On this, my last morning in Louisiana, I can enjoy a leisurely morning with Robert. I have finished the novella “The Death of Ivan Illyich”, and we discuss it together over coffee and oatmeal. I’m so glad Robert suggested that I read this – the discussion draws us even closer. My Christian faith is the part of my life that I most cherish, the thing that is my mainstay, even when it causes me difficulty, prodding me to go in directions I might not normally walk in, seemingly prodding me into a direction that is less and less self-centered. I can discuss with Robert why this is. My story and the story I just read are intertwined. “The Death of Ivan Illyich” is about the emptiness of a self-centered, materialistic life, the slow realization of this because of physical suffering, remorse following a gradual facing the mistakes of one’s life and receiving forgiveness, and the ensuing joy in experiencing redemption. In part, I have experienced some of what Tolstoy was writing about. I certainly experienced the joy of discovering God’s love and care while agonizing over why my husband (and I) had to suffer so much following his massive stroke. I discovered that in order to find meaning and joy in suffering, I had to accept the path of suffering itself. There are no detours. You have to walk along this path with all the mud, brambles, ice and loneliness. Robert and I are able to talk about this, and I realize that, although Robert isn’t quite sure about who God is or even God’s existence, or about Jesus’s mission here on earth, he fully believes in the necessity of facing up to one’s weaknesses and mistakes, confessing them to someone, and in the power of forgiveness and acceptance. Amen!
Another realization as we talk is that I simply can’t accept some of the things some Christians in my life say about gays. Other Christians say that over the centuries, we’ve interpreted these Bible passages speaking about homosexuality in a very different way than was intended.
Robert and I have spent more time this week than we ever have in the past, and we have discussed all sorts of things. The more we talk, the more I come to respect him. He is sure of his identity. Who am I to hold that against him? He is one of the most honest, kindest people I know. He has talked at length about his partner, and I see that he struggles in many of the same ways I did in my relationship with my husband, always looking for the way of love. He is committed to this relationship. How could anyone hold that against him? I am so grateful to count him as one of my friends.
After breakfast Robert drives me to Shreveport so that I can rent a car for the next part of my journey, which will eventually take me to Tennessee to visit my brother Jason. Thanks to the intervention of my bank in Germany, all goes well with the car rental, and we drive back separately to Natchitoches. Later in the afternoon we drive separately to Natchez, Mississippi, where we will spend our last few hours together. We’re following the advice of one of his friends who, upon hearing that I’ll be heading to Tennessee, said, “Well, then, you two have GOT to see Natchez first! What a town! You’ve never seen so many antebellum mansions in one place before.” Robert agrees to come with me, so we book a suite at one of them, Monmouth Inn.
In the late afternoon we finally leave flat, somewhat swampy Louisiana and cross the Mississippi River, entering Natchez, Mississippi. I thought it was pretty wide in Minnesota, where it begins, albeit as a tiny stream, but it does get pretty broad in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I come from. That ain’t nothin’ compared to here! Here it feels like the Mississippi must take at least three minutes to cross, driving fifty miles an hour! But it’s only sixty feet wide. Natchez is high, resting on steep bluffs over the river.
We drive up a long drive and glimpse a proud, grandiose, gleaming white, pillared structure prominently standing watch at the top of hill before we pull into the parking lot. As soon as we leave our cars we exclaim about what we have just seen. What an spectacular mansion! It is apparently one of the most splendid in Natchez, a fabulous specimen of Greek revival architecture. If only my Peter were here – he’d love this place! When we check in, we are cordially greeted, as though we were eagerly awaited friends. This estate is really a complex of seven outbuildings and grounds. The main house is so magnificent, I am immediately reminded of “Gone with the Wind”. The trees are as majestic as the house – live oak trees with resurrection fern clinging to the branches, and other tall trees with Spanish moss dripping down.
We check in and find our suite in one of the adjoining buildings, an erstwhile carriage house.
Robert, ever the historian, explains a bit about why Natchez is where it is, high above the Mississippi. “The slaveowners had their cotton plantations on the other side of the Mississippi, in Louisiana. But because the land is low and swampy, it isn’t suitable for living. Only the slaves lived on the plantations. The slaveowners built enormous, fabulous mansions on the other side of the river, in Natchez. At the time before the Civil War, Natchez was the wealthiest town in the United States!” But Robert has never been here either, so he is just as eager as I to explore this place.
Our rooms are also elegant and grand. I get to sleep in a four-poster bed so high I can hardly climb in! The bathroom toiletries are from Occitane. I feel like Scarlet O’Hara.
We rest a while in our rooms. As I lounge in my room, I have the strangest sensation of being in the presence of both my departed husband and my parents, also deceased. I imagine them all cheering me on in my choice to stay at this elegant hotel and see some of the best of the South. I wonder if Peter or my parents are actually aware of what I am doing at this moment.
Early in the evening Robert and I walk to the buiding where aperitifs and snacks are being offered. On the wall hangs a portrait of the man who owned and developed Monmouth during the Civil War – John Quitman. We learn that he was the Governor of Mississippi at the time he owned this house.
In the main house there is a renowned restaurant, where we have booked dinner. I play the piano for a few minutes for Robert on the grand piano in the entry area before we go into the restaurant. We enjoy a long, leisurely dinner together this evening, which will conclude our time together in Louisiana and now Mississippi. I enjoy our last evening with Southern cuisine – light and fluffy baking powder biscuits, sausage gumbo, and chicken breasts with an orange sauce. But we still have several hours in the morning to explore the grounds and perhaps see a bit more of Natchez, before I drive off to Tennessee.
Today Robert shows me some more of Natchitoches, the town he has lived in for over twenty years now. On previous days we’ve looked at the university and shops. Now we look at a couple of churches. We talk about his life here. I’m curious about why he has just shown me the Episcopal church, but I don’t have to wait long for an answer. It isn’t so much about the nice art work inside, he says, that draws him to this church, which he attends now and then. So he does still go to church! “I feel accepted in that church,” he says. “They accept gays.” We talk a bit more about faith. I sense he is more of a believer than he will admit, but some theology he’s learned and perhaps the similarities between some of the Bible stories and accounts in other world religions have also made him skeptical about whether any of them are true. For me, the truths in the Bible are not necessarily about what literally happened, but more about spiritual truths underlying all of reality. Accepting not knowing answers to everything, but holding on to what is etched into my soul keeps me a true believer. I certainly don’t know it all, and I’m not certain of things I used to think I was certain of. But I don’t want to get into a discussion of opinions with him, and besides, we’ve moved on to looking at his first home in Natchitoches.
I wonder about what is home for him. Now that Robert is retired, does he want to stay here? He tells me he thinks seriously about moving back to Minnesota, where he and I both come from. I tell him I would never want to return to Minnesota to live. If any place does not feel like home, it is Minnesota. I left Minnesota after college because it did not feel like home to me. I used to agonize about this when I lived there. What was it about Minnesota that I couldn’t accept? It was partly the long, frigid winters, but not only that. I came to essentially understand my problem as one of not finding kindred spirits. It felt like I couldn’t really connect with the people in my life. They were friendly and seemingly open, but conversation topics seemed to begin and end with benign topics. I was always looking for more. I found it easier to talk to people in New York City, people with edges I could hold onto. But I came back to Minnesota to try living there again, going to the University of Minnesota, where I finished graduate school. But it still didn’t feel right for me, even though so much of my family was living there. Perhaps also because so much of my family was still living there? By now I only have one of six siblings living in Minnesota. I remind Robert that I ended up back in New York City, where I had just spent the previous six-plus years before moving back to Minnesota. If there is anyplace in America that still feels like home to me, I say, it would be New York City.
“I could easily live in Minnesota,” Robert answers. “I have several close friends there.”
I know that Robert has an aging father and a complicated relationship with his only brother, who both live in Minnesota. That could be a drawing card, but also a hindrance, because he would be in even closer proximity to his brother. And what about the weather? Winters in Minnesota are a huge challenge, even to Minnesotans!
“I could come to Louisiana for a while in the winters, or travel. Houses are heated warmly in Minnesota. Yes, I could easily imagine living there. Here, it is true that I live in a beautiful home. But I don’t have a single gay friend here. Most of my gay friends are in Minnesota. My friends here and I are really close, but I must say, I do miss Minnesota.”
Here we are really different. I am enjoying my stay in Louisiana, but it feels like being in a different country, maybe like being in Canada.
Robert takes me to Fort St. Jean Baptiste, where the first European settlers, French and French-Canadians, came to Natchitoches in 1714. They were soldiers posted here to guard their village against the Spanish, who were also trying to settle in the settlement the French claimed as theirs. We see many buildings reconstructed exactly as they were in the eighteenth century. In some of them we see scenes depicting how the soldiers lived. We carry a written guide around with us, discussing what we see in each building.
At times, viewing the grounds and outhouses, I have the odd sensation that I am also with my husband. Both he and Robert shared a love of history. Being with Robert, memories of Peter become more vivid. I can understand what attracted me to him – formidable intellect, kindness and a welcoming easiness that made me feel comfortable. Of course, I have known Robert half my life, but life with my husband was characterized by that same general comfort and familiarity, until he suffered his tragic stroke. When you live with someone for many years, the romantic glow wears off, replaced by something I think I cherish even more in its way – the sense of easy familiarity, being family. You can talk or not talk. You know each other deeply, and just being together is pure comfort. I feel some of this with Robert.
After finishing our tour, we move onto something else that would have interested my husband – the Cane River Brewing Company. This little town in Louisiana actually has its own little brewery! I marvel at how something like this in such a rural area can thrive. But then, Natchitoches is a touristy place, as I keep discovering, and there are also plenty of college students, professors and pubs here to keep the brewery thriving. It looks like an odd structure to house a brewery. But Robert explains that it is actually an old cotton gin, almost one hundred years old, that was abandoned and then purchased and repurposed.
“Let’s get lunch here,” Robert suggests. “You can get a good meal here and we can also try out the beer. They have really good craft beers.” I’m not that much of a beer fan, but I do drink and enjoy the local beer from Cologne. But the parking lot looks remarkably empty for a pub/restaurant in the early afternoon. We walk inside – the doors are open, but there is no one inside. Lots of tables, but no one there. We stand there looking around for a few seconds, and then a young woman approaches us.
“Hello, can I help you?”
“We just wanted to get to get a bite to eat here and sample a little beer,” Robert says.
“Oh, sorry, but we’re closed today for business,” she says. “This is our day off.”
“What a shame,” Robert says. “My friend is visiting here from Germany and I thought it would be nice to show her a brewery, since Germany is famous for beer.”
“Oh, really?! You’re from Germany?!” She is suddenly excited. “All the guys are back there brewing beer right now. Maybe we can at least show you around.” She disappears for a few seconds behind a glass door and returns, beaming. “Come on, we’ll give you a little tour.”
This is my first time to actually see beer being brewed, although Cologne, the city I live in, has several Kölsch breweries. Kölsch, the beer of Cologne (Köln is the German name for this city) is only allowed to be brewed in Cologne. I have drunk it many times in all my years here, and have even had meals in a tiny brewery that offers tours. I just have never taken the opportunity to join a tour. Cologne also has brewery-hopping tours where you can sample all the various versions of Kölsch and decide which you like the best, if you’re sober enough to judge, after a few beers. The breweries I’ve seen in Cologne have huge copper kettles. Here I see gleaming stainless steel silos, like what you might see outside a barn in the Midwest.
We can hear machines whirring, but there isn’t much to see. The men in the back room are excited to see someone who actually lives in Germany, though. They proudly show me their malt and hops. “We import the malt from Germany, but make the beer here,” one of them explains. I thought that was cheating, but they say that is fine. The water, and I think the hops too, are local. None of the people in this brewery have ever been to Germany, but they tell me they’re longing to go and see some breweries for themselves.
They explain the process. I have watched my brother brew beer, so I’m not totally unfamiliar with the process. It smells good in here. I like the familiar aroma around Cologne of beer being brewed. I tell them I live in Cologne. “Oh, you’ll have to try our APA brew,” they say. “It’s a pale ale, but it’s fairly similar to Kölsch.”
So before we know it, we’re sampling all the beers, free of charge. To me, none of them have that mild, bland, almost sweet flavor of Kölsch. They all taste a bit bitter to me, although one has hints of citrus in it. But we both compliment them on their beer. This has been an unexpected adventure, and a real treat. The people in the brewery say good-bye to us as though we were old friends, and we drive off.
We go into town, where we can have a meal. By now we are really hungry. We enter a pub where Cane River beer is available on tap. Robert encounters some people he knows who are drinking in there, and we join them. He phones a friend he wants me to meet, and she comes and joins us. Later a professor and someone else Robert knows from the university walk into the pub. It is an old friends’ club! I think I can understand why he loves Natchitoches so much. We leave soon after eating – we’re invited to another friend’s for drinks. It seems a lot of drinking and a lot of eating gets done in Natchitoches! But it’s my last evening in Louisiana, so why not live it up!
Back home, after the friend we met in the bar has visited us for yet another glass of wine and snacks, and left, we are finally ready to settle down for the evening. We watch the film I’ve been hearing about ever since I said I was coming to Natchitoches – “Steel Magnolias”, with Julia Roberts. In the film I see the house we’ve been driving past every day, and I see a bit of Southern life depicted. I won’t divulge any spoilers here, but I do shed a few tears as I watch. And I comment to Robert that there are hardly any black people in the movie, only one maid. Of course, this movie was made many years ago, and racism was not as well understood as we are learning to see it and even recognize it in ourselves these days. But I do find it odd, in a town with an 80% black population. Come to think of it, though, I didn’t see many black people in the pub either, and all the people working in the brewery were white. The black people I saw on campus were cleaning personnel. Robert’s cleaning lady is black. When he moved to Natchitoches, his colleagues told him he should hire Creole help. “They’re better,” he was told. The Creoles are lighter-skinned than most of the blacks in Louisiana. Robert found his Creole cleaning help to be negligent, but he is good friends and pleased with his black cleaning lady. Where in town does she live? When we toured the town this morning, we drove through the section where the poor people live. Everyone I saw was black. The poor, the “minorities”, make up the majority of this town. I wonder how difficult it is for black people to be able to live in the more prosperous parts of town. I also wonder about the various lifestyles of the different races. Do black people in Natchitoches drink in pubs and eat gourmet meals like we’ve been eating? There is still so much that I don’t know – about the South, and about America, the country I grew up in. I have spent decades answering questions my German students of English ask me about America. They may think I know a lot, but now it feels like I hardly know anything.
I’m concerned about my money situation. Without any access to money, it’s hard to be a tourist! And ever since New York, when I typed in the wrong pin code at one bank, I can’t withdraw money from a bank with my credit card. Using the credit card to pay for purchases has worked, though – until now. Now I can’t get money with my debit card either for some reason. But I need some things desperately, like batteries for my battery-operated toothbrush.
I walk along Cane River Lake and a bit further to the local dollar store. I seem to be the only person on foot here! I have just about enough money to buy batteries, with only a couple dollars left over. I’m going to have to do something about my finances. I hope I can withdraw or charge today.
Then Robert and I do some more sightseeing. Today he takes me to the local historical museum. I learn more here about the history of Natchitoches. Of course, the folk artist Clementine Hunter is represented here, and there are some of her paintings on display. I learn that Natchitoches was the first place in Louisiana to be settled by whites. In 1714 the first French and Spanish settlers came.
I also learn other tidbits about the area. I learn that during World War II there were German prisoners of war in Louisiana. I learn that there was segregation in the military during World War II, and that the prisoners of war were treated better than the black soldiers. I learn that Robert’s university, Northwestern State, was segregated until 1960s. I’m impressed that the museum doesn’t gloss over the difficult, dirtier parts of Southern history.
After this we try to get money out of Robert’s bank. What an imposing building it is! It is spacious, with a stone floor and brocade armchairs for the customers to sit in as they wait. But they offer no way for me to get money. Even an officer can’t help me. This is one way to help stop me from spending money! I will have to call my bank in Germany first thing tomorrow, their time. That means I will have to stay up and wait until 2 am to call there, because of the time difference.
We do some window shopping. There is a cookware store with everything a hobby cook or even a professional could desire. We return to the chocolate shop. Robert has ordered some chocolates. There are lovely, creative chocolate creations here – chocolate-coated strawberries and pineapple, and even things like chocolate high heels! The owner comments about the banks in town. “There are so many banks no one has ever heard of anywhere else but here.” Could this be reason for the beautifully decorated interiors? They’re all privately owned. I am impressed by the charm and attractiveness of this town. This feels like America, and yet regional. No wonder tourists flock here.
Robert tells me there is a festival of lights along the lake every winter before Christmas. The downtown area by the lake is surrounded with lit-up Christmas displays and you can buy lots of goodies to eat. Sounds a little like the Christmas markets in Cologne!
We walk past a house – or is it a shop? The window looks looks like a shop display, but with an odd assortment of Bible verse and other inspiring plaques. teddy bears, plants, and knick-knacks. Why is Robert lingering here so long? Is this some sort of shop? Or a museum? Why are we here? Robert looks a little uncertain as to what to do next, but he doesn’t move. A woman opens the door and greets us. “Are you looking for something?” Robert says something about having been here a few years back with some European relatives, and that the owner showed them her home. We are in a private home, inhabited by a perfect stranger, and Robert is asking if we can have a tour! I have never heard of such a thing. The lady calls out, “Margie! Margie! There’s someone here to see you.” She asks us to come in, and there we stand – in someone’s living room. It is very inviting, but stuffed like an antique shop with various bric-a-brac. Statues are placed in various spots, there is a fireplace. I see a table with Christian books and Bibles, photos galore, silk flower arrangements, and huge plants. An old lady seated in the corner in a recliner chair, feet propped up, smiles up at us. She introduces herself as Margie. “You’re welcome to have a tour of my home,” she says, with a drawl so thick you could spread a slice of bread with it. It is as sweet as honey to my ears. She introduces the younger lady as Kim, her caregiver. “Kim, could you get these lovely people some iced tea?” She proudly announces that she is ninety-two years old.
I ask her why she is doing this. Her answer – we look like good people, and she does this as a way of sharing her faith. Robert tells her about my husband having been a pastor. I add that that I am a Christian, and she replies, “Well, then, we’re related.”
“Yes, we’re sisters in Christ,” I answer. She struggles to get up out of her chair, shuffles slowly to her walker, and proceeds to guide us through her home, room by room. Her home is immaculate, if full of trinkets.
“My husband was a banker,” she says. Aha! This home looks like something someone with money and a taste for old-fashioned comfort would live in. Her husband was the owner of a local bank, and they lived in a large old house in town. She grew up on a plantation. She must have been a Southern belle! I have never experienced such gracious hospitality. This must be what people are referring to when they talk about southern hospitality. The walls are a soft, pale mint green. Her bedroom is furnished with solid dark mahogany wood, and a delicate white lace bedspread is spread across the bed. There are photos and Bibles everywhere! Somehow with the pale green wall, reminiscent of my parents’ bedroom and the lacy bedspread, I am reminded of my own parents’ home. They also had original artwork hanging on the walls and trinkets here and there from their European and Asian travels. In some ways, this feels a bit like being in the home of my youth! But there is a portrait of President Trump hanging prominently on the bedroom wall too, right at the foot of her bed. My parents would never have had a portrait of him or of any politician hanging on their walls. We ignore the painting and Robert asks her about the photographs. Soon we are into her life story, hearing about all the children and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. After the tour is finished, we sip iced tea in the living room, hug as though we were old friends, and leave.
We drive out of town to one of Robert’s favorite restaurants, “The Mariner’s”, on a lake. Since I can’t access money, this meal will be Robert’s treat. It’s too dark to see much, but we do see a pier where diners can walk on summer evenings after dinner. This is a beautiful, tasteful restaurant, furnished like some of the nicer places I occasionally ate at with my parents while growing up. But the food is very Louisiana. I try oysters for the first time. Not bad! These are not raw, but rather cooked in a creamy sauce with a buttery bread crumb crust. I have blackened tilapia, a sweet potato with brown sugar and melted butter on top. I even get a soup – a shrimp-corn chowder, spiced with Louisiana pepper sauce. We share dessert – a chocolate lush cake. We drink delicious wine. I have probably gained a kilo from this meal alone.
This is a dinner I could easily have shared with Peter, my husband. Sitting across from Robert, I am reminded of all those meals with Peter. Peter and Robert had much in common. Both are or were lovers of history and knowledgeable about a multitude of things. Both are/were intellectuals. Both are/were kind. I guess it’s no wonder that Robert was my first boyfriend and that I married someone with so many of the same qualities. I feel more and more comfortable with Robert. His being gay makes no difference to me, except that perhaps I can feel even more at ease with him. Just as with my husband, we never run out of things to talk about.
After dinner, we watch a video together. Robert goes to bed, and I wait up, writing. I also have a book Robert has lent me to occupy me – “The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories,” by Leo Tolstoy, Robert’s hero. He has urged me to read it. “It’s really only a long short story,” he says. I also liked reading Tolstoy when he was younger. Tolstoy was a Christian, and Robert says he is not, so this might provide food for some good conversation, and we can grow to understand each other more. This is one of the primary reasons for all my visits, including this one with Robert. I want to draw closer to my family and friends.
I manage to stay awake until 2 am, when I can call the bank in Germany. I am fortunate – the people at the bank understand my problem, I reach people with the competence to deal with the problem, and they promise me that my problem is now solved.
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.
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!
The laundry worked out – sort of. I had to buy detergent from a vending machine. I poured the powder into the washing machine, as the instructions said, but when I went to collect the wash, I discovered that all the detergent got clogged up in the detergent receptacle. I should have just thrown it in with the wash! Now I have rinsed clothes, probably not clean. Oh, well.
We go to church today. Today is another of Rhett’s “up” days, but he’s feeling too down to go to church. Natalie says this has been happening a lot these days. I find out it is black history month. This is something that was never observed when I lived in the States. How is that going to play out in this almost entirely white Methodist church?
I don’t recognize a single hymn we sing. Later I learn that each of the hymns sung was written by an African American. So that’s why I don’t know these songs! Discrimination is not a stranger to the Church, sadly and unsurprisingly. A soloist sings a couple of spirituals I do know.
Natalie and I go out to lunch in another chain restaurant in the town the church is in – Georgetown. It turns out, Georgetown isn’t a small town at all. The population here and elsewhere in Texas has exploded in the past decade, and here it is now somewhere around 70,000 and growing every day. In 2010 the population was 47,000. People are talking about “Sun City”, a new housing development in Georgetown where only senior citizens live. Before I even arrived here, Rhett mentioned that I might want to consider living there.
We return home, and Rhett is feeling much more chipper. We sit around over dinner and exchange stories. Rhett is even funny, just like before! It’s good to be able to laugh. He even jokes about rednecks. Obviously, he doesn’t consider himself or Natalie to be a redneck. I have had the feeling talking to Northerners in America that they think every Texan is a redneck! Maybe he’s not as conservative as I thought. I find myself agreeing with most everything we talk about. He and Natalie went on a cruise to Alaska, with his oxygen mask a prominent feature of their trip. He still had his up and down days, but also got to see a lot. Now Rhett says, maybe we could go to England together – Natalie, him and me. He thinks he could do it if he flies first class, and Norwegian Airlines is offering cheap first-class tickets to England. Could we do this? Could I travel to England, to Cornwall, the land of our mutual heritage, with them?
Right now, Rhett has to do some heavy lifting. Furniture in the basement had to be shoved and carried into its rightful place, so that he and Natalie can have a bedroom again. Can he manage this? Natalie thinks it’s too much. She speaks to him about it, politely but clearly. No, he believes he can do this. They don’t want me to help. “It’s enough that you have to put up with this mess,” Natalie says. “I’m sorry you couldn’t even do your laundry here.” But I do some pushing and hauling, too, and they don’t stop me.
While we are pushing and shoving, Rhett’s cell phone goes off. “Check on that, will you,?” Rhett asks me. I run upstairs to the phone. It is an alarm. I turn it off. It says, “Take time out to pray for five minutes.” I run down to Rhett with the message. Apparently, he stops whatever he is doing, several times a day, to pray for people. I know he prayed every day for my husband after he fell ill. I am humbled. I don’t pray for anyone every day.
When we have finished all the work we can do for the day, we sit down in the living room. Rhett looks over some news site on his cell phone. “This is interesting,” he says. He reads about a new law in New York State that allows a woman to have an abortion right up to her delivery date. We are all shocked. I can’t believe it. Is this really true? Why haven’t I read about this in the New York Times?
Later, I check my New York Times website. There is an article about this law, but it makes it sound as though it were something only used rarely, and only when the mother’s health is at risk. I tell Rhett and Natalie, and they nod. I am somewhat reassured.
I go to sleep in the guest room of their home, feeling much more at home. I hear the drone of the oxygen machine. For me, it is somehow comforting, reminding me of the inhale-exhale sound my Peter made while in the hospital for months after his stroke. It is comforting to hear this sound of life, even if it is coming from a machine.
Texas. The name evokes an uneasy feeling among many Northerners – those who grew up in the northern States. It’s funny how people nurse their prejudices and pass them down onto their kids, their friends and loved ones. But my cousin Rhett does it too – he has teasingly called me a Yankee. The first time I was called a Yankee, it was in a very different, derogatory tone, in Scotland. I was waitressing for the summer in a hotel and restaurant, and a couple of the servers went out of their way to make me feel unwelcome. What is a “Yankee”, exactly? I, who have been called one, can’t say I know. But I know how I feel when someone calls me one. I guess Texans must feel the same way when people talk about them.
I was in Texas once several years before with my husband, staying with Rhett and his wife Natalie. We had a wonderful time, and I learned a bit about the history of Texas during that visit. Did you know that at one time it was a country? It was a sovereign country for nine years – from 1836 until 1845, when it joined the United States. Actually, during its history, six flags have flown over Texas. Hence the name “Six Flags” for the amusement park chain, whose headquarters are in Texas. Texas has belonged to Spain, France, Mexico, been its own country, then the United States, then one of the Confederate States, and after the Civil War, part of the United States again.
This visit to Texas will be much different from my light-hearted last one. This time I am alone, with only memories of my Peter. And Rhett is very sick with pulmonary fibrosis. This is one of the reasons I’m visiting Natalie and him. It’s only a matter of time before Rhett also leaves us, and I want to be sure to make a visit before it’s too late. I wonder how the visit will be this time? Will it be depressing? Will we be able to really talk?
I fly into Austin on Southwest Airlines, an experience unlike any other airline experience I’ve had. I like the way they run things – first come, first serve for the seats. You can begin signing in for your slot exactly twenty-four hours before departure. Unfortunately, I was in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City yesterday, and missed the opening gong and stampede following by two hours. All that is left by the time my number comes around is a seat in the middle. Oh, well, it’s only for a few hours.
We arrive in Austin in the early evening, and I find that I’m not too exhausted. But how will Natalie find me? She’s picking me up. The first problem is that one of my bags is missing. I check and recheck and check baggage claim again. In the meantime, I keep looking over my shoulder for Natalie, but she’s nowhere to be seen. I would assume she’d be in the arrivals hall at the baggage claim section, the most logical place to meet. I try to text her on my German cell phone. No connection, although I’m getting wifi. Why can’t I reach her? It takes me a while to figure out that I need to put a +1 prefix onto my American phone numbers, not the old-fashioned 001 I’m used to typing in. I go back and look for my luggage again. By now everything is off the belt, so I look at the luggage standing around. My suitcase is not among them. So I walk over to the claims desk and fill out a claim.
“Before I hand my claim in to you, let me check the pile of luggage one more time,” I say. I walk back to the luggage pile, and there is my suitcase! One problem solved. But I’m not reaching Natalie. Maybe she’s in the cell phone lot? My sister does that in Oregon when she picks up someone at the airport. What is a cell phone lot? They don’t have them in Germany. I sit down on a bench and start typing out a text message. As I type, an airport employee walks up to me. “Are you Noreen?” he asks. “Yes, I am. How did you know?”
“Your ride is waiting outside the door for you,” he says. “She asked me to give you this message.” We walk outside with him carrying my luggage, and before long, Natalie drives up. I notice that the air is warmer than in New York City, but not that much warmer. I heave a sigh of relief when I spot Natalie, and thank the employee. Natalie hops out of the car to help with the luggage, but the employee has already put it into the trunk for her. “Can I give you something?” Natalie asks him. “That was so kind of you to find my cousin.”
” I don’t do these things for money,” he says. “I just want to help when I can.” He smiles, wishes us a good evening, and leaves. Are all Texans so kind and friendly?
I am so relieved to see Natalie. Other than Rhett and her, I know absolutely no one in Texas. What would I do here without them? We start talking as though we had just finished our last conversation half an hour ago. She is caught up on my news because I’ve been writing round robin emails ever since my husband suffered his stroke. We chitchat about the time in New York, how Rhett is doing, then Natalie says,
“We thought we could put you up in our house from the beginning, but the house still isn’t ready, so I’ve booked you a room in a nearby motel.” She and Rhett had flooding in their home when they left town for a funeral in another city, and their sump pump broke down. That was weeks ago, but the house is still not ready. “Don’t worry, ” Natalie says. “I’ve packed you a care package to tide you over until tomorrow, and then I’ll pick you up. Now we’re going out to eat. It’s my treat.”
We go to a very Southern-style restaurant, the Cotton Patch Café, https://www.cottonpatch.com/, a chain restaurant that’s only in the South. It turns out it’s really Texan – it began in Texas, and the headquarters are there. One thing that makes it unusual for me besides the menu full of strange things like chicken fried steak, okra and catfish, is that it has a gift shop you can shop in while you’re waiting for your table or your food, stuffed with toys and all sorts of clothes and scarves, all very cute and American-looking, country-style.
After eating our meal, Natalie drops me off at the motel, just down the road. I am alone in Texas. I feel like I’m in another country that speaks English, except nobody in the motel looks like an English-speaker to me. The receptionist looks like he flew in from Pakistan. I see a couple of guests at the reception area speaking Spanish. Maybe I am in another country.
Sunday, our second full day in the City, we go to church. We are all committed Christians, and finding a church we may have heard about as far away as Germany becomes as much a part of our touristic experience as any other. In preparation for this trip, Johanna mentioned a church I had been to once before with Peter, Redeemer Presbyterian Church https://www.redeemer.com/ on Park Avenue. It has the reputation for having good, solid theology, a church that thinking people can go to and be challenged by. I opt for the classic service because the time works well for us, so we go there together. Timo wants to go to a church where young people would feel more comfortable, so he and Patrick go to Hillsong Church. https://hillsong.com/nyc/manhattan/
At Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I notice that there is not a single black person in the entire congregation, but there are many Asians. There are also a few families there. The music is definitely classical, with a string quartet and old church hymns. It is the first Sunday of the month, so there is communion. For the communion, ushers come to us in our chairs, serving first bread and later grape juice.
After the service, Johanna asks if the way communion was served is the American way. It is not necessarily, but it is the reformed/dissenting church way, the way they usually do it in my Baptist church in Cologne too. But Johanna belongs to a Lutheran church, where everyone walks to the front of the church, and they stand in a circle together. “I don’t like this passive way of doing communion,” she says. “It’s so impersonal, perfunctory.” I ask her how much she understood of the sermon. “I got the gist,” she says. This was not a good choice of church for Johanna. As for me, it also feels a bit dry, but at least it is not offensive to me theologically. I have heard many cringe-worthy sermons in my life.
Johanna meets Patrick and Timo, and I separate to do some shopping. But we do talk on the phone before we part. Patrick and Timo loved the services they attended.
I have arranged to have dinner with my sister Beth and niece Gillian. I want my German friends to meet more of the English-speaking people in my life. Beth is the sister my sisters and I adopted, and she adopted us, at the time of the marriage of my sister to Beth’s brother. Gillian, living in Australia, has never been able to meet Beth, who has never been to our big family reunions, although most of us we have met up at smaller gatherings. But Gillian just happens to be in New York on business this week, and we have arranged to meet. The logistics aren’t all that easy. Beth has difficulty walking for more than about a block. Gillian has celiac disease and can’t tolerate gluten, but she is hoping to eat Italian food. The Italian restaurant Beth recommended has no gluten-free options – I went there and asked. So I go online, looking for restaurants in the neighborhood that have gluten-free pasta. I find one, the Serafina Osteria. https://serafinarestaurant.com/serafina-italian-restaurant-osteria-new-york
This is good news, but Beth tells me she can’t walk all the way to the restaurant. I call the restaurant and find that they deliver. We eat in, “at home”. After all, we are staying in a sort of apartment, complete with dishes, cutlery and wine glasses. Gillian brings wine. Beth brings us beautiful long-stemmed roses.
I organize more dishes, cutlery and glasses. Beth and Gillian, and my Germans all meet for the first time, in our apartment. We eat a delicios meal at home in peace and quiet, a rare thing in New York City restaurants, and laugh and talk, communicating in a language that doesn’t come very easily to Johanna or Patrick. Timo blends right in. After dinner, we watch the super bowl together on TV, the same activity millions of Americans across the country are doing in their homes too. American football is not a German sport, but Patrick loves American football. I am no football fan, and know very little, so my German friend Patrick explains the moves of the game to his American friend.
We wake up to another day of frigid temperatures in New York City. New York is much colder than Cologne! But we will not let a bit of cold weather deter us from our plans. My friends enjoy a breakfast of bagels and coffee. I eat cooked oatmeal, the same breakfast I always eat in the winter. We put on our long underwear and head out for Central Park. Central Park turns out to be my favorite part of the day, perhaps the highlight of the week, because of a couple of wonderful discoveries. We see lots of squirrels scurrying throgh the park, but one in particular catches our attention. It runs back and forth between the ground and its burrow in a hole in a tree. I love it – nature in New York! This squirrel knows nothing about rental prices in the city or gentrification. He lives the same lifestyle squirrels have been living for thousands of years, and it’s comforting for me to see this in Central Park.
The other discovery is a community of cardinals in the park. My last trip to New York City I saw a cardinal and thought it must be a rare occasion, because the only birds I usually notice are sparrows and robins. But here there must be twenty of them flitting around. What a wonderful aesthetic experience to see flecks of red hopping around the ground, then darting into the air and back down again!
On we march southwards, through the city. It is only noon, and my feet are already tired, and all we have seen is Central Park. We glimpse at the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and walk into St. Thomas Church and witness a wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I love St. Thomas Church and walk in there almost every time I am in New York City. I once went to an unforgettable Christmas Eve choral service there. I love their boys’ choir and the liturgy of the service. But it is my first time in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am not Catholic, so never found a need to be inside this church, but Patrick is. I am impressed by its size. Surely it must be the larget Catholic church in America, I think. It isn’t, but it is the largest in New York City. We walk past the New York Public Library. This is another place I have never set foot inside, but I have been told it is a worthy tourist attraction, its lobby so beautiful, you can rent it for weddings – for upwards of $60,000! https://www.nypl.org/space-rental/your-event
If only my Peter had seen this place, is the main thing I think, walking around the beautiful rooms with carved oak walls, golden molded ceilings and gorgeous masonry. This would have been heaven to my husband, who loved books – and maps – so much. He used to spend hours at a time, just studying maps. Once visiting friends in England, they drove us to visit a town none of us had been to, but they thought they knew the way. We would have gotten lost, had we followed their directions, but Peter assured us, he knew the way. He did, and they marveled at his sense of direction.
The NY public library has a room dedicated to maps. I mourn my husband as I marvel over the most amazing globes I have ever seen.
On we go, southwards on Fifth Avenue ever since Central Park. By now it is a bit late in the afternoon, and we are all feeling the effects of our long hike in our legs and feet. Now we are headed for our last destination, the Rooftop Bar at 25rd Street. A friend of mine in Germany told me about this place, not written up in the tourist guides, but known by many young people, including her son, who spent a semester at a language school near New York City. It turns out that there are several rooftop bars in New York, but this one seems to attract mostly young people. That’s what we see at this one at 230 Fifth Avenue. https://www.230-fifth.com/ The interesting thing about this place, to me, is the heated plastic igloos where you can sit and enjoy the view.
We drink a cup of hot chocolate for $10. We have to hurry, because the bar closes at 5 pm. The hefty price is worth it. We leave, inspired and strengthened for our return home. We have seen enough for the day.
Two hours later, friends of mine join us at our suite. We have a drink together, and head out again for dinner at Der Krung, a tiny Thai restaurant only New Yorkers would know about, it is so far west of Fifth Avenue. Because of its location and tiny size, the prices are reasonable. It’s fun exploring New York with New Yorkers. I enjoy introducing my German friends to friends from New York. I am in the middle, part of each culture. This must be symbolic of who I am. Am I a bridge between cultures?