Wednesday, December 17, 2008

MEMORIES

It was a trip down Memory Lane… a recent drive to Covington, or, rather Ramsey, to visit St. Joseph’s Abbey in the piney woods of southeast Louisiana. Actually, Ramsey was the site of my great-uncle and my grandfather’s lumber business, and my great-uncle’s home, now a bed and breakfast called Mill Bank Farms, is just a mile down the road from the Abbey. On the way to the Abbey, we crossed a bridge that spanned a muddy creek near the old Greenlaw home site, a bridge that is the major feature in a photograph hanging on my bedroom wall – well, not the major feature, perhaps – the major feature is that of my godmother (and second cousin) Dora, age 2, standing on the bridge rail “in the buff,” (except for stockinged feet) pointing a finger toward the tea-colored water.

The lumber business at Ramsey required building rails that ran from Ramsey to Franklinton – from my great Uncle’s side yard to my grandfather’s sawmill in Franklinton, and for awhile, the two brothers thrived on the proceeds from cutting and milling longleaf pine, cutting 75,000 ft. of lumber a day. When my great-uncle’s wife died, he took up the rails, sold the home, and moved to New Orleans where he cut a fine figure as a bon vivant, became a charter member of the famous Pickwick Club, got his name in the blue book of New Orleans society, and birthed a magazine about the transportation industry entitled “Louisiana Digest.” Great-Uncle Ed preceded the recreational vehicle industry back in the late 20’s and 30’s when he and my grandfather transferred their zeal for making money to the automobile industry -- Great Uncle Ed built something called “The Virgie-Dora,” (named after his third wife, Virginia, and my godmother Dora), a truck with a small “house” on its bed that the family used for camp-outs, a camper before campers came onto the transportation scene! According to my godmother, the transportation magazine consumed his fortune but when he died, he left a handsome home on West End Blvd and passed on the legacy of a love of literature which has been in the family since the Greenlaws came to this country.

Ramsey isn’t now, and wasn’t an incorporated town when my great-uncle began cutting down all the longleaf pine trees, and life in the woods around Covington was lonely. I have an old letter written by Uncle Ed’s wife, Alice Brittain, to her sister in Virginia that tells about a life of sewing, cooking, housekeeping, and her yearning for more cultural pursuits. Yesterday, I found Alice’s gold pin in my jewelry box that had inscribed on it: “BMFC piano graduate,” and I remembered that she was touted as a talented musician. I also have a photograph of her, my great- uncle, my grandfather, and great-grandmother playing billiards in a room of the old house at Ramsey –and it is Alice, the cultured young woman, who leans over the pool table, cue stick in hand, ready to play a two ball combination! However, sometimes in the evenings, Alice played the violin, Great-Uncle Ed, the cornet, and Dr. Oscar Greenlaw, another great-uncle, played bass violin. She also taught her oldest daughter, Ida, how to “keep time” on the piano and play the violin. I don’t know Alice’s exact age, but she died before the age of 30, succumbing to a disease once called “the grip,” lamenting that Ed, my great uncle, could never take time off from the lumber business to vacation with the family in New Orleans. I always feel great sadness when I read her letter because she seemed to have been so lost… and lonely for a more cultured life than that of a lumber baron’s wife isolated in the deep piney woods.

Visits to southeast Louisiana always evoke poignant memories. Many of them center on St. Joseph’s Abbey where my mother, when disturbed by family situations, sought consolation from the Benedictine monks who resided there. She also provided breakfast for at least three of the rotating priests who came out from the monastery to a Roman Catholic mission in Franklinton, ravenous following early morning Mass on Sundays. One of the priests ate six eggs at each breakfast sitting!! We were given fishing privileges in a pond that is still a part of the property at the Abbey, and my older brother, Paul, worked in the garden at the Abbey in the summers. At one point, he declared he would become a priest; however, he soon became more interested in adolescent parties at the old Village Inn, and the Anglican family fold remained intact. However, years later, two of my younger brothers converted to the Roman Catholic denomination because of the influence of the priests who came out to the Franklinton mission from that same Benedictine Abbey.

When I visited the Abbey a few weeks ago, I was somewhat dismayed to see and listen to a professional choir singing, rather than monks chanting the old Gregorian chants, and was amazed to see about 400 people gathered for Mass in the huge church. The wonderful paintings by Gregory DeWitt, hanging in the chapel and refectory, have gained national recognition, and the monastery has become a place where concerts, art shows, and theatre performances are held. The once silent monastery has burgeoned into a center of art and music that my Great-Aunt Alice, who pined for a more-enriched culture nearby, would have applauded.
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