So I celebrated birthdays with two people this weekend, one was a week early, the other three days late.
The first was the early celebration with my cousin Anna who was in Connecticut for a high school reunion. We met Saturday afternoon at Paperback Cafe, a great coffee shop in Old Saybrook. The weather was nasty – cool, windy, damp, and threatening rain. Warm caffeine was the first order of the day. Then we proceeded to enormous plates of food. I gave her a copy ofAfrican American Connecticut Explored and a copy of Connecticut Explored. I hit it right because she had listened to my Fieldstone Common interview and was planning to buy book and magazine. We had planned a walk but decided it was much too yucky so visited instead. Tried to do FaceTime with Cousin Ash in California, but the tech gremlins were working overtime. Wished that Sunday’s gorgeous weather had arrived Saturday. Oh, well.
The next day I celebrated my friend Thelma’s birthday. It was September 11, and I was overbooked. So we spent Sunday afternoon sipping Prosecco and eating shrimp, grapes, cheese, and crackers. I gave her a copy of the book as well. She had already bought the magazine, so I added a bottle of our favorite Malbec with the odd name of Cigar Box, and a bar of Green and Black’s 70 percent chocolate, which is the perfect complement for the wine.
My friend and former colleague Karen Florin has written a thought-provoking column for The Day. She had previously described tenants at a public housing project in New London. Some readers objected. “Let’s walk a mile in Benita Christian’s fuzzy yellow slippers” describes a woman who participated in a lawsuit over her living conditions. Karen asked the questions. Here are my answers:
Would you volunteer to go before a judge and talk about your home life?
If I thought I could help other people, I would but not if it put me at risk of being evicted or subjected me or my family to danger.
Would you be willing to air your personal information in the newspaper?
Probably not. Again, if I thought other people might benefit from learning my story, I would consider it.
Would you be satisfied with [$13 per hour for full-time work]? Do you think she’s getting her money’s worth at Crystal Ave.?
Absolutely not on both counts. Christian is doing valuable work, helping others recovering from addictions, which is saving the rest of us tax dollars from incarcerations and hospitalizations, and increased insurance premiums from health costs and accidents. She deserves a portion of that savings. The building where she lives is dirty and potentially dangerous. “A small one-bedroom apartment” that costs $565 a month is a rip-off.
Would you like to come home to that environment after a hard day of work?
Of course not. She deserves to live in a safe, clean building, as spotless has her apartment.
Would you be as positive as she?
No. I could not live in such circumstances without complaining bitterly and filing complaints left and right. I could, in fact, not walk a mile in her fuzzy yellow slippers.
Thank you, Karen, for bringing us into Benita Christian’s world.
In the eighteenth century, a Frenchman named Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer moved from his home country to northwest Louisiana. There he had ten children with Coincoin, the daughter of Africans who was a slave on a neighboring plantation. She was leased, then sold to Metoyer, who eventually freed her. She bought and freed her children with him and those she’d had berfore with a man of African and Native American blood. She also bought and kept a number of other slaves. She and her children became owners of some 18,000 acres and 500 slaves on Isle Brevelle. The community remained isolated from the outside world through the twentieth century.
Three major works have so far told the story of Coincoin, her descendants, and tangentially connected families. Collectively they offer a great many insights into the ways one can write family history.
Gary B. Mills published The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) in 1977. It is a scholarly work about the people and the place with charts, statistics, and the historical background involving French, then Spanish, then Anglo rule. From surviving documents he re-creates how Coincoin and her family managed to amass their wealth through the cultivation of crops including tobacco and indigo, along with trapping bears for their hides and grease, all of which they sold in the Natchitoches area and down river in New Orleans. Mills also supplies written and oral testimony from descendants, including Coincoin’s three times great-granddaughter who lived on the Isle.
The most fascinating part of the book concerns the culture, which emphasized respect for elders and mutual assistance and regular attendance at the Catholic church built by Coincoin’s oldest son. They also shared a taste for expensive and elegant clothing, which they displayed in the oil paintings and later photographs hanging in their large and well-appointed homes and mansions, and a love of dancing (something that makes them very much a part of Louisiana culture – black, white or in between). Many also loved to gamble – and to drink. After the second generation, the men and many of the women were literate, at a time when most people could not even sign their names. The families hired a series of teachers, and at one time a group of nuns operated a school for girls on the Isle. Mills’s wife, Elizabeth Shown Mills, whose name is familiar to genealogists all over the world, has revised and updated the book, which was reissued in 2013.
A descendant of Isle Brevelle residents, Lalita Tademy, published Cane River (New York: Warner Books) in 2001. An Oprah book club selection, the novel focuses on four generations of the women of her family, all born slaves, who bore children to white men, in some cases by force, in others with their complicity. This family was tangentially related to the Metoyers. Cane River puts the reader in the place, and in the heads of the lead characters. Of course there is the hot, steamy country where slaves and some masters toiled over cotton and corn, where everyone was dependent on the vagaries of the weather. The characters have distinctive voices and narrative trajectories. In her introduction Tademy mentions how the women spoke to her. “Philomene demanded that I struggle to understand the different generations of her family and the complexities of their lives.” This is a clear case where the author communicates her passion for her subject.
In completing the images of these women, Tademy also produces mouth-watering descriptions of the food – café noir, fried eggs, tasso, turtle stew, biscuits and molasses, peach pies, jams and jellies, tea cakes. Then during the war years, everything corn – corn pone, corn fritters, corn-parched coffee. She also includes gruesome descriptions of the mistreatment of humans, and of “yellow jack” or “black vomit,” the yellow fever that devastated the area in 1857, and of the waning enthusiasm of the troops who donned the gray expecting a quick victory and returned to find their entire world utterly devastated.
Elizabeth Shown Mills followed the nonfiction work in 2006 with Isle of Canes, (Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com), a novel based on the Metoyer family. She includes the French connection, and the Spanish connection, and the Native American connection. She writes the history of Louisiana, the revolutions in the United States and France, the War of 1812, the arguments for and against secession, and of course the Civil War and Reconstruction. There are so many characters it’s difficult to engage with them. There is little to distinguish among their voices – except the occasional use of foreign words and sentence structure based on French or Spanish. Nevertheless the book serves as an example of how to take a mass of facts and dates and documents and stories to weave a fascinating narrative.
As a comparison, I urge you to read the first 50 pages of Isle of Canes and the first 50 of Cane River, not counting the prologue or author’s note to see why Tademy’s book was more successful.
Larry is now the commander of American Legion Post 75. Turnout for the installation was spectacular. Friends and family and lots of veterans cheered him on. Mayor Dan Drew paid wonderful tribute in his usual eloquent way. There was a gaggle of other politicians, including a surprise visitor – GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, who arrived – and stayed.
Larry stole a page from his uncle Willard McRae’s playbook by asking us all to rise and telling us we were his support network and that he was ever so grateful.
Another in the series. I’m no longer calling it an occasional series, having written on average one commentary every month since the resurrection of the blog. This post is about a book that is at once moving and astonishing. Soldier Girls: The Battles of three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe came to my attention about a month ago. I mentioned it in connection with the discussion at the veterans’ writing group on whether men and women experience fear in different ways. Having read all but eighty or so pages of Soldier Girls, I’m sticking to my impression that the way we feel fear is situational, not gender-specific.
The “girls” of the title are three women – two young, one north of fifty, all members of the Indiana National Guard. They have all joined for very different reasons, which Thorpe explains in detail. After an extended time stateside, they find themselves in Afghanistan at the same time. Two of them eventually serve in Iraq as well.
Thorpe captures it all – the mind-numbing record keeping, the intense workouts, the wild partying, the affairs, the pounds of gear. And she adds the pain that these women feel leaving their families, in one case three small children who cannot fathom why their mother has to go away. It is these scenes – and the repeated and sometimes brutal sexism displayed by superior officers – that make Soldier Girls stand apart from other tales of military service.
As a former journalist, I appreciated Thorpe’s interviews with the women’s families and friends, which round out their stories and give texture to the narrative. She was also fortunate that the women saved emails and other correspondence, which lends a “you are here” feel, even as we see creative spelling and grammar, along with missing punctuation.
Some commentators have said the book resembles a novel. Soldier Girls is better than most novels because Thorpe interweaves just the right amount of politics and history to give context to the women’s experience. And the whole is the more painful because it’s all true.
Here’s my take on the the food writer par excellence, which I first wrote a few years back: Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher knew how to live. She has been a role model for years as someone who had an appreciation for elegant living, a love of good food, and the eloquence to express her feelings with unrivaled clarity.
The first image that stayed with me was her secret food. She carefully peeled a tangerine, laying the sections on newspaper over a hot radiator so they plumped up. After they had warmed all day, she put them in the snow on the windowsill to cool. She said she couldn’t explain her love of this treat, but she in fact captured the sensual pleasure exactly: “that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume.” That description appeared in Serve It Forth, which was first published in 1937 while M.F.K. Fisher was living in France.
My favorite of her works is How To Cook a Wolf, which came along in 1942 when food shortages and rationing deprived many of the basic staples. The chapters proceed in logical order: “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock,” on the benefits of eating a balanced diet over the course of a day, not at every meal; “How to Catch the Wolf,” which contains no wolf but is rather a disquisition on the art of thrift. Among my favorite chapters are “How to Boil Water” (heat the water above 212 degrees until the bubbles explode on the surface but no longer) and “How Not to Boil an Egg,” which has the most decadent recipe for scrambled eggs: eight eggs, a half-pint of “rich” cream, salt and pepper. Optional ads are cheese and herbs. This recipe appears with an additional cup of cream in An Alphabet for Gourmets under “X” for Xanthippe, wife of Socrates, also synonym for shrew, whose method would result in an inedible version of said recipe.
Some brilliant person combined these three books, added Consider the Oyster and Gastronomical Me, and served them forth in the fabulous compendium The Art of Eating. Almost everything she describes sounds appealing, though I don’t think I’ll try her drink of choice: a sort of martini made of gin, dry vermouth, and Campari. Campari, maybe — vermouth, maybe — gin, never.
After I’ve communed with The Art of Eating, I pay more attention to my words. I savor my tea, watching the steam curl up into the sunshine. I listen to the cat purring in my lap. (Miss that part of enjoyment so much.) And I say thank you, Mary Frances.
Conclusion: Unless one has a food allergy, consume excellent food, in moderate amounts, and savor every bite.
Alain de Botton gave a riveting TED talk about success. It’s more than worth a listen for his insights into the relationship between job and anxiety, and his commentary on unrealistic expectations.
The thing that enraptured me, however, was the discussion of its opposite, failure. He framed the discussion in terms of tragedy in the classic sense. “Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them.” All very intellectual. But then he decided to see how a Brit scandal sheet would write headlines for some famous tragedies with the point that modern society has completely leached away the sympathy. “I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it.” He followed with Madame Bovary (also an unknown work) and ended with Oedipus Rex. Here are the headlines:
“Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter”
“Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud.”
“Sex With Mum Was Blinding”
So I decided to try a few of my own, the most successful of which were all plays ‘cause that’s what I studied in school.
Macbeth: “Greedy Wife Nags Hubby Into Killing Frenzy”
Electra: “Cry-Baby Sis Cheers Bro For Knifing Murderous Mom”
Romeo and Juliet: “Crossed Signals Drive Deaths Of Horny Teens From Rival Families ”
Medea: “Jealous Alien Wife Poisons Replacement, Stabs Kids, Runs With Bodies” (Note: this is NOT Tyler Perry’s Madea)
Hamlet: “Dad’s Ghost Eggs Weak Son To Revenge Killing”
I tried Anna Karenina,but I don’t think even the Sunday Sport folks could reduce endless Tolstoy to ten words or less. Besides, it was too close to Madame Bovary.King Lear started with “Senile Dad” but developed no further. Tried modern tragedies, Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, etc. but I couldn’t get beyond “Failed Sales Rep” for the former and “Addict Mom” on the second. Also, I was getting depressed. (Suggestions welcome).
Yes, the sympathy is gone and snark prevails.
If I run out of writing projects, I may apply to the Sunday Sport, which by the way, makes the National Enquirer look like Little Women.