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How's Bayou? Ghosts, past & present, Part 2

Chester Freeman, one of Madewood's benevolent spirits. (Photo by Paul Plishka)

All our Jack o’ lanterns at Madewood sport smiles, reflecting my lingering affection for the “Casper, the Friendly Ghost” films of my childhood and our good fortune in having only benevolent spirits gaze down on the house and grounds.

At this time of year, as All Saint’s Day approaches, I think of the cavalcade of spirits who have passed through Madewood during my lifetime, each leaving his or her mark in terms of style or substance.

First would have to be Francis Dorsey, who ruled the roost from the day Mother spotted her ad for stuffed crabs in the local paper and hired her on the spot as chief-of-all-things-domestic at Madewood. A tour guide with whom she frequently quarreled christened her "The Blue Fairy," referencing the shade of her hair coloring; but to staff at Madewood, she was always "Cousin Francis," she who must be obeyed.

Even today, her presence is felt around the house, as staff recalls how she had "standards," sounding fearful that she might materialize out of thin air and chastise them for glasses that don't sparkle, and napkins that need ironing.

Only “Old Man Age” could take her away from her job, and when she returned for a visit after we’d gussied up things for overnight guests, she provided me with a new favorite phrase as she walked wide-eye through the rooms: “I can’t see for lookin’.”

Francis helped me construct an elaborate casket spray for Eliska Freeman, wife of then-caretaker “Mr. Chester,” who’d up and died when no one expected it.

Pondering her own demise, Francis extracted a promise from me: “I know my boy’s gonna do something beautiful for me when I pass,” she said with steely resolve. “Something Napoleonville won’t forget.”

When the sad day arrived, I was true to my promise: Twelve-dozen red roses covered the coffin in Bright Morning Star Baptist Church. Everyone was weeping. I was happy that “Big Ruby” was there, as I buried my face in her capacious bosom and cried like a baby.

Years earlier, in a light kitchen moment, Miss Eliska, Ruby, Big Bea, Little Bea and Eula Mae decided that if things got tough, Madewood could become a “house.” Ruby, all agreed, would be the madame, the others selected their roles . . . and the forgotten Eliska chimed in at the last moment, “I guess I’ll be the spare.”

Like a Hallmark Moment, so appropriate in autumn, Chester Freeman was always up before dawn to rake the leaves, never satisfied till they were all piled out of sight. One morning, Ruby spotted a wild cat on the lawn, and, never adverse to adventure, asked Mr. Chester to catch it for her.

Always obliging, he dug up a gunny sack in his hen house and had trapped the howling feline by noon. He strolled up to the house to present the sack, a pulsing 3-D realization of those Bam! Whacko! Pow! cartoon starbursts as the cat fought to extricate itself.

“You can bring that sack by my house after work is what you can do with it, old man,” she ordered the crestfallen Mr. Chester.

As the sun set, Mr. Chester drove up to Ruby’s house, and, after opening the screen door, untied the sack. Out flew the cat, destroying everything in its path as it hurled itself the length of the little shotgun house, finally ripping out the screen of the kitchen door at the rear of the abode as it bolted to freedom in the canefields.

To my knowledge, no one ever spoke about this again; and, henceforth, Mr. Chester kept his distance from Big Ruby.

How can I forget Goodwin Gros, who convinced the volunteer fire department to sell beer at the first Madewood Arts Festival, or Gordon Brown, who directed operas and concerts at Madewood for a decade?

There was Mary Sims, a retired Army sergeant whom Mother met in the lounge car on The Southerner on a trip to New York. Mother loved to chat with strangers on the train, and soon Mary had moved in to Madewood “to watch over things.” Before Mary, I didn’t know there was such a thing as white port, flowing from the Gallo brothers, which hastened her sad departure from this realm.

Each year we think of tour-guide extraordinaire Gerald “T-Boy” Bergeron, who planted sugar cane in a bed on the patio so our guests would know what vrai cane a sucre looks and – and if they wanted a slug – tastes like.

And Gladys Guillot, a grandmotherly, true Cajun woman who, like “T-Boy,” grew up speaking French and occasionally got her Anglais confused. One day she “axed” me to replace the dishes on a high shelf.

“Cain’t do it myself no more,” she lamented. “It’s my Tea Cup injury.

“That’s what my doctor tells me it is,” she responded to my bewilderment, “my shoulder don’t want to go roun’ no more.”

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “a rotator cuff injury.”

“That’s what I said.”

There are others who appear to me in dreams as my subconscious mind revisits scenes of misunderstanding or conflict in attempts to resolve lingering doubts or regrets. And, of course, my parents, who somehow got beyond my father’s consternation over Mother buying Madewood while he was out of town and reached an entente cordiale on the whole Madewood “thing.”

What I’m most grateful for is the good spirits who follow me around Madewood, day in and day out, making me feel like the little boy in the Family Circle cartoon who always sees his grandparents leaning down, offering him words of encouragement from their cloud in Heaven.

How's Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now juggles his time between Dixie Art Supplies in New Orleans and Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville. 


How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.