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.
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.