Sunday, September 14, 2014

A warm place of fish, family and forever


I found out the day after she was buried that Ruth Prince had died. Hurt me. I must keep my finger on the pulse of Claiborne Parish better, because to miss saying goodbye to Mrs. Prince borders on unforgiveable.

She passed away on Aug. 29, three days after her 86th birthday. I hope she had a good birthday.

Many of you who don’t know Mrs. Ruth have eaten at her restaurant, Port-Au-Prince on Lake Claiborne. She and her husband, Buck, opened it in 1966. It started as a store and evolved as the lake did and as her family did. And her family evolved a lot: four sons, a daughter, 17 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren. 

My daddy, unless my memory has totally failed, was the minister at her husband’s funeral after Mr. Buck passed away in an accident more than 30 years ago. The couple had been married 33 years at the time.

But Port-Au-Prince lived on, and I imagine it will still. I stopped in last spring, not to eat but just to see her. She wasn’t there. But it was fun to see the restaurant again, to look at the young waiters and waitresses, all looking like Princes. Many, many, many Princes have worked at Port-Au-Prince.  

As a teenager, the son of the new pastor of First Baptist Church Homer, I met Ruth Prince. I guess it was at her restaurant. It could have been at church where one of her younger brothers, Ronnie, who died years ago and much too young, taught me Sunday school. But since she went faithfully to Mt. Olive Baptist, not far from her home on the lake, probably it was at Port-Au-Prince. I’m not sure I ever saw her anywhere else.

Even though I didn’t get to grow up as a Claiborne Parish kid “who knew Mrs. Prince” – as everyone did -- she was still as much a part of the lake to me as the fish and the cypress. For those that knew her, I can’t imagine that changing, even though she is gone.

Here’s the thing about Mrs. Prince and Port-Au-Prince: you went there and you felt as if you had walked into somebody’s house. A big kitchen. It’s one big room, with a fireplace and a mantel, and the first time I went in, the 8x10s of all the little grandchildren – (those children in those pictures are grown now) – were hanging in a row, neatly on the dark wooden wall.

And then the next year the pictures were updated, and the next year they were updated again, and on like that. Then one day the people in those pictures were waiting tables. And then one day decades later there were great-grandchildren’s pictures on the wall. And then they waited tables.

It was – and still is -- like being in the dining room at your house. What are we having tonight? Fish? Or steak? Either? Whoa!

Mrs. Prince did not suffer fools lightly. She is a person I would have never wanted mad at me. I think that was one of the reasons I liked her so much. She was honest in her affection and she was honest if you were up to no good. I just always felt safe in her restaurant like I always felt safe at my mom’s table, taken care of and at home.

And the food…the key is not to get too filled up on the beans and the hush puppies and the pickle relish before they bring out the steak or fish, (whole or fillets!) But that’s a tough chore. And I can see her asking if you wanted pie. The last time I talked to her was about a pie for a birthday, and she said to come on, that she’d have it ready.

Her eulogy included this line: “She was the owner and operator of Port-Au-Prince on Lake Claiborne for 48 years; her entire life was spent serving others.” That’s true. But in my experience with Mrs. Ruth, only a small part of her life was spent serving others at her restaurant. Her spirit and personality was much too big for that welcoming room on the lake. Every time I’ve thought of her through the years, I’ve felt happy and full. I can’t imagine thinking of her and feeling any other way.