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TO LOVE LOUISIANA …

by Jude Southerland Kessler

My husband Rande and I were married in the summer of 1977, and since that time “long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” we’ve certainly seen America! We’ve moved 34 times.

We’ve lived in Maryland, Florida, Virginia, Rhode Island, California, South Carolina, Alabama (3 times!), Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Louisiana. We’ve lived eight miles from the craggy point where Washington crossed the Delaware. We’ve lived a block from the enormous rock where William Penn acquired Pennsylvania from the Indians. We’ve camped in the Blue Ridge Mountains, battled L.A. traffic, taken the train into Penn Station for Christmas shopping on New York City’s Black Friday, night-climbed on the slippery shore stones of Cape Cod, met Terry Pendleton when the Atlanta Braves played the Kansas City Royals, and snagged beads at many raucous NOLA Mardi Gras parades. We’ve eaten clam chowder in Maryland; cheese steaks in Philly, Nathan’s hot dogs in NYC, funnel cakes in Natchitoches, barbeque in Kansas City, and boiled peanuts in Alabama. Having left Louisiana at age 21 … we’ve called soooo many places “home” during the 36 years that we were away.

And here’s what I learned in our long absence: I missed Louisiana.

Frequently, my sister, who lives in Dallas (and adores it!!!) tries to convince me to move to the big city. And frequently, I tell her, “I’m a Louisiana girl. I bleed purple and gold. I’m dejected on the last day of LSU football season and elated at the kick-off of the very first game. I love live music in Enoch’s Irish Pub, Monroe. I love hanging out in Covington and going to the used bookstore in the French Quarter. I crave Shrimp Marguery in Galatoire’s. I love taking photos at night on the NOLA streets. I dig a big slice of chocolate meringue pie at Lea’s in Lecompte and a bigger slice of Carmel-Banana Pie at Monroe’s Not Just Pie. I love small towns and ancient oaks and places where “everybody knows your name.” I love Louisiana.

In the winter of 1978, Rande and I found ourselves in Newport, Rhode Island. It was so cold that we took turns getting up to change the TV channel. (Maybe there were remote controls back then, but we didn’t own one.) We saw fascinating things in the area – Boston harbor and the historic Old North Church, colonial Sturbridge Village in Connecticut, and the Mayflower in Plymouth. But we missed our home state.

One grey, chilly afternoon in our third floor Newport “apartment” (think “garret”), I sat down to write the following poem. I wanted to say, as poetically as I could, that you never really know what you have until you lose it. You never appreciate the wonder of your state or hometown until you leave, until you “give it away.” I don’t know if that’s what you’ll get from this poem, but that was my intent. Here’s my heart-song for Louisiana:

To Love Louisiana

To love Louisiana,
First, you must give it away –
Trade fistfuls of sod from the dark Delta mud
For the sludge of some cold, oystered bay,
Where the sun is ice-milk
And the snow sheen is silk…
And the rain squall no sail can obey.

To love Louisiana
You must choose to forgo cuisine:
Sun baskets of peaches, pink puddles of shrimp
Lush dew-wet strawberries, iced glasses with mint,
That rich saucy Creole atop steaming rice,
Those Monday night red beans, plump oysters on ice,
Pungent piquant, the aroma of chicory,
Must all be replaced with steamed chestnuts o’er hickory.
The treasures of creole you now must delay…
For to love Louisiana, you must give it away.

To love Louisiana,
You must muffle your ears:
No mournful night cry of the trumpet you’ll hear,
No sweet clarinet to say what it means
When, midst city-clatter, you miss New Orleans.
Alone…without night trains to wail for your past.
Alone…without crickets, their sing-song grass.
Alone…without bobwhite, the owl’s chilling quest.
Alone…without fireworks o’er a holiday fest,
Alarmed, they’ll confront you, those shrill metered sounds:
Wet wheels, strident sirens, and horns that confound,
“Hot pretzels!” and “Taxi!” and “Get your news here!”
All the new echoes that fall on your ear.
The lure of the bayou? It just could not stay.
For to love Louisiana, you must give it away.

To love Louisiana,
Lose enchantment’s pure gleam …
No magnolia moon awash o’er your dreams.
No Evangeline legend or dusty Lafitte,
No bold St. Denis with his strong Spanish sweet,
No Indian words now roll off your tongue,
No haunting-slow bayou tales, all Spanish moss hung.
In the chant of the town-brogue, your magic must die…
Hollow and foreign, a memory’s cry.
Your passion for loveliness learns how to stray,
If you love Louisiana
And give it away.

To love Louisiana,
You must search others’ faces
For the shadows and charm of your lost Delta places.
“Laissez les bon temps roulez!”
The chant stays the same.
But where are they now –
Those belles with two names?
Where’s the clamor of “Mister!!!”
In the places you roam?
You scan strangers’ eyes
As you long for your home.
Oh, people of the bayou…
It is tragic to say:
“I love Louisiana.
I have given her away.”

After writing this poem, Rande and I spent another 34 more years “here, there, and everywhere” (as my beloved Beatles would say) before returning to Shreveport and Monroe. Please, don’t get me wrong. We experienced incredible things: We attended “Riverdance” on Broadway … saw one of the first stage performances of Jay Leno and the last stage performances of Perry Como. We were ardent Kansas City Chiefs fans for six years. Then, we rooted for the Philadelphia Eagles for five thrilling seasons, including their 2004 trip to the Super Bowl. We went “down the shore” to Wildwood, New Jersey, where the 1960s live vividly on. We went insane over jai alai in Newport, Rhode Island. And we enjoyed an elegant anniversary dinner at the Brown Derby in Los Angeles.

But coming home to Louisiana … to the sights, sounds, and smells of the Bayou State? That was good news! All I can say is, it’s a true miracle to, once again, have roses in December.

As 2022 concludes my fourth year of writing this column for 318Central.com I want to say “thank you” to everyone, especially to the vivacious Orkke Clifton who invited me to join the 318 team. I have sincerely enjoyed this opportunity to share my passion for our area with you, and I hope to meet you at some unique, festive, and joyous occasion along the byways of the “best state in the land” as we move into unknown adventure that will be 2023. “Throw me something, mister …” and Happy New Year to you all!

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