So, we will have been back in St. Francisville for a week as of tomorrow. Despite the chaos and stress of the move, of settling in, of preparing to host Christmas dinner for my family here on Sunday, Julie and I are really amazed by how much we’re loving it here. I mean, I figured we would, but it’s been just great so far. For me, it’s such a strange feeling, because I was last a full-time resident in this town in 1983. I’m seeing the place through eyes three decades older, and in some ways it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time.
Our friend Jason came by to visit today, and brought us a couple of books as a welcome present: my friend Danny Heitman’s volume about John James Audubon’s time painting birds at Oakley House here, and a coffee-table collection of photographs of St. Francisville, with an introduction by Danny, who is a marvelous writer. I read Danny’s intro tonight, and learned that Katherine Anne Porter came through town in 1989, and wrote an essay about the place. Then I looked through the gorgeous images by a photographer called Bevil Knapp, and I thought, “This is my town? Really? It’s so beautiful.” Here’s a link to a sample of Knapp’s St. Francisville photos. Of course I grew up amid all this beauty, but as often happens, you don’t know what you have.
This morning I woke up at 4:30, lit candles, said prayers, and decided it would be nice to take Roscoe for a walk before the sun came up. We padded down Royal Street and up Catholic Hill, where we looked out over the Bayou Sara bottom, said a prayer at the statue of Mary and Baby Jesus, crossed ourselves (well, I crossed myself; Roscoe is a heathen), then walked past Grace Episcopal Church. I reached up and batted the Spanish moss hanging low over the sidewalk. Then we walked by the Methodist church, trimmed in golden Christmas lights, and indeed a vision in the darkness. Then to home, and coffee, and reading by lamplight until the sun came up. It was as perfect a morning as I’ve had in ages.
One of the best things to have happened to the town since I last lived here was the opening of BirdMan, a coffee shop and breakfast place which, I swear, is the real-life version of Lake Wobegon’s Chatterbox Cafe. I’ve been going there this week to use the wi-fi in the morning and drink the excellent coffee. You see everybody there you know, and people you don’t. Met a country boy this morning, a guy in a flannel shirt and a trucker cap, who was hunched at the counter over his coffee, drawling to his friends two stools down about how much he loves the movie “Charade,” and happy endings. I was introduced to him a few minutes later, and eventually had to ask, “Who’s your daddy?” I didn’t know his daddy, but my daddy knows his daddy, and … well, you know how this goes. For me, this is … well, it’s comforting, and fun, and even a delight. An older man walked by as we all stood talking, and I was introduced to this fellow. He’s Walter Imahara, and I’m telling you his name because it turns out the Baton Rouge paper did an article on him recently, showcasing the botanical garden he’s creating just outside of town. The Imahara family is famous around here for their nursery in Baton Rouge. The Imahara patriarch, James, moved here with his family in 1950 from California, after having everything taken from him during the war, when they were put in camps by the US government. Mr. Imahara (Walter’s father) took a job as gardener at a plantation house nearby. An excerpt from the story:
Imahara filed a claim for $100,000 with the U.S. government for lost land and income when the family was forced off its land in California and interned during the war. He got $17,000.
Mills helped Imahara start James’ Gardening Service in Baton Rouge after Imahara had worked at Fred Heroman’s nursery. The family moved to Baton Rouge in 1952 where Walter Imahara, with his sister, May, and her husband, Sam Kaga, would build the business into a household name.
Walter Imahara describes the family’s first house in Baton Rouge as a shack he was too embarrassed to bring classmates from Istrouma High School.
His father was bitter, Walter Imahara said, but he was busy, too, rebuilding his life as the stereotypical Japanese gardener working the grounds of Afton Villa with his family before starting to build the nursery and landscaping business in Baton Rouge.
Wanda Chase, daughter of John and Lily Imahara Metz, has her landscape architecture practice next door to her Uncle Walter’s former plant nursery now Louisiana Nursery on Perkins Road. Chase grew up working for her grandfather and her uncle and now owns the business.
The family’s Japanese heritage and harsh treatment at the hands of fellow Americans drove his father, Walter Imahara said.
The bitterness subsided. At 96, James Imahara carved “Happy to Be Alive” into a cypress board in Japanese characters he’d taught himself.
Incredible man, James Imahara. He suffered so much, and triumphed. Today, his son Walter, now retired and in his seventies, has put a million dollars of his own money into establishing this botanical garden. I had no idea this project existed until I met Mr. Walter this morning (yes, this is the same Imahara clan that Grant Imahara of “Mythbusters” comes from). I called my wife, who loves horticulture, to tell her about her great good fortune. I bet Mr. Walter will have a volunteer docent when he re-opens in the spring.
Lynn Wood, who owns and runs BirdMan, told me this morning, “The things you hear at this counter. Sometimes I wish I had a tape recorder and could just lay it up there and get it all.”
The epigraph in Bevil Knapp’s book of St. Francisville photographs is a quote by Woodrow Wilson, of all people:
“The South is the only place in the world where nothing has to be explained to me.”
Me too. I like that. I had forgotten how much I like that.