Wednesday, July 09, 2008

New Orleans without the sin: A bit about Mobile, and two children therein

The Kate Shepard House, Mobile, Alabama, now a bed and breakfast. This house is a couple of blocks away from where my daughters live.

More images from Mobile here

Commenter May made a request of me a while back, so this post is in part a belated response to that request, and in part a quick recounting of highlights during my June stay in Mobile.

For obvious reasons, going to Mobile is emotionally difficult for me, but I still enjoy the city itself--especially its age. In 2003 the city celebrated its tricentennial, and the majority of the houses in the neighborhood where my daughters live are around 100 years old (their house was built in 1905; a couple of others just down the street were built in the 1850s, just to give you an idea). The Shepard House is actually atypical for the neighborhood where they live. There are some other Victorians thereabouts, but none so ornate. Most of the older houses are Creole-styled houses like the one you see here, or Creole-influenced (not just the porches and high-pitched roofs and 12-foot ceilings, but that certain austere elegance as well that Creole-style houses have for me). In its day, the girls' immediate neighborhood was populated by upwardly-mobile types who were waiting for a still-bigger ship to come in (literally, in some cases, as Mobile's wealth in those days was in shipping and trade); nowadays, the equivalent socioeconomic class lives there.

Mobile is New Orleans without the sin, I tell those who ask me: Both French-founded; both briefly held by the Spanish; both with a strong Catholic foundation shaping its culture (Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the U.S.); both important ports; both vexed by the occasional hurricane and low elevation. In short, as a docent giving a walking tour of the French Quarter once described New Orleans, both are in their essence Caribbean cities. I'd say, though, that Mobile is more "Southern" than New Orleans, but that's a relative statement: Mobile is no Birmingham or Memphis or Jackson. It's also, relatively speaking, a sleepier city than New Orleans, but that's beginning to change with the arrival of a steel mill and a factory that builds parts of airplanes for Airbus.

More below the fold.

If you like your oak trees big, Mobile is your kind of place. (Something most people don't know is that Mobile is often rainier than Seattle.) One example: A couple of blocks from the girls' house is a massive live oak that fully shades the front yards of two houses and a good-sized portion of a third across the street. However, if you're a walker or a cyclist who wants to use the sidewalks, you'll quickly see that those in charge of maintaining the sidewalks have ceded to these trees' massive roots. So, then, the streets. They're decently-maintained, but they are narrow, and people often barrel through residential neighborhoods. When C. and I went on our first big neighborhood adventure on her bike (she rode, I jogged along), we of course got lots of practice in stopping and watching for traffic, but she got some experience in some mild BMX-style riding, too, as she learned how to negotiate the edges of slabs of concrete that tree roots had forced up a couple of inches. C. is 10 and so far has no need to ride too far away from home; if she stays serious about cycling, though, she will soon come to see that Mobile isn't especially bike-friendly and will have to learn to adapt to that fact.

So: the big news as far as C. is concerned is that, for now, she's a confirmed cyclist. The news about G. is harder to see. She is in the middle of middle school, and several long conversations she and I had were directly or indirectly about that fact. She is very perceptive and thoughtful about social dynamics among her peers and doesn't like their more abusive manifestations. Though she thinks she qualifies as a popular girl, her friends are her friends, whether or not they happen to be popular, too. She can't abide social snobbery--she has been snubbed by some on those grounds--and she has stood up for African-American friends of hers in the face of plainly racist slurs aimed at them by other kids. I had the pleasure of meeting the parents of her best friend while I was there; I told them that from what I heard about their daughter, I thought they were very good friends for each other, and the mother said, "We feel just the same about G." I ask you, parents: clue me in if there are words regarding your progeny more likely to induce a rush of happiness in you.

She says, of college, that she wants to major in business and minor in French. I'll withhold judgment for now--she's only 13, after all.

We also had some lengthy conversations about religion in general, denominational differences, science (specifically evolutionary theory) and the Bible. She admits to being a conservative in these matters, but she is filled with questions about precisely those views as she thinks her way through them. One example: she asked me what happens to the souls of those who either died before the coming of Christ or who die without having been witnessed to. (Some context: both girls were baptized as Lutherans; after I moved away, they then changed their membership to a Baptist church, where C. was "re-baptized,"1 a couple of years ago; but recently G. has begun attending a Methodist church close to the house.) It goes without saying that I'm thrilled that she's thinking about these things and engaging anyone in conversation who has the time and patience to talk with her about them. To quote Thomas Merton (as I'm pretty sure I have before), "The question is the answer."

In sum: the girls and I thoroughly enjoyed each other's company this past month. Mobile is their home--G. recently told me that she can't imagine living anywhere else. But while I know of any number of Mobilians who would agree wholeheartedly with G., I also know that neither she nor her sister say such a thing without also giving real thought to what it means to live there.

1I understand the Baptist thinking regarding baptism; but, speaking as a Lutheran . . . let's just say that this is one of those many instances in which "understanding" shouldn't be confused with "acceptance."


R. Sherman said...

I'm glad you had fun.

I've been through Mobile several times, usually on the highway from Hattiesburg on the way to the "Redneck Riviera," punctuated with obligatory stops at the U.S.S. Alabama. What I've seen, I liked, and one of daughter's friends is seriously looking at the University there, because, and I quote, "It's set aside a bunch of scholarship money for 'Yankees.'"

I would love to spend a couple of days wandering around.

As for the Baptist baptism thing, as you know, I have a foot in both the Baptist and (Missouri Synod) Lutheran camps. When the EMBLOS, who was reared Catholic in Germany joined the Baptist church, she needed to be immersed. I suppose, given that Baptist believe it is a conscious choice, there is the requirement to be baptized anew, but only for people coming from traditions where infants are baptized.

Like you, however, I'm not sure I buy into it where the prospective Baptist demonstrates a knowledge and acceptance of the basics behind Salvation.

Lastly, your daughters sound like great kids, and you're right. There's nothing better than hearing it from somebody else.


John B. said...

Mobile is ideally suited for a couple of days of relaxed wandering around, especially for history buffs such as you. Most of the cool things are right downtown. Civil War buffs will want to see forts Morgan and Gaines (the forts that Admiral Farragut sailed past as he shouted, "Damn the torpedoes--full steam ahead!" during the Battle of Mobile Bay); they sit on opposite sides of the entrance to the bay, a little over a half-hour drive out of the city. Also, much as I love New Orleans, Mobile has much of its atmosphere but but in a smaller package, without the crowds and, let's be frank, the tawdriness. No voodoo shops in Mobile, no kids walking around thinking they're vampires.

Thanks for the kind words about my daughters. Their mother deserves the credit; what I feel is happiness that they are happy, intelligent girls whom adults don't flee from upon their approach.