For the first time in our extended family’s history, we went on a weeklong family reunion to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary this past week. Throughout our time together, I recognized the beauty of the five fathers in our family — my dad, my husband, my two brothers and the husband of our long ago German exchange student.
The fact that each of our five families has strong father figures is somewhat remarkable, but a Norman Rockwall portrait we are not. We have warts and, like every family out there, we have our share of challenges, disagreements and plain ugliness. However, this week, watching five men do their roles as husbands and dads with grace, love and caring that went above and beyond the call of duty was a beautiful thing.
Each of the fathers has a signature style — and there are generational and cultural differences to be sure. Nonetheless, their love for their children is evident and seems to have served to create happy, healthy children.
Anyone who has ever tried parenting knows that it is not for the faint of heart and is a constant learning experience. To celebrate Father’s Day, I asked the five most prominent fathers of my life the biggest thing they’ve learned thus far in their parenting journey — and what has made them a better father.
My youngest brother has been a father for about 18 months. He says he’s learned how quickly children learn, how much your life changes and how much you enjoy it. He believes patience has made him a better father.
His wife agrees that his patience makes him a better dad. “Also, he helps more than most fathers do. He changes diapers. He gets up with our son during the night. He gives him baths. He accepts responsibility for everything. Nothing is ‘my job’ because I’m the mother. He helps all the way around.”
Martin, our German friend, who has a four-year-old daughter, said the biggest thing he’s learned is that he can’t really plan things. “If you have a child, she has her own way,” he said. “If she’s not ready, you have to wait. Now, if we come late, which would have been a big problem for me before, I have to just be ok. As a father, I’ve learned that I have to be more relaxed.The last time we came to the States, it didn’t matter which hotel we stayed in. Now we have to plan in advance — on one side, you must plan more. On the other side, you cannot plan anything.”
His wife agrees. She says that her husband is always there for their daughter. “He’s always listening to her,” she said. “Before he thinks of himself, he’s thinking about her.”
My husband, whose daughters are 15 and 11, said becoming a father later in life probably made him more reflective. He’s recognizing, as our daughters grow, their personalities are developing in different paths. Because they’re so different, he has to deal with them differently.
My middle brother has three children, 22, 18 and 14. He said the biggest lesson he’s learned as a dad is much like the one my husband has recognized — each child has an independent personality and is totally different. Even so, he strives for consistency. “I’ve also learned that most things are small stuff, and don’t sweat the small stuff,“ he said. “And one last thing, every now and then, it’s good if your children are a little bit afraid of you.”
My dad, whose children are 33, 45 and 49, said he now believes that you never quit raising your children. “I have learned to look over things that would have upset me at one point,” he said. “I have learned to accept my children for what they are and not what I want them to be. I know they are grown, but still I worry about them and want to take care of them.”
My mom said that through the years my dad has always been there. “And, I never doubted his love for me or the children or grandchildren,” she said. “He works so hard, too hard sometimes — it’s all because he wants to provide for us.”
Having this kind of time to just hang out and be with our extended family was a gift that I believe we will all cherish for decades to come. Happy Father’s Day to each of them and the fathers in your family too.
I remember every little detail of that day, except one thing.
As I watched the little girl and 11-year-old boy play that morning, I could tell that neither of them knew how to swim and suspected that if it wasn’t their first time swimming, it was probably their second. There weren’t many other people in the lake at the time, so I got down from my chair and tried to show them the basics — focusing on how to float.
At 15, I felt like I could save the world.
By early afternoon, it was my turn to open the giant slide — an engineering marvel involving sheet metal and fiberglass that no legal department would let slide today. The equivalent of five stories high, if you knew how to go down it just right, head first on a small raft, you could pick up enough speed to glide out 40 feet across the water.
In other words, back in 1979, that slide was legendary.
I climbed the slide and made sure it was properly wet down. Five or six people slid down. I was standing there on the little covered platform trying to make sure a small blue life jacket was properly fastened on a four-year-old boy, when I vaguely heard someone calling my name. The little boy’s father tapped my shoulder and said, “I think he’s trying to get your attention.”
I looked down to see Ricky, my fellow lifeguard, waving his arms frantically. Suddenly, I could hear him like he was right beside me, and for some reason, I knew what was wrong.
I slid down the slide to get to Ricky and try to help, thinking the whole way down, “Nothing like this has ever happened here.”
Ricky quickly told me the little girl and boy had gone under. He went to rescue them and got the girl up to safety. When he went back, the boy was gone.
We began to dive for him.
And we dove.
And then other strong swimmers joined us.
And they dove with us.
To me, the water got darker and darker each time I went down. I remember the lake’s muddy bottom. The whole thing was worse than a nightmare.
Two ladies sitting were standing near the shore, losing their minds. Somewhere along the way, someone got them chairs. One of them must have been his grandmother. They sat there the whole time, weeping and wailing with a grief that I can still hear, even though I don’t want to.
Ultimately, at least ten people helped us search.
Two hours into it, I was catching my breath with my right elbow on a board beneath the pier. I said to a lady I didn’t know but felt close to in that moment, “At this point, if I find him, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She said, “You’re going to bring him to the top and do your best to bring him back to life. That’s what you’re going to do.”
And so I dove some more.
Nearly three hours after I slid down the slide, two fishermen brought their boat over and dove in near the diving board pier.
That’s where they found him.
In the deepest part of the lake.
Together, the fishermen brought him to the surface. Someone had called the ambulance. They took his body away, walking right in front of his grandmother.
After the ambulance left, we closed the lake. My uncle drove me home.
By the time we reached our house, I was much older than I had been that morning. Nobody was home, but my uncle had to go. I didn’t want to be inside or alone. I grabbed my basketball and headed to the driveway. Basketball was always there for me, but on that hot July afternoon, I just stood there looking from the goal to the street, basically hoping someone I knew would drive by.
And that’s what happened.
A classmate drove up on his brand new motorcycle. I told him about the afternoon. My friend said that he and his dad and another classmate were going bowling that night. Did I want to go? My friend went and got his dad. I wrote my parents a note and went bowling in his dad’s beige car. Somehow that recognition of friends making sure I was OK got me through.
And that’s all I could focus on at the time — getting through.
All these years later, I think of that 11-year-old boy, his grandmother and his sister. I wonder if he had been a good student. I wonder what his classmates said that fall when his desk was empty. I wonder if his grandmother blamed herself. I wonder how his little sister made it through and how deeply that day scarred her.
That whole day runs like a movie in my head. I remember it well.
I just don’t remember his name.
Ten years ago, my husband fulfilled his lifelong dream of owning an old truck.
His prize wasn’t quite as old as he would have liked, but it suited the purpose and pocketbook just fine. It was a 1986 GMC Sierra stepside longbed with running lights.
He says he bought it for its aesthetics.
“I like the look of old trucks,” he said. “You ask anybody who sees the truck and they’ll guess it’s at least 10 years older than it really is. Even when I saw it, I thought it was older than it was. …The thing that impressed me the most the first time I got in the truck, I looked down and saw the clock. It working and the time was right.”
And we’re not talking about one of those fancy digital clocks. Right there in the middle of the dashboard is a rather large analog clock. One day around 4:17 at some point in the last ten years, the old faithful clock stopped working, but the truck rides on.
Gentle reader, please understand that this truck is not, with an emphasis on the not, a showpiece. Instead, it’s a slightly banged-up-original-paint-job-old-truck. My husband has added the region’s requisite upside-down Delcambre Reeboks between the cab and the bed — and some fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror.
Yet, through the years, every time one of our “dependable” vehicles has broken down or had problems, it’s the old white truck that we count on.
Truth be told, we don’t drive it often. Most of time the truck sits near the back of our yard, watching boats head down the Vermilion. Compared to the tiny car I typically drive, the truck is such a large ride that I feel like I’m in a parade and should consider tossing beads to the folks along the roadside when I’m in it.
However, there’s one thing that happens almost every time we take the truck anywhere. It happens in the grocery store parking lot. It happens at busy intersections. It happens at church. It happens at school. It happens at football games.
Nearly every time we drive that truck somewhere, a man — usually one getting close to middle age — approaches us and says, “If you’re looking to sell that truck, let me know. I’m interested.”
We’ve never been looking to sell that truck, but there’s something about an old beat up pickup truck that must invite men of a certain character to feel that it’s their public service duty and responsibility to take a truck like that off of someone else’s hands.
I can see it in their eyes. There’s this strange sense of reverse Antique’s Roadshow — like they’re thinking, “These folks have no idea what they’ve got on their hands here. I’m the one who could properly appreciate this old truck and give it the home it deserves.”
For sure, it’s a truck that deserves a name.
The truck comes up in conversation more than you’d think, and when it does, my husband repeats the old saying about the only thing better than owning a truck is having a friend who owns a truck. In that spirit, at least nine friends have used it to move their belongings from one side of town to the other or for a few days while their car was in the shop.
“But that saying is not necessarily true,” my husband said. “A friend with a brand new, shiny truck may not let you borrow it to move your beds, bikes or books across town. However, I tell my friends that even if you have to haul a load of manure and barbed wire, I’ll still lend you my truck.”
Lucky for me, he’s a man as good as, maybe better than, his truck.
Memorial Day weekend marks the official opening of summer reading. Whether you’re a voracious reader and can’t find enough to fill your appetite or you approach it much like the vegetables of childhood — something you have to do begrudgingly, I’ve tried to read a real variety to vouch for good stuff in different genres. I’ve read a number of other so-so books lately (The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout), but those on the list below rise to the top. Here are some recommendations, both new and old.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan — Such a fun read. About more than a funky bookstore. Much food for thought about technology, the love of reading and the risk of technology to isolate rather than bring people together, but basically it’s just a beautifully written and lovely story. Techy 20-somethings rejoice. This is your book.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Sometimes this book’s writing took my breath away. The story isn’t exactly uplifting, but it is a lovely tale of love, loss and New York City.
Fall of Giants and Winter of the World by Ken Follett. If you like history, historical fiction or great storytelling, you’re going to be absorbed by Follett’s Century trilogy. They’re big, but you have the luxury of staying with the books long enough to really feel like you’re a part of the story. I’ve recommended Fall of Giants before, but I am happy to do so again. The books tell the stories behind World War I and II. Both gave me an understanding of the war’s absurdities. Winter of the World also offered insight into life inside Germany during World War II. Yes, the stories are fiction, but Follett’s research is remarkable. I am not a war buff, but I loved reading these books.
Personal favorites I’ve recommended before: The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson (three very different book types — all beautiful in their own way)
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. One of the most heartbreakingly beautiful books I’ve read in a long while. It leaves an impression and is sure to be a blockbuster movie. Read now and get ahead of the trend.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai. A lovely book, set between Vietnam and the Deep South. It is the story of one child’s transition and grief in the beginnings of war in Vietnam and her subsequent a trip across the world to rebuild a new life with her family and eventual new friends. A beautiful story, written in simple, poetic language. An easy read for children 8 and up.
These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine by Nancy Turner. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last few years. Don’t let the dialect in the beginning discourage you. The difficult vernacular goes away, and the reading experience becomes smoother. Great book for teenage girls.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Even though we may not love the book or agree with the details of her ideas, the book has prompted a lot of great conversation about women rising in the ranks of the business world.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I’m the only person I know who didn’t love this book, but I still recommend it. Based on Louis Zamperini, born in 1917, and his incredible story of running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and fighting in World War II. He has led a life stranger than fiction and survived more near death experiences than any cat around. Great book for adolescent boys and their fathers.
The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. I love Seth Godin, his thought processes and his books. Overall, he’s got a huge message on business and living. This book is about not holding back and being the most you can be. In other words, follow Icarus’ lead and dare to fly closer to the sun. Your wings won’t melt. If you’re in the working world or aspire to be, you should read this one.
And if you’d like a taste of poetry, check out Darrell Bourque’s new collection of Acadian migration inspired work, Megan’s Guitar.
This marks the 581st Sunday morning this column has run in this newspaper. I’m approaching 500,000 words. Most weeks, the topics just appear to me. I can’t explain the process completely, but I can say that I don’t have to work hard for them. In a way, I’m constantly looking for my theme of the week. I suppose I work harder than most to be consistently open to people, their stories and their ideas.
Of course, I’m not always successful. Occasionally, the deadline looms, and I have to seek external inspiration.
This week was one of those weeks.
As I sat down to write my column, I decided to ask my 11-year-old daughter, “If you could write a newspaper column about anything, what would you write about?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “L-O-V-E.”
Then she paused and said, “No, that’s not right, Mom. When it comes right down to it, you should write about one word and one word only.”
“What’s that word?” I asked.
She turned around and looked right in my eyes and said, “Hope — that what it’s all about.”
And with that she walked out of the room. Once she went through the door, she turned back around and said, “On this one, Mom, I am wise beyond my years.”
All I could do was say, “Indeed, you are, my dear.”
Before I go any further, I’ll say that not all interactions in my home are like that.
The truth is with both daughters in the throes of adolescence, we have what seems like more than our share of bickering on a daily basis. But then, when those rare moments of an 11-year-old girl looking me in the eyes and telling me that there’s really only one thing in this world to write about — and that thing is hope. Well then, there’s really no choice in that matter. A mama’s got to write about hope.
After thinking for a while about hope, I decided that it’s one of those things that rests just beneath the surface of almost everything I do.
Maybe hope grows in the soil of forgiveness?
Without forgiveness, you can’t hope for better friends and love than you’ve had before. You can’t hope for a better you until you’ve absolved the old you. And, you can’t hope yourself past tragedy until you forgive God for what has happened.
Maybe hope grows in the soil of curiosity?
For me, there’s a direct link between curiosity and hope. Curiosity leads to opportunity. Seeking opportunity leads to being proactive or taking risks. And, maybe it’s because I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal, but taking risks to me is all about hope.
I decided to ask a few others how they define hope.
Stacey Scarce, took a pragmatic approach. She said, “Hope is knowing that so many things are outside of your control yet still wanting the best of possible outcomes or some acceptable variation.”
Sharon Falgout said, “Hope is in the fact that, if we are blessed, we are given another day to give it another try.”
Mike Bourque said, “Hope is the small light at the end of the tunnel.”
Gretchen Donham said, “Hope is the firm belief that there is a reason to go on.”
Ted Power said, “Hope is the sun setting. Dawn breaking. Opening day of baseball. The last day of school. The National Anthem. Happy birthday to you.”
Another friend sent me a quote from Vaclav Havel, one of my all-time favorite world leaders. Havel said, “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out…. Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”
In the grand scheme of things, my daughter is right. Out of a half a million words, maybe hope is the most important one.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I asked readers to tell me something specific that their mothers did right. Responses came in droves, most offering some loving motherly nugget.
However, I also heard from people who didn’t win the mother lottery. For them, this day is not full of warm fuzzies. There aren’t many Mother’s Day cards along the lines of, “I guess you did the best you could. I’m still working to forgive you.”
In the spirit of honoring the spectrum of motherhood, I’ve included a little of everything below:
- When I applied to college, I applied to one school, the closest one to our home. When I went to orientation with my mother, a counselor advised my mom that I would not do well if I was spending two hours a day commuting. The counselor offered me a spot with on-campus housing. My mother jumped at this opportunity for me. She knew my father would be extremely angry, which he was. He eventually forgave her. After I graduated from college and then Stanford Medical School, my father acknowledged that my mother had made the best decision for me.
- My mom always lets me pick the music and we always listen to it turned all the way up and dance every time we ride anywhere (without Dad).
- My parents died within weeks of each other, much too soon. Mom had gastric cancer. She never complained, even though it was brutal. Shortly before she died, she was sitting with me waiting on CT scan results and crying quietly. I hugged her and asked if she was hurting. She shook her head and said, “No, I miss Quincy.” In that moment, I realized just how deeply she loved Dad — something I’ll always treasure.
- My parents divorced when I was 9. My sisters were 8 and 3. My mom had married very young and never gone to college. She went back to school with three kids and became a nurse. I remember getting up for a drink of water at night and mom was outside with a study group, under a security light so they didn’t wake us up. She taught me that education is that important and once you are a mom, your kids come first.
On the flip side of motherhood:
- The thing my mother did for me was to leave my siblings and me with grandparents when we were very young. I had to fend for myself and learn right from wrong all on my own. Her leaving me turned me into a strong, responsible, hard working, strong-willed, loving, and caring mother to my three children and husband.
- My mother is narcissistic. She who probably loves us — her children — but instead often shows us meanness and selfishness. I don’t mean to be a downer about it, but as everyone gushes on this day, some of us don’t.
I found solace in a sermon delivered by a minister who spoke of these kinds of mothers in relation to the commandment to honor your mother and father. He asked if that commandment held if they weren’t good, kind parents? He suggested that we’re not commanded to love them, agree with them, aspire to be like them — but simply to honor them as a parent, who for better or worse got us here. This thought was extremely helpful to me and brought me peace in that regard.
When I was 18 or 19 and in college at LSU, my mom came to pick me up. By the time we reached Butte la Rose, she was furious with me because I wasn’t a sorority girl like she had been. She pulled off the interstate and kicked me out of the car and left me alone in the swamp (before cell phones). She drove off. I was terrified. I walked to the other side of the interstate where there was a small building, but it was empty. (This was before there was the big rest area facility there.)
I just sat on the stoop and waited, not knowing what to do. Eventually, she came back for me and later acted as though everything was just dandy. We have never spoken of it, but I relive it every time I drive past Butte la Rose, which is fairly often.
I doubt this is the kind of story you want for Mothers Day, but I know I’m not the only one who didn’t have the wonderful kind of mother. I tried to be a better mother and have two loving daughters to spend my day with — as well as a loving mother-in-law who loves me in a way my mother couldn’t.
Happy Mothers’ Day to you. May you find joy and peace in the day.
Lately I’ve spent time with friends I love who have young children. That time has made me consider things I’ve learned in the process of parenting — things I wish I had known back when my children were younger. I decided to write myself a letter — the kind of letter that Marty McFly and Doc Brown or Doctor Who could deliver:
Dear Jan in 1997,
Chill out. Just enjoy it all as much as possible. I believe in you and know you’ll do your best. But here are a few extra tidbits to remember along the way:
Help your children. Model the behaviors you want them to have. Always be aware that your actions have repercussions. Do the right thing — and remember that sometimes the right thing to do is nothing (which also happens to be the hardest thing to do as a parent).
All that said, know now that as hard as you try, things will never be perfect for your little ones. You can do all the “right things,” but somewhere along the way, this tiny, perfect beautiful baby is going to run into situations that you can’t fix. No amount of preparing on your part could prepare that little doll you hold in your arms to flourish in every situation that’s going to come her way.
Even so, she’ll be OK.
In some ways you’ll parent as a reaction to your parents — that’s how these things go. Just know that you don’t need to change it all. Your parents did many things well. With today’s tendencies to encourage children to be engaged and play with all the right toys, watch all the right shows, be in the best schools, think back to when you were young and how some days your parents told you not to come inside until dark. Granted, that’s probably not a good move with a toddler, but try hard not to over-parent.
Know that your children need time and opportunity to be unsupervised. They need to be in places where they can take risks. A skinned knee is not the end of the world. A bump on the head is sometimes necessary. Trying to protect this child into perfection will not happen. Basically, I’m telling you to get over yourself. Your kid may end up doing great things — and you will play a role in your child’s development, but so will other people.
This one is going to shock you. Secondly, brace yourself, but know that there will come a time when your child isn’t telling you the truth. Throw out the whole sack of pohooey about always believing your child and never questioning them with last week’s meatloaf. No matter that you’ve always told them the truth. Still, there will come a time — and hopefully there won’t be too many times — but that sweet thing will inadvertently or deliberately deceive you. You are not a bad parent when you ask a few extra questions.
Next, and this is an important one that a lot of people seem to have let go in recent years, but you need to find effective ways to punish your child when she behaves in a way that is not appropriate. This will sound really harsh, but I have come to believe that — and this observation isn’t totally based on personal parenting experience, it comes in large part from teaching in a middle school, but here goes — children need a certain level of awareness and even a mild fear of consequences. They need to know that there will be consequences if they do the thing they are not supposed to do. Disastrous things happen when children don’t have a basic respect for authority, but I’m not suggesting beating their beautiful little spirits down.
Also, don’t feel like you’ve got to pack up the car and head out to every event that your child might enjoy. There’s serious beauty in just staying home and doing very little — together.
Lastly, make sure your children have chores that they alone own. Make these chores vital to the running of the household.
Oh, and when the time comes, buy Apple, Google and Amazon.
During Mardi Gras break, my 15-year-old took a 30-hour driver’s education class. Over the course of the class, she took several tests, and thankfully, passed them all — there was no refund for the class had she not. Last week, she did the driving portion of the class. After much studying and nervousness, she passed the driving test. On Wednesday, I took her to the DMV where she took another exam. She passed it too, and we walked out with a Louisiana driver’s permit in hand.
It was a happy day.
I never had a driver’s permit. Yet, I couldn’t help but compare her long and rather bureaucratic driver’s education and examination process to the one I went through to get a driver’s license.
I turned 15 on a Saturday, but right after school was out the following Monday, my mother took me to the Courthouse. We went to a small room on the corner of second floor, right under the jail. Through the window, I could see the movie theater easily. If I craned my neck, I could see City Hall. Our county highway patrolmen, who I had known all my life, was there alone. His daughter was in my class. She and I had grown up together. My mother had also known him all of her life. He and her brother had been great friends throughout their childhoods in a tiny community just outside of town.
The highway patrolman handed me a test. I sat down with it and a pencil in a wooden desk. I wrote my name on the line at the top of the page. He and my mom proceeded to talk. I had just answered the first question when he walked over to where I was sitting and pulled the test out from under my pencil, leaving a long mark down the page.
I looked up, startled.
He stood there grinning.
“Jan, I’ve been watching you drive for at least four years,” he said. “Get out of here. I know your mama’s got plenty to keep her busy, and I’m ready to go home. Here’s your license.”
We never even got to the driving portion of the test.
I had studied and practiced parallel parking.
Even so, I was more than happy to take the little piece of paper he was offering and skedaddle — I had my driver’s license, and I was off.
I drove everywhere from that day forward. Once I got to college and began supporting myself and began to make most of my own decisions, I started planning and taking giant trips that crisscrossed the country. These trips were not luxurious, but they were wondrous. If there was a road, I was ready to take it.
Getting my driver’s license may not have been the birth of my freewheeling spirit, but it was certainly its liberation.
On that day in late March long ago, there was something powerful in the State’s recognition that I was old enough to drive. I had more assurance in myself and my abilities to decide where to go and how to get there. Basically, I was in more control of my life. Granted, my newfound additional confidence may have been misguided, and surely my parents fretted with worry and concern when I started going places in the car rather than my bicycle. Maybe it helped that I lived in a town with only 5,000 people — most of whom we knew? Or maybe it didn’t.
Either way, I am grateful our daughter has six months required to drive with one of us in the car. Yes, I know she is sprouting wings and about to fly with a new and different liberation of her own, but I don’t mind having her in the nest a little while longer.
Social media gets a bad rap, but I’ve found it often affords a message or connection to friends of long ago. This week I learned it may even offer links to people who are long since gone.
Proof in a three part story.
Shortly after we moved to Lafayette, a friend called from a thousand miles away to tell me that another friend had tragically and unexpectedly passed away. The situation, full of heartbreak, focused largely on the three young daughters our mutual friend left behind — the youngest daughter barely three months old.
Even though distance separated us, my friend was the kind of friend I had expected to grow old with.
We adopted Piper from China shortly before my friend died. Life was full of complications, and I didn’t think I could manage the trip for her funeral. Though I have few regrets in life, ten years later, I still regret that decision.
I should have gone.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. Except that I was so full of grief, I could barely function.
The most difficult part of that grief was feeling so alone in it. Other than my husband, no one around me knew her or could tell and re-tell her stories that made me laugh and cry.
Somewhere in my brain, I remembered that before we left El Paso, Texas, for Lafayette, her mother told me of Louisiana friends she wanted us to meet.
You know how well-intended people always tell you those things.
I’ve told a thousand people those things.
You also know how few of those connections are ever made.
About four months ago, I needed a two-seater bicycle for a photograph.
I looked and looked and asked all the usual suspects to no avail.
Finally, I posted on Facebook: “Anyone have a bicycle built for two that I could borrow?”
As happens on social media, someone posted that she did.
The odd part of her post was that, even though she was my Facebook friend, I didn’t know her. Early in the Facebook game, I friended people who shared common friends. (Eventually, I came up with the novel approach of only friending people who were actually my friends.) At any rate, this person who I didn’t know instantly rose to the status of “good people,” based on her offering of the two-seater bike. She sent me her phone number and address.
My husband and I drove to her house, had a lovely visit with her and her husband, loaded the bike up and delivered it again a week later. In fact, I wrote about her in my Mardi Gras column. She was the one decorating shoes for the New Orleans Muses parade. During the course of our bike exchange, neither of us could figure out exactly when or how we became Facebook friends. Regardless, I was happy our paths had crossed.
Tuesday night my bicycle-built-for-two friend sent me a Facebook message.
“I think you might have known my Godmother when you lived in El Paso.”
I froze. Things suddenly came together.
This new friend and my old friend shared the same given name.
For good reason.
They were both named after the same person. My friend’s mother was the bicycle-built-for-two-friend’s godmother. Their mothers had been best friends growing up.
But a thousand miles had prevented the daughters from knowing each other well — even though they shared the same name. I immediately called my new friend. She explained their familial connections. I told her about how, all these years later, I still grieve my friend and regret not going to her funeral.
She said, “Well, you know her family. You know they aren’t the kind of people who would want anyone living with regret. They’re all about moving on.”
A part of me wanted to say, “But this was a friend so special that you never really move on completely.”
Instead, I was comforted that someone finally gave me permission to move on.
With permission comes responsibility. I’ve held on to a collection of audio and video tapes of times she and I shared (on a crazy radio and television cooking show I hosted in El Paso). I’ve waited for the right point to pass those tapes on to her daughters.
Maybe it’s time.
Messages are sometimes delivered in mysterious ways.
I have three friends who regularly say, “We don’t have enough poetry in the world today.” That sentiment is one of the reasons I know they’re good friends to have. They’re right, of course. We don’t have enough poetry in many aspects of our lives. Though I’m not a fan of rote memorization on many levels, when it comes to poetry, I believe memorization has a place — especially for children. Those poems we memorize as children stick with us.
I can still quote much of Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe because I had to stand in front of my 5th grade class and recite it, thanks to Mrs. Thompson. I checked with many other of her former students, and they remember too. We may not remember much else we learned that year, but many of us can still quote most of the poem — and everyone remembers certain lines and the experience of learning it.
I also believe in reading new poetry, and know that reading it aloud is best.
In honor and celebration of April as National Poetry Month, I asked Darrell Bourque, who was Louisiana’s poet laureate a few years ago, if he’d like to share a poem. He has given permission to use one of his most recent poems, which will be included in Megan’s Guitar, a new collection of his poetry, due to come out in a few weeks. Bourque and his gentle ways are genuine gifts to this community. If you get the chance to hear him read, please do yourself a favor and take that chance. With his permission, here is Bourque’s poem:
CHURCH POINT BREAKDOWN
In Memory of Iry Lejeune, 1928-1955
Before you could walk
someone or another
crossed a leg
and put you on a foot,
gave you your first ride
singing t-galop, t-galop.
It was your first lesson
in mobility, it was
your first dance.
In the playground
or under the oak
you sang Saute Crapaud
with your cousins.
You were learning
along with resilience
an early lesson
Mostly in the morning
you sang Frère Jacques,
to be awake, a call
in rounds to mindfulness,
to get on with your life,
not to sleep your life away.
And then came the other songs:
Bonsoir Moreau and J’ai Passé,
La Porte en Arrière,
Viens Me Chercher
and Les Flammes d’Enfer.
Everything comes to us
through the body,
the great metered muscle,
maître et maîtresse,
showing us how to sing:
sex and love, loneliness
and desire, how to fall
apart and how to hold
when to let go.
— Darrell Bourque
Bourque’s beautiful Acadiana inspired poetry motivated me to try my hand at a poem of my own about the Vermilion River and the Pinhook Bridge, topics I’ve given a lot of thought to lately.
Try your own hand at a poem. Send it my way, if you’d like. Let the celebration of poetry continue.
THE POINT BETWEEN A RIVER AND BAYOU
a tribute to Bayou Vermilion District
From where I sit,
the Vermilion proceeds —
Swollen with pride.
A discounted estuary
from Gulf to Pinhook.
Where the river stops
and the bayou begins.
An invisible line divides
Petit Manchac to its source.
What was river is bayou.
What was bayou is river.
Depending on surge and perspective.
The waters — they transform.
The pirates knew.
With help of native people,
pioneers figured it out.
Spaniards built a mission trail
to cross red water.
Civil War battles.
Not one, but two.
Pinhook was the point
where everything happened,
including a restaurant scalawag
who made a habit of reeling in chickens
and offered the name,
retained by an arterial roadway.
Thousands cross each day.
The unseen line is near meaningless now.
A bridge between
sushi and blooming onions
where fish and fur once changed hands.
Centuries of knowledge lost.
When you’ve got wifi,
what does it matter
which way the river flows?