Happy birthday, Dutch

We left Friday morning, just after six a.m. I awakened, groggy from fitful sleep, and dashed around the house doing errands in a stream of fogged consciousness; as I was putting out the trash for pickup, Kat and Sean arrived. We packed, we left.

The second half-hour of a long road trip is always somewhat disappointing. The rush and crush is over; you've left, and there's nothing to get excited about except the mind-numbing expanse of open road. Six and a half hours of highway driving to get to New Orleans.

I napped. Sean played with Kat's visor. We fidgeted. The sun hung itself high in the sky, waiting patiently for our early-afternoon arrival. I read, looked out the window, closed my eyes, and dreamed. I made lists of the things that I wanted to do to domesticat and geek-chick upon my return; wondered if the cats missed me yet; let my mind wander through the plot of my current book.

We arrived, late afternoon, and made plans to go to dinner with Kat's step-grandmother Deanie. "No ambience," we said—just good food, and preferably the Cajun kind.

Ten minutes of driving and another ten of hunting for a parking spot led us to Mulate's. The crowd looked half tourist, half local; the band tuning up had enough rough edges to assure anyone of their authenticity. The dance floor, situated in the middle of the room, was concrete, smooth, and had swirling scuff marks left from dancers' shoes.

As we ordered, the staff came out to push six or seven tables together, forming a line to my left long enough that I had to completely turn around to see how many chairs they were placing at the tables. Soon after, approximately thirty people of all ages filed their way to the table, laughing and carrying cameras.

Tourists? Not exactly. Their voices had the right sound for southern Louisiana natives. They looked like a family, which led to Kat and Sean speculating that we were unwitting witnesses to a family reunion.

While we ate, the band tuned up and began to play. I watched the dancers and marveled at their practiced ease—especially fascinated by a woman whose long hair was pinned up in a loose bun. Her dress bodice was of red and white checks, probably home-sewn, and her skirt flowed in loose, full folds to the floor. She laughed as she danced, her face glowing with light exertion and obvious pleasure. Early forties? I guessed.

I was startled out of my reverie by Kat and Sean nudging me to turn around. A woman, they said, standing by the band and dancing and laughing. Flirting with the band, it seemed. As the song ended, she came back to the table of thirty and sat down, laughing loudly, only to be immediately whisked back out by another person from her table.

She was dressed to kill, Southern matron style. Good pants, carefully hemmed, basic black. Her blouse, heavy linen, pale pink, with a black under-collar and white over-collar. Her makeup was understated and perfect—except for her lips, which were bright red.

Though slightly hunched in the shoulders, she carried herself smartly. No shuffling—when she got out on the dance floor, she danced. Her grandchildren, we speculated. I had no idea of her age—I guessed mid-seventies; she looked younger than my grandmother.

We marveled at her. The people at the long table were taking pictures of her; the gathering had to have been her family, but for a while it was impossible to know what the event was.

At some point, as more people began to take notice, one of the women at the table turned around and explained to us, "It's her 90th birthday."

Ninety? We were boggled, all of us—this woman had the spirit of someone of someone much, much younger. After a dance with a teenage fellow, she came over and said hello to us.

"That's my great-grandson I was dancing with," she said with a twinkle in her eye. She pointed to the table. "I look at that table and say to myself, I'm responsible for all of this!"

We finished our meal, Kat and Sean and Deanie talking to themselves while I tried to inobtrusively listen to the people at the celebratory table. I knew I had to write about this, but I wanted to know more—such as, her name. What good would this entry be without a name?

After Deanie paid our check and we rose to go, I motioned to Kat and Sean to go on without me. I went to the table and knelt down, so as to be at ear level to her. I saw hearing aids tucked into her ears, so I said clearly,

"My name's Amy. I do some writing on the side, and I had so much fun watching you this evening. I was wondering if you might tell me what your name is?"

She laughed—uproariously.

"I tell you what," she said. "My father immigrated from Holland, and he was a big fellow, so everyone called him Big Dutch. After I was born, they started calling me Little Dutch. But bless his soul, he's been gone for many a year now, and ever since then, I've been just Dutch. D-u-t-c-h."

She pointed at the table. "I have four kids." She named them, and her grandchildren. If I counted correctly, there were eight or ten names. "These younger fellows you see here are my great-grandchildren, and I'm proud of every single one of them."

She folded her hands and surveyed the length of the table, smiling to herself. "So many people just give up and wither away when they get old," she said. "It's my ninetieth birthday, and if I'm still here, then by God I'm going to celebrate every moment of it. I'm not done living yet."

One of her grandsons was ready to dance with her again, so I wished her a happy birthday, congratulated the members of her family that were standing around her, and politely made my excuses and my getaway. Kat and Sean went to get the car while I stood outside with Deanie, frantically transcribing the conversation into my handspring so that I wouldn't forget it before getting home.

Not that I have the slightest chance of forgetting Dutch anytime soon.

Here's to the ninetieth birthday of someone who is a grande dame in every Southern sense of the word. Happy birthday, Dutch.

Wherever you are.