Stranger from the Natchez Trace

Stranger from the Natchez Trace

St. Louis is categorized as an urban, damp, subtropical climate. My family moved there in the mid-fifties for about a year. Air conditioning, a novelty in mid-century America was treated like a passing fad in St. Louis. It’s the hottest place I’ve ever lived.

Summers for a nine-year old came with mixed blessings. During the day, people opened their windows, turned the fans on or sat outside in the shade. On the plus side, I liked being able to see my mother through an open window, to call to her, hoping she’d express kindness and pride in whatever I did to try to impress her. On the minus side, I didn’t like that she could overhear my outside conversations and arguments with friends or sisters.

My parents never made friends with neighbors or with our friends’ parents, like others did, but for some reason they introduced a stranger into our family the summer we lived in St. Louis. Lucien Gaudet appeared without notice or explanation. My father worked in an office everyday or traveled but Lucien Gaudet didn’t work with him or have a job. The few friends my parents did have were old Georgetown University classmates. An Ole Miss alum, Lucien Gaudet, with his dark curly hair and slim athletic build cured his voice on Mississippi’s Natchez Trace, far from any experience of my parents. To them, Lucien Gaudet represented a charmed South that exuded a Gatsby-like idyll of white-suited straw-hatted men and linen-and-lace women who lazed under wisteria vines drinking Gin Rickeys all day. 

He taught me how to read notes and find them on the piano. I imagine my sisters received special attention from him as well because all three of us liked him. He brought us a Dalmatian puppy from the Budweiser farm. We wanted to name the dog after him but he suggested we name her after his mother, Antoinette. Tony for short.

Lucien Gaudet and my mother drank together. Drinking buddies, they were. My older sister thinks she saw them in bed together. To escape the heat they sat on the back steps drinking cold beer. She made him laugh and he made her happy.

One day I could no longer stand swatting Mississippi River mosquitos away from my perspiring skin. I took my bike out to get relief. After a spin around the neighborhood, I rode into the driveway toward the back of the house to show off my skills in front of my mother and Lucien Gaudet, hoping for a compliment. I rode on the outside edge of the pavement to give myself a wide berth. As I turned my wheel to circle around, I felt the tires slip on the sandy grit splayed around the shoulder of the asphalt. My front wheel slid fast and hard like a dislocated knee and I went down. I skidded along the pavement with my bike and scraped the side of my thigh and calf.

“Don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you,” my mother shouted, “Get up!”

Lucien Gaudet didn’t say a word. They blinked and turned back into themselves to a place I didn’t belong. 

And I, I felt sorry for myself.

Vampire Portrait

Vampire Portrait

The portrait represented my not-surprisingly-sad six-year-old self. People told me as far back as I can remember that I looked sad. Some would even ask why I looked so sad. How does a small child answer such a question?

The oil painting, a three-by-four foot gothic with a gilded oil-rubbed frame looked like an antique. I have a vague recollection of my mother taking my two sisters and I to the artist’s home in Washington, DC, where we had moved for a few years after World War II. We all sat for separate portraits. Mine was the only one the artist completed before my father ran out of money. The artist gave them all to my mother nonetheless and it was one more reason for me to feel superior to my two sisters – my portrait was the best.

I was painted from the waist up seated in a mahogany armchair. Dressed in black velvet with a rounded white lace collar, I held a doll similar to the one my father gave me when I had to stay home from school with the mumps. He bought her in the gift shop of the hotel where we lived when we were evicted from our home. The painting’s forest green background mimicked the dark green velvet of the doll’s coat.

Our family moved around the Midwest for many years before my mother left my father in 1960 – Terre Haute and Indianapolis, St. Louis and Clayton, Chicago and Lake Forest. Those childhood portraits made it through all the evictions, storages and moving vans until I finally got married and my mother gave me my portrait. I hauled it through my own two marriages, divorces and geography. Wherever I hung it, someone inevitably asked who was that sad little girl. I once wanted to rid myself of it when a friend said, “It’s your heirloom.” And so I brought it to a new home in Chicago, where I returned after a stint in Washington, DC during the Bill Clinton years.

My home of 15 years is the first condominium where I’ve had a storage locker. I don’t have a lot of storage items. I figure if you can’t wear it, sit on it, or hang it on the wall, there’s no point in keeping it. For a few years my sad childhood likeness laid in darkness in the basement next to some pictures of my grandchildren and a large suitcase.

Then one day, I needed the suitcase for a two-week trip to San Sebastian, Spain with my California friend Cappi Quigley. I thought I’d bring the portrait upstairs while retrieving the luggage. I couldn’t find the keys to the locker’s padlock so I asked Marcel the building engineer to meet me in the lobby with a bolt cutter. We descended to the basement where Marcel unlocked the steel door to Locker Room B. We located the locker assigned to my condo unit.

The padlock was gone and so were all the contents of the locker.