- Ellen Byron
THE PLANTATION TOUR GUIDE WHO CHANGED MY LIFE
In the mid-1980s, I was visiting my friend Jan in New Orleans, and we decided to take a day trip up the River Road. We wandered around the grounds of a few plantations, and kept heading north. I suddenly yelled, “Stop!” Behind a chain link fence and an overgrown thicket of grass lay a
derelict beauty of an antebellum home.The majesty of it was arresting despite its rundown condition. We noticed a small trailer on the side road next to the house, and a hand-painted sign advertising tours. Jan and I instantly agreed that this was one tour we had to take.
We parked and approached the trailer, where we were greeted by a warm, enthusiastic tour guide who introduced herself as Gaynell Bourgeois Moore. She told us that the house was called Ashland-Belle Helene. Gaynell took us on a fascinating exploration of the mansion, where we learned much about its past and present. But more importantly, we got to know Gaynell.
She shared that she was 100% Cajun, and fiercely proud of her heritage. In addition to being a tour guide, she was a musician as well as an artist.She was also a woman who’d endured tragedy, having lost two of her four grown children - one son to cancer, another to a freak accident.
When we finished the tour, I left with a doorstop that featured a beautiful rendering of the plantation by Gaynell.
I also left with a new friend whose passion for her culture enhanced my own passion for Cajun Country. This eventually led to my debut novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery.
My friendship with Gaynell is so valuable that I devoted a “lagniappe” chapter (lagniappe: a little something extra) to it at the end of the book, where I share a fun story about how we reconnected after losing touch for ten years. When I bought myself a charm to commemorate the publication of my first mystery, I included a wonderful rendering of Houmas House Plantation that Gaynell painted.
When I feel like I’ve been away from Cajun Country far too long, I listen to one of Gaynell’s CDs, and once again I'm meandering alongside a bayou. And when I feel like I’ve been out of touch for too long, I re-read a chapter in Gaynell's compelling memoir, I’ve Saved the Best for Last, which chronicles her life story and the long road she took to marriage with Denis Marchand, the great love of her life.
Friendship is serendipitous. Sometimes it’s just a gift that the universe drops in your lap. I got very lucky when I was gifted with Gaynell’s friendship back on that lazy, muggy Louisiana day. She inspired me then… and she inspires me now.
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