Shreveport: A little family heritage detour
Location: Houghton, Louisiana (a few miles outside of Shreveport)
Meal: Dirty Rice
Music: “Don’t Fence Me in” by Rosemary Clooney
Gone were the days of cruising along an empty freeway with nothing to keep me company but a lone cactus and my wandering mind. Small towns, welcoming whitewashed churches, and forests so lush I wanted crawl inside them, bordered the two-lane highway between Austin and Shreveport. My speed dropped below the legal limit (a rarity) as I shared the lane with tractors, cattle, and other ambling cars in no hurry to be anywhere. In the south, languishing is a regular activity. “Let us pray…and then let us languish” seemed to be the daily call to action.
Shreveport, Louisiana was my launch pad into the deep south. Louisiana has its own language (Creole), a separate legal system (the Napoleonic code), and a strict dedication to both catfish and the church. But before I ventured too far into its dark interior, I decided to reconnect with some of my own heritage in the north.
“Well, you made it!” said Yvonne when I knocked on the door to her country house. “Welcome to the south!” Yvonne was a lifelong friend of my Great Aunt Tess, a self made woman that had only recently passed away. The two of them were polar opposites but had survived enough time together that they became like sisters, which in a way made me family. She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye “We are going to have so much fun!” As soon as my bags were loaded into the house, Yvonne exclaimed,” Let’s go get a milkshake!” I wasn’t sure if my figure could handle anymore junk food but who could turn down a gleaming 87 woman eager for frozen dairy?
My friend Colindra, whose family was from the area, warned me that getting people to talk in the south would be hard. “People don’t air their dirty laundry down there.” But I was happy to take clean laundry too. There would be enough time for dirty later on.
Yvonne and I settled down with our frozen treats in her living room among porcelain statues and scripture quotes on kindness. Yvonne said, “Now I like old people, but I really get excited to be around young people!” Yvonne seemed young herself with a skip in her step and song in her voice.
Yvonne told me that she was a northern Louisiana native born in a small Parish called Bienville. However, despite her small town background she later made it to every state in the US. “Oh I used to love to travel!” She clasped her hands together. She had married a naval officer and the two of them were stationed all over the country after the war ended. “I’d been about everywhere” proudly came the southern accent. “I just do not understand people that never leave home to get out. It is important for young people to see the world…..only after you do that are you allowed to come back home!”
And come back home Yvonne did. The south of Yvonne’s youth drew her and her husband back, both eager to reconnect with their roots and raise a family. College was not something most girls did back then; even though Yvonne had a scholarship for college she didn’t go. “I was a bit scared. I was a country girl without exposure to such things as the university. Plus I didn’t want to be a hardship on my family.”
Yvonne confided to me that she regrets this decision now. “I always wanted to be a doctor!” But becoming a doctor seemed a rash thought for a country girl (“we were just supposed to get married”) and so Yvonne instead went to a two year college and worked in a hospital lab until she had children, which became her main passion in life.
Unlike Yvonne, my Great Aunt Tess was one of the few women that did go to college and then veterinary school. Tess became one of the first few female vets in the US. Tess also bought acres of Shreveport land and managed a farm on it. But unlike Yvonne, and every other woman in the state of Louisiana, Tess never had any desire to have a family.
“You know,” said Yvonne in a hushed tone,” she never married. She lived with that woman Emily for years in her big ol’ farm house. “ Oh, I knew of Emily. My father called her the southern bearded lady that smoked a pipe. “What woman smokes a pipe?” was the common outcry. But regardless of Tess’s choices in mates, the town loved her. Everyone respected her for her hard work, conservation, and dedication to the animals. ‘”She worked so hard on that land. And she taught others a strong work ethic too—like my boys.” Tess hired Yvonne’s boys when they turned 14 to help her with her cattle. “She gave them something to put their teeth into and kept them out of trouble,” remarks Yvonne. She also taught them how to play the stock market and encouraged them to invest whatever money they earned from her into their brokerage account. Tess challenged every southern notion of what women were and were not supposed to be good at.
After our milkshakes were heartily devoured, Yvonne announced that we were going to head out to a welcome dinner of dirty rice at her daughter’s house. We drove across bridges, through pastures and steeples to reach Kim and William’s large expanse of a home in Bossier City.
Kim and William welcomed me with a hospitality that seeped into my soul and insisted that unlike laundry, one could never have too much dirty rice.
Over a properly spiced meal we continued our conversation about my Great Aunt and the 200 acres of land she worked. Even though she wasn’t a Louisiana native she was dedicated to her home there. In fact, she never felt Yvonne’s pull to see the world. “No, she didn’t really like to go anywhere,” said Yvonne. “The only times I remember her leaving Louisiana was to go up to Michigan to buy logs and then to southern Texas to get a bull to breed her cows to.”
Bulls and Yvonne’s family members seemed to be the only males allowed on Tess’s property. Everyone knew she couldn’t relate to most men, and she was too shy and masculine to appeal to most women. “She was an attractive lady but kept up a plain appearance. She never did wear a dress but always went about in pants, dismaying all the town dress shop keepers.”
Although Yvonne still liked to wear dresses, she did remark that Tess taught her the merits of being simple. “She was frugal; she didn’t want trivial things that didn’t matter in life….and so then I started thinking about what really mattered.”
I asked Yvonne what she taught Tess. “I was very social and loved to entertain, so I would invite her to gatherings and she really did manage to come out of introversion and engage.” Tess was especially engaged when she knew there was someone she could help with their financials or animals.
As a sign of love, my great aunt gave Yvonne a dog and later bought her daughter Kim a bull for her birthday. “I wasn’t all too sure what to do with a bull!” said Kim. But she was grateful for the large eyed gift. Tess also gave to strangers. When Kim’s family hosted an exchange student Malaysia, the first thing Tess insisted on doing was taking her and Kim’s daughter to the racetrack. “She gave her and my girl money and made them pick a horse.” Tess herself didn’t gamble. “She just liked to go to the track to watch those horses run….”
Tess was so drawn to those horses that she would buy them after they were retired or broken down to live on her land in peace. She would never let those ruined beauties go to the dog food makers.
It was deemed by all a shame when Tess left veterinary medicine to work at a human hospital. There were many rumors as to why but I suspect it had something to do with the times and a lack of respect for female veterinarians. To achieve true practice success Tess would have to have reported into a man. And male supervision was one thing Tess would have wanted nothing to do with.
But in present times men do have their place. Kim encouraged her husband William to play some southern tunes for me. “William, play the banjo for Heidi!” And William went to his armoire of twang and selected a banjo from the mix of instruments. With a stretched stomach I let myself morph into the colonial couch cushion to listen to bluegrass. I was starting to appreciate the art of languishing.
Yvonne later drove me to Tess’s property, an expanse of hay baled land that once was home to 25 cows—an all white French variety called Charollais, eight poodles, different races horses, four bee hives, and two adopted two burros. She also had a separate house on her property that she would let townspeople live in for free, much to the dismay of my family who thought she should be getting hearty rent checks. But as long as people tended after her animals and baled her hay, Tess didn’t much care about making a profit off of them.
Yvonne told me. “You know there were always rumors about her alternative life-style, but I really think Tess was just shy and wanted to do her own thing. I tried to take her to church once but she stated, ‘I believe what I believe and I don’t need to be convinced otherwise.’ So I stopped trying to convince her!”
Great Aunt Tess’s land was currently in an escrow account awaiting a lawyer’s decision on to whom it belonged. I had an interesting thought that I would come back here with my cousin, Lauren, tend to the land, write, play the banjo, and keep my laundry clean. This chameleon wouldn’t mind being a southerner for a while.