My recent trip to the South initially had a twofold intent: the 2019 National Federation of Press Women conference in Baton Rouge, and a redo with my mother and sister.
In June 2011, Mom planned a trip with her two daughters to Louisiana to celebrate her cousin Patsy’s 50th wedding anniversary. It’d been 30 years since we’d seen our southern cousins, and more since Mom, at 19, had stood as one of Charlie’s and Pat’s bridesmaids.
But hours before departure, Dad fell ill, and Mom stayed behind. Though we sisters made the most of our time in the steamy South, cajoling gratefully with our southern kin, this second chance seemed too perfect to pass.
And so, last week, we arrived in the land of crepe myrtles and magnolias, welcomed by the outstretched arms of oak trees and serenaded by cicadas. Crossing burgeoning bridges over swollen waterways, we convened first in Vacherie near the Mighty Mississippi, where we enjoyed juicy jambalaya and sipped sweet tea while reminiscing.
Day trips brought us to a history-haunting sugar-cane plantation, and New Orleans, where we feasted on fried catfish and binged on beignets in “The Quarter” as a calliope crooned. With flourishing Fleur de Lis and church bells leading, we stopped at the inspiring St. Louis Cathedral midday to pray.
But the most soul-stirring moment for me happened after the touring and tasting. During a mid-conference pause, I checked my phone to find a video sent by my sister, who, with Mom, was continuing the relative-visiting rounds.
The clip showed our cousin Linda seated at a brown Steinway parlor grand piano, performing a piece as soulfully as had Grandpa Joe all those years ago, and, before him, his mother, Belle “Dolly” Byrne. She’d dreamed of being a concert pianist, but instead, met and married my great-grandpa, Patrick, in Bismarck.
After Grandpa’s death in 1979, the piano, a wedding gift to Dolly, acquired in Chicago in 1907, was tenderly transported southward, and in 2016, it narrowly escaped, through sacrifice, a major flood.
I was 9 when I’d last seen that magnificent instrument, and not at all prepared for the emotions that quickly deluged while peering into my phone. Seeing Linda’s fingers flying flawlessly, tears trickled; it was as if Grandpa himself were there, producing those hypnotic, heartfelt harmonies, guided only by his fine-tuned ear and passion for playing.
I couldn’t have guessed that of all the wonderful things I’d experience in the South, my Grandpa Joe’s glorious gift of music would be what would seize my spirit most, reminding me that love is eternal and beyond time or space. It can even be relayed, in some mysterious way, by a long-deceased grandfather through a modern-day device he couldn’t have imagined existing.
My cousin Linda was the living embodiment of a gift long gone but alive in every way, and I left the South with a smile, nostalgic notes lingering in my mind as my most treasured memento.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on July 6, 2019.]