People ask me why it is so important for me to go home to Baton Rouge at least once a year, and I tell them it is because I am nothing without these people. They are part of what makes me who I am and are at the core of my being. They are my cloud of witnesses that cradle me and keep me from falling.
This past weekend “home” began with a visit with Debby Burge Cartwright and her mother, who will be 90 this year. Debby came into my life in fourth grade at Walnut Hills Elementary School. I can still remember spending nights on weekends at her house and waking to the smell of fried bacon and sitting at the table with her sister and parents to share that breakfast. Even when I was a student at BRHS, I never felt intimidated by the presence of her father, Mr. Burge, the principal at BRHS.
On Friday a small group of classmates met at BRHS which had been fully renovated since our last reunion in 2008. Guided by the Executive Director of the BRHS Foundation, Lauren Ford, we had the grand tour and thoroughly enjoyed it. Preceding our tour was a tour for the Class of 1953 who were most excited that fellow classmate and a member of the football Hall of Fame who played with the Green Bay Packers and All-American from LSU, who graduated from BRHS, Jimmy Taylor was present at their tour. We didn’t see him but reveled in his success and saw his trophies in the new glass cases. (Personally I was reminded of a day when I was 15 and got picked up by my cousin, Jim O’Neal and a friend. We were going to his house so I could baby-sit his four children. His friend was at LSU and I soon figured out that I was riding in the car with THE Jimmy Taylor.) Following the tour, we joined other classmates for pizza at the Pastime Lounge, a college favorite then and now.
Saturday night the reunion was at Mike Anderson’s. It was a smaller group than the 40th reunion, but still we had fun and enjoyed catching up with everyone. It was especially nice sitting with my Girl Scout “budde” and old friend Carol Fenton Butler. We go back to grade school and four years as camp budde’s at Girl Scout Camp Marydale. Another old friend, from pre-school age was Barry Altazin who joined us at our table. Barry lived across the street from me on Eugene Street until I was 10 when I moved up the street to the “white house” near Raymond Blvd. He and my brother John (Jack) Nason were always good friends. Again, it was good to see that none of us had changed (on the inside.) I can say that being one of the few classmates, (including Rene Esnard and Buddy Porta) with white hair.
Sunday after church at the UUCBR, I met old friends Ellen McGraw, Janet Noland and Debby for lunch at Bistro Byronz in Baton Rouge. Ever had fried catfish filets smothered in crawfish etouffee? Not bad, not bad at all. Ellen and I have been friends since second grade when I started Walnut Hills. She lived a few streets over on Zealand and so riding bikes to and from each other’s homes was easy. After 56 years, I am proud to say we are still dear friends.
I met Janet at Westdale Junior High and can honestly say I never met a sweeter funnier girl until then. We were kindred spirits and had in us the power to become the women we wanted to be. It was with Janet that I first came to realize that no one has the power to tell me what to do and when to do it and how to do it. That power comes from me and God inside me. And to think it all came from JFK and his physical fitness plan that forced the PE teachers at our school to make us physically fit. When you are 5’2” and weigh 90 lbs., you are lucky the wind doesn’t blow you around the track much less run for what seemed forever. We were two girls on a mission and our epiphany was exactly what we needed at that time in our lives. (So maybe being physically fit isn’t that bad after all.) I was sitting next to Janet when we learned about Kennedy’s assassination; she introduced me to her classmates at LaSalle Elementary, many of whom became fellow Girl Scouts in Mrs. Gray’s troop; and she stood by me in Boosters at BRHS until we graduated from high school.
Sunday night, the Mundinger family joined us for dinner at my sister Lindy and her husband Dale’s new home in the Garden District. I’ve known John since the day he was born, although I was only three years old. His parents and my parents were best friends and we consider ourselves brother and sister and family. Joining us was his daughter Kathrin and her fiancé Mike and son J.T. and his fiancée Christina. (She is a brave soul being an Ole Miss alumni marrying into a LSU family.)
Monday, Lindy and I joined our cousin Patricia Schmieder for lunch at Albasha Greek restaurant in Town Center. We closed the lunch crew down laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Later Patsy came over to Lindy’s and we joined our other first cousin David Nason and his wife Sharon. Again we laughed and cried tears of joy and sadness as David and Sharon told us of their recent fire and losing their home. I was able to give them a memento from some things that belonged to my father but originally belonged to David’s father and Patsy had an antique tea cart with glass tray that belonged to our grandfather which she brought for them.
On the way home, Lindy and I stopped at Sammy’s for a cup of crab bisque and fried eggplant. The mural on the wall said, “Sammy’s Grill and Seafood – under the overpass on Perkins Road.” It puzzled me because I grew up under the overpass on Perkins Road – sort of. My house was on Eugene Street and the overpass crossed the railroad tracks that went behind my house. The Colonel’s Club was housed in a Quonset hut directly under the overpass. Today it is Chelsea’s, but maybe in between then and now it was Sammy’s.
I can still remember sitting on my back porch steps listening to the live bands play, including the Grass Roots. I can still remember the smell of the ligustrum plants that lined my drive-way and I can still remember the sound of the trains coming down the tracks. All the friends, sounds, smells, foods, and memories keep me centered. This is why I love to come “home” and why doing so is good for my soul.