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How's Bayou? There's a Wurlitzer in Heaven

Bright Morning Star Baptist Church (Photo by Angela Bergeron)

I learned the hard way: Two blondes don't make it right.

On this side of the Atlantic, at 5-foot-plus, svelte, blonde, both athletic and musical: Carolyn.

On that side of the Atlantic, at 5-foot-plus-a-smidgen, svelte, blonde, at turns vibrant and contemplative: Julia.

It would have been far, far better had the twain never met.

I’d sat at the piano in Carolyn’s parents’ Uptown home, pecking out simple duets and struggling to lend the proper emotive values to Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite snippets. I knew better than to engage her on the tennis court, where she would have thrashed me more soundly than at the keyboard.

I’d offended her by loaning her my treasured copy of Joseph Fielding’s 18th-century parody of British rural maidens’ “vartue,” the – I thought – uproariously funny Shamela. Convinced, over my fervent protestations to the contrary, that this simple act was a sly way of insinuating she was amodern-day “Sham,” she had announced that she never wanted to see me again.

I’d met the lovely and talented Julia while lecturing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She was in Furniture and Woodwork, watching over treasures such The Great Bed of Ware, a 1590s behemoth, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, that could sleep fifteen, and was thrilled tobe traveling to New Orleans to give a talk at the New Orleans Museum of Art. She had heard all my stories about Madewood, and was anxious to experience what her mother, a distinguished “Honourable Mrs.” of the realm, once described as the enviable life of those people in “Gone With Your Wind.”

I was anxious for Julia to see that, at Madewood, my family was not nearly as eccentric as the guardians of a Midlands British National Trustproperty, the Horneyold-Strickland family, who lived in a wing of what was once the family’s manse. Because of her V & A associations, Julia had access, and knew the family; but neither of us was prepared when the then-head of the clan, giving us a private tour, proudly pointed to an exquisite portrait of “my Horneyold grandmother.”

At the time, I was living above the family’s art gallery in the French Quarter. Julia and I were descending the staircase into the gallery when Carolyn, apparently no longer sure about the never-wanting-to-see-you-again thing, strode through the front door.

For a moment, it was like the Lucille Ball-Harpo Marx mirror skit, as Julia put one foot forward to match Carolyn’s wary approach.

“You’re going to Madewood?” this-side-of-the-Atlantic asked. “Great. We can swing by the house so I can grab a toothbrush and nightgown and join you.”

I’ll leave the candlelit menage-a-trois dinner to your imagination; but things seemed much better after a good night’s rest, with me downstairs, and the two guests facing off across the broad second-floor central hallway. I didn’t ask how sharing the one bathroom we had upstairs at the time went.

The indomitable Francis Dorsey, preparing breakfast, suggested that we attend service at Bright Morning Star Baptist Church in Napoleonville, where her deceased second husband had held forth for years. “The Sisters of the Golden Circle from Morgan City are here for Baptism Sunday. You won’t see that back home,” she wagered the intrigued Julia, who nodded in agreement.

Our little trio swayed to the lilting rhythm of the Wurlitzer console organ as we approached the modest church. Inside, the preacher deftly drew the congregation into the hymns and Gospel as the cover was lifted from the baptism immersion pool, revealing “that river, so chilly and cold,” that the congregation envisioned as voices soared.

The Sisters of the Golden Circle swooped under those who fainted, and the rejoicing grew louder. Then the soft pedal of the Wurlitzer took over as the preacher addressed the three visitors, celebrating our unfettered participation in the service: “It just goes to show – as I always say – that Soul knows no color.”

We couldn’t have been happier as newly-coined Sister Carolyn, Sister Julia and I headed back to the car.

Carolyn smiled, and Julia innocently enquired, “Will be having homily grits back at Madewood?”

You could have taken my wind away as I replied mischievously, “For you – just because it’s Sunday – yes.”

I know that Shakespeare, who thrived on wordplay, would have approved.

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.