In the light of what has transpired just over the past year, it is impossible for me to write about a trip that took place nearly two years ago purely in the present tense. Time is forcing me to change my format, just as it is also, like the force of a little stream, slowly, sometimes abruptly affecting the shape of my perceptions.
One of my memories of Tennessee, etched into my mind like a boulder, is a day we spent in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg was, to me, an in-your-face redneck town. I most definitely do not see myself as a redneck person. Does anyone, really? I don’t know. Since returning, since witnessing the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, I have done some thinking.
I have to admit that I, an alumnus of a post-graduate university program, carry an attitude of superiority if I even deign to enter such a milieu. I don’t think I really paid much attention to my attitude before. As I looked, watched and smiled, perhaps condescendingly, I didn’t think about the fact that I saw myself as better than the people who built or frequent such places. No wonder there is such resentment from the other half of America! I find my ideas reflected, dressed up and polished, listening to NPR, and my cultural craving satiated by PBS. But what about the other half of America, the half I can’t relate to? How are we to become a more perfect union, or to unify at all, if we don’t want to associate with each other? I have the feeling that the people I don’t understand resent people like me at least as much as people like me have despised them.
But, the whole reason for my trip was to understand members of my family I don’t necessarily agree with politically, and to see parts of America for myself we Northerners tend to ignore. I am trying to understand. I don’t want to be condescending.
So, how to come to terms with Gatlinburg?
My first visit to Gatlinburg was really a quick drive-through on a family vacation our family took in 1964, when I was a teenager. Our destination was a campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All I can remember seeing of the town was the Great Western, wishing we could stay there and enjoy a hot shower, a real bed and pancake breakfast in a restaurant instead of having to set up camp in a campground. But once we arrived at our campground, just a few miles outside of Gatlinburg, we marveled at the lush beauty of the Smoky Mountains. I don’t know if I had ever seen such dense, thick, friendly forests, where trees blossomed! There were flowering mountain laurel bushes everywhere. Rhododendron trees were also blooming, with showy pink and purple flowers. Minnesota winters are too cold for rhododendron trees.
Coming from Minnesota, with its harsh, cold winters, we weren’t used to lush, flowering forests. Minnesota does have beautiful flowers in its forests, but not flowering trees.
But then we went for a drive along some mountain roads outside of the National Park. Dotted along the hillside were flimsy, broken-down shacks I imagined a big storm would wash down the hill. These tiny houses had porches with wringer washing machines like my family had exchanged years before for automatic machines and tumbler dryers. There were abandoned cars, couches, and appliances marring the land surrounding the houses. My brothers and sisters and I were shocked that people could live like this. My parents told us about the term “white trash”. I was reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, a saga about the American South during the Civil War. I think the term “white trash” may have been mentioned in the book. I think my parents tried to be neutral when talking about this group of people, but I also remember feeling that these people were not only disadvantaged, they were somehow deficient.
We stopped at a Dairy Queen for ice cream. A teenage girl appeared at the window of my father, who was driving. She held a pad and pencil ready and asked what we would like to order. “Nine chocolate ice cream cones, please,” my father said. She looked at him uncomprehendingly and said,
My father repeated the order. “I still don’t understand you,” she said in a thick Tennessee accent.
My father sat there, puzzled, for a few seconds, trying to fathom how he could communicate with the server. Then he grinned broadly and said, “Oh!” Something had dawned on him. “Naahn chaaawklit aahs crim kah-oons, plah-ees.” We spoke the same language, but didn’t understand each other.
There is a big divide among Americans. I felt it during that first trip to Tennessee. I sensed it on this day fifty years later, revisiting Gatlinburg. But this gap isn’t only about North and South, I am coming to see. It is about those with a college education and those without. It is about those with secure jobs and those without. It is about whites and minorities who are quickly becoming majorities. It is about city people and rural people. It is about the religious right and those of other religions and Christians who are not on the right. It has come to be about Democrats and Republicans, bringing the divide even into families. How can we ever bridge this divide? How can we ever come to understand one another? This is my concern as I write about my day in Gatlinburg.
The sun is still bravely trying to brighten my day as I drive out of Natchez, but rain is forecast, and the skies are darkening. And I have no GPS, only an old map of the Southeastern States Robert gave me. I have studied the map and have an idea of a route I could take to reach Tennessee. From the map, it looks like the most direct route might be a road outlined in green called the “Natchez Trace“. The scenic route, no less! I will try and find that, but I’m never completely sure of where I am without Google Maps. If only I had internet! But at least as far as my phone is concerned, I am in a foreign country with no mobile program including roaming. I am left at the mercy of an old, outdated roadmap and the sun, which threatens to leave me at any moment.
Outside Natchez now, the road is lonely, with few cars on the highway. I turn on the radio and decide to listen to a country-western station to get an idea of the life I imagine Southerners to live. Then I switch to right-wing talk radio, then some Christian station, then NPR. Surely with all these choices, I will get some idea of how people in Mississippi live and think. I feel a little nervous, driving along the highway. Will I really find my way into Tennessee? Will all go well? But my curiosity is stronger than my fear, and I am intrigued by the hilly scenery, the little villages, the farms, and the wooded pretty countryside – and the many churches I keep passing. Most of them are Methodist or Baptist.
In my tummy I feel a mixture of fear and pleasure at finally being completely on my own, free to explore as I will, but afraid that I might get lost, or somehow end up in a car accident. It’s been wonderful visiting family and friends, but I’ve had very little time to myself. Now here I am, on my own! But unsure of how to get to where I want to go in the country I grew up in. My thoughts range between inner commentaries about what I hear on the radio, little snatches of fear about whether I will arrive at my brother’s and how many mistakes I will make getting there, and enjoying exploring a region I have never visited.
My thoughts are focused almost entirely in the present. The only thoughts about the future are about whether it will rain, and whether I will arrive at my brother’s house today or tomorrow, at the latest, with no accidents or problems with the car. There are no thoughts about how my life will look in a year from now, let alone in a month. At this moment I have no clue that life for everyone I know, as well as for myself, will become much more frightening in a year from now than my present little tugs of apprehension. I have no inkling that it is a luxury to even be driving across a part of America. The talk on the radio is about blackfacing, racism, and whether or not a wall will be built to keep the illegal immigrants away from the Southern border to Mexico. I cannot imagine that tiny, microscopic invaders will build a much stronger, far more effective barrier to migrants than any wall. Depending on whether I’m listening to a conservative radio station or liberal, the speaker is either proclaiming Trump to be truthful or a liar. I can’t imagine that in one year there will only be one news item across the entire world. I can’t imagine that everyone in the entire world who doesn’t live in America will be denied access into this country, including wealthy Europeans.
I drive along a country road, US Route 84, which will take me, hopefully, to a freeway, Interstate 55, and onto the Natchez Trace in Jackson. Just at the intersection of Route 84 and 55, near a town my map and the road signs promise to be Brookhaven, I finally spot a place where I can probably eat. By now, mid-afternoon, I am truly hungry. Here is a big Chevron station with a large cafeteria inside. Everything there looks delicious! Pork and red beans, potato casserole, peach cobbler. I haven’t had any Southern fried chicken during my time in the South, and I see this being served. It looks so good! And others around me, many of them black, are eating this crispy chicken. I order some legs and fries and a diet Coke. They give me some cornbread along with the chicken. There are free local newspapers available. I take one and read between mouthfuls of delicious chicken. I find an article written by someone who confesses to having belonged to a sorority during her time as a student in a college in Mississippi. She couldn’t remember what happened while she was going to college, so she went through old yearbooks. There, she discovered that she had witnessed blackfacing during her college years, thinking nothing of it at the time. By now she is ashamed of what went on during her youth, as well as her own indifference. Blackfacing, for any readers unfamiliar with the term, is the act of painting one’s face black to imitate the appearance of a black person. It was apparently a big joke in years past for white people to attend parties dressed in blackface. Thankfully, by now it is considered to be racist, insulting behavior. I am really happy to discover that people in the South, which I am coming to like more and more, want to be rid of racist attitudes.
It never crosses my mind that I am eating in the presence of strangers, that our bodies occasionally brush one another as we reach for ketchup or stand in line to pay. Focused on blackface, racism and getting into Tennessee, I cannot imagine that in a year’s time this cafeteria may be closed down, or that no cars will be lined up to buy gas, or that the employees here may well be at the unemployment office, filing for unemployment insurance or fighting to stay alive, or dead. I have no thoughts about whether many of these people of color around me may be either unemployed and unable to afford a meal of fried chicken at the local restaurant, or may even be dead, because good medical care is not there for those in America who can’t afford it. Those at the bottom of the heap, and those include black people, are the ones who will die first from this invasion of microscopic intruders, only because they can’t afford good medical care.
I fill up with gasoline, holding my bare hands to the pump, not imagining that there could be any other way of filling the gas tank, and swipe my credit card over the pump to pay, bare-handed. No one here is wearing a face mask or seems to be obsessed with hygiene. Surgical masks are not part of American life. No one has ever heard of home-made masks.
I climb back into the car and prepare for a long drive. By about five pm I’m encountering a bit more traffic from Vicksburg. How far am I from Tennessee? I need to find the Natchez Trace! Hopefully driving along there, I’ll soon be in Tennessee. Finally, I see a sign instructing me how to join the Natchez Trace. I turn off Interstate 55, onto the Natchez Trace. It is indeed green and beautiful. I am driving along a beautiful lake surrounded by pine trees. It is really getting late, but the speed limit is only 50 miles per hour, and this is only a two-lane highway! This is like driving to my grandparents’ house as a child, before there were any freeways and it took three hours to drive 120 miles! At this rate I will never reach Tennessee! But at least there is plenty of time to read the signs along this beautiful lake. I am driving along the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
There are no towns, no restaurants, not even any hotels as far as I can see. Only beautiful parkway. This was a mistake. How to get off this road? If only I had decided to pay for a toll road! But I thought the Natchez Trace would be my most direct route. Yes – if it were only a freeway.
Later I discover that this truly beautiful stretch of road was originally a footpath used by Native Americans for hunting. The parkway was built during the 1930s during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I am unaware that I am driving along a national monument of sorts, and also that in one year’s time our country may be experiencing a depression more severe than the Great Depression of the 1930s. I don’t consider the fact that in a year’s time more people will be applying for unemployment than in the 1930s and that even more businesses may go under than during that period.
I see road signs announcing a town coming up – Williamsville. Hopefully I can get off this Trace there and rejoin Interstate 55. This proves to be possible. One hour later, by now around 6 pm, I am back on the 55, heading north. Now and then my windshield wipers swipe off a few sprinkles. A road sign tells me I am about 152 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. Well, here I can drive faster, since I’m on the freeway. Maybe I can reach Memphis, or somewhere near Memphis and stay the night there. I should be able to make it by about 8 pm, I figure.
But then it begins to rain in earnest. Rain as heavy as an ocean crashing onto the windshield. Sometimes the showers are so heavy I have to stop the car and wait for the rain to lessen in intensity. At one of these stops I phone my brother. I apologize, saying I had wildly underestimated the time it would take to reach him. I will have to find a motel somewhere to sleep in.
The next morning the rain has stopped, for now, and before nine I am back on the 55. My roadmap has shown me that in Memphis I can branch onto the Interstate 40 and drive along there until I reach Knoxville, my destination. I drive along the 55, and before I know it, I see that I must be in Tennessee because most of the license plates now are from Tennessee.
Wow, are these roads in Tennessee treacherous! Huge potholes as big as cars, at least six inches deep, keep slowing me down. Don’t they improve the highways in this State? I later read that in 2018, the city of Nashville had 9,179 potholes, compared with over 5,000 in 2017. In 2019, today, there are more than in 2018. 2019 has seen the heaviest precipitation in Tennessee on record. By 11 am, it is raining heavily again, increasing the record margin. As I drive along, the radio blaring to keep me awake and alert as much as anything else, I hear talk of highway closures. One of them is my interstate! Then I see flashing lights warning the same, with a detour sign. I am going to have to take a detour into Knoxville. How will I ever find my way to my brother on a detour without a map? On and on I drive, anxiety mounting by the minute. There is flooding on the highways. I slosh along. The water is too deep to see the potholes. Traffic is very slow, visibility poor. Sometime in the afternoon, on my detour highway, I see a little snack bar and filling station. I stop there and buy a sandwich, diet Coke and a big package of M & Ms. Hopefully, this will keep me until I reach Knoxville.
Finally, at around 5 pm, I reach the Knoxville city limits. Visibility is poor, but I think I see my exit, and leave the freeway, hoping to find the car rental agency, which is almost certainly closed by now. I can only hope that there will still be someone working in the office. There is such major flooding along this road, portions of it are closed off and I cannot find the car rental agency. Besides, there is some big road construction project. I drive into a mostly deserted strip mall, and find a bar that is open. I ask about the car rental office. The man instructs me where to go. I arrive there, and find it closed, just as I feared. Not a soul in sight. But there is a sign saying that rental cars are to be delivered at the Knoxville airport. Yikes! Where is the Knoxville airport? It is not on my map! I phone my brother for the third time today, and he tells me how to get to the airport, and says he will be there to meet me. Hurray! I have almost made it to the end of a harrowing journey. I am unaware that the entire world will be experiencing something that goes much deeper and stretches much wider than what I have just been through. When I am relieved to almost be out of danger, I do not realize that many will die or lose loved ones from something that kills more people in one month than car accidents do in one year.
I arrive at the car rental at 6 pm, and there are my brother Jason and Ron, one of his sons. I throw myself into Jason’s arms in relief. The car didn’t break down, there was no accident, I am in Knoxville. We are all alive and well. Jason’s wife Lucy has cooked us a delicious, comforting lasagna dinner. We sit at the table, a happy family reunited. I am relieved to find both well. Each of them has been battling cancer and Lucy will have to go to the hospital next week for another round of immunotherapy. We are all unaware that another disease even deadlier, even swifter to kill than cancer, will be threatening us all in one year from now. I do not know that I will later savor these memories as perhaps the last time I was able to see my brother and his entire family because a disease disrupted all travel plans.
We are also unaware that in a year’s time we citizens of the world will value our families and friends much more than we have ever before. We will treasure phone calls, Skype and other video conferences, savoring little tidbits of each conversation. We don’t know then that much of the world will begin to linger over the little things, learning to be grateful for sunny weather and Skype or Zoom conversations. We don’t realize that in a year’s time strangers will greet strangers with a smile, wishing them a good day and good health. We don’t yet know that an afternoon bike ride along the river close to home can be just as beautiful, just as meaningful, just as full of discovery, as a drive along the Natchez Trace.
We wake up to glorious sunshine. And we need to get going, or we’re not going to see much of Natchez! Breakfast is in some building away from the main house. We use the map the staff provided us to find our way to the breakfast building. Yesterday was drizzly, no good day to do sightseeing, but today is perfect! Not only is the sun smiling down on us, the weather is warm! I’m finally getting to experience a warm Southern day. The grounds are gorgeous, like walking through a manicured park. We pass a pond with a fountain in the middle, and a bridge, an inviting little pagoda. There are magnolia trees in full bloom – in February! Every now and then we pass a piece of sculpture. We spot pretty white lawn chairs placed strategically around the grounds, as though beckoning us to stay a while and rest here. But sadly, we must move on. We’re already almost too late for breakfast, and we still have to check out.
As we rush to try and get breakfast before they chase us out, we see a young woman sitting out on the terrace, drinking a cup of coffee in the sunshine while looking at her cell phone. She looks up at us briefly. Suddenly she’s waving at us with a big smile. Robert walks over to her and they hug. “Melissa! What are you doing here?”
“I could say the same! Robert, what brings you here?
Robert introduces us. Melissa is not exactly a friend, but someone who Robert sometimes runs into at some of the parties he’s invited to in Natchitoches. We’re over two hours out of Natchitoches now, and we’re still running into people from Robert’s life! Robert invites Melissa to come and join us for breakfast. She’s already eaten, she says, but she’d love to join us for a few minutes. She’s in Natchez on an overnight work trip. “I always stay here when I’m in Natchez,” she says. “I always stay in the carriage house. That’s where the best rooms are.” That’s where we have just spent the night – right next door to Melissa. She tells us we had the best room in the entire hotel. We talk about life in general and a bit about politics. Melissa is black, and she tells us about how people in her community compare President Trump and former President Obama. We have an interesting, lively conversation, and then she has to leave us to go to work.
After she leaves, Robert tells me that he has seen and talked with Melissa at several parties he’s been invited to, but he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to her because she seems to be so intent on showing off whatever she has to show the world – her intelligence, or her taste, or by talking about things in her home.
A distant memory from my childhood surfaces. My parents, who both grew up impoverished during the depression, became increasingly prosperous, but were very reluctant to show it off in any way. For that reason, my father never drove a Cadillac, but he criticized my uncle, who drove one, and another uncle whose wardrobe my father considered too large and ostentatious. My mother never let me wear red clothes. They also criticized black people for driving gleaming Cadillacs, “trying to show off”, they said.
Just a couple months before this visit, I visited my sister and African-American brother-in-law for Christmas. Sam was listening to the audio book “Becoming”, by Michelle Obama. “It’s amazing listening to her,” he said. “There are so many parallels to my own life. Just like her parents, my parents worked incredibly hard to make sure we children all had the best possible careers, given our race. We had to be better than the rest of them in order to be good enough.” I’m not like that. I think I was always afraid to reach for more than what was easily within reach. In my youth I chose to live as a hippie. One of my “achievements” was to accidentally end up at Woodstock. I regret that I have not achieved more.
I tell this story to Robert, who admires this free-spirited side of me. I think I understand Melissa a little better than I would have because of what my brother-in-law told me. And now I think Robert understands more of why Melissa may seem to be showing off.
While checking out, we learn that there is to be a guided tour of Monmouth Inn at 11 am. If we go, we will get to learn a lot about the history of the estate we have had a taste of, as well as receive an inside glimpse into something of Natchez. We eagerly sign up for the tour. Our tour guide is an African-American woman who proudly displays the opulence of the home in which she spends most of her day. The thing that impresses me the most, though, is a plaque outside the house, outlining the history of the estate. The plaque informs us of something our guide has not mentioned – that after the Civil War, the owners of the house could not afford to keep it. They were forced to sell parts of the land to former slaves. Reading this, I feel a sense of jubilation, realizing that those who once labored as slaves on this property later became the owners of it. I rejoice for people like Melissa, whose ancestors could never dream of sleeping in the carriage house unless they were unpaid mistress-slaves of the owners. Melissa, a descendant of slaves, is free and affluent enough to live in the same opulence the slave owners enjoyed. Here, a hundred and fifty years or so after the Civil War, in Monmouth Inn, black and white staff members work alongside each other, each of equal status. Knowing this, I feel it has been worth it to visit the South. There is some justice and retribution in this world after all.
I discover another “plaque” of sorts in the visitor’s restroom – a description of Southerners. I am utterly charmed, reading this.
What lovely values! These people are some of the friendliest and most polite I have met in all of America, no matter where I am in the South. They treasure memories and their private and collective histories. Their countryside is beautiful. They are the best hosts, who make me feel so comfortable, even inviting strangers into their homes, like Margie! I do see many cultures here, seeming to get along pretty well, although I think there could be more mixing. And I have tasted their cuisine, so different and much more carefully prepared than what I usually experience in America. But – it still feels foreign to me. It’s a lovely, magical world I’ve entered for a few weeks.
Our tour has taken an hour and a half. There’s not much more time left for us. Robert has to get back to Louisiana, and I need to get to Tennessee, hopefully by the evening. We agree to part, and each do a little more sightseeing on our own. I feel a pang of regret, having to part from Robert. We have grown much closer over the week. I have grown closer to everyone I am visiting! Their homes don’t feel like anyplace I could settle down in, but I have felt more and more at home spending time with them.
I drive alone into Natchez, park the car in the center of town, close to the Mississippi River, and start strolling. At first I rest my eyes, gazing at the mighty river I saw so often during my childhood and youth. It is the river that divides Minneapolis from St. Paul. How many times have I crossed it, driving into Minneapolis? But here it is amazingly wide and majestic.
Then I walk away from the river, following the map in my hands, towards the center of town. It doesn’t take long before I see my first building. I am almost swept off my feet viewing it and all the magnificent buildings surrounding it. Homes as big as palaces, one after another. I begin to understand that this was truly once the wealthiest city in America. The synagogue, the oldest in Mississippi, looks more like a Greek temple than what I would imagine a synagogue to look like. Across the street is an equally impressive Episcopal church.
Looking up at the flags flying from one of the mansions, I am confused by one of them, a dark blue flag with a white star in the center. I later read that it is the “Bonnie Blue Flag“, one of the flags from the Civil War period meant to symbolize the secession from the United States. I have no one to guide me now, no one to answer my questions. I can only assume that it hangs there to symbolizes someone’s pride in being both a Southerner and a US American. I hope both flags flying means that the owners stand for integration. Maybe it shows the “timeweaving” aspect of being Southern that I just read about – a treasuring of memories and tradition.
I must move on. I wish I could spend several days in Natchez, perhaps when they offer their open house tours of the mansions. If I had come just one month later, I might have had been able to have a tour of many more mansions than Monmouth Inn. But I have run out of time. Clouds are building up in the sky again, and precious daylight hours are slipping away from me. But I am very grateful to have been able to see a little of the city that was once the wealthiest in the land. Farewell, Natchez.
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.
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.
My last full day with Rhett and Natalie. Another “down” day for Rhett. They’re talking about driving together tomorrow on his “up” day to take me all the way to Louisiana to meet my friend Robert. A drive of at least four hours! I can’t believe their generosity. Nor am I convinced that Rhett can really handle this.
“No big deal,” he says. “I do this all the time to drive to visit relatives in New Mexico.”
For today, Natalie has plans again. We meet one of her friends for lunch at the Student Union of Southwestern University, alma mater to Rhett and Natalie as well as Donna.
Southwestern University is a Methodist university in Georgetown, approximately the size of Macalester College in Minnesota, my alma mater. Macalester is also a church college run by the Presbyterians. Both colleges have a definite secular feel about them, even if they are owned and operated by Christian denominations.
I haven’t been on a college campus in decades! But it turns out that Natalie and Donna often spend evenings at the college attending concerts and plays. After all, Georgetown is a college town, and Natalie tells me Southwestern is the oldest university in all of Texas. I detect some pride here. Maybe I would go to cultural events at my college too if I still lived in Minnesota. But then the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have at least twenty-five colleges and universities, with over 50,000 students at the University of Minnesota. Multiply each college’s cultural offerings and there is a lot to choose from in the Twin Cities! Not to mention professional groups like the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Guthrie Theater.
We eat the same lunch many of the students are eating, hamburgers. Natalie orders a portabella hamburger, expecting a hamburger with a slab of meat and a mushroom. Instead, all that comes is a mushroom on a bun! Welcome to college life in the 21st century, the age of vegans and vegetarians.
After lunch, we walk around the Student Union, then saunter around the campus grounds outdoors. The buildings, all clad with rough-cut limestone, have a feeling of uniformity, no matter when they were constructed. I find the campus very attractive.
We walk alongside a lush lawn with beautiful huge shade-producing trees. Dotted here and there are pretty wooden lawn chairs. “These chairs have each been donated by alumni,” Natalie says. In one section of the commons there are dozens of plaques on the ground, honoring former students who have contributed in some major way to society or to the college. One of the plaques is dedicated to Donna.
We walk on for an hour or so. Natalie points out the sorority she belonged to. We walk into the chapel, where she and Rhett used to make out during hours when the chapel was not occupied. She was in awe of this lively, handsome young man who was popular with all the girls, but for some reason wanted to be with her!
We wander into the theater building, where students are rehearsing a play Natalie and Donna will be attending in a few days.
I am puzzled by this attachment they feel to the college they graduated from. I feel no connection at all to Macalester. Is that because I graduated in the time of the hippie movement? Most of us in my graduating class chose to not even wear the traditional caps and gowns. Or did I inherit this disconnection from my parents? My father was matter-of-fact on the rare occasions when he talked about college at all. He graduated from Columbia University in New York City. Was he proud of that? It’s an Ivy League school, after all. I did know that neither he nor my mother liked New York City, the city I feel best in! Neither of my parents received alumni magazines from their respective schools. My mother went to nursing school at a hospital that doesn’t even exist anymore. She worked in New York City at a hospital belonging to Columbia, and that doesn’t exist anymore. My parents didn’t talk about college. Except about the college I didn’t want anyone to know I had attended, and that was the frequent subject of conversation between my parents. My parents donated so much money to Bethel College, they put my father on the board of directors and even gave him a teaching position. The president of the college and his wife had been guests at our home. I attended this college too for three years because it seemed like the obvious choice. But I was not happy there, and I was highly embarrassed to run into my father occasionally on campus. Even after I had married and was living in Germany, my parents would mention who they had seen at the Festival of Christmas, a music extravaganza the college puts on every year. I sang in these concerts too while attending the college, but never set foot in that place again after transferring to Macalester. I definitely did not want to be associated with that college.
But I was no more connected to Macalester than to Bethel. I knew that Macalester had a good reputation, but I also never let the alumni association know of my new addresses so they could send me alumni magazines. I was just relieved to finally be finished with college! The same thing when I got my MSW at the University of Minnesota. I graduated in absentia and never went back. Seeing Natalie and Donna’s enthusiam, I wonder if there is something misplaced within me. Why can’t I connect? I am the one who is disconnected from parts of my past others brag about. I wonder if this has to do with wondering where I belong. College wasn’t home. Where is home?
Interestingly, one of the singers in the choir I sing with now in Germany is from Minnesota. The choir director I sang under at Macalester, Dale Warland, is well known internationally. When I mentioned to her that I had sung under him, she said, “Lucky you. I never could get into his choir.” Of course, she meant his professional choir. I sang in the large concert choir. Still, when she told me that, I felt a moment of pride. I belonged to a good college and sang once under their renowned choir director! It felt good to have a brief sense of having belonged someplace.
We eat ice cream at Donna’s chic town house, in a housing development constructed specifically for senior citizens.
And then we leave Donna. Natalie says, “You haven’t seen Sun City yet! This is housing on an entirely different scale than where Donna lives.”
We drive past the center of Georgetown to a suburban development. There are homes here larger than the one my parents had built to accommdate seven children! This is the place retired corporate executives move to, intending to downsize. We drive past house after house, condominium after condominium, all built for wealthy or at least upscale people fifty-five years old and up. We pass people driving in golf carts along the road. Sun City has its own golf courses – three of them! Its own senior university. Its own cultural center, ballroom, activitiy center, artificial fishing lake, its own swimming pools. I read that this is the first home people live in after retiring, but not their last. This is a place for vibrant, restless people on the go!
I see one active creature here that is of much more interest to me than all the golf courses of Sun City – a roadrunner!
I am thrilled to see the roadrunner, the first I’ve seen in Texas this trip. I feel out of place in Sun City, though. It feels artificial and unnatural to live in a place constructed for and devoted exclusively to seniors. Rhett had suggested once that I might want to move down there. “It’s growing all the time,” he said. There are over 14,000 residents living there now, pushing up the population of Georgetown to about 50,000 residents at present. It’s growing larger, day by day. Georgetown is no longer a town. It has become a thriving city.
Our next stop is Lake Georgetown, a dammed-up part of the San Gabriel River, now a reservoir providing drinking water and recreation for the inhabitants of Georgetown. It is a pretty, very large lake, but lacks the pristine beauty of the lakes I knew as a child, spending summers in the pine and birch forests, camping along one of the thousands of lakes in northern Minnesota.
I learn that Georgetown is one of a few cities in the United States using 100% renewable energy. Talk about a green city! Texas is not at all what I expected. This is one of the most forward-thinking places I can imagine, way ahead of anything I know of in Germany. I can understand why people are proud to live in Texas, in a town turned city called Georgetown.
Our last stop is at HEB, the supermarket Natalie normally shops at. “We’re going to the ‘Mexican’ one,” she says. “I feel more comfortable there among these ordinary people than all trendy, hip shoppers in Sun City.” We roam along the aisles in a crowded, rather shabby but comfortable supermarket, surrounded by Mexicans.
Yes, Natalie and I are one of a kind. Neither of us would choose Sun City as our local neighborhood. But Georgetown as a whole, that’s another thing. After having spent a week in Georgetown, I can imagine why people feel at home here. But I have to move on. Tomorrow I will be in Louisiana – for the first time.
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.