I’ve often met people at parties hosted by John’s brother, Bill and wife Betsy, who have asked me where we live, and I answer that we live in a house on McDonald Avenue. “Oh, my God! You live there? I went to the best parties at that house in the seventies!” is their typical response.
155 McDonald has a long and storied history in the Williams family. The house was purchased in the late 1940s by the parents of John’s father, Bilbo. John’s grandfather worked in the oil business, doing his work in a building behind the house. Bilbo later took over the business, called Williams Drilling Company, which provided a livelihood for John’s family. John’s grandmother, Rose, was a fire-and-brimstone preacher who founded more than one church in this south Baton Rouge neighborhood and held sway over mixed-race congregations. A female preacher running a mixed-race church is a rarity today but was unimaginable in the days prior to the Civil Rights movement. John can remember sitting on the front row of his grandmother’s church, listening to her sermons, and believing that he was surely headed for hell. But he also has fond memories of fried chicken dinners at a long table in the kitchen of this house with the extended family.
It’s just an old house…
155 McDonald is not only lacking in architectural distinctiveness, it has long been in need of updating. When I moved here in 2015, John was in the early stages of a ten-year plan to replace systems, re-do bathrooms, and bring the house into the 21st century. I had different ideas. A house this large, needing significant remodeling, and situated on more than an acre of land represented a huge commitment of time and resources. For my wanderlust self, it felt like an anchor. And yet, his desire to preserve this place is entirely understandable. The house has provided shelter for multiple generations in the Williams family for seventy-plus years.
In the seventies, John’s brother, Bill, lived in the house, first with housemates, then with his first wife, Emma. They built a small horticulture business and had two children, Elizabeth and Wyatt, in their years together there. Bill stayed at the house until his second marriage to Betsy in the early nineties. He was followed by the youngest of the five Williams boys, Ben. In the mid-aughts, John bought the house as a place for his son, Brock, to live while he went to LSU. The place is just a mile from campus in a quiet neighborhood. Brock had several roommates from his fraternity who lived in the house and, by all accounts, the boys had a great time and the house became sort of an annex to their ‘real’ fraternity house. Eventually, the boys moved out and John moved in to 155 McDonald in 2013. I joined him two years later.
Why this house is special to us
This place has been the first home that John and I have shared together. And, while we didn’t do a lot of work on the house itself, we did our share of work in the yard. When I moved in, there was a section of the property that fell between the original 1940s driveway and a newer shale driveway, that was roughly 15 feet wide and stretched out to the street. It’s not an exaggeration to call the area an impenetrable jungle when I arrived. Over a period of 18 months, John and I cleared out the jungle, pulling vines, chopping back trees and shrubs, and breaking out in more poison ivy rashes than I could count. I don’t believe we ever worked that jungle without finding beer bottles and golf balls in the rubble, artifacts from the house’s years as frat house east. The most astonishing remnant, however, was a plastic lawn chair that had grown into a wildly overgrown Ligustrum shrub, the chair towering 15 feet above the ground. (And I could kick myself for not taking a picture of this!). Of course, we didn’t discover this until months into the project after we had peeled back multiple layers of bramble hiding in this inner sanctum.
Over time, that jungle was transformed into a vibrant garden with towering sunflowers and Tithonia, Amaranth, Zinnias, Crocosmia, Coneflowers, Moonflower vines, Sweet Potato Vine, and a border of Purple Star. It became a beautiful and chaotic space and we loved it. We put out feeders and the space became a sanctuary for birds, hummingbirds, butterflies, and honeybees. We planted okra plants that grew to 10 feet in height and provided more okra than we could consume. We had cucumber vines with such output that I bought glass canning jars and made dozens of jars of bread-and-butter pickles.
At this writing, movers have come for the furniture, followed by folks from a charitable organization, to empty the house. One of the vestiges of the house’s days as a haven for college boys is an old tire rim from a tractor that one of the boys brought to the property and put it behind the house. It makes an impressive fire ring and we have used it several times to make bonfires. Over the weekend we hosted our last bonfire for a handful of friends and family who stopped by. We put out the remainder of the bottles in our liquor cabinet and guests brought food, potluck style, and wished us Bon Voyage.
We have sold the house; the closing is tomorrow, the day before we leave. Everyone who expressed interest in buying the place valued it, not for the house, but for the property, which is just over an acre of land on some of the highest ground in the area, close to the LSU campus. The people who are buying it are some of the folks who have fond memories of parties here in the seventies, nevertheless, their plan is to take the house down and build something new.
But isn’t it always true that endings are a necessary part of new beginnings? The end of this house for the buyers will represent a new beginning for them in a new place, building a new home. For John and me, the end of our time in this house represents the end of the first phase of our lives together and the beginning of an exciting new time exploring the world together.
Is it a little scary? Of course it is. But I am reminded of the Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.”
And sail we will…