Foreword: I am beginning this entry in the second floor waiting area of the Lake Charles airport outside Jenn and Jean’s Creole Café. The last two days have brought both a lot of activity and weariness. But if I don’t get this down now, I never will.
Note: And, in fact, I am completing this entry almost six days later.
SUNDAY, MARCH 24
1) Up early and needing to breathe air without dust, I took my second cup of coffee and my laptop out to the front porch in the white terrycloth bathrobe I always wear at home. To appear outdoors in one’s pajamas Simply Isn’t Done, but . . . too tired to care. After about an hour, Laura bolted outside, just to see where I was. Which just goes to show how rare it is for anyone to use the front porch!
2) Laura ended up on the phone with her family a lot on Sunday morning, while my focus was on going to Sunday worship at First Methodist for the last time. Mother’s car battery had died; while Laura was starting to consider the time it would take her to drop me off and collect me from church, I said “Gurrrrlllll, rest yo’sef! I’ll take ye Lift!”
3) It transpired the nice young woman driving ye Lift had a day job at one of the local nursing homes, so we ended up talking a lot about that community and about Daddy.
4) Arrived at church about an hour before the service was to start, which gave me time to have a cup of coffee or two, roam the halls and remember, and talk to a Gentleman Slightly Older Than Myself who’d spent his life at First Methodist, and who caught me up on a lot of inside information from back in the day.
5) In her later years, Mother had taken to sitting with her friends in the third pew on the left, and I made for that pew at the right time and got to sit with Louise, Mary Ann, Dot, and a couple others. Many kind greetings from many people.
6) A sweet little baby was baptized early in the service, and I reflected on the symmetry of things as this young child’s life in the church was beginning as mine was ending. (This was all the more present as we’d discovered the outfit I was christened in - and yes, I’m taking it back home.)
6a) Speaking of clothes, I made a point of looking sharp and well-dressed, honoring my father’s training and remembering all the church men of my childhood. Heavens, Mr. D*****s, who was always one of the ushers, and his crisp dark suits and white shirts and perfect neckties! Nowadays there are more shirtsleeves than suits, and while that saddens me, I had to remind myself “Robert, this isn’t your church any more, so STFU.”
7) The preacher is really spot on, and has been doing a series of sermons on popular music. In this case, “You’re So Vain,” on the sin of Pride, and it made me think how Mother and I would (or would not) recognize Certain National Figures in what was shared.
8) No, we didn’t sing “God of Our Fathers” or “The Church’s One Foundation,” but the choir sounded just like they ought to - and even now, so many familiar faces in the choir loft.
9) I took another ride on ye Lift home, and after leftovers for lunch, Laura decreed that we needed to start working on . . . the garage! With so much junk - almost all of it coated with insulation from the attic - piled in the middle, no other vehicle could be pulled in to jump the battery. (Laura may also have decided that it was too daunting a job just for her, and I agree.) So I got out of my good suit and into my jeans, and we began tackling the Forgotten Items.
9a) You have to remember, as we may have forgotten, that Mother and Daddy had to leave Orchid Street much sooner than expected when the house sold in 1984 and move to a rental house while Bayouwood Court was being designed and built. Mother likely packed everything in a hurry, and then just moved everything to the new house, consigning boxes to the attic if they weren’t immediately needed.
9b) Cups and saucers in patterns I found unattractive, the white and green glass shelves from their bathroom on Orchid Street, an enamel bedpan, florist’s vases, an old leather suitcase in fairly good condition with acres of fabric scraps, my old Hot Wheels garage, old cheese crocks and decorative tins, all Mother’s French and geology homework from college, two beautiful old evening dresses from Before We Were Born, a pottery cake stand from the 1970s . . . and of course, more boxes of papers. We found the papier maché skull and Frankenstein feet from the Hallowe’en tableau we staged in 1973! As I said before, Mother saved everything.
9c) Opening a box and discovering yet more correspondence sent my weariness into overdrive. Full of stuff from high school and early college years. We took a half-hour break.
10) Later in the afternoon we tackled the big glassed-in bookcase in the den, which Mother had arranged as a display of a lot of antique detritus, as well as the encyclopedia they bought in 1973 and a whole series of books about music from the early 1950s. Just about all I wanted from this case was a plastic Dimmick Supply ashtray in 1970s avocado green. Laura found an old book on home entertaining she felt Etiquetteer should have, and i of course I agreed.
11) The rest of Sunday is kind of a blur at this point, but I know I tried to have a NAP at some point, and that Youngest Nephew Who Must Not Be Tagged Showed Up at some point, and then left without saying goodbye.
12) And it must have been on Sunday that I found yet another gone-forever thing: my father’s wedding ring! Now Daddy just didn’t wear rings; it wasn’t his style. But we had always been told that he had his mother’s ring for his wedding ring, and had engraved on the inside “And love is reflected in love.” But whenever we went to search his jewelry box, it couldn’t be found. Now you’ll recall that we’d thought that jewelry box had been lifted by a health aide and was gone forever, but we found it in a box under Daddy’s desk after Mother’s funeral. Picking through it while packing, I tumped out the contents on my bed - and among all the tietacks and lapel pins was a thin gold ring. And faintly seen inside it was engraving: “And love . . . is . . . “ “OH MY GOD, LAURA! I FOUND DADDY’S WEDDING RING!”
12a) I’m afraid our family, and especially me, haven’t been good with rings. To my shame, I’ve lost three: my dad’s high school ring, and two rings my gramma gave me from their trip to the Grand Canyon in 1947. I’m now hanging on tenaciously to two: my uncle’s ring from that same Grand Canyon trip, and now my father’s wedding ring.
12b) But I also was surprised to find myself turning over for the estate sale a lot of those tietacks and tie bars. When you wear bow ties, you don’t need that stuff. But I did keep the cufflinks!
MONDAY, MARCH 25
1) Monday was designed to be out and about, while also wrapping up things at home. We got a very early start for our first stop, the Shriner’s Center north of town, to drop off Uncle Bill’s fezzes and other memorabilia. We’d also found our great-grandfather Thorson’s Masonic apron to include; we just didn’t feel right keeping these things.
2) The center is waaaay out near Highway 171 in the northeast of Lake Charles. We passed an old Dimmick Supply location on the way. We passed a Medora Street, and I reflected that some lady’s names just go out of fashion. No one’s been called Medora for over a century!
3) The center is gigantic, and when we got there before 8 AM the place was desolate. After some confusion, a handyman directed us through a kitchen and a gigantic function room to an obscure office, where the lady I’d spoken to on the phone was chatting with an elderly gent. They were very happy to see us, and they both remembered Uncle Bill well - and the old gent had done business with Dimmick Supply back in the 1940s! We had a pleasant chat.
4) Then it was back to the library to drop off the encyclopedia and all those music books, and then home.
5) Youngest Nephew Who Must Not Be Tagged and His Lovely Wife showed up so we could all go to lunch together. No one wanted to make the call on where to go, and after about five minutes of ridiculousness, we decided to return to ye Y’Charley’s. It had the advantage of being near the house. I was really glad to catch up with them over lunch. Lovely Wife is actually in three community theatre productions right now.
6) We returned to the house, and they made some final decisions about things to take with them. Since Lovely Wife has an interest in vintage clothes, I was really happy to see her choose Mother’s black velvet evening cape (which I never ever saw her wear) and several Hats from Before I Was Born. (Again, why did Mother preserve all these things so meticulously not to use them? Why do any of us do this?)
7) Laura and I then drove to the church to meet with the preacher, both to talk some business and just to talk. Since my day the church offices have been moved out of the church. They are across the street behind the church in a large old house that had been a law firm’s offices. My embarrassment at not recognizing the kindly church administrator who met with us in February can be imagined.
8) The preacher loved both our parents. At her funeral he talked about Mother’s inquisitive mind. He and my father were able to bond over all the old movies. (This sometimes makes me wonder why Daddy and I didn’t bond over old movies more, ‘cause we really didn’t, and not just ‘cause he didn’t like Joan Crawford.) The dark red walls and spacious dark wood bookcases on every wall spoke less of the 19th-century parson and more of the 21st-century sports fan. We had a really good meeting.
9) Then it was down the street to see the lawyer. We drove past the former location of Scarlett O’s behind the post office, a popular, very fancy and lively restaurant for a generation or two after my parents, and the site of my unforgettable pre-prom dinner my sophomore year at Catholic school. The beautiful old house there is gone; I don’t remember if it burned down or not.
10) The lawyer’s office is also in an old house - smaller than the church offices - with the added advantage (to me) of being right next door to Aunt Kate and Aunt Lal’s old house on Moss Street, full of memories for me. The ladies at the lawyer’s office all loved Mother, and so they like seeing us. Our meeting went well, but I kept hearing the cry of Mary Haines: “Papers! I never knew there could be so many!”
11) Since we were out that way, Laura and I had an early dinner at my beloved Seafood Palace for my last night in Lake Charles. There’s nothin’ like their good chicken and sausage gumbo! I started off with an order of boudin balls and a bourbon. I asked Laura why we never went to Seafood Palace when we were children, and she reminded me that back then it was the Crab Palace and that maybe it was a little too honky-tonk back then.
11a) Do you remember the restaurants where your parents brought you when you were little? The more frequent for us were the Piccadilly Cafeterias (both on Ryan and, when the mall opened in 1971 or so, the one at the mall), but I also remember going once or twice to Paul’s B-B-Q, and once Daddy took us to Day’s Café, an obscure hole-in-the-wall behind Ryan Street near Kroger’s. Good home cookin’.
11b) Seafood Palace is just down Enterprise Boulevard from where the old Burger Chef was, and I used to love when we’d go there and get a chocolate shake.
12) Well, after all that gadding about town and eating good food, we had to go home so I could finish the daunting task of packing. Having arrived with a mostly-full suitcase and a laptop bag, I was leaving with two very full suitcases, a very full carry-on, and a laptop bag. I was in fear and tremblin’, more than usual, that I’d pack something only to have it arrive broken. The final result was a somewhat organized jumble of old papers and photos, fragile china teacups and saucers, pristine table linens, jewelry boxes, and a large mohair blanket that had been in a cedar chest most of the last 60 years.
13) And then, then, walking down the hall I suddenly said “Dammit, we never went through the Christmas stuff!” Heavy sigh. That’s what cleaning out a house is like. You’re dead beat, sure you’ve done everything you need to have done, and then something that absolutely cannot be neglected gets you right between the eyes.
13a) Laura reminded me that she had said we still needed to do this. And of course she had.
14) The larger of the two front hall closets was devoted to Christmas things and craft supplies, along with some table linens. I started to get down the six or seven large flat boxes of ornaments, searching methodically for particular ornaments that were mine. I came away with about half a dozen ornaments only - shocking! But they are all very special to me.
14a) Turns out I picked one that belonged to Laura - that egghead Scottish girl - but I surrendered it cheerfully when she told me.
14b) Still missing, two ornaments made specially for me by P*** D****, a young mother in the church who worked with our age group when I was ten or so: a little drummer boy and a santa in long johns. Perhaps they’re gone for good, perhaps they are already in Boston? Laura said she’d send them to me if she found them.
15) Then it was time to unroll the big roll of old sheet in which Mother kept all the important fabric decorations: our stockings, the Christmas tree skirt, etc. Things Gramma made. I snatched up my stocking PDQ, and also chose a severely simple red felt tablecloth edged in green braid and gold fringe.
16) I made a brief tour through the house, photographing things that would no longer be special after I left, and then did my best to get some sleep.
TUESDAY, MARCH 26
1) Laura wisely decreed an early day, and I think I set my alarm clock for 5:30, but was up maybe a whisper earlier - or later, who can remember precisely? She was already up and dressed by the time I opened my door, and I struggled into some clothes so we could go out to breakfast.
2) Laura also decreed breakfast at ye Pytt Grylle, so that we wouldn’t have to wash any dishes. We were one of three parties in the place - dawn was just breaking - and we sort of made conversation over bacon and cheese omelettes and coffee. Each of us faced TV screens showing ye Fyx & Frynds and ESPN, and we both tacitly agreed that we would not talk politics. Damn, it was just too early in the day anyway!
3) Return to the house, where we started to bring out the overflowing trashcans since it was trash day. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a car pulling out and then stopping. And then the voice: “Robert?!” Mother’s across-the-street neighbors! They didn’t know I’d been there, and we had to chat for about ten minutes before they headed off to work. After the funeral we’d let their little boy choose any of the children’s books he wanted.
4) There was even more trash in the house, and Lago di Carlo prohibits just leaving trashbags on the curb. You must have them in a trashcan that can be picked up by the big claw on the garbage truck. So I suggested calling the next door neighbor to see if they had room in theirs. This led to a 20-minute visit and a completely empty trashcan which we were able to fill easily. This elderly gentleman looked after all the ladies in the subdivision, including Mother, in his own way, like by bringing the newspaper right up to the front door on his morning walk so Mother wouldn’t have to walk all the way down the yard to get it. Talking with him you could just tell he thought the world of Mother, and he said quite openly that it still hurt to think she was gone.
4a) And he underscored all the interest there is in the neighborhood about the future of the house. My parents lived there 33 years and were among the residents of longest tenure. They were always there.
5) Back to packing and the usual pre-departure tasks. I wrote a note at the kitchen table to one neighbor thanking them for the use of their trashcan, but my brain just froze when trying to compose another.
6) Walking through the house one last time, the rooms full of disorder, my eyes full of tears that would not fall. Things my grandparents and my mother made that we will not be taking with us. Memories of things that happened.
7) I asked Laura to take my picture in front of the house. And then it was time to leave the house, the subdivision, the neighborhood.
8) We had two important stops to make en route. First, and most important, the cemetery. They’d added the scroll with Mother’s name and dates to the plaque. The grass has not yet grown back over her side since she and Uncle Bill were interred. The silk flowers that Mother brought there during the holidays still look beautiful. (This cemetery discourages live flowers, which I think is akin to blasphemy.) I thanked the three of them - Daddy, Mother, and Uncle Bill - and off we went.
9) Next, the post office, to mail a copy of Scrivelsby: Home of the Champions and an overelaborate shield-and-eagle doorknocker engraved “The Dimmicks” to our cousin Christopher in Alaska. I think the doorknocker was a wedding gift they never used; Laura thinks it might have been a Christmas gift. Regardless, Mother never threw it away. Mother saved everything.
10) At the airport, Laura helped me drag in my luggage - over 100 pounds all told. They were having computer troubles at the check-in counter so I had to wait patiently about ten minutes while they got those resolved. Then I gave Laura my key to the house with its black rubber cover (from a Christmas cracker) and a big hug, and she was off.
11) Two parting gestures: call me childish, but before I boarded the plane I cast the dust of Lake Charles from my shoes; changing planes at DFW, I deleted Lake Charles from the weather app on my phone.
12) Now the next phase of my life begins, and I wonder if it’s possible to recapture some of the happiness of this little boy.
13) That will be the big assignment once I have some time to think!