This is a story about a boy and a girl and a bonfire and a house and a promise made many years ago.
Ronette and Kevin Duhé grew up together in Lutcher, in St. James Parish. They knew each other since childhood and their relationship evolved as they grew up, blossoming into a romance by the time they were in high school.
“But even when I was a little girl, I told Kevin he’d be my husband one day,” said Ronette.
Since the two came of age in Lutcher, naturally the riverfront town’s annual Christmas Eve bonfire tradition became part of their story, too. For Ronette and Kevin, that meant spending many holidays atop the levee with friends, celebrating and waiting for the stroke of 7 p.m. when the carefully-constructed stacks of wood — shaped into tall, narrow pyramids — would be set ablaze. In the beginning, they would imagine their future together as they stood on the levee.
“We’d look out at the houses on River Road and we picked out one we loved. We’d say, ‘One day, we’ll be married and live in that house,’” Ronette recalled.
But the script that the couple had written for themselves entered its second chapter after they were married and Kevin’s employer, the agribusiness now named Syngenta, decided they needed his chemical engineering acumen elsewhere than in south Louisiana. He was transferred in 1992, first to Greensboro, North Carolina, a distance that could be traversed by car if the Duhés were willing to drive all night, their daughters asleep in the back. But car rides home became impossible when Kevin was needed in Basel, Switzerland, then later in Singapore, and eventually back in Basel.
“We were thrilled — we wanted to travel the world,” Ronette said. “But even that first move to Greensboro felt like we had moved ‘up north’ to Louisianans like us.”
It was when the first assignment in Greensboro came through that the Duhés made a vow to their family in Lutcher and to themselves.
“We promised them that no matter where in the world we went, we would always come home for Christmas,” Ronette said. “And we made a commitment that our daughters wouldn’t forget where they came from.”
The Duhés made good on their promises. For the past 22 years, they and their daughters — Taylor, Sloane and Remi — have made an annual pilgrimage home to Lutcher for Christmas.
“Because of that, the girls call Lutcher home, even though they have never really lived there,” said Ronette.
In the past few years, the sense of belonging to Lutcher and south Louisiana has grown stronger, thanks to that little house on River Road that Ronette and Kevin set their sights on more than 25 years ago.
“When we came home for a class reunion in August of 2009, there was a ‘for sale’ sign on the house. By that point, things were getting pretty crowded at Kevin’s parents’ house when all five of us would come to visit,” Ronette said. “So we made an offer, but it was rejected. We ended up buying it from the bank after it was foreclosed on.”
The house was modest and in poor condition. But it was brimming with character. From what the Duhés have learned, it was one of the homes built by the Lutcher & Moore Cypress Lumber Company when the outfit expanded into Louisiana from Texas in the early years of the 20th century. Old growth cypress was plentiful then and the company became successful harvesting it. The houses built by the company were constructed entirely of the sought-after wood, the framing joined together by mortise and tenon or with hand-hammered nails.
The Duhés were living half way around the world when the house became theirs, so it took time for the renovation to get going. They hired high school classmate Bradley Kliebert and corresponded with him by email and text message. By Christmas of 2010, the little cottage was still unlivable but the Duhé clan was determined to host their first bonfire celebration in it anyway.
“We hosed the house out, cleaned it up as best we could, strung lights out front and put candles everywhere inside,” Ronette said. “When people told me that night how cute it looked, I thought it was a good thing they hadn’t seen it in the daylight.”
Friends and family came to inaugurate a new era for the family and the house, and they feasted on gumbo, hogshead cheese and jambalaya as the bonfires blazed. By Christmas of 2011, the renovation was complete and the furnishings that the Duhés had collected abroad were all in place.
“I’d say about a hundred people came the first year and it’s just gotten bigger ever since,” Ronette said. “Now my cousin from Sorrento caters it and we decorate the house with greens and anything we can find at the market.”
There’s music too, courtesy of a brass band from the local high school that roves from house to house, playing for tips.
The magic lasts for about three weeks, until it’s time for Kevin to report back to work (now stateside again in Greensboro) and the Duhé daughters to return to college or their own jobs. The family removes the heirloom ornaments from their Christmas tree and packs them away with the many lights, ribbons and bows that make the place a wonderland for a few days every year.
“We aren’t the only ones who love the house and its lights,” Ronette said. “Complete strangers come up to have their picture taken in front of it. They call it ‘the Christmas Cottage.’”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com.