Thursday, January 26, 2006

A real southern belle

Miss Liz is the epitome of a Southern Belle. She’s quick with a smile and a laugh, polite and friendly, and that’s just to us foreigners. Imagine how she is with those she knows. Actually, I think she treats everyone the same.

Miss Liz Phillips is 83 years old, still drives and still cooks. Oh, yes, she still cooks. For the past two days, we’ve been putting on a new roof for Miss Liz and her husband, Mr. Bill. They have a beautiful home a hop, skip and a jump from the Calcaseu and five minutes from town. Next door is her sister’s home, although she’s now living in a retirement home, and down the road is 10 barren acres she and her husband own.

Miss Liz grew up in Hackberry, attended First Baptist Church as a little girl and got married to Bill at age 18 and left for 50 years while he was in the service and later worked in nearby Lake Charles. Then they returned to their roots to retire.

I first met Miss Liz at 8 o’clock one morning. She pulled up in a big car and immediately started a conversation. She had with her a King Cake, a tasty tradition around here. Inside each cake, you’ll find a candied baby, an age-old tradition. It isn’t uncommon for townspeople to drop off food for us any time of the day. For five minutes we shot the breeze like we were old friends.

Thirty minutes later, we arrived at our next roofing job. It was Miss Liz’s house. She is no more than 4½ feet tall, but she towers over everyone with her ?? presence. Now, in the South, you can’t go to work on someone’s house without saying hello, so I reacquainted myself with Miss Liz. Another five minute conversation ensued. I found myself throwing out more ma’ams and ya’alls than I normally say in a given day.

A little while later, she brought out coffee and a box of little pecan pies for us. Sugar and cream accompanied our morning imbibe. On a tray were coffee cups, not Styrofoam cups for all of us. A short while later, the coffee pot was plugged into keep the coffee warm, just in case we needed a refill. In the afternoon, the same thing happened.

That night, when we got back to the church, she had left a plate of brownies for us. Ice cream and those brownies became our dessert. They were an instant hit.

The next day, we returned to finish her roof. It’s was a difficult work, because of the pitch. The house has a bedroom upstairs, so it’s like a 1½ story house. The house was not damaged badly in the storm, but it was on our repair list because of the holes in the roof. It had been half covered with plastic tarp since the storm in September.

Mid-morning, it was coffee time again, and this time we shimmied down the ladders a little more quickly to retrieve our coffee and pecan pie. If we were back in the Bay Area, we’d retreat to Starbucks. Here, we were able to sit and talk, get to know someone who has lived in Louisiana most of her life. The slow-pace of life and politeness is how she was raised, and she couldn’t imagine life any other way. She couldn’t be impolite if you twisted her arm.

During the break, I decided to be bold and present a request to her. “Ma’am, would you make us some tea this afternoon? It’s going to be warm and humid, and I think the men would appreciate a cold drink instead of coffee.”

“Absolutely.” And off she shuffled.

But the real treat was our lunch, red beans and rice, courtesy of Miss Liz. They were waiting for us in warm pots upon our arrival at the church. She didn’t just give them to us as we left, she drove them to the church. We didn’t even see her drive off with two pots. She didn’t have time to make us cornbread, the requisite accompaniment with red beans and rice, so she stopped and bought us fresh loaves of French bread at Jimmy Brown’s market. She apologized profusely for the oversight, but she just didn’t have time.

Usually, our lunch is cold cuts, so having red beans and rice, a staple in these parts, was a delight. Like the locals, I grabbed a bowl, scooped a big helping of rice and smothered it with red beans and rice, which is really much more than that. Smoked sausage and pork spiced it up a little bit.

That afternoon, after we finished the roof, she came out and told us the tea was ready. Not only was the tea ready, she expected us to come inside and visit. In time, in stumbled all six of us dirty, tired men and one woman. It wasn’t one of those 30-second California visits. It was one of those Louisiana hour visits.

Here, when someone asks you how you are, you may here the common “fine, fine. And you, how ya doin? And how’s your wife.” When they ask, they really want to know and they expect to have a conversation with you. If they haven’t talked to you in a day or two, they expect to get caught up. No one is looking at their watch, as if to say “I have more important things to do.” No, the most important thing in their life at that moment is chatting with you. There is no hurry around here.

So it was with Miss Liz. As we sat in her living room, we heard about her life, her family history, her upbringing. After all, we’d just spent two days fixing her roof. Sure, she could have just disappeared while we pounded nails into her roof for eight hours a day for two days, but that would have been impolite. It was the least she could do to offer us coffee, pecan pie and sweet tea.

Oh yes, the sweet tea. Sweet tea is a Southern tradition. Whenever you order tea in the South, expect sugar in it. I grew up putting only a squeeze from a lemon wedge in my tea, and I drink a lot in the summer time, but I never add sugar. When I told Miss Liz I wanted my tea plain, she looked squeamish. “I couldn’t drink it without sugar.” It was as though I were drinking Ipacac.

She was entertaining as she told us what it was like to go through the storm of a lifetime. Actually, she told us about two storms. She’d also gone through the last storm of this magnitude, Audrey in 1957. She compared the two as if they’d happened within a few days of each other, yet they were nearly 60 years apart.

She told us about the gators, about the shrimping, about the crabs, about the water level coming within 15 feet of their beloved house – the water is about a hundred yards from their porch. By then, they’d abandoned their house and driven to safety. Her sister in the rest home was evacuated safely out of New Orleans and is now living in Baton Rouge.

As we left, she implored us to stay awhile longer. “Ya’all have to leave so soon?” Our visit had lasted well over an hour, yet we were just beginning in her mind. It was near darkness and it was time for us to retreat to our headquarters for a barbecue. As we left, each one of us waited patiently in line and hugged Miss Liz. After all, we’re now lifetime friends. This is not the last we’ll see of Miss Liz, I’m sure. Undoubtedly, there will be another coffee cake or treat sitting on the counter one day before we leave.

Because she’s a lady and that’s how ladies act. She’s earned the title.


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