Location: Baton Rouge
Meal: Pecan pie
Music: “Trouble” by Nina Simone
* minor details have been modified, as requested, to protect innocent identities*
After driving for hours through the fields of Louisiana’s highway 49, Baton Rouge suddenly emerged from the riverbank, its towers gleaming in the afternoon sun. I drove over the bridge and followed the chirp of my GPS’s monotone voice through hopscotch neighborhoods and dog wood trees to the Universal Baptist Church.
“Well it is a pleasure to meet to meet you.” An ebony hand pushed away my handshake to give me a heartfelt embrace. “I am happy to participate in your writing project.”
Deidre Matthews and I sat down in the church library, a room that smelled like dusty parchment and old candles. An old wooden chair creaked underneath me as I got myself situated. I looked up at Deidre with a smile. Her warm brown eyes reminded me of her niece, a beautiful kind-hearted woman I had known since college.
“I would do anything for my niece-and when she said you were passing through I knew I would make time.”
Something about Deidre made me want to hug her again. “So, my dear, what would you like to know? ” And the interview began.
Deidre was born in the 1950’s to a large family of eight when civil rights were raging across the country.
“However,” she recalls, “it took them a little bit longer to find themselves to my part of Louisiana.”
Deidre’s white suit and polished speech gave no indication that she was from a parish so remote it should have been just called a forest and a house so dilapidated most would have considered it fit for tear down. Growing up, Deidre “lived where the black people lived.”
“We would have to go to Mr. Pimms to get water—we didn’t have any working pipes.” However, appreciation is best reserved for those things hard gotten.
“Bath times were a blessing. I can still remember the wonderful anticipation of the water being heated up and tossed into a big aluminum tub for us!”
Eventually Deidre helped her family dig their own well but the house still didn’t have water running through it until she was in her 20s. “We were poor. We each had two outfits apiece and washed them every day over the washboard. No matter what age we were, we all helped the family with tasks; picking cotton, harvesting vegetables, cleaning. We would work on our own land for food and on other people’s land to earn money.” But Deidre didn’t mind the work. “It is not so bad if you are all together with your family!” she said.
I read once that happiness is not correlated with wealth but rather with societal connection and Deidre strongly agreed. “Even though we were poor, we had a lotta love so we were happy! We loved each other so much in that house! We would play games and read and laugh. Plus we had Jesus.” Deidre rocked her head in a silent Amen.
Deidre’s family usually had enough to eat using corn and flour as their basis. “There are so many things you can make from cornmeal! Pancakes, biscuits…” If Deidre’s family ever ran out of food they could count on their aunties to give them cornmeal. “We all shared food. No one was going to go completely hungry in our neck of the woods!” Meat was a once a week luxury and came in the form of squirrel, possum or rabbit.
“These were all meats that we could catch and didn’t have to pay for. But I never liked possum.” Deidre wrinkled her nose in disgust. “So when we had that I would go without!”
With love intact, the only sign of real need was at school. During Deidre’s grandparent’s time an African American could be killed for having a book in his hands. Although civil rights were starting to improve things, the 60’s were still a far cry from educationally equal. Segregation was still in full force and the black schools never received new books or materials like the white schools did. Deidre and her classmates would have to work off of 30 year old texts. As someone passionate for learning, this broke her heart, as she knew there was more recent information out there.
“This was my inspiration to be a teacher one day!”
Using the the aged books, Deidre dedicated herself to learning and teaching, helping her younger siblings and cousins with their homework.
“I loved teaching even at an early age.” Plus education was one way to combat the raging racism of the south; education was the way out.
Deidre’s wish to go to college and teach came true through grants, work-study, and a lot of elbow grease. In the 70′s she was able to go to college and obtain a degree in education. “I still remember the day I graduated!” she says with gleaming eyes, “June 4th, 1979 at eleven o’clock!”
Deidre is now a tenured teacher as well as an active Pastor’s wife, and mother to three children. “I love teaching because I love children! And I love helping others as it gives me joy.”
With all her loves, Deidre doesn’t know what the word ‘free time’ means. Being a Pastor’s wife is like a second job.
“I help the women of the congregation, take care of the sick, teach bible study, and have an open ear to anyone in need.”
In addition Deidre does all the washing, cleaning, cooking and other tasks at home. She often goes to bed at 1am only to wake up again at 4.
“Women are always the ones that do most of the work—always have been,” she said. “When my husband comes home from work he just watches television.”
I asked Deidre how she met her husband, the Baptist Pastor eight years her senior. Her face went instantly dark. “I cannot talk about my husband. If he knows you wrote a book, he’ll read it. And after he reads it he’ll hunt me down and kill me.”
The true panic in Deidre’s voice made my heart cry. She looked down at her hands and shook her head.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, men are never who they say they are. They may act lovely when they are courting you but they change. They change after marriage. Some bad.”
I discovered that Deidre’s husband lured her with money, jewelry, and a promise for a better life, richer than the one she had grown up with. “What did I know, I was a young virgin-I didn’t know what else was out there.”
Deidre thought her life was safe. But sometimes even marrying a man of God doesn’t guarantee happiness or safety. There were 2am sessions where Deidre would scrub the house floors raw, paranoid her husband would find a piece of dirt as an excuse to hurt her. There were afternoons where she labored over meals eager to please the finicky appetite only to have morsels flung back in her face.
“I did take some time away once but it is hard. You just cannot leave a man when you have growing children! Especially a Pastor! Sometimes I think after the kids are gone I may….maybe…..”
She looked at me seriously. “But you have to understand that despite it all, I do love my husband. He’s so pitiful. Right now he needs me in able to survive and I just don’t know that I could let him waste away on his own. In addition, I have a higher Man in my life—and He never fails me. Every time the world goes dark he shines a light on a new path for me.”
I only hoped the next path would take her far out of Baton Rouge.
Deidre looked at me intently. “But before you marry, make sure you know everything about him. Make sure he respects you, he loves you and he will take care of you. Men don’t change and you cannot fix them. Don’t buy a broken one.” Little did she know it was the broken ones I most often sought out.
I ask again if Deidre would feel able to reinvent herself after her kids are gone to college, a mission she is intent on succeeding in. “I don’t know. Maybe I will go somewhere and start fresh. Maybe I will…..”
I asked her where she would go, if anything were possible. “Where would I go?” and her mind started to think of new possibilities. “Let’s see….California has too many earthquakes, Florida has too many hurricanes……maybe Alabama. Yes, Alabama. It’s lovely and the people do seem nice there.” She smiled and looked up at the ceiling as if asking God for permission.
I told her that I would visit her in Alabama as soon as she got set up.
“I can tell you are a good Christian women,” Deidre remarked.
And in the south, that’s about the best compliment one can receive. After a series of hugs, I left Deidre and the church, saddened by the fact that while I was able to leave on the open road, she had to return home.