In mid-January I traveled to my birthplace, Baton Rouge, for a week. The immediate cause of my visit was the failing health of my father’s oldest living sister. I wanted to tell her how much she has meant to me while I still had a chance. She looked beaten down by her afflictions, but there was also a twinkle of the strong woman I have known and loved for these many years.
My wife and I moved away from Baton Rouge in 1989, one year after we were married in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, and we have not lived there since. We moved 1,150 miles away, to Colorado Springs. In the years since we have lived in the western suburbs of Kansas City, near Chicago in Oak Park, and now southwest of Richmond, VA, in Chesterfield.
Living so far from our parents led to frequent visits home during the holidays. Early on we fixed a pattern of visiting Monica’s parents at Thanksgiving and mine at Christmas. My father died in 1992, and Monica’s father died two years later. Our mothers both died in 2014. All this is to say that, while I’ve taken myself out of Baton Rouge, the city has remained an essential aspect of who I am today.
Many of Baton Rouge’s streets are ingrained in my memory. I may not remember all their names anymore, but I know shortcuts and the routes of my childhood as if by sonar. I can retrace the seven-mile route taken by my older brother when he ran away from home by bicycle, arriving at the home of our maternal grandparents, in what’s known as the Garden District. There are far more expensive neighborhoods in Baton Rouge, but the Garden District could be considered one of the first eastern suburbs of the city in the early part of the 20th century. Now it is considered mid-city.
I linger on the Garden District because Mom lingered on it for most of her life. My parents lived with Mom’s parents for roughly the first decade of their marriage. Mom was pregnant with me when Dad finally extracted her from 1007 Park Boulevard and moved her to the edge of Baton Rouge’s civilization, in a new neighborhood called Cedarcrest. Mom told me for years that she felt deeply lonely in this new home, especially when she heard the calls of mourning doves.
My maternal grandmother died in 1969, when I was 10. My grandfather moved in with us before my grandmother died, and somehow he knew he would never see his home again. I do not remember his ever asking even that any of us drive him past it again. He had an iron will like that. All these years later, it is one of the things I most admire about him.
Mom, in contrast, wanted to see her childhood home again and again. She drove past it at least once a month, I think. It became an informal ritual for us: whenever I visited Baton Rouge again, I would drive her past 1007 Park Boulevard. Together we mourned what became of the place. For decades on end it was left without new paint on its exterior. It began to look like a place uprooted from Tobacco Road and dropped into the Garden District as a sick joke. In the final few years of her life, Mom wrote to the Garden District Civic Association to ask if anything could be done about this eyesore. Could the owners not be compelled to care for the property? Short answer: no.
I saw the interior of the place while in my 20s, when it came up for rental. I was horrified. The built-in bookcases with glass doors: ripped out and nowhere to be found. The hardwood floors: painted over or buried beneath carpeting. The large, screened back porch: enclosed and transmogrified into a wood-paneled TV room.
In my 30s I had a dream about the home. Most of the dream is lost to time, but it involved my buying the place, restoring its long-lost beauty, and living in it with joy for the rest of my days. At the time I was deeply immersed in the work of Episcopalians United for Revelation, Renewal, and Reformation, and I interpreted the dream as reflecting my lover’s quarrel with the Episcopal Church.
That makes the latest chapter in the story the most haunting part of it. When I returned to Baton Rouge in mid-January, my first appointment was to visit a family friend who struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. From there, I drove through the Garden District on my way to my aunt’s home. Almost by muscle memory, I guided the car onto Park Boulevard for my usual glance of horror at what 1007 Park had become.
Oh, but what was this? A sign indicating the place was for sale? I made a U-turn for a better look. A new paint job? Ceiling fans on the ground-level front porch? I took a moment to snap a few distant photos with my phone, but I felt too hurried to step inside for a look, even as I saw young people emerging from within.
I sent word of this change to family and friends. My best friend from childhood pointed out the asking price: $338,000. When my parents sold the home in 1969, it took months to move, and I think we all wondered if we would ever receive the asking price, which was at best one-tenth of $338,000. A subsequent visit to Zillow informed me that someone bought the house for $115,000 in January 2014, at about the time Mom was to learn that she had a terminal case of cancer.
Since my visit to Baton Rouge, I’ve often wondered why Mom could not have seen the transformation of her childhood home before her death. But then my faith in God and the afterlife tell me that either she’s been made aware of it by now, or (more likely) the fate of the structure at 1007 Park Boulevard no longer matters to her.
It still matters to me, somehow, though I would have to win a lottery even to dream of buying it or living in Baton Rouge again. I am thankful for whoever bought it in 2014 and transformed this shell again. This home is not restored to its former glory, but it is once again a place that an owner will maintain as a center of beauty and, I hope, of peaceful living for another young family.
And I remember, with greater feeling now, the dream I had in my 30s. I know the renewal of God’s Church never ends, and I know its consummation will be far more glorious than anything that has ever occurred at 1007 Park Boulevard, in my beloved Baton Rouge.
Doug LeBlanc’s other posts may be found here. The featured image of 1007 Park Boulevard is from a presentation by C.J. Brown Realtors.