Stone Motel: Memoirs of a Cajun Boy
By Morris Ardoin
University Press of Mississippi
Ardoin debuts with healing, powerful coming of age story set in Cajun country
By Scott Naugle
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Even in the most heartwarming and hardscrabble of middle class mid-twentieth century American recollections of growing up, outward appearances to the contrary, there is often a buried backstory. In “Stone Motel: Memoirs of a Cajun Boy,” Morris Ardoin, in a richly detailed narrative, shares his coming of age story, and his struggle with sexuality, from deep within Cajun country.
Ardoin begins with a pivotal event in his young life in Eunice, Louisiana, “With my parents purchase of the Stone Motel in 1968, our family upended the typical postwar American family model: a father figure who worked at his job each day and came home to a wife who managed their kids in that home.” The motel, became in effect, “our home, our place of work, and in many respects, our family identity.”
A graduate of Louisiana State University with an undergraduate degree in journalism and a graduate degree in communications from the University of Louisiana, Ardoin works in the field of public relations. He divides his time between New York City and Cornwallville, New York with his husband, Aubyn.
The author’s strong hand at descriptive prose, often acting as a harbinger of the story to follow, is one of the many strengths of “Stone Motel.” After purchasing the property, Ardoin’s father begins to clear overgrowth, “His plan apparently involved taking out any feature on the property that called too much attention to itself, rendering anything curvy or wild or whimsical into straight predictable lines, nothing contorted by nature; no junky buildings; no mess, no mystery.”
One “straight, predictable line” that Ardoin’s father could not cut, clip, prune, nor unroot was his gay son. War-scarred, and with an unpredictable temper, his fury and ferocious attacks were reserved for the author, repeated attempts to “fix” his son.
In both fiction and nonfiction, there is a narrow body of Southern writing dealing with the gay experience, particularly that of growing up while searching for acceptance and self-esteem. Kevin Sessums wrote vividly of his in “Mississippi Sissy” and Patrick Johnson interviewed African American men, compiling their stories, in “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.” Thomas Hal Phillips predated Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” with his 1950 novel “Bitterweed Path” and Jackson, Mississippi’s Hubert Creekmore achieved recognition for “The Welcome,” the story of two men in Ashton, Mississippi falling in love.
But, to place “Stone Motel” in a subset of Southern gay coming of age stories would be reductive, marginalizing the broader theme in the narrative, positioning homosexuality as something other than a random genetic feature, like left-handedness, height, or brown eyes. Gay is a societal label, a prejudicial construct, not a defining set of physical or intellectual traits. As an example, some are even rumored to vote Republican.
Rather, “Stone Motel” belongs in the broader memoir genre of a powerful parental figure subjecting a child to abusive behavior. In this same category, for example, is Pam Houston’s perfectly penned and moving memoir of her suffering under the physical attacks of a father in “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.”
There are great demonstrations of love and joy in “Stone Motel,” particularly in Ardoin’s early family years during his trips to Ville Platte, Louisiana visiting his grandparents, Mémère and Pépère. His grandfather, a practicing blacksmith, also served the community as a traiteur, or healer. “Try to be still, cher, Pépère says softly before returning to his prayer, mumbled almost inaudibly in a blend of French and some other language, the ancient intimate language of the Louisiana traiteur” as he worked to heal a stomachache.
Many years later, Ardoin’s mother states that she knew he was gay, but that “she had no idea that some of the hardest battles [he] would have to fight in [his] life would happen early on, right at home.” In the intervening years, he does his best in building a contented life for himself.
If only Pépère could lay his hands on us all and heal this world of hate.
Scott Naugle is a resident of Pass Christian, Mississippi. He is the co-owner of Pass Christian Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse.