dinner rolls, which seem to be popular in the Texas restaurants.
And now for the hard decision – which pie to order. I love the tang of lemon, so opt for a lemon cream pie and coffee. It arrives with at least a cup of whipped cream on top! The other two order chocolate cream pie – one with meringue and the other with whipped cream. The pieces are huge, but I have to admit, I am a bit disappointed. In my piece I can barely discern the lemon. It is wonderfully creamy, but there is no tang to this pie. Give me a tarte au citron any day! Or my mom’s lemon meringue pie. That was was mouth-puckering tangy! The chocolate pies are likewise lacking in intensity. Oh, well. The pies are fine otherwise, and the lunch was, on the whole, delicious.
After lunch we explore the town a bit. It reminds me of Georgetwon, with small, tasteful boutiques along the main street. But there don’t seem to be many shops to choose from, so the town somehow lacks the charm that I sense in Georgetown. We find a lovely gift shop, though, and I buy some soap scented with blue bonnets. Oh, to be in Texas when the lupines, as blue bonnets are also called, bloom! Rhett has rhapodized about the field across the street from their house, transformed into a blue carpet humming with bees every spring. I have to settle for a picture post card. Texas is the “blue bonnet State,” it informs me.
We drive a little outside the town and admire the landscape. Here I can really see that I am no longer in the eastern part of the United States. Not only are there live oaks, but also prickly pear cactuses. The homes look very different too, almost Mediterranean.
We drive on. We want to do a Texas wine tasting. Natalie explains that viniculture is becoming increasingly popular in Texas. We stop at the Flat Creek Estate, a short drive out of Marble Falls. It is beautifully serene, tidy with precisely pruned vines, reminiscent of vineyards I have seen in the rolling hillsides of Italy and France. I love the Meditarranean-style wine-tasting room! I could spend a couple of days here, which is entirely possible, because they rent rooms here.
We sit down at a table in the tasting room and order two wine-tastings, one red wine and the other white. We are going to mix and share. The friendly sommelier explains that most of the wines they sell are combined from several vineyards and mixed here. This is unexpected. In the vineyards I have seen in Europe, each vineyard tends to sell exclusively their own wines and not to mix, although I have seen shops that sell both wines from the vineyard and imported wines bottled elsewhere. Jill doesn’t like wine, so will not taste. Natalie and I sample the wines. We both discover that we like the same wines. As we leave, she asks me, “What did you think of the wines?”
“They were nice,” I say, “but I must say, I prefer the European wines I have had in Europe.”
“That’s just what your Peter said, last time y’all were here.” So, Peter and I shared the same opinon. I don’t remember either of us having tasted wine the last time we were here, but Natalie remembers. I am comforted, affirmed in my judgment from beyond the grave. I always thought Peter had excellent taste in wines. I sense companionship with him, even though he is on the other side of eternity. We are still in accord with one another, even in how we perceive Texas wine.
I finally get to pay for our wine-tasting. Natalie has been paying for me wherever we go, and I am impressed with her generous hospitality. Is this also Texas?
We drive home in the late-afternoon sunlight, and stop for gas. What a deal! Today, premium gas is going for $2.55 a gallon. The last I checked in Germany, it was about €1.50 a liter! Natalie explains. “Petroleum products are hardly taxed in Texas.”
We drop Jill off and drive home. Rhett is finally awake and up, and we can talk about the day. Natalie has brought two pieces of pie home for him, and he eagerly opens the cardboard box. He is so sick, but how lovely to be able to enjoy things like a piece of pie, no matter how ill we are.
Today is a “down day” for Rhett, but Natalie has it all planned for me, and it sounds good! I am opening up more and more to life in Texas. Natalie has written articles in a local magazine about various aspects of life in Georgetown, and from what I have read in snippets here and there, Texan life as it is lived in Georgetown sounds wholesome, a quality that appeals to me very much. I like the fact that the Christian faith is presented in this part of the country frankly, unapologetically and naturally. Of course it isn’t the only religion in America, but this faith and life philosophy is represented by a huge number of Americans. Why not be matter-of-fact about it, not overly defending it, but not castigating it either? Of course, in New York City, where I’ve just come from and where I lived for so many years, most people I knew don’t go to church, and there are probably many more non-Christians as well as people who practice different religions in New York than in Texas. Maybe for that reason, faith as expressed in organized religion seems to get pushed into the background of conversation and in the pages of newspapers and magazines.
We meet Natalie’s cousin Sandy for lunch. “Here we are – at Dos Salsas – the best place in all of Goergetown for chicken tortilla soup,” she suggests. The soup is delicious. My Peter would have loved it. I wish for a moment he could be sitting with me here eating chicken tortilla soup. We chat while eating, and I learn a lot about life for the retired in Texas from Sandy, who is taking courses at a “senior university”. She is taking one course in memoir writing and another on espionage during the Cold War. All students and professors at this senior university are senior citizens. I have never heard of such a thing – a university for senior citizens? “Oh,” Natalie and Sandy chime in together, “Georgetown is a mecca for senior citizens. You should see Sun City. This is a part of Georgetown where only senior citizens are allowed to live, and they have their own university.” I feel a pang of longing tugging at my heart. How I would love to take a creative writing course in English. Courses are offered in German here. But I don’t write in German. I could take an online course – I have a friend who has done this. But how nice it would be to have classmates you could share your writing with, people you could interact with face-to-face. Sandy says there are courses on all sorts of subjects. I’m not sure, on the other hand, what the big deal is about all these courses for senior citizens. I have no problem being in a learning environment with younger people.
Natalie and I leave Sandy and drive into the Georgetown town center. There is a main street in this town, and charming little shops and boutiques. I am reminded of Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent, where he travels from one small town to another, all over the United States, finding an appalling dearth of charm. The town centers, he says, have all disappeared, giving way to strip malls, chain food restaurants and shopping malls. He would be happy to discover Georgetown. Unfortunately for me, the day is rainy, so we have to walk through the streets with umbrellas.
Natalie is an expert on Georgetown, having researched and written so many articles about her town. She tells me that in 1976 an ordinance was passed in order to protect all the historic buildings in the town center. The roads and many buildings were also restored during this time. In 1977 the historic district was placed on a National Register of Historic Places.
Natalie takes me to the courthouse. What’s so special about a courthouse? I wonder. But I dutifully follow her into a splendid wood-paneled courtroom. “This is the room where the first trial against the Ku Klux Klan was won,” she says. “This trial took place inthe 1920s, and the room has not changed since that time.” She recounts the tale of what were actually several trials. The Ku Klux Klan practiced hate crimes against more than black people, she says. In this particular case, there was a white traveling salesman, Robert Burleson, who happened to be in Georgetown when the Klan targeted him, flogging and tarring him. Perhaps he held more liberal views than those of the Klan members. They were prosecuted by the young District Attorney, Dan Moody, who won a series of trials against the Klan. The jury gave the Klan members the maximum possible punishment in all cases, and from that time the power of the Klan in Texas was weakened. Moody went on later to become the Governor of Texas.
We stroll along Main Street. Natalie takes me into a consignment craft shop. It is beautiful, with tasteful objects like quilts, pottery and gifts sewn by artisans from around Georgetwon. “This shop is run by senior citizens,” she says. “You have to be over fifty years old in order to display or sell your work here.” Even the women working behind the counter, volunteers, are over fifty.
I find a bib someone inscribed with “Spit happens.” This is just too cute. I buy it for my future grandson, who will be born in a few months, along with another small item, a cotton flannel padded burping cloth with a pattern of old-fashioned locomotives. I chat with one of the volunteers at the cash register, a German woman who now lives in Texas. It’s fun speaking German in this strange setting!
We continue along Main Street, browsing for a few minutes in a chic boutique. There seem to be no chain stores in this town. Everything is local and tasteful. We stop in a toy store/ice cream parlor. “You know how you were just speaking German? This place is run by Germans,” Natalie says. The toys are the kind I would see in a German toy stores, wooden Brico trains, wooden puzzles, and plenty of Playmobil and Lego. “The ice cream is a big drawing factor,” she says. People love to shop here and the kids get to combine it with ice cream.” There are unusual flavors here, like amaretto cheesecake, and more traditional ones like chocolate or strawberry. We each order a dish of ice cream and sit down and enjoy being kids again for a few minutes.
I am impressed with Georgetown. Yes, I could imagine living here!
Today I must do laundry. I’ve packed about ten days’ worth of clothing that will need to be washed weekly, and shirts and sweaters for both warm and frigid temperatures. Here in Roundrock, in the middle of central Texas, today is like an average winter’s day in Germany, nothing like the warm, almost summer weather I had anticipated. This motel serves no breakfast – only coffee, so Natalie’s care package comes in handy. But there is a laundromat. I walk across the hall to the laundromat and try to talk to a Hispanic teenager doing what looks to be the family laundry. His English is sufficient to tell me that I need quarters to do the laundry – a lot of them. I don’t have more than one or two. I walk down a long corridor to reception. The receptionist, also Hispanic from all appearances, is engrossed in a long phone call. Finally she hangs up and glances over at me. “Excuse me,” I say. “I need to do my laundry, and it looks like I’ll need quarters. Do you have any?” She shakes her head.
“No, we’re all out of quarters. I can call and ask, but they won’t be able to bring me any until this afternoon. But you can go to the IHOP over there – ” she points out the window to a pancake restaurant across the street – “and ask there. Or at the gas station.” I see there is a gas station, also across the street.
I thank her and head out to the pancake house. No quarters. None of the guests waiting to eat there have any either. I ask at the gas station. No quarters. I walk down the road a ways to another shop. No quarters there either. And wherever I ask, I encounter people who look like they could be from India or Pakistan, or somewhere in South America. Texas seems to be full of immigrants! I go back to the receptionist and tell her I’m going to really need those quarters. I can’t do laundry for now, and there is nothing else to do but sit in my room and read a book or watch TV. I feel trapped in rural Texas.
A few hours later, Rhett and Natalie both show up at the motel to take me home for lunch. I’ve packed a change of clothes to bring along – we’re going to a Valentine’s Dinner at their church in the evening. It feels so good to see familiar faces! Natalie serves a delicious cream of shrimp soup she has doctored up, and a salad with some bread. I think it tastes great, but Natalie apologizes – she has only improved on a can of soup she bought at the supermarket. She leaves to attend a funeral. “You two can catch up while I’m gone – I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
Rhett looks awful, attached to a breathing tube. Breathing is an effort. He looks exhausted, and this is one of his scheduled “up” days. His doctor came up with a way he could engage with some of the life around him, by decreasing meds every few days, so he can be awake and alert. But the “up” days are so strenuous, he has to sleep for two days afterwards. What a life! And this has been going on for years. I feel so sorry for him. He was so vital, so interesting and funny when I knew him during my childhood and youth. Now we have some interests, our Christian faith and our basic values in common, but politically he’s quite conservative, and I’m more liberal. It will be interesting to see what he and Natalie have to say about the political situation right now, and the wall that Trump wants to build in Texas. We talk a a bit about this and that, and I show some photos, but I can see just talking to me wears him out.
Chronic illness is one of the sad things about aging, and I am now among the ranks of the aging, at least statistically. My sister has had cancer and chemotherapy, and another sister has already died. She was only sixty-three. My husband has passed away, suffered a stroke that strucke him down even before he reached sixty! Old age hits some people awfuly young, it seems. I must be fortunate to be in such good health. It is hard to be here, watching my cousin suffer, but this is a part of life I must face.
He leaves to rest a bit, and I am left alone in the living room. I wonder what I’m doing here. Why did I come to Texas? Am I an intrusion for my cousin, or a welcome guest? I feel uncomfortable, wishing I were back in New York, or perhaps even in Germany. I feel very out of place here.
I read from the book I brought along until Natalie returns. “You may think this is hard on Rhett, having you here,” she says. “And any exertion is. But we’re so happy you came. Rhett has been looking forward to your visit and talking about it for months!” Okay, so I can at least trust that I am meant to be here, even if I feel trepidation right now. “And I apologize for the mess in the house. We’ll have your room ready for you by tomorrow night. Then things will settle down a bit.” Another reassuring thing to hear. Natalie is always so wonderful and understanding.
An hour or so later, we change into our good clothes and head out to the church. “We’re going to be spoiled,” Natalie says. “This is something the church does for the ‘more mature’ members, as they call us seniors!” I truly feel like a visitor from another country. Yes, we decorated shoe boxes in school as kids and bought valentines for our friends to put in each other’s shoe boxes, but all that has long since faded out of my life. The only way Valentine’s Day gets celebrated in Germany is that the florists advertize it, and people do buy chocolate or flowers for their sweethearts. I have always made or bought a card somewhere for Peter and bought chocolate or flowers, and he’s done the same for me. But the day doesn’t get celebrated institutionally, like here in this church, or like what I experienced at school.
Natalie used to be a teacher before she retired, and she has grandchildren who are in elementary school. “Nowadays, kids have to buy cards for everyone in the class,” she explains. “No more favoritism is allowed.” That sounds like a nice step up from kids in my day, when we each counted our cards, with some privileged few feeling perhaps smug or entitled, and others excluded. I was always in the middle somewhere, but felt bad for those who got few or perhaps no cards at all except the one my mother made me put in each kid’s box.
The fellowship hall/gymnasium is all decked out in red, the tables beautifully set. Everybody seems to be wearing red – even the men have red shirts on. Young people from the church escort us to our assigned places at tables, and then proceed to serve us. Looking at the people here, I feel a little as though I were back in Minnesota, where I come from. This church was started by Swedish Methodists, and still has many Scandinavians, the predominant culture I experienced growing up in Minnesota. There are some people of color here too, but here there is an atmosphere akin to what I experienced as a child in white, middle-class Minnesota.
The food is indeed delicious – chicken breast in a tasty creamy sauce, with potatoes gratin, vegetables, yummy salad, a fruit punch to drink, just like in my childhood experience. All served on paper plates and cups and plastic cutlery. Now that is different from Germany, where people have always been a bit “”green” and would be horrified at the idea of using paper and plastic. For dessert we get strawberry shortcake – and chocolate-coated strawberries! And everybody gets a red rose or a carnation.
After dinner, people start to dance. Now this is something that never would have happened in our Baptist Church in Minnesota, and I bet still doesn’t! The couples look so happy, relaxed and elegant, moving together comfortably. We play a form of Bingo with questions about oldie music, starting from around the 1960s. Here I come in surprisingly strong, and between all of us at our table supplying answers to each other, Rhett wins. He looks happy, and people have been telling him all evening how good it is to see him there. It’s been a fun evening. I have truly enjoyed myself among these “mature” people, feeling very welcome and relatively comfortable in this setting in small-town Texas.
Rhett and Natalie drop me off at my motel. The receptionist has quarters for me! Life is beginning to look up.