I’d like to tell you a story that has nothing to do with fifteen minutes of fame. Oh no, it’s much larger and more meaningful than that. It begins with my baptism.
Daddy was a member of First Presbyterian Church of Bossier City, LA. His maternal grandmother was a charter member of that same church, and his mother was the Women’s Sunday Class School teacher for eons. And with a last name like Wilson and Scots-Irish heritage, it only makes sense that he would have been reared Presbyterian and his first-born daughter would be baptized into the fellowship of First Presbyterian Church, too. That would be me.
My best memories of having been brought up Presbyterian were those made during the time I spent each summer at Camp Alabama, a Presbyterian “church” camp. When I was only eight, I couldn’t wait to turn nine so that I could experience a week away from the brick and concrete of suburban Bossier City. From the age of nine, that one week of every summer was the highlight of my year.
Camp Alabama* sat nestled among acres and acres of rolling hills and pine trees in the little one-blinking-light town of Choudrant, LA. Ribbons of red-dirt roads and pine-needle-covered pathways wound past the cabins, to the recreation hall, the ball field, the lake, the chapel, and the cafeteria. I can still conjure the smell of the pine needles and the dust stirred up by the comings and goings of family vehicles as eager campers were dropped off the first day of camp.
I attended Camp Alabama as a camper for one glorious week every summer until the ninth grade, when I became old enough for “work camp”. We ninth-to-twelfth graders would arrive the week before the regular campers to spruce things up and set things right for the next eight weeks and hundreds of campers. I attended work camp every summer through high school graduation and still have so many wonderful memories from my time spent there; one of which is the week we rebuilt the entire wharf, and I learned how to swing a hammer and hit nails accurately. That skilled has served me well many times since.
During my freshman year of college, I worked part-time as a cashier at Brookshire’s. However, after my first year of college, I would exchange my cashier’s uniform for terrycloth shorts, cotton t-shirts and sandals and not look back. Hooray! The summer of 1974 would be the summer that I finally qualified to be a Camp Alabama counselor to all those children following in my footsteps along those well worn paths. I was assigned to a cabin that would become my home for the summer, and all was going well.
As I mentioned, things were going well, until the day I found out there would be another counselor in my cabin. Typically, there was only one counselor per cabin, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about sharing my cabin with a stranger. In a way, I felt like Rinehart Cabin belonged to me.
Her name was Susan, and she quickly won me over with her true southern belle ways. In her soft, genteel manner, she told me she was from Natchitoches, LA and lived with her parents. I didn’t know if she would like me, since she was so girly, and I was the outdoorsy, tomboy type–and loud! But being the well mannered young lady that she was, she thanked me for sharing my cabin and settled in on the top bunk across the aisle from mine. Maybe this would be okay.
Because of her quiet nature, it took a little while for me to learn that she was a nursing student at Northwestern down in Natchitoches and a little older than I. Boy, that intimidated me, because I was just a student of Office Administration at Tech in Ruston; and other than finishing that degree, I really had no higher aspirations, and certainly nothing so noble as nursing. (Not to mention that Tech and Northwestern were arch rivals!) But, we got along well, and I admired the way she handled the girls and acted as the camp nurse. She gained a lot more respect from me after that.
Camp took in on Monday mornings and let out on Saturday mornings, and we counselors weren’t allowed to stay on the campus Saturday nights. Surprisingly, one day Susan invited me to spend the Saturday night with her and her family in Natchitoches. Sure, why not?
Her family was the epitome of southern charm and hospitality, making me feel welcome and comfortable. After tending to our dirty laundry from the previous week, we ventured to historic downtown with its brick streets and old buildings with wrought-iron balconies facing the beautiful Cane River. Sunday morning, we attended worship service at First Presbyterian Church before returning to Camp Alabama to prepare for the coming week of new campers.
Although Susan and I became friends that summer of 1975, we eventually lost touch. I assumed she had graduated Northwestern and become a wonderful nurse, while I graduated Tech and became the secretary to the president of a major manufacturing company. And life went on.
Fast forward fifteen years to 1990, and I’m in south Louisiana, married to The Captain and due with our fourth child. We had gone on a rare outing without children to see the movie Steel Magnolias. Not long into the film, I experienced a strong sense of familiarity, like I’d been there before. Shortly after, I learned why–the film was set in Natchitoches and filmed there, too.
As the story line and the female characters captivated me, I began to feel a kinship with the film; a feeling that slowly grew into a vague sense of déjà vu. When one of the lead characters, Shelby, said her wedding would be held at First Presbyterian Church, that sense grew even stronger. Then when the wedding scene played vividly across the screen, this was no longer just a case of déjà vu; I was truly having a “been-there-done-that” moment. For there, on the big screen, was the sanctuary where I had attended church with Susan that Sunday morning 15 years before. I wanted to jump up in the theater and shout, “Hey! I’ve been to church there!” And then the thought it hit me . . .
Could this movie possibly be about Susan? Is Shelby the Susan I knew from Natchitoches 15 years before?
As the plot unfolds, we learn that Shelby is a nurse and a diabetic. She marries and eventually has a child, against her doctor’s orders and her mother’s wishes. If you haven’t seen this film, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but she gives birth, and the pregnancy is very hard on her body. She eventually needs a kidney transplant, and her mother is the donor. The over-arching theme of the movie exemplifies the bonds among these strong, small-town southern women amid their trials and tribulations and how they rally around one another, despite their diverse personalities.
After the film ended, a sad, haunted silence embraced me while a million questions raced around in my mind. As the closing credits scrolled, I strained my eyes to look for familiar names and to see who directed and produced the film. In essence, I was looking for Susan’s last name–Harling.
And, there it was: Robert Harling, Susan’s older brother. He wrote the screenplay and played the part of the Presbyterian minister who performed Shelby’s marriage ceremony. Upon seeing that name on the screen, I just sat there, immobilized by the possibility that this was a true story–a tragic story about a very sweet girl I knew one summer. I sat in my seat until every single person left the theater. Poor Captain, he didn’t know what was going on with me.
Questions buzzed my brain on the ride home. Was this movie really about Susan? Did she really have juvenile diabetes? How could I spend an entire summer in the same cabin with her and not know this? She never once mentioned it. I had to know, and I had to know right away.
As soon as I entered my south Louisiana home, I grabbed the phone in the hallway and called Information for Robert Harling’s number in Natchitoches. With shaking hands and the uncertainty of what to say, I dialed the number and waited; one ring, two rings, then a deep hello. (I truly hope my memory is serving me well in the details, because I think Robert lived in New York, but by chance, I caught him at his parents’ home.)
“Mr. Harling, I apologize if this seems like a very strange phone call, but my name is Wendy, and I was a counselor at Camp Alabama with your sister, Susan, in the summer of ’75. She and I lost touch, but I’ve just gotten home from seeing Steel Magnolias, and I can’t help but think this movie was about her. Please forgive me for asking, but was this movie about her?”
Like a true southern gentleman and in the most soothing tones, he confirmed my suspicions and explained to me that Susan was diagnosed with diabetes when she was twelve. And then he shared a brief version of the rest of the real story with me. He explained the movie was loosely based on a play he had written in 1987 as a tribute to his sister and her strength.** I shared with him my memories of Susan after having spent that one summer with her and that one weekend with their family. We chatted a few more minutes, and I hung up with a keen sense of loss, of sadness, and a new realization of just how short life can be and how small the world truly is.
I reflected on how some people enter our lives for just a season and wondered what determines the things we remember about them. Even though I had not thought about Susan in years, she had made an indelible impression on me that summer, and the things I recalled about her were reflected poignantly in that film; so much so, that after not speaking to her since that summer, I innately sensed that this move was about her.
Susan never complained about the long hikes up and down the hills in the suffocating Louisiana heat and humidity or cabins with no air conditioning, although it could not have been easy for her. She was tough as steel.
Susan was gentle and soft, like a flower petal, and brought comfort to homesick little girls, like the sweet scent of a magnolia blossom.
A Steel Magnolia.
In that hot, sultry summer of 1975, I had no idea I was sharing a cabin with a true Steel Magnolia; and I wonder now how she came to be placed in the cabin with rowdy me. No matter how, I’m grateful that I knew her, even if only for a summer.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Robert Harling’s original 1987 play, Steel Magnolias, and high time for you to watch the movie, if you haven’t done so already. If you have, it’s worth another viewing, so grab the popcorn and the tissues, and watch it as a memorial to Susan.
As Fate would have it, the annual conference and awards banquet for the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association will be held in, none other than, Natchitoches later this month. How very appropriate, and if I win an award this year, I’m dedicating it to Susan.
I will think about her as I walk those old brick streets of downtown and fish in the Cane River. I might drive by her old family home and wonder if any of her family members still live there.
One of my favorite campers still resides in Natchitoches. Maybe I’ll look her up? (Hey, Ellen $, you remember me? Well, I remember you!)
And on Sunday morning, I might even pay tribute to Susan’s memory with a visit to First Presbyterian Church.
Funny how things have come full circle.
With admiration for this Steel Magnolia I once knew, and for all those I currently know,
PS: And guess what else? August marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog!!! Ten years I’ve been writing this, y’all!!! And 10 years you’ve been stopping by and chatting with me! Thank you all so very, very much!
*Camp Alabama is now a location for Med Camps of Louisiana for children and young adults with special needs. Too bad I didn’t know this when Miah was younger. He could have followed in my footsteps.
**Click here to read Garden and Gun’s closer look at this history behind Robert Harling’s play and the interview with him about the characters, and later, the movie.
PS: If you made it this far down the page, please leave a comment to be entered in a random drawing for a Bayou Woman Adventure t-shirt.