When I was really young, only a toddler, my dad had this dream of becoming a dairy farmer. So he leased 80 acres of Louisiana piney woods, parked an Airstream trailer on it, and bought some heifer calves. Since baby calves take three or four years to grow into milk cows, he needed a job to sustain the place and the family until then, so he drove back and forth to Westlake every day to work and in the evenings and on the weekends he worked clearing the trees and plowing up the ground to uproot the pine knots. He started building a barn out of pine poles and rough lumber and covered it with rolled roofing.
My sister and I were growing fast, and my mom must have been stir-crazy in the trailer, because one day while my dad was gone to work, she moved us and everything else into the barn.
It was a tiny barn. There was a hayloft with wings on either side. The partitions and floor were rough boards that didn’t fit closely. The area beneath the stairs became the kitchen, with the stove and sink and refrigerator and my great-grandmother’s washstand allowing maybe a square yard of space to walk in. The other side of the bottom floor was our living room. The loft became our sleeping space: my sister and me on one side of the stairs, and my mom and dad on the other side. I slept on the top bunk, and the branches of the pine trees and the clouds and the sky outside the gable window is one of the pictures I see in my earliest memories.
Fast-forward a few years, and I find myself in Mexico, working as a teacher in a private bilingual school. Now and then a group of us foreigners go on tours with a local woman who shares the history of the city with us. On our most recent tour, she took me back home to the barn of my childhood.
Well, actually, it is the owner-built home and studio of a local artist-architect and it’s in the Mexican desert, but I was stunned by how similar it was to that barn I grew up in.
The street door, or the gate, looked as if it were original to the property. The garden, with citrus trees and beds and pots of desert plants, ran rampant and neglected and delightful, with piles of salvaged tiles sorted by color. Dogs lounged on the stoop.
The bare stone walls are against building codes–they’re supposed to be covered with plaster–but this owner/builder likes to see the character and flaws and fossils in the stones. He contested the codes and, after a legal battle, obtained an exception.
The entire upper floor is a studio. Canvases and frames leaned against the walls. Everything was covered with dust. The windows are rectangular openings without screens or glass, some filled in with soda or beer bottles.
The third level is the roof, with more bits of tiles and other building materials waiting to be re-purposed.
In the kitchen under the stairs, a big pan with good-smelling things in it was being tended by our host.
He is a man who can turn his hand to almost anything, apparently; not only does he paint and build houses, he made the quilt on the bed from his old pants, the curtains on the windows downstairs from cotton sacks, and the paella.
I might have been at a relative’s house in Beauregard Parish, or a friend’s house in Lake Charles. The companionship and the food and the hospitality of our host swirled and blended into the kind of refreshment that fills empty spaces in the heart as well as those in the stomach and that is not selective about locale. We stayed at the table for a long time, talking and eating and drinking, and I wasn’t ready to go when the meal ended.
It seems that memories can be evoked by staggeringly unexpected events and places. This artist’s home in this desert town couldn’t be more different architecturally from that rough-sided barn in the Louisiana piney woods, yet it felt profoundly familiar to me. It was as though time and place didn’t exist; as if I were reliving a chapter of my past against a slightly different backdrop.