Friday, January 30, 2015


When you enter the home of Suzi Thornton near City Park in New Iberia, you may be greeted with a song...or a rhyming poem...even whistling. Last evening, we enjoyed a dinner Suzi had prepared for us in her newly-renovated kitchen and spent several hours being entertained by her renditions of poems from her book, Sometimes Childhood Stinks and songs from her play, Celebrate the Wetlands. For the finale of the evening, she sat down at the piano, played and sang the only love song she says she ever wrote for her husband (at his request), "You Never Say the Words." Don, a man of few words who died from cancer several years ago, was pleased with the song but "never said the words" according to Suzi.

Suzi's mother would have been proud of her had she lived to see Suzi's accomplishments as a teacher, writer, musician, and environmentalist. She had despaired of Suzi becoming a "lady" when she grew up because Suzi would more frequently climb trees and mimic the behavior of her brother. When Suzi became a teenager, her mother sent her to Mr. Nance's Charm School to learn how to do deep curtsies and sit erect in a chair with a cup of coffee in hand. Suzi is still expert at showing visitors how to curtsy, sit in a chair with legs crossed at the ankles, and perform other acts of courtesy to amuse her company.

Suzi, a native of Vivian, Louisiana and daughter of former State Representative Jasper Smith, married Don Thornton from Winnboro, who liked to relate that he was born in a sharecropper's shack. However, Don became an artist, sculptor, teacher, and poet who influenced Suzi to develop aspirations to teach and write, and he encouraged her to finish her education with a Master's in Elementary Education after she attended "a lot of colleges," she says—LSU, ULL, College of the Mainland in Texas City, and the University of Houston at Clear Lake City. "I had trouble taking tests and would panic until Don taught me guided imagery, and my grades shot up," she explains.

Suzi and Don were a good team, teaching gifted and talented children in Iberia and St. Martin parishes and publishing the creative writing of young writers and artists in books like Mindscape, Fantasy and Other Joys, B Sharp, Hypethral, Whiffle, and other works of outstanding students. Suzi considers her environmental work, culminating in Celebrate the Wetlands, which was written for fourth graders, her real achievement. When she was awarded an Acadiana Educational Endowment grant to produce, perform, and distribute a play and songs about the wetlands to schools in Iberia Parish, she said that she felt like she was teaching the students to "leave as their legacy the hope of the universe and the vision to know what to do."

I think that Suzi's forte is rhyming poetry, perhaps because I write free verse and am always impressed by rhyming poets. I especially like her limericks; e.g., this one entitled "What's Her Name?"

Lot's wife would have gotten much older
if she had behaved as God told her.
   It was her own fault
   she was turned into salt
for looking back over her shoulder.

However, Suzi's husband Don preferred those poems and songs in Sometimes Childhood Stinks, which recorded Suzi's joys and sorrows growing up. He wrote that "those joys and sorrows and the reinforcement of the idea that childhood is precious and can be survived, even the stinking part, is preserved in every poem and song...there is a universal quality about the works that gives them the marrow of wit and the phrasing of angels." I think Don really "said the words" in that introduction.

I was at the debut signing of this book and heard Suzi sing my favorite, the title poem, "Sometimes Childhood Stinks":

I think I'd like to run away
'cause sometimes childhood stinks.
My brother says that's stupid,
but who cares what he thinks!           

He's not the one in trouble.
I took his stupid dare.
Now Mama's gonna spank me
for cutting off my hair.

I just got tired of pigtails.
So, what was I to do?
My brother had a crew cut,
and now I have one too.

You can imagine the delightful evening we enjoyed, sharing a meal (complete with freshly-baked bread) and listening to Suzi's humorous renditions! 

Suzi, whose wit carried her through a recent bout with cancer, is now retired from teaching, creates stained glass art, makes water fountains out of old lamps, collects fossils, sews, and tends two great-grandchildren in her spare time. I got the idea that she doesn't want any of her descendants to feel that "sometimes childhood stinks"... that is, if she has anything to do with their upbringing.

Photograph by Vickie Sullivan

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Yesterday, we lunched outdoors at The Regatta Restaurant (a reformed version of the old Wave Restaurant) on the edge of the lake in Lake Arthur, Louisiana. The welcome winter sun glinted through a glass I lifted in salute to my grandfather Emerson Lavergne Marquart who once lived near, and fished, the lake waters. Although the restaurant was filled with the aroma of Cajun seafood, I remembered the acrid scent of rainwater that filled the wooden cistern beside the back porch of my grandfather's house located half a block away from the restaurant. The old house, no longer family property, has been remodeled and painted white with blue trim; however, fish nets and trot lines no longer dangle from the ceiling of the back porch, the cistern has been removed, and a carport has been added to the house's backside. But I can still envision "Pops" Marquart on the porch, gathering up his tackle box and nets, getting ready for a day out on the water.

During my childhood when I visited Lake Arthur, my grandfather often got up when the sun rose, put on an un-ironed khaki shirt and matching pants, and climbed into a wooden boat he had made for fishing in the lake and hunting near Goose Island. I know he sometimes worked as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician and could repair most things that had stopped operating, but the jobs he took were infrequent. Even as a child, I felt he lived in a house that held no dreams or much ambition. The steam pump that had irrigated the rice fields he'd inherited from his father had become silent too soon during the Great Depression, and good fortune, which he thought might only have been delayed, had sunk into the murky lake—forever. That fortune his father had prepared him to expand had shriveled like the carcass of a rice hull.

The larger house built by Pops' father Samuel has been restored and painted a lemon yellow hue and sits at lakeside, enclosed behind a long, high fence where "Private" signs have been posted. The handsome house with gingerbread trim is a testament to my great-grandfather's business acumen and is among many late 19th and early 20th century homes built at lake's edge with long docks, or wharves as we called them, leading out to the water.

My great-grandfather Marquart was a man of German stock from Alsace-Lorraine who sold all of his extensive land holdings, livestock, and a general store in Fontanelle, Iowa, migrated to south Louisiana, and formed a land company around Lake Arthur, Louisiana. There, he sold off lots and made money much faster than he could have made digging for gold in the Klondike. Prior to his arrival in Lake Arthur, he had set out across the plains in ox wagons, bound for the Klondike, and when he encountered heavy snow at White Horse Pass, he turned back without any regrets about the failure of his search for gold. My father, most of my four siblings, and I inherited his wanderlust.

The flatlands surrounding Lake Arthur must have reminded Samuel of the Iowa prairie, and when he arrived there, he immediately bought a tract of rice land, irrigated it with large steam pumps, bought more land, sold all of it, and, with a business partner named Lee, created the plan for the town of Lake Arthur. At one time, he owned the majority of the property in Lake Arthur. During the drive back to New Iberia, I noticed a sign designating an area called "Klondike" and wondered if the land the sign stood on had been one of Samuel Marquart's holdings, which he had named after the site of his failed search for gold.

Well, fortunes are made and lost, and my grandfather, who inherited the rice farm and other properties, became one of the casualties of the Great Depression. He and my grandmother survived by transforming their white residence -- less imposing than the yellow house -- into a boarding house, but I don't think he ever got over the trauma of losing his father's legacy. However, his descendants can still sit in the pavilion of a large restaurant in the town his father laid out and enjoy the view of the lemon-colored house across the road and the white house behind it. And I appreciate the tenacity of ancestors who planned and settled a charming lakeside town that has become one of south Louisiana's many tourist attractions.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan   

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Winter sunrise in Meridian, MS
"The beginning of morning twilight is dawn." Such is the definition of sunrise, a performance of colors that I hardly ever see. Since retirement from a full-time job, I get out of bed at 7 a.m. and usually feel no guilt about snoozing past dawn's early light. However, on the return journey from Sewanee, Tennessee to New Iberia, Louisiana, when we stopped midway in Meridian, Mississippi, my travel companion, Vickie Sullivan, snapped a photograph of a beautiful sunrise while I snoozed away the beginning of morning. The photo shown above showcases a "morning twilight" that I wish I had arisen to see instead of lollygagging in bed.

I've experienced a few sunrises in my lifetime. One spring morning at dawn, I got up early to begin work on a book and opened the back door just as an armadillo crawled out of the coulee in my backyard here in New Iberia. As soon as I stepped into the yard, he skittered back into the coulee, and I was left to enjoy a rainbow-colored dawn. Two days ago, at 7 a.m. I looked out my study window and saw another of these armored creatures rooting in the leaves past the dawn hour when he usually retreated to his domicile. He was a huge armadillo that could have been the same critter I scared off a few years ago and was so heavy that he experienced difficulty lumbering back into the coulee when I opened the back door to get a better look. I shudder to think how many more critters are housed in that coulee. I've seen a possum, a coon, and the armadillo appear from their domiciles in the ditch several times. Poison ivy abounds there, as well as snakes that I hope the neighborhood cat keeps from multiplying. I have cleared dead vegetation like ginger, aloe, and palmetto plants from the yard, thrown them into the wide ditch, and watched them resurrect within a year. Life in the coulee parallels that of the wildlife in the woods near my Sewanee home, with the exception of skunks that wreaked destruction in the crawl space beneath the Sewanee cottage. And, no, I don't deliberately choose places to live on the basis of whether they house not-so-welcome wildlife.

A poem inspired by the early morning armadillo appeared in my book, Afternoons in Oaxaca, which I resurrected this morning—no, not at sunrise—but at the appointed hour for breakfast, 7 a.m.


Morning finally comes.
As blind as he and half awake
I sway to the back door
and look out to the edge
of the new blooming coulee.

A gray-striped shell appears,
snout moving blindly in ground cover,
tiny head swiveling back and forth,
unearthing a grub—
the fat yellow substance of day
he could not find by night.

My grubs wait in the prayer of night,
four times awakening me to walk
with pain, in unwelcome darkness.

And he is an armored knight
passing my way, saying
you will find something,
something fat and rich
in the soil of morning...
even blinded.

I could plead that I don't get up at dawn to see the sky turn shades of red, green, blue, and yellow because I don't want to see the critters that emerge from the coulee here in Louisiana or from the woods surrounding the campus at the University of the South in Tennessee. But the truth is that I consider an extra hour of snoozing a perk of retirement, and I'm old enough to know you shouldn't pass up perks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


It's one thing to write about a cold place you're slated to visit and another to arrive and experience the icy breath of winter on The Mountain at Sewanee. Although we missed the three-degree temps Sewaneeans experienced the week preceding our return to The Mountain, we've been deprived of sunlight for at least three days. However, the worst aspect of the weather is heavy fog, fog that surpasses any mist hanging over the Louisiana swamps.

We went out to St. Mary's Convent at 7 a.m. yesterday to attend Eucharist, and the Subaru crawled down the road leading to the Convent in dense mists that I can only describe as "unsafe." However, after breakfast with the Sisters, I found a copy of May Sarton's Journal of A Solitude (order below), and settled in a rocker before the wood-stove in the Common Room. I actually began to feel safe and cozy. I had unconsciously selected a book that contained many chapters describing a winter in New Hampshire, where Sarton lived and wrote in her late years. At least we didn't have to cope with the fifteen inches of snow she described in a journal entry, "February 8," I thought, as I warmed my feet before the fire.

Although Sarton wanted her novels and poetry to be recognized and acclaimed as best sellers, her journals and memoirs gained the greater readership. I've almost finished this book of observations on the inner and outer worlds of the writer. Chapters about books, people, and Sarton's spiritual journey fascinate me, and I was ready to go out in the fog again after reading during the morning at the Convent and the afternoon at home when the woods were shrouded in heavy fog.

One journal entry that resonated with me: "Simone Weil says, 'Absolute attention is prayer.' The more I have thought about this over the years, the truer it is for me. I have used the sentence often in talking about poetry to students, to suggest that if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is 'given' and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self."

After reading this, I surmised that even when a writer sits and stares at fog, something happens because a few moments after reading this, I added another poem to the book of poetry I'm writing entitled The Lonely Grandmother. A few hours later, I needed that inspiration when we again set out in the fog, bound for the Hamman's place, "Tick Farm," aka "The Bat Cave" as both ticks, and, lately, bats have been discovered in residence on their property. This time, we set out at night, and missed numerous turns off the highway, as well as the narrow lane leading into the Hamman quarters.

The drive through the fog was harrowing, but inside the Hammans' cottage, Kathy's gourmet cooking made up for the pall of the weather. The Rev. Francis Walter and his wife Faye arrived a half hour later and announced that they had lost their way several times before finally turning into the drive at Tick Farm. The Hammans have lived in London, Iran, India, and other exotic places, and good food and conversation helped us forget that we had to travel back through pea soup. Usually, when the six of us get together, we dive headlong into conversation about politics, religion, books not-so-conservative, and other unsafe topics and emerge invigorated by talk that other people often find taboo table talk.

When I arrived home, I found that I had dropped my cell phone somewhere along the way and panic overtook me—panic worse than that I had experienced going through the fog, I'm ashamed to admit. Fortunately, the Hammans found the phone in the yard, the only thing to be victimized by the fog, and they're bringing it to me today. Meanwhile, I welcome the silence and Journal of A Solitude (order below), glancing out the window now and then to check on the ubiquitous fog. It's still overhanging us, and we are, as Sewaneeans say, "socked in." However, we should be back in Teche country by Saturday afternoon!

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan

Monday, January 5, 2015


When the newscaster complains of below freezing temps and ice in the deepest South, I remember a winter in New England and a night when temps dipped to 52 degrees below zero. Isolated in the northernmost tip of Maine near the Canadian border, I dreamed of sunflowers, Confederate Jasmine, summer afternoons on a screened porch napping under the cover of humidity while the north wind howled under the eaves of a farmhouse that never captured warmth. It was the season of plowed roads, snow piled as high as telephone poles, early nightfall, ghostly hours, and lit windows shining on an un-cleared table. The hush of trees without birdsong was almost unbearable.

At 8 a.m., cigarette smoke curled above a drip pot of coffee at a Formica table in the kitchen of my neighbor on the first floor of the farmhouse. The woman, a redhead from Arkansas with a liking for Herbert Tareyton cigarettes and Canasta, demanded we drop cards all morning. A few miles away, my husband, an intelligence specialist, kept watch for enemy planes in a radar shack on the Canadian border and played volleyball in the snow most of the day.

The earth was burdened with snow, so fresh corpses were stacked in the mausoleum to wait for spring thaw. The St. John River froze solid, and our eyelashes iced over when we stepped outdoors. We haunted the post office but hardly anyone wrote, and every morning I listened to my own heartbeat after his boots left the warm kitchen. The oven, having baked a pan of biscuits, stayed on all day. Boredom was a bedtime story for sleepless eyes under a red electric blanket.

The clock on the wall ticked slowly—slower each day until spring finally arrived. Mourners cleared the mausoleum and began to dig graves in the thawed earth. We opened the windows to let in the fresh air of living things. We had survived the winter. In May, we traveled to Massachusetts to muster out of the Army. But before we closed the door to the upstairs apartment, I left a question lying on the bare kitchen table: Why would anyone choose to live here?

After I recorded the above memory this morning, I began preparing for a short trip to The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee. The weatherman forecasts temps as low as nine degrees in the area, and I won't be surprised if we see snow on the hemlock in the backyard while we're there.

Such are the contradictions of human beings, for I vowed never to live in a clime where temps dipped below freezing again. At least I haven't ventured into New England to set up house, but friends living here in the mild climate of Acadiana would probably echo my remark about the Maine experience: So, why would anyone choose to live there on The Mountain?

As Mark Twain said, "Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it!"

P.S. The above saying is also attributed to Charles Dudley Warner who phrased it a bit differently: "The weather in New England is a matter about which a great deal is said and very little done."

Note: Cover painting of The Maine Event by my brother Paul who died a few weeks ago. Photo of hemlock by Victoria I. Sullivan.