Saturday, July 24, 2010

340 (1)


“Rhubarb,” Lillian said, squinting at the blur of highway.

Through the rain streaked window glass a familiar waterway streamed by, stirred muddy brown by the late afternoon downpour. We’d been over ten hours of highway curling out of Florida flatland into Alabama, Dixie and the red clay pine hills of Mississippi on the way to Baton Rouge.

“Rhubarb? Mama never cooked that.”

The last two hours had been mostly rain and interstate monotony, with occasional recollections of the food Mama used to cook, a touchstone from earlier days punctuated by the slap and swish of windshield wipers.

“Burnt bacon,” I said.

We were selling the old family house in Baton Rouge, getting out from under before it fell on someone and dropped us headlong into a low-rent lawsuit. The house on Wabash Avenue was worn out, squatting in a neighborhood now at the bottom of a long slide, where even a lucky sale would bring no sense of financial inheritance. Over long years it had sat facing the lumber yard, turning year by year into a sad headache. We figured on looking it over, recalling a memory or two, walking once more under the giant magnolia trees shading the front yard and then putting it on the market for whatever we could get.

Curiosity as much as practical concerns lay at the heart of this return to Louisiana, all starting with three or four letters from a local redevelopment company asking that we donate our property on Wabash Avenue as a community gesture, as a tax write-off, the first step in a gentrification plan for the neighborhood. We were on our way to take a closer look at the old house and the rebuilding plan.

“Mama got her recipe for buttermilk pie from Flossie.” Lillian said.

“She must have made those after I moved out.” I glanced at Lillian. “She sent those at Christmas or something?”

Thirty years since leaving Louisiana. Blurred memories. Faces and lives from back then a mix of memory and imagination. In the half-light at the heart of my childhood was the old house, falling apart year by year, now being hustled by developers. With its rotten porch steps and black tape electric wiring, this old house was the ark of my childhood, filled with ghosts, recollections, shadows, snatches of words, the yearnings and confusions of long days and nights defined by the smells of sugar cane, fresh cut lumber, the magnolia trees and the honeysuckle right outside my bedroom window.

I recalled a recent photograph of the house showing it in strange, bucolic colors, an almost-farmyard with no connection to the pictures in my head, real or imagined. Riding in the car, closing the gap between present and past, and listening half to my sister, half to the lulling drag of windshield wipers, I kept wondering how the place would look without Daddy Clyde pulling weeds from his eight-rowed vegetable garden, without Popee coming across the vacant lot with a bowl of the reddest strawberries. And old ‘Shine’ cutting through the same vacant lot on his way home from work in the shop. Would Bootsie be there? And where was Coco Lumber Company in this picture? Strong mix in the Louisiana gumbo I thought of as childhood was a rough grained and sweet scented lumber yard facing my old bedroom window.

Going backward to that place now, I knew that Coco’s was no more a part of the neighborhood. I hadn’t seen the blank stretch of Wabash Avenue with all its emptiness and tall weeds, but knew the buildings were long pulled down. Still Coco Lumber and its place in my childhood could not be erased, and standing with two feet among the vacancy, the tall weeds and the absence of what used to be would do little to erase that childhood castle.

Over the years, the house at 340 Wabash sat snug in its community of family. The idea of suburban living came into vogue, and people began to want homes isolated from business and shop. Homes laid out along curving streets with Indian tribe names and surrounded by Bermuda grass were the early powdered and primped residential communities. Broadmoor was the first, and families fled their old houses and rushed to subdivisions spurred on by the dream of new homes low to the ground, painted in earthy pastels, and featuring in each front yard a faux old-timey lamppost wrapped in English ivy and lighted during evening hours in a forty watt colonial glow.

In time the streets and neighborhood around Coco Lumber became something different, became a place where people parked primer coated cars diagonally across front lawns and threw beer cans out of windows. It became a temporary stopping place for the young and unconnected. It became a place merely to sleep at night.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America