Hometown: Paris

Coming home for an earful and an Eiffel

I HAVE NOT traveled around the world, if we’re being exact. I have journeyed relatively extensively, though, for an American. I’ve been to more than half of our states. I’ve visited Mexico and the Bahamas in North America, and I’ve taken trains around Europe and cruised down to Africa. I’ve been to 13 countries (if my count is correct), and I even lived in Italy for four years. I’ve been back in Arkansas for just over three years, and I’ve done more traveling in my home state these past thousand days than the first 33 years I lived here. And while I grew up in Fort Smith and now live in Conway, there is one Arkansas town that always pulls me back: Paris.

“Come home,” Paris says. And I do.

12:50 p.m.

I am driving to Paris on a Friday, the day of the week on which I was born. My mother was born on a Thursday—in Paris, Arkansas. My dad was born on a Monday, also in Paris, Arkansas. They didn’t meet until college in Russellville. The tale of Paris is not the romantic journey of my parents.

About 20 miles from Paris along Arkansas Highway 22, Mount Nebo rises to my left, and Lake Dardanelle lies to my right, the sun sparking diamonds along the surface of the water. Weeping willows line the banks, and a single turtle suns itself on a rock. It’s an idyllic scene, for sure. But it’s not the one I’m used to seeing on my travels to the town of 3,500. Growing up, I was used to the view of the back of my parents’ seats, as they drove me the 45 miles or so from our border city, me asking, I’m sure, “Are we there yet?” about every five minutes. Today, I’m taking in the clear day and the pastoral nature of it all, and the memories are coming hard and fast.

As I make my way west, I pass New Blaine and remember that my dad lived here while teaching at Subiaco Academy, which everyone around here calls “Subi.” At the turnoff for Shoal Bay, where I spent many a summer afternoon swimming with my paternal grandparents, their smiling faces materialize in my mind: Spec and Mary Ann Breed. When they were well into their 90s, they died exactly one year apart, to the day. They are, for me, what makes Paris Paris. What made Paris Paris.

This trip is a good thing. A way to move forward, leave the past in the past. I’m curious, too, what it will be like to experience the place from someone else’s perspective. My guide, Anne Canada, is one of the seven Cowie children—a local family best known for the vineyard they operate on the west side of town—and is the middle-school librarian. We met at a professional-development workshop last week and totally hit it off. She’s a yogi and an absolute hoot, and I know she’ll show me what’s old and what’s new and make me laugh the whole time. And she’s chosen as a meeting point the restaurant in town that’s been open more than half my life: The Grapevine.

1:03 p.m.

The parking lot at The Grapevine is packed, as I remember it always being. Anne sits at a table in front of a wall-hung quilt whose squares, purple and green, combine to make a mosaic grapevine. She gets up to hug me as I approach, and it’s like we’ve been friends forever.

“How was your drive?” she asks me, her blonde pixie cut giving her wide smile an extra air of mischievousness.

“It was nice!” I say, sitting down. “I remembered so much on the way here. That insurance agency on the edge of town—it’s where my first car was insured. My Grandpa Breed gave me a 1978 Honda Accord.”

“Logan County Insurance Agency,” she nods.

“And the Dari Delite!” I smile. “It’s still here!”

“Sure is,” she replies.

A tall waitress brings us menus and warm bread in a basket. I slather my bread with butter and take a big bite. Today I am outside space and time. And diets.

In a white Paris Eagles T-shirt and denim capris, Anne doesn’t look like someone who graduated in 1984—or almost graduated, that is.

“I took my ACT and went on to college,” Anne explains. “I didn’t actually graduate from high school. And the counselor—Mr. Penn—said, ‘Be careful! One other girl did that, and she ended up pregnant.’ Well, sure enough, so did I!”

But Anne did finish her college degree, and more than 30 years later, she and her high school sweetheart have three sons and three grandkids to their credit.

Anne chose to raise all three sons in Paris, but she actually wasn’t always so keen on her hometown.

“I couldn’t wait to leave Paris!” she says of her younger days. “But really, it’s bliss all the damn time. The conversations, the youth—the connections are what matter.”

I can’t wait to see what connections she’ll show me today.

2:02 p.m.

“I thought we’d go to the square and see the mural at the post office,” Anne says, escorting me down the sidewalk, where the smallest bit of rain begins to drip on us, and a carved tree-trunk sculpture of an eagle stands watch. “It’s an old WPA project.”

“I am at your disposal,” I reply, and we laugh.

But as we turn onto Elm Street, I see something else that I absolutely must stop at: Spec’s. It’s the old barbershop that my Gramps used to own, and to my surprise, it is still in operation. And open at this exact moment.

I walk in, and although I know a lot must have changed, it feels like nothing’s changed. The waiting area is still separated by a half-wall topped with black open shelving. The floor is still a black-and-white geometric linoleum.

“Can I help you?” a lady’s voice calls.

I round the corner into the shop proper, and an older lady is wielding a pair of scissors. “I’m just here to visit,” I say. “This used to be my grandpa’s place.”

“I recognize your red hair,” she responds. “You’ve been here before.”

More times than I can count, I think. “Yes, ma’am,” I respond. “I’m Heather, Rex’s daughter. Could you tell me your name again?”

“Barbara Rice,” she says with a smile.

“Spec gave me my first haircut!” the man in her chair adds. “And he was my baseball coach when I was 6 or 7.”

“And can I ask how old you are now?”

“Fifty-six,” he says, smiling. “Name’s Bret Sullivan. Spec Breed was one of the greatest supporters of youth in this town.”

“He’d take in anyone,” Barbara confirms.

I knew this about Gramps, that he loved kids and baseball. He gave my own boys their first haircuts. He lived across the street from the American Legion field, and I remember hot summer nights, the window unit blowing cold air on my skinny tanned legs sticking out from the bottom of my nightgown, lightning bugs dancing in their front yard, cheers and hollers of fans rooting for their boys.

“But what about Paris?” I ask, pulling myself out of my reverie. “What is it you like about Paris?”

“We’re a little bit more laid-back,” Barbara says. “We don’t get the traffic here like they do in Fort Smith and Little Rock. And we have great churches, great people.”

Bret nods in silent agreement.

“I can’t thank you enough for your time,” I tell them.

“Come back, now,” Barbara says.

2:45 p.m.

The storefronts along the square change pretty often, but the friendliness sure seems to remain the same. Right next to what used to be the Merle Norman (isn’t that how you give directions in a small town? By what used to be located there?) is Danielle’s Salon. As soon as we walk in the door, a woman in a black sleeveless smock and a turquoise shirt that matches her eyes fine and dandy asks Anne, “Do you know about red-light therapy, Miss Yoga Queen?”

“No,” Anne replies, laughing.

The lady with the turquoise eyes is Danielle herself. She moved here when she was 10, and she owns one of 10 hair salons (13, if you include barber shops) in Paris. “I just love Paris,” she tells me. “I hate when people say they can’t wait to get out of here. I was one of those. But your home is your home. We’re a community.”

Danielle has just finished working on Lisa Parsons (whose hair looks fab, by the way), and Lisa agrees. “Everybody raised us. It’s like, I’ve got your kid today. Can you get mine tomorrow?

Anne nods. “You know what your kids are into!”

“There’s just one downer,” Danielle says, bringing gravity to the room. “There’s not enough good-looking single men.”

All four of us women laugh aloud.

“Were you born and raised here, too?” I ask Lisa.

“Well, Midway,” she replies, referencing an unincorporated community between Subiaco and New Blaine.

“Oh, I know Midway,” I say. “My dad lived in New Blaine for a while.”

“Who’s your dad?” Lisa asks.

“Rex Breed,” I reply. “Spec was my grandpa. I’m a Breed.”

Nods of recognition ripple through the room.

“Who was his wife?” Lisa asks.

“Oh, you won’t know her,” I say. “She wasn’t from here.”

“Ramona,” she says, pointing her finger.

I shake my head and grin. “You’re exactly right.”

Everyone knows my family, it seems, even Anne’s best friend from childhood, Kristi Pfeiffer. “Everybody knew Spec,” Kristi says. “And his wife? What was her name?”

“Mary Ann,” I smile, remembering the absolute best woman I’ve ever known.

“Mary Ann,” Kristi replies, and I kind of think she feels the same.

“You know,” Anne says, “I feel like here in Paris, we don’t always have the same people, but we all have people. And those people almost always know the other people. Do you know what I mean?”

I don’t, exactly, but I nod my head.

We pass the new Eiffel Tower Park at the intersection of Walnut and Express streets, complete with a mini Eiffel Tower (with fountain bubbling up inside), cafe seating and a chain-link fence festooned with lovers’ padlocks. We head on to Sharum’s Boots, where the leather smell is musky and delicious and makes me want to wear cowboy boots (which I’ve never done outside a pageant in my entire life). We walk to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, with its iconic bell tower that always let me know we had officially arrived in the town of my grandparents. We find an open door, and we go in. God won’t mind, right?

The stained-glass windows retain their bold colors, and the air smells slightly of incense. Anne kneels and makes the sign of the cross, then leads me to the choir loft.

“I went to school here. Had Communion here. Confirmation here. Went to Mass every morning. If there was a funeral, the whole school went because that was Mass for the day. I even got married here.”

She puts her hand over her mouth as we ascend the staircase, like we are two Catholic schoolgirls doing something naughty. Yet when she looks over the sanctuary, I believe she gets a little misty. “I have those things in my life that when I put them into words, they seem too small. I had a friend named Jennifer—I used to tease her that when I got married, she was going to have to play the organ at my wedding. But she died in a car accident just after graduation, and I played the organ at her funeral. The church was packed. And that’s sort of what I mean about having our people. We who went to St. Joseph’s had each other, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t know other people. The St. Joseph people were just our people.”

I get it. I do. In Paris, the Breeds were my people. And the congregation at First Baptist Church were their people. So while the First Baptist Church folks weren’t my people, per se, when my grandparents died, they showed up just the same. Loved us just the same. Comforted us just the same. And yeah, in some ways, those words seem too small.

3:14 p.m.

St. Ann’s Catholic School stood on the western edge of Paris, where Anne’s family’s Cowie Wine Cellars and Vineyards now stands. The Cowie patriarch—Anne’s father, Robert—not only makes his own wine and sells it in a building he built with his sons on the property, but he’s also built a chapel that houses two bells: one cast in 1727, and one cast in 1780 in Scotland. Just outside the chapel stands four bell towers that, together, house 26 bells. In fact, Robert owns more than 200 large church bells, including one that is the largest in Arkansas.

“It all started with one bell,” Robert, with his full graying beard and gruff voice, tells me from behind his desk. “Then I got another. Then I thought I’d get one for each kid.”

That’s seven kids. They’re a pretty traditional Catholic family in that way. In fact, Robert proposed to his wife by showing her he’d bought eight burial plots for their brood. One too few, it turned out, but it worked. She said yes.

But bells aren’t the only things Robert holds on to. “I’ve got autographs, too. All the presidents. Forty-seven signers of the Declaration of Independence. Everybody who’s walked on the moon. Five popes, four saints … and Monica Lewinsky. I think I’ll frame it with a square of blue fabric behind it.”

Robert asserts he’s neither politically correct nor modest. “If you don’t ring your own damn bell, who will?” he asks.

It’s not just his collections that are worth attention, but his wine, too. “We’re the only winery in Arkansas to be written up in Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia,” he says. “My Robert’s Port is aged six years in Missouri oak, and it’s won over 100 gold medals. I started out in a shed—people laughed at me. Well, guess what? I’ve won more awards than Wiederkehr and Post!”

I taste the port—it’s good in a sweet, dark way. I usually like reds, but it’s a white this time that really grabs my attention.

“Give this a try,” Anne says, pouring me a glass.

The label says Anne’s Elegance, and it’s crisp and a little bit drier, just as I like.

“This is yours?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she replies. “Guess who was the last of the seven kids to get their own wine?”

“But who got the best?” Robert counters.

I got the best, because I’m taking it with me.

4:59 p.m.

We have driven by my grandparents’ house. It has been rented to strangers—or, I should say, to people who aren’t my people. But my people know their people, and the house looks well cared for.

We have stopped by the middle school, where Anne is taking part in an exciting renovation to the library. Soon a stage will be built, for a “real audience” to experience “real voice,” both in the school and in the community. Soon her circle of people will widen even more.

We walked down the hallway that houses all the old senior pictures, and my uncle stares rakishly down at me from the annals of 1970. My dad, my other uncle and my aunt, though, are missing, as the group photos only go back to 1968. But I can see where they should be. I can see them in this very building, which used to be the high school. And I can see them when we yet again pass the Victorian home that I long for every time I hear cicadas chirp.

And now, for our last stop this afternoon, Anne has taken me to the eastern stretches of town, to Prestonrose Farm and Brewing Co. It’s less than a mile and a half from her home, and she swears its existence and proximity are rewards for her good living.

Once I taste the beer, I can’t argue with her. Made from organic produce from the farm itself, the varieties of beer they have are clean and flavorful and probably the best I’ve ever tasted. And in taking just a minute to talk to Liz Preston—who makes the beer—I find out that her background is in molecular biology, while her husband, Mike, works in nuclear chemistry. Originally from California, they came to Arkansas (by way of upstate New York) to do exactly what they’re doing now—and what they have planned for the future.

“We’re kind of closing in on what we want this place to be,” Liz says. “A self-contained venue. An unfettered respect for healthy food. A brewery, with local food, farm-to-table. We’re in at the bottom level here. It’s great.”

In 10 years, the Prestons hope their 10 acres will be a bigger brewery, a restaurant and even a wedding venue. They hope to put on brewers’ retreats and beer festivals. They had their first festival a month ago, and they deemed it “pretty successful. It was definitely something Logan County hadn’t seen before.”

They even host beer farm yoga at 7 p.m. every Monday, hosted by my host, Anne.

“It’s perfect because it’s hot as balls!” Anne gushes. “But by the time you finish—do shavasana—you’re chill, and it’s chilled outside. It’s amazing.”

As we speak, the sun is beginning to set. I’ve had one or two or seven samples of beer, and I’m pretty chill myself.

It turns out that I did not, in fact, meet Anne last week. “Was that the first writing-project workshop you did?” Anne asks of our meeting.

“No, I did one in County Line about 10 years ago,” I reply, “before I moved to Italy.”

“I did, too,” Anne says, looking me at me from the corner of her eyes. “I remember the anthology we put together. The cover of it was—”

“Yellow,” we say in unison.

Last week, Anne presented a lesson to our workshop about the relationship between math and art: how they’re seemingly so disconnected, but actually, you can use one to decipher the other. In a sense, math and art are so far apart they’re neighbors again—just imagine two points on the globe moving farther and farther apart until bam! They’re right next to each other.

That’s where Anne and I are. Where Paris and I are. I’ve traveled the world, quit teaching, returned to Arkansas, come back to teaching, and I’m right back where I started (more or less), but as a different me, a better me, a more me me, with people who have become mine. And Spec and Mary Ann would be proud.