Posted in Confessions, Fears and Worries, Growing up

Crossing my Fingers as I Pray by Ginger Keller Gannaway

I like to make the sign of the cross with my middle finger atop the nail of my pointer finger. Just in case. You never know. Can’t hurt. My spirituality mixes Catholicism with superstitious tendencies.

Including kindergarten, I attended thirteen – knock on wood- years of Catholic school. After our First Communion, my classmates and I went to mass once a week and confession once a month. Our church was down a covered sidewalk next to the elementary school that was a football field length from the high school and its wooden gym which almost touched the convent where the nuns who taught us lived. Except for our eighth grade teacher Sister Mary Margaret Mary, who focused on English and math all day, everyday, the nuns squeezed in regular religion lessons, especially during Advent (before Christmas) and Lent (before Easter). We said “grace” before our cafeteria lunches where all of us had to clean our trays or the Sister on duty would send us back to finish our peas (or spinach or tuna casserole).

Catholicism was all I knew. My family said the rosary every time we drove farther than thirty miles from home. No meat-eating on Fridays and no breakfast before Sunday masses. My scores of cousins were Catholic, as were my Camp Fire Girls troop and my classmates. I still have a 2X4 inch prayer book with the Order of the Mass, the epistles, and the gospels. I remember wearing a lace chapel veil (or a Kleenex bobby-pinned to my head) and kneeling near the front of the church to follow the priest’s lead. I recited the Act of Contrition from memory while turning my book’s tiny gilded pages.


Devout as I was, I still sometimes lied during my monthly confessions. I strove for specificity over believability because I thought Father got bored hearing all the typical kid sins: “I disobeyed my parents” “fought with my brothers and sisters” or “lied to my teacher.” Wouldn’t he prefer, “I broke Momma’s no-animals-in-the-house-rule when I convinced my sisters to bring Red, our pony, into the kitchen. She seemed so hot! We just wanted to let her drink from the kitchen sink. We were rescuing Red from heat stroke!”  Isn’t there a blurry line between truth and almost the truth? Besides, Fr. Forgette always gave us the same penance after each confession: “Say five Hail Marys and go with God.”

I stayed mostly holy until I hit puberty. I smoked my first cigarette at a Catholic Girls Retreat in Grand Coteau when I was fourteen. Later cousin Gina and I stole Grandma’s cigarettes, and I sometimes skipped Sunday masses after my friend Janie started driving. In high school I adored a lovely, hip nun who played all of the Jesus Christ Superstar album during our ninth grade religion class. She made me consider the attraction of a religious life. Then the next year she left the convent to marry our parish’s young and handsome priest. My school friends and I had never heard a more romantic tale of true love, and life as a nun lost all of its appeal.

I thought I had true faith. I knelt by my bed most nights and prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I may have been clueless about my town’s racial prejudices, but Mary seemed like the most accepting and understanding statue in our Catholic church.

To the left of the altar stood a life-sized calm, blue-robed Mary behind tiny candles in red glass cups and a cushioned kneeler next to a small metal receptacle for coins that paid for the candles worshippers lit. I believed my memorized words: “Our Lady, our Queen, and our Mother, in the name of Jesus and for the love of Jesus, take this cause in hand and grant it good success.”  I’d pray for help passing a test, to stop fighting with my sisters, for patience, for confidence, or for better hair. I had the faith of a naive thirteen-year-old who had not yet become a “cafeteria Catholic.” (Someone who picks and chooses which church rules to follow)

My junior year of high school tested my belief in the power of prayer and my faith in the Blessed Virgin Mary. At St. Ed’s the juniors helped plan the junior/senior prom. In the spring of 1973 the prom committee had narrowed down the entertainment choices to two Louisiana bands, one from our local parish or a Baton Rouge group called Cocodris (French for alligator). The latter featured two of my first cousins from Donaldsonville: George and his sister Boco! Closer to my age, Boco was my grooviest relative and the coolest person I had ever known. She first performed with The Fifth Autumn, her family band that toured Louisiana and beyond. Boco, her brothers George and Joe, her sister Sue, and a neighbor drummer had made up The Fifth Autumn. Once they even performed at my hometown’s only night club – the Purple Peacock.
 
Boco’s long straight brown hair, her honest connection with a song, and her smoky voice could hypnotize a room. George was (and still is) a talented guitarist and songwriter. If Cocodris could be our prom band, my quiet girl-who-never-dated wallflower persona might change to groovy-girl status.

I did not know how the prom leaders made their decisions, but I felt my tight connection with the Mother of God could pull some heavenly strings. In the church’s holy silence on weekday afternoons, I knelt in front of my favorite religious figure (after lighting a small candle) and prayed Hail Marys and original prayers that named my rock-and-roll cousins and promised that if they could wow the teens in our decorated gym with their musical talents, I’d hold off begging for anything until I turned eighteen. I had never prayed longer or harder for anything in my life. Here was a doable miracle! Mary could make this happen, and I had the hope and faith of someone who had yet to experience a major life tragedy.

George LaTour is in center, Boco LaTour is on the right

I don’t remember the day I heard the news that Cocodris would preform at our prom. I don’t remember how I asked Victor, the usher at the picture show I worked with who attended public school, to be my prom date. I’ve forgotten most of the songs they sang except “U.S.S.R.,” which George dedicated to me, my parents, and my sister Gayle (who was serving punch). However, I do remember Boco telling me at that year’s LaTour family reunion, “Ginger! You were floating off the gym floor when you walked in! Off the floor!” Dance details are forgotten, but I saved the obligatory prom pic and a 45 of Boco singing “Running the Mardi Gras.” Still, the joy of that night made me believe in the power of prayer. Mary had heard my words and granted my wish!

Does it matter that I cross my fingers when I pray? That one of my favorite lines in literature is from Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”? It’s a story about a boy’s friendship with an elderly relative and their fruitcake-making Christmas tradition. The woman was so superstitious that when they were counting the money they had saved for cake ingredients and ended up with thirteen dollars, she said, “‘We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall…Why I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.’” So to be on the safe side, they subtracted a penny and tossed it out the window. I understood that level of superstition.

Nowadays I avoid getting out of bed at the thirteenth minute of any hour. I close my eyes for a kind of snooze button effect and say a few Hail Marys if the clock reads 6:13. During my thirty-four years of teaching in public schools, when I stayed after the last bell to prepare my room for the next day’s kids, I’d straightened my class sets of To Kill a Mockingbird on the book shelves; I’d rearrange desks and pick up stray notebooks; I’d stack the next day’s handouts on my desk and write tomorrow’s agenda on the blackboard. But I never included the following day’s date. No “tempting fate” by writing a date before it arrived.

Faith can be an unbelievable force, yet it’s no guarantee. Despite innumerable rosaries and novenas, people I loved still died from cancer or car accidents or bad decisions. I handle life’s uncertainties like a daydream I had as a teenager: I’m walking down a narrow, uneven trail through a dense wood where the sun flickers through the branches. The ground is covered in leaves, and up ahead is an unusual patch – a mixture of soft, mud-colored nettles and sand and shallow water. Quick sand or sink hole? Who knows? The path holds danger like gray hurricane clouds. But I make the sign of the cross and keep walking. I take measured steps though the cool squishiness as brown water covers my bare feet, and I keep going because at the end of the trail might be cousins Boco and George performing an acoustic arrangement of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining.” Life’s uncertainties may curdle my stomach, but believing in miracles keeps my head full of dragon flies instead of mosquitos

Posted in #Confessions, Fears and Worries

Vulnerable

           

Story and Photography by Nancy Malcolm

Walking to the car, I was afraid I would not make it safely locked inside before the tears came.  The car was stifling, and as the engine came alive, I sat with my face in my hands crying big, hot tears of shame, and then something else. 

            I had just come from one of my last sessions of physical therapy.  Last November I had my first total knee replacement and this July I had the second knee done.  It has been an arduous year of pain, healing, and regaining strength and balance.  And after all of that, here I am reduced to tears in the parking lot of my physical therapist, right next to a Bed Bath and Beyond and a Party Pig. 

            If I am to tell the truth, which, by the way is a very vulnerable place to be, this is my first bout of tears since I started this transformational journey.  I have not cried since I made my resolve to complete the surgeries.  I could not waiver,  I had to stay the course and commit to the nineteen-month-long process.  There would be no turning back.

            In my mid-thirties I began to feel pain in my knees that was unexplained.  I was told to do strengthening exercises, and possibly have arthroscopic knee surgery to remove cartilage fragments.  But, as my thirties gave way to my fifties and sixties the x-rays showed osteoarthritis in the kneecap.  One doctor said, “You have the knees of a thirty-year-old and the kneecaps of an eighty-year-old.  Someday you’ll have to get your knees totally replaced.”  I have taken Rooster Comb (Hyaluronic acid) shots in my knees, cortisone shots, Celebrex and Aleve in large doses, and I’ve rubbed on every kind of ointment, even purchasing ‘Blue Emu’ cream, heralded as a miracle cure by my little Auntie Sue. 

            But, finally what made me ready for surgery was the excruciating pain and the even more excruciating embarrassment of not being able to walk down a flight of stairs, or go on hikes, or play on the floor with my grandkids. I felt like an imposter as I waited in line for the elevator with those who obviously needed it more than me.  I was ashamed of my disability.

            I want to be able to climb the bleachers of my grandson’s ballgames and dance with Boo at our 50th wedding anniversary.  I want to play chase with my grandkids and ride bikes until our heart’s content.  I want to enjoy what’s left of my time here on earth and if possible, if I am granted the blessings I may not deserve,  to do all of that without pain.  So, when my orthopedic doctor said, “I think you’re ready.”  I mentally prepared myself for the road ahead.

            Arthritis is a cruel disease that affects your joints causing inflammation or degeneration of your joints, creating great pain.  Sometimes, Osteoarthritis of the fingers, knees, or hips follows an injury.  I badly injured my knee while in college, by falling down a flight of stairs, but who can know for sure if that was the beginning culprit, only that it happened. 

            All of these things were not in my thoughts as I sat in my car after physical therapy.  Only minutes before I had been standing on a 3-inch-high wooden block, shaking like a leaf.  It had been two and a half months since my surgery, but it was time to tackle the stairs.  “I’m scared to bend my knee, I’m afraid it won’t hold me,”  I said.

            The fresh-faced, twenty-something-year-old physical therapist stood in front of me saying, “I’m right here, I won’t let you fall.”  And as silly as this might sound to you, I knew I had a choice.  I could try and keep trying or I could cower away in fear and settle for less. After all, I am a grown woman and if I say I’m not ready, I’m not ready.  If I don’t want to put myself through the pain and soreness, I don’t have to.

            My choice, though, was not to waste my pain.  I’d come this far and the thing I wanted most was right in front of me.  But, I was afraid, and I was ashamed that this young girl was having to help me when I should have been able to do it myself. I felt like a whiney baby, a scaredy-cat afraid of a 3-inch step when there are so many people who would be happy to be in my place.  My journey of pain and rehabilitation was finally coming towards a pivotal point, and I knew I had to find a way to push through.

            Sitting in my car, I was feeling months of hard work, pain, and the shame I have carried for a long time.  The shame surrounding what I should be able to do, shame at something that was not even my fault.  I am not a crier by nature, but I am tenderhearted, and sometimes that can serve me well. At that exact moment, I needed a little compassion.  I wanted to say, “It’s ok to be afraid, you can do it.  Give yourself some time.”  But all I heard in my head was negative. “You’ll never be able to do this.  Just give up.”

            The walk to the car was like a walk of shame until I sat down, and the tears fell. My tears cleansed a part of my heart that had been overgrown with fear and anxiety.  My tears were a release of the gratitude I feel towards my God and my surgeon, my family, and my friends.  My heart overflows with thankfulness that I am healing well, getting stronger, and relearning to climb stairs.  I am grateful to have less pain.  I am grateful for insurance and Medicare.  I am grateful for all of the kind, compassionate people who have been put in my path during this medical odyssey.

            It is not easy to let yourself be vulnerable.  You must first accept your truth, without judgment, and without comparing yourself to how you think others would behave.  Brene’ Brown, a famous professor, lecturer, and author actually wrote a book about vulnerability, Daring Greatly.  In that book, she says that “Vulnerability sounds like truth but feels like courage.”  And that is exactly how I felt.

            After the tears slowed, I drove home debating whether to tell Boo about my ‘meltdown.’  I was already trying to make light of my feelings by using that derogatory term.  But, right before bed, I told him everything and to my surprise, I cried all over again.  He listened, almost like he has never done before, and held me tight like a little child.  It seems Brene’ Brown was absolutely right.  My vulnerability to share my truth felt so courageous and Boo could feel the truth and openness as it went from my heart to his.  My willingness to be open transformed everything. The gratitude I feel for health and healing allows me to be afraid and do it anyway. The willingness to be vulnerable gave way to gratitude and that has made all of the difference.

“What makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful.”  Brene’ Brown

Posted in Friendship, Reality, Sittin Ugly

Sittin’ Ugly

 

     In the early morning hours, before anyone else is up, while the cat is still stretching languidly in her chair, I begin my day.  In this quiet early hour, I can hear the thud of the newspaper being thrown on the sidewalks, the coffeemaker finishing the last few drops and I hear the solid, steady tick of our clock on the mantle. This is my selfish hour.  This is my cherished solitude. I must have it!!  This is my time to drink coffee and absolutely, unequivocally “sit ugly.”

     Sittin’ Ugly is a family tradition passed on by my 88-year-old Auntie Sue.  Her mother did it, she does it and now I do it.  I’m sure lots of other people on earth are doing it, but to do it correctly is an art.  The skill of sittin’ ugly is learned and perfected through years of practice. There are rules of course, and above all, one must respect another’s right to sit ugly.  There should be no judgment, the fact is, one just simply does…..sit ugly.

     Everyone has their own way to sit ugly. But there are guidelines that I find very comforting and helpful to follow. Anyone that is new to the art will surely want to comply. The rules are as follows:

1. There must be coffee. Preferably freshly brewed with everything extra that you need, (cream, sugar, etc.) and of course the favorite mug.  I’ve never known a tea drinker to sit ugly, but I suppose it could be done.

2. No talking!! No one speaks to you-you speak to no one. Sometimes it may be necessary to point or grunt especially if you have small children and they absolutely must encroach on your time. But, the only talking truly allowed is to yourself.

3. You must sit. My favorite spot is an oversized chair by the window. Above all else, you must pick a comfortable, familiar place to sit. It is always good to be able to put up your feet and have a little table nearby. Your sittin’ area should be away from anyone else who might be awake.

4. You may be asking yourself, now what?  I have the coffee.  I’m sitting quietly. Now what? The “what” to do part is really up to you.  Sometimes I just sit and stare while sipping my coffee. Staring is perfectly allowable and even encouraged.  I also read my daily devotionals and have long conversations with God.  I contemplate my day and my life.  I think.  I don’t think and then I may stare some more, all the while continuing to drink my coffee.  This part may go on for as long as necessary.  One hour is perfect for me.

5. Lastly, about this “ugly” part.  Sittin ugly simply means that you come as you are, straight from bed.  No primping allowed!  One must be ones’ self.  Tattered nighty? That’s ok!  Acne medicine dotted on your face?  Beautiful!  Scruffy old favorite robe and slippers?  The older the better!  Sittin’ ugly is actually a super-natural phenomenon that makes you more good-looking.  The longer you have time to sit, the better you will look and feel. Try it and see!

     Sittin’ ugly is my personal time.  It is my favorite time of the day.  Sometimes I can hardly wait to get up in the morning just to sit ugly.  I am always at my best while sittin’ ugly, mainly because no one is speaking to me or me to them.  What a joyous, peaceful time!  What a perfect way to start your day, in fact for me, it is a necessity.

     Some mornings my little Auntie will call me and ask, “Honey, are you sittin’ ugly or can you talk?”  It is always good manners to ask first, in case one is not ready for conversation.  Attempting dialogue before ready may result in hurt feelings, premature agreements, or regret, so approach your morning chitchats with caution.

     My friend, here’s to “Sittin’ Ugly”, to having this special time each and every day and to the millions of us who find it necessary for the sustainment of sanity.  And, here’s to my precious Auntie Sue and all the beautiful ones who “sit ugly”.

My little Auntie Sue passed away after her 90th birthday.  She always had a kind word to say about everyone; she always looked for humor in every situation; she was always grateful and she always sat ugly…every morning and claimed it was the reason for her good health and good fortune.  I miss her every day.  RIP Auntie Sue!

Posted in Cajuns, Family, Growing up

Why Movies? by Ginger Keller Gannaway

Claude Drive-In in Eunice, Louisiana (1952)

Growing up I stared out my bedroom window at the broken remains of the Claude Drive-In that was built 1952 in memory of my grandfather Jake Claude Keller, Sr. who had died in 1951. Hurricane Audrey destroyed the theater in 1957. In the 1960s my siblings and I explored the drive-in’s rows of silent speaker poles and the concession stand debris (mostly broken glass, crumbling plaster, and splintered wood). I thought part of the screen was still standing, but that was just my imagination.

As an eight-year-old, I’d stare into the blackness and imagine watching a movie from my bedroom. The phantom sixteen by fifty foot screen’s flickering images didn’t need sound because the power of movies could always ignite my imagination. I’d make up the dialogue or I’d pretend I was watching a movie I’d seen so many times I knew the actors’ lines before they said them. The movie Cinema Paradiso reminds me of growing up in a small town where two movie theaters gave us most of our entertainment. I loved the scene of the whole Italian village watching movies outside after their cinema burned down. My mind’s eye saw the ghost of a drive-in just yards from my bedroom window.

In 1924 J.C. Keller, Sr. and his partner opened the first picture show in Eunice, Louisiana. Movie western stars Tom Mix and Lash LaRue* once spent the night in my grandparents’ home. I remember a large oval framed photo of the grandfather I never knew in my Uncle Jake’s office. Grandpa Keller wore a suit and his unsmiling, intimidating glare looked too much like my scary uncle for me to feel comfortable in that office.

Grandpa & Grandma Keller

Because Keller kids got in free, we saw movies multiple times and worked at the picture show as teenagers. Except for a fear of the usher/bouncer Big Jim that diminished as I got older, the Liberty Theater and Queen Cinema were places of acceptance and escape. Movies helped shape my personality and marked the milestones of my life.

Viva Las Vegas

Getting my first pair of glasses in 1965 meant I noticed the pattern on Annette Funicello’s one-piece bathing suit in Beach Blanket Bingo. After getting teased at school for my cerebral palsy, Mary Poppins taught me resilience  and optimism. Hair-pulling fights with my two younger sisters balanced out with our shared love for Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas  and our fascination with the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. When puberty confused me, Peter Sellers in The Party made me laugh at life’s unpredictability. Night of the Living Dead in 1968 convinced me that even the horror of getting my period was not as bad as a zombie apocalypse. The awkwardness and insecurities of high school seemed tolerable if I watched Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl every day of its two-week theatrical run in Eunice. My love of Shakespeare and my attraction to stories of doomed love started with Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and gained strength with The Way We Were and Dr. Zhivago. In the 1970s, Sidney Poitier’s The Heat of the Night made me question the racism around me while M*A*S*H and Cabaret let me enjoy satire before I even understood their messages. Movies soothed, entertained, and educated me.

In the Heat of the Night

I’m thankful for the ability to stream so many movies now. I’ve learned to love documentaries and foreign films and independent gems. The size of my television does not diminish the light and shadow of Kosakovskiy’s Gunda or the creative directing/ editing of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. As I take in fast edits, slow tracking shots, and purposeful dialogue pauses, movies tell stories that give my life joy, even while I’m wiping away tears. I truly believe I am a better human being because of the movies I have known.

The Oscar nominations were announced February 8th, and March 27 will be one of my favorite nights of 2022! The Oscars have been “too white” and too xenophobic, BUT Parasite did sweep the awards in 2019, and Moonlight was the true best picture in 2016. I love all the hoopla and live jokes (both clever & stupid). I want to hear all acceptance speeches and enjoy all the classy, sassy, and ridiculous outfits the nominees wear. Like they sing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: 

“Something appealing,

Something appalling,

Something for everyone:

A comedy tonight!”

Movies are as much a part of who I am as the Cajun food I crave and the LaTour and Keller cousins I love. So in 1963, I saw only the ghost of a drive-in movie screen down my winding gravel road, yet movie fantasies sustain me like the montage of Paul Newman smiles at the end of Cool Hand Luke. 

  • My cousin Sammy remembers watching LaRue’s live performance at the Liberty when the star tore a hole in the movie screen with his whip!
Posted in Reality, Truth

It’s Not Always the Way It Looks

            She sat slumped over on the red-flowered couch in my office.  Her hair, a dingy blonde with dark roots, was greasy and her face was stained with old make-up and fresh tears. 

            The police officer stood between us, his rough hands resting on his thick belt which held handcuffs, a radio, and the ever-present tazer.

            “I found her behind the school, near the apartments.  She had an illegal knife on her,” he said and laid it on my desk.  “We can press charges.”

            “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I missed the bus,” she said.

            As an Assistant Principal in a large high school, I could tell by looking that the knife was over the five- and one-half inch legal limit.  The knife was an older-looking switchblade with dirt and a little rust on the handle.  It had obviously been used before and needed a good sharpening.

            “What’s your name?” I asked and turned my chair to face her.

            “Pepper.”

            “Pepper, is that your real name?”

            “No. My friends call me Pepper; everyone else calls me Charlene Davis,” she said and sucked in a jagged breath before tears started to fall.  “Please.  Please.  I had it in my purse.  I wasn’t going to hurt anyone unless they tried to hurt me.”

            “Thanks, Officer,” I said.  “Let Charlene and I talk for a few minutes.”

            “I’ll be right outside your door if you need me,”  he said.

            I brought up her student information on my computer and turned toward her,  “So, Charlene, tell me your story.  I see you don’t live at home.”

            Charlene took another deep breath and straightened her tank top, which didn’t quite cover her voluptuous body.  I asked her if she had a coat since it was cold outside.  She shook her head no. Handing her the sweater draped behind my chair I said, “Start from the beginning.”

            Forty minutes later I knew a lot about Charlene and a little about the knife.  I have spent thirty-six years of my life in education, and I’ve heard stories from students that made me cry.  Stories that haunted me and shook me to my core.  But Charlene’s story broke my heart.

 Charlene did not know her daddy, but her mother had known a lot of men who wanted to be called that.  It seems her mom had run off three years ago and left her and her three siblings alone.  CPS stepped in and separated the four sending the younger ones to one foster home, the brother to another, and Charlene to another.  Charlene had run away from four foster homes since then and was now living in a state-owned, group home for teenage girls in Austin, several hours away from her brother and sisters.  Not ideal by any means.

 “It’s ok,” she said.  “I’m leaving as soon as I graduate, and I’ll get my brother and sisters back.  I’ll take care of them myself.”

“No more running away though, or the next stop will be juvie.”

“I know. This is my last chance,” she said.

            “Graduation will be your ticket for a better life, Charlene.  I’m proud of you for staying on track with your grades in spite of everything that has happened,” I said.

            “I’ll be the first one in my family to graduate, Miss.  I’m really smart, and I have a job at Mcdonald’s on the weekends.  That’s where I met my boyfriend.”

            “Do you mind if I call you Pepper?”  I asked.  And she smiled for the first time.

            “Tell me about this boyfriend, Pepper.”

            “His name is Ryder and I love him.  He lives in those apartments by the McDonalds,  and after work, I go over to see him.  He gave me the knife.”

            “No flowers or candy?  But he gave you a knife?  And what do you do when you go over to see him so late at night?”

            “We do stuff.  You know, we love each other.”

            Before I could stop myself, I said, “Charlene, you know what causes babies, don’t you?  I hope you’re using some form of protection.”

            “Yea, mostly.  We try, Miss.  Anyway, usually, the bus is not running when I see him after work, so I have to walk home. He gave me the knife so I would be safe walking home from his apartment.  He’s sweet that way.  That’s why I need the knife back.  He gave it to me.”

            “Pepper, let me get this straight.  You work the night shift at McDonalds, then you walk over to his apartment.  You stay there for a few hours and then you walk yourself back to the home?  Why doesn’t he take you home or walk with you?”

            “He doesn’t have a car, Miss.  That’s why he gave me the knife, so I can be safe walking home.  He’ll be mad if I don’t have it.”

            “Oh Pepper, you are worthy of being safe and being walked home by your boyfriend.  This knife may cause you more trouble than you’re ready for.  Like today.  You know I have to take the knife.”

            “I know, Miss.  But I need it and I promise to hide it better when I come to school. It’s only four more months till graduation.  Please?  It’s scary walking home late at night.”

            We talked a few more minutes and then I sent her to class, while I kept the knife.

            Charlene flew way under the radar for the remainder of the semester.  I would see her walking through the halls occasionally, and she would give me a half-smile or a shy wave, not wanting anyone to know we knew each other.  But I wanted to hug her.  Feed her a healthy meal.  Keep her safe.  Ask about that damn boyfriend.

            Instead, one week before graduation, I called her into my office.  I knew she only had one more final exam to take, and I would never see her again.

            “Hi Miss,” she said as she knocked softly on my door.

            “Pepper, you look gorgeous today!” I said as I noticed her fresh hair and new outfit.  She was wearing a short, blue, flouncy skirt made out of layers of thin material.  Her top was buttoned up the front and covered the waistband of the skirt, with room to spare. Then I saw what I thought was a slight bump beneath her blouse.

            “The house mother gave me some money to buy a few new things before I graduate and have to move.  I’m having a baby, Miss.  See?”  And she cupped her small round belly to show me.

“Ryder wants a boy.”

“Wow,”  I said.

 “I have something for you.”  And I handed her a pink gift bag with ribbons and a small ‘Congratulations’ balloon.  She smiled the biggest smile I’d ever seen and asked, “Can I open it?”

            “You sure can!!”  I said.

            She sat on my red-flowered couch and put the bag on her knees.  She took the fluffed tissue paper out of the bag one by one and pressed them flat.

“I’m going to save this paper.  It’s just like new.”  She said.

I had individually wrapped each gift: a set of lip glosses, JLO body wash and spray, a new hairbrush, and a precious stuffed teddy bear with I Love You embroidered on the stomach. And at the very bottom of the bag was one last gift.  “Don’t open that one until you get home, ok?  I think you’ll remember it.”  I said.

“Thank you, Miss.  This is my only graduation gift.  I love all of it and the baby will love the teddy bear!”  She hugged me and I hugged her right back, neither one of us wanting to let go.

“I’m so proud of you, Charlene Davis.  I knew you could do it.”  I said, as she blushed and smiled a soft, beautiful smile.  Wide-eyed, and a little teary she responded quietly, “That means a lot, Miss.”

We had a quick hug the night of graduation and I have not heard anything from her since. 

As with Charlene and the knife, it’s not always the way it looks.  Everyone has a story to tell if we will only take time to listen.  It is an honor to hear someone’s truth and hold space for their thoughts and feelings, whether we agree or not.  Our stories matter, we matter.  And for Charlene, I wanted her to know she matters in this world. 

Charlene ‘Pepper’ Davis matters.

Posted in #Confessions, Contemplations, Family

Talking to Myself by Ginger Keller Gannaway

When I walk at daybreak along empty streets, I feel comfortable while I nod greetings to yard dogs and window cats. One golden retriever rests behind a low fence and blinks his eyes at me without barking. My mind jumps around as I take in my surroundings and forget my worries.

I see a huge Siamese huddling beside a porch and say “Look at that gordito.” I notice the lime-green Hyundai that perfectly matches the paint on its house and say, “Cool coordination.” Other times I shake my head and voice concern about one of my grown children: “Should have planned better.” Or I admit a personal failure: “Sticking my nose in the beehive.” I believe that thoughts gain power when I vocalize them. A statement like “I am a writer” could become reality.

So I talk to myself as I take heel/toe steps on cracked sidewalks and look up to locate a lone sparrow chirping in a skeletal tree or sideways to spot dogs yapping behind wooden fence slats. I review a recent argument with Gary and mutter, “Why can’t you notice…?” Or I say, “Hey, You” when the opossum cat sees me as she heads to her gutter hideout. I may get profound when I consider an unusual cloud: “Looks like hope… or loneliness…or a penis.” Then a serious jogger to my right passes and I wonder if he heard me. Does he think I’m a drunk or an escapee from the retirement home? I can’t believe I’ve turned into someone talking out loud to herself!

I think back to Daddy walking down Second Street to his office two blocks from Grandma’s house. As I rocked on the front porch, I watched him talking to the air. He nodded  and moved his right hand in short slicing motions to stress his main points. Maybe he was rehearsing something he’d say to a client or reminding himself to fix an unreliable toilet at home. Could he have been rehashing a conversation he’d like to rewind and redo? He often wore a grey or brown suit, but sometimes on a week-end he’d have on tennis shorts, a white undershirt, dark socks, and slide slippers. In either outfit I thought he looked ridiculous. Why did he need to say things out loud? He reminded me of Crazy Marie, an old woman who walked the downtown streets in her Sunday clothes and talked to herself. Marie walked fast and had a purse hanging from her wrist. She bobbed her head as she talked, sometimes making her wig crooked beneath her church hat.

I’ve told my three sons that “embarrassing your kids” is a parent’s duty, and I’ve done my best to carry out that parental obligation, learned from my mom and dad pros. Dad’s conversations with himself were one source of embarrassment. He didn’t care what passers-by thought when his one way conversations kept him engrossed in his own world. He had a lot on his mind, and walking and talking seem to go together like sighing and smiling. 

I remember hearing Evan chatting away in his room when he was three, and I wondered who he was talking to. I peeked and saw he was alone and playing with his Beanie Babies. So it’s natural for kids to talk to toys and imaginary friends. Later they learn to converse mostly with other living beings. When is it acceptable to utter our thoughts to ourselves? Do we give our thoughts get stronger when said out loud? Are consultations with ourselves common enough for people to ignore? 

Is becoming like my father – someone who often frustrated and embarrassed me- the natural order of things? I suppose I better have that discussion tomorrow morning around 7:27 with someone I know very well. 

Posted in Confessions, Contemplations, Growing up

It Is What It Is

Fourth Grade

Fourth grade was not a flattering year for me.  I had just survived 3rd grade and having my teeth be bigger than my body when this happened.  I swear, no one bothered to tell me that those tight, plastic headbands were not complimentary to my face shape.  Sometimes my grandma and I would ride the bus downtown to Woolworth’s Five and Dime, and she would let me pick out something for twenty-five cents.  Perhaps that is why I had such a classic selection of headbands.

The Five and Dime Stores----ours was the Woolworth at NE shopping center… |  Childhood memories, Memories, The good old days

Grandma and I would walk up and down every aisle in Woolworths and after we made our purchases we would sit at the counter and eat lunch.  Grandma always got a tuna fish sandwich with the ‘best cup of coffee in the world.’  I would get a grilled cheese sandwich and a root beer.  Simple fare for simple folks.  After we ate, I would spin myself around and around seated on that bar stool at the lunch counter, while Grandma enjoyed her last sip of coffee.

The red, button-up sweater from Sears that I loved was all kinds of wrong, yet I have the pictures as proof that I was determined to look my best. Glancing back, I clearly see my stylistic mistakes, but at the time I felt well put together.

Still, I had a delightful smile, don’t you think?  

My 4th grade teacher was Mrs. Batson.   Mrs. Batson was no-nonsense all day every day.  She was a small but sturdy force, short in statue and long on obedience, and wore dark-colored, perfectly fitted suits with structured shoes.  She was tough and I was afraid of her, except that I kind of knew she liked me.  I was always the only one in my class who didn’t have a mother and because bad news travels fast, I must have been pegged as someone who needed a little more encouragement.

I knew this because even in her strictness, she would look at me and almost smile. Her eyes would tilt ever so slightly, and the corners of her frown would swing upward for only a second.  I always wondered if anyone else saw it, but I think it was just for me.  I mean, come on…. looking at this picture, Mrs. Batson was probably thinking, “Bless her heart!”

I learned during 4th grade that I had something called ‘buck teeth.’  And when I told my dad that Stanley Steinkruger called me that, he said, “Nancy Lynn, you just have an overbite.  And someday you will have braces that will help you have the most beautiful teeth in the world.  Don’t listen to the likes of Stanley Steinkruger.” 

Bless my heart.

This 4th grade photo was not to be my last ‘less than stellar’ school picture.  I had an overbite with a large space between the front two teeth, and a few more years of the plastic headbands. I even had another year of a red sweater in which I discovered turtlenecks are really not for me either. 

When I arrived at Wolflin Elementary School in Amarillo, Texas, for my first day of 5th grade, I found out I had Mrs. Batson for my teacher again.  How could this be true?  But it was.  Mrs. Batson moved up to teach 5th grade and I was in her class.  5th grade turned out to be a doozy of a grade for me.  Somewhere between the first day of school and Thanksgiving, I woke up one day needing a B-cup bra and I was 5’5” tall.  I tried all year to practice the art of slumping down, so as not to look so much taller than the boys.

Top row, second from right

One more sad little piece of information was that as a baby I had had ankles that turned in toward themselves and because of that, I wore orthopedic shoes, even into the 5th grade,  like these black velveteen saddle oxfords.

Those shoes were heavy on my feet and so sturdy/clunky that as much as I tried to scuff or wear them out, they wouldn’t.  Nothing could penetrate those toes of steal.

 Just when I thought it could never get worse, the 5th grade girls had to see “the film” and as my luck would have it, this was also my year to become a ‘woman.’

Culminating my 5th grade school year, I was a full 5’6” tall.  I also found out I needed glasses. My dad let me pick out my glasses which were brown sparkly glitter, cat-eye frames.  I adored them and took special care to keep them in their case when they weren’t on my face.

 Next, came the years with braces and tight-lipped smiles to hide them.  It is what it is, y’all, and I have the pictures to prove it!  The day we got out for Christmas break my 6th grade year, Stanley Steinkruger was deep in his throws of flirting with me.  But bless his heart, he teased me by grabbing my glasses and using them to play catch with another boy.  You can guess the end of the story.  Broken glasses and hurt feelings. My father admonished my carelessness, and I was never friends with Stanley Steinkruger again.  The good news was I finally got a pair of slip-on flats and was allowed to give up my orthopedic saddle oxfords.

My later elementary grade years left me with a few scars, as much of growing up usually does.  Often, the ‘awkward’ years last longer than one would wish, and in the throes of adolescence, we do not see our own light.  We let other people tell us who we are and hush the swan’s song inside of our ugly duckling.

But Hans Christian Andersen knew what was true for all of us when he wrote:

It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, for the most

essential things are invisible to the eye.

The Ugly Duckling

Ugly Duckling
Posted in Contemplations, Friendship, Relationships

Talking to Strangers  by Ginger Keller Gannaway    

The day after Christmas, Gary and Evan drove from Austin, Texas to Mariposa, California to visit Evan’s fiancee Tashea and to spend time in Gary’s mecca – Yosemite Valley – where he had rented heated tent cabins in Curry Village. Ever since he spent time there when he was eighteen, the park has beckoned Gary back, and he dreams of buying property near the park. To quote  John Muir: “Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”

Yosemite, 2022

Three days later, a woman from Yosemite National Park called me.

“Gary?” she said.

“No, I’m his wife. Is everything ok?”

“I’ve been trying with no luck to reach Gary.  A big snow storm is hitting the park tonight, so we have to cancel his tent cabin rentals.”

“Oh no! For all three nights? Gary will be devastated.”

“We’re canceling on a day-by-day basis. Might just be one night.”

I sighed. “I so hope so. Are y’all ok now?”

And this compassionate stranger and I chatted about how wonderful Yosemite is and I shared my husband’s love affair with the park. “Gary’s 76 years old,” I said. “Yosemite is his favorite place on earth. He worked there when he was eighteen, and we’ve visited several times, taking our three sons when they were little and just this June with their significant others. Last night he got to the Yosemite Bug with our youngest son and his fiancee.”

“He should stay at the Bug,” she said.  And she gave me the number for Gary to call when I reached him.

I used Messenger to give Evan the number, but because of spotty cell phone reception, he didn’t receive the news until they were on a bus with their luggage headed to the park. Two hours later Gary called.

“They cancelled our tents?! Where are they gonna put us up?”

“It’s not like that,” I said. “The woman said you should stay at the Bug.”

I heard him huffing and puffing.  “I’m walking to the office now. Gotta go.”

 That evening Evan called. “What did you tell the lady in Yosemite? All the workers acted like they knew Dad when we walked in. They’re letting us stay at a cottage in Curry Village tonight and giving us an employee’s discount!” Talking with a stranger about my family had brought us unforeseen kindness. We had connected over our love of Yosemite and she showed empathy for an old guy and his son.

Cottage in Curry Village

I enjoy talking with strangers because I’m curious about their lives. Like the cashier who works weekends at the 7-Day Food Store down my street who stays upbeat even after an attempted holdup. Or the young teacher who first exchanged waves with me and now gives me vegetables from her garden.

We rightly tell young children, “Don’t talk to strangers,” to protect them from sickos. But as adults, shouldn’t we feel free to talk with strangers? To make a connection, to commiserate, to say, “I see you. You’re not invisible or insignificant.”

Stranger talk starts with weather comments. I don’t try dangerous topics like politics, religion, or pandemic advice. But I smiled behind my mask when a very short woman who walks her very fat dachshund wanted to show me pictures of her grandkids on her phone. We always wave now, and I feel less alone on chilly morning walks because most strangers and I have more similarities than differences. Our encounters feed the fresh-faced optimist inside me and send my pimply pessimist with chronic indigestion and facial tics to her room for an indefinite time-out until she’s rediscovered her sense of humor.

The pandemic has separated us in a list of necessary ways, but aren’t we all still struggling to get on with life the best we can? If I ask a stranger, “What’s your dog’s name?” or tell a waiter, “Cool tattoo,” am I not making a connection? Not in the generic, robotic, “Have a nice day,” way. Specificity counts. This past fall, a school crossing guard and I bonded over both being from Louisiana, so right before Christmas, I gave her some boudin from Lafayette. We exchanged holiday greetings and our names that day.

Some friends give me a hard time about talking to strangers. They roll their eyes and take a few steps back as they maybe mutter, “There she goes again.” But I want to be like the protagonist on my favorite TV series Better Things. Writer, actor, and director Pamela Adlon ’s protagonist Sam Fox shares time with a quiet man on a film set or she gets to know the mother of her daughter’s Mormon friend. Her honesty creates powerful moments in her show. I’d say that a key rule when talking with strangers is “understanding, not judging.”
 

Talking with strangers has given me memories I treasure:

*taking a selfie with a scruffy guy at 7 a.m. outside Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.

The Professor, Maryanne, and me in Montreal

*getting a list of good places to eat in Montreal from a couple, nicknamed the Professor and Maryanne, who owned a tiny coffee shop and who got jazzed when I told them,”I’m Ginger!” So the three of us posed for a Gilligan’s Island tribute pic.

*meeting a groovy neighbor six years ago as we both walked our large dogs. She has become a close friend and the mother of my three amazing “practice grandchildren”!

Strangers have enriched my life, and even though every encounter is not hitting the jackpot, connecting with someone else may add serendipity to my life. I never know when a casual chat can lead to knowing three of the most wonderful children in the world!

Posted in #Confessions, Aging

The Bee’s Knees: Continued

The first Monday meeting with Mitchell, my young, handsome physical therapist, started off with a bang.  “Have you been to the restroom yet?  You know, pooped?”  he asked.

“Not yet,” I said quietly.

“It’s really important, so let’s keep taking what you’re taking and drink lots of water.  The more you walk the better it will be.” 

Ya’ll, I have a friend who swears her mother used to ask her, “Have you do-do’d today?” Every time she feigned she was too sick to go to school, her mother would point her finger right at her face and ask the dreaded question, “When is the last time you do-do’d?”

Mitchell and I walked a loop through my house, with me on my walker and Mitchell right behind me, holding a white, thick belt tied to my waist so he could keep me from falling.  He evaluated my uneven gait and chanted, “Heel-toe, heel-toe.”  We then went through a ‘lofty’ set of exercises, to be done three times a day.  Next, he checked my incision and reminded me, “When the pain ball runs out, probably Friday, you’ll feel a slight surge in pain levels.  Just want you to keep that in mind.”

I was starting to get really scared.  Scared about the pain ball (how much will it hurt to take it out?) and what will happen to me if I don’t, you know?  Pain and poo, two very big topics that dominated my thoughts day and night.   But, because I am a doctor on Google, I read everything I could about both topics and I must say I found out it could go either way…good or bad. Good, like an easy-peasy potty time and absolutely no pain in removing the wire inside my leg.  Or bad, like missing the toilet and landing on my butt and twisting my new knee, causing me to have corrective surgery.

Friday morning Mitchell arrived with a smile. “Let’s check your pain ball.”

“No need,” I said.  “It’s empty.”

“Ok then.  Let’s take it out.”

“Should I take a shot of whiskey? Or bite a bullet?” I joked.

He laughed and said, “I know, right?”

I laid on the edge of my bed, closed my eyes, and he peeled the surgical tape off my thigh to reveal the wire, which had been threaded down the front nerve of my leg.  I was trying to mentally prepare for the pain, when he said, “It’s over.”  And just like that I was freed from the pain ball and looking forward to a new surge of discomfort.

“Remember,” Mitchell said, “Stay ahead of the pain and go to the restroom.  See you Monday.”

After Mitchell left, I drank one more glass of Metamucil on top of all the other laxatives, just for good measure.  Sadly, I realized too late, that it had not been necessary.  At five o’clock, my stomach started to rumble, tumble, roll, and grumble.  For some reason, I felt the need to tell Boo, “Something’s happening.”

“Let the games begin!!” he laughed.

Five o’clock also marked the onset of the dreaded ‘surge of pain.’  I will spare you the gory details, but when I felt I’d better head toward the restroom, I immediately knew my speed on the walker, was not as it should be.  Never in my life could I have planned that the pain and the poo would happen on the same day and same time and stay all weekend long.  Boo, hollered from the den, “Do you need some help?”

Banging my walker into the door frame, I screamed back, “Leave Me Alone!”

Truthfully, I have only screamed once during this whole ordeal, and this was it. 

“No problem,” he answered.

The infamous ‘surge in pain’ was like my knee was waking up a week later from the surgery.  Shooting pain, dull aching pain, and stabbing pain settled in on my incision and the very back behind my knee.  I took every pain pill allowed me and still prayed to fall asleep.  The pain came in waves, like a rolling storm off the coast, battering and ramming my body until I thought I would break.  The only rest from the pain was from the sudden urge to run to the restroom because I needed a level head to maneuver my way through the bathroom door with the awkward walker.  I was a very hot mess!

 Things could only get better after this extremely low point because, after all, this was just the first week of my recovery.

Monday morning, Mitchell said I looked a little pale, but applauded my efforts and we set up a new pain med plan.

“Let’s get rid of the walker and go to a cane,” he said.

“How about tomorrow?  I need a few more hours,” I said.

“Deal.”

That night I went to my closet and found the cane my grandpa actually carved for himself.  It was the same cane my grandma used as well, and now I was the proud recipient. Who would have guessed it?  The cane was a perfect simple shape and sanded smooth as silk.  Grandpa had painted it a dark brown and shellacked it to a beautiful sheen.  The grip was worn in places and as I stood to try it out, tears rolled down my face, imagining my grandparents’ touching this very same cane.  I felt their spirit with me. This cane fit me just right and I felt safe and secure knowing my grandparents had in some way, been sent to take care of me.

I practiced that night and the next day it was trial by fire as I learned to walk with the cane.  Does anyone remember Festus from Gunsmoke? 

At the end of week two, I saw the physician’s assistant and she took off my bandage.  I was predicting a Frankenstein scar, but it wasn’t quite that bad.  Turns out my surgeon was a brilliant seamstress.  One surprising thing about my knee now is that it feels hot at times from the swelling and has a slight pinkish color.  They promised it will go away.  But, part of my knee is numb, and that will not go away.  As I was leaving, the P. A. said I could begin practicing driving.  It was music to my ears, and I felt the breeze of freedom floating in my near future. Although it was another two weeks away, I had hope that I could recover and finally go somewhere by myself.  No offense, Boo.

Soon Mitchell and I began to go for walks outside.  On my 2nd walk, we ran straight into my neighborhood friend, which you may remember as my Walker Stalker.  John wanted to know what had happened to me, where had I been, and “Who’s this?”

“This is Mitchell,” I said. “My physical therapist.”

 But John never really registered what I said, until finally, he asked, “Now, who is this? Is this your grandson?” 

We just smiled and said, “Well, I’ve gotta keep walking, John.  See you soon.”

As time went on, I begged Boo to ride with me a half-mile down the road to our community mailboxes.  “I don’t need to practice anymore,” I said, as I slightly hobbled to the car.  But once to the car, I had to pick up my leg to actually get in.  Bending my knee was torturous, in the beginning.  I really didn’t realize how strenuous getting in and out of a car and driving one mile could be.

“I don’t think you’re quite ready,”  Boo said as I came to a stop.

I knew he was right, but I also knew I was very close to my independence.  “I’m on my way back, baby!  Just wait and see!”

I finally graduated from Mitchell to outpatient physical therapy.  My weeks of exercising, icing, resting, and walking have now turned into two months.  My out-patient physical therapist is a seemingly sweet-looking, young woman named, Thea.   Don’t let her smiling, girl-next-door exterior fool you, she’s no-nonsense and hell-on-wheels.  But, thanks to her and Mitchell, I’m making great progress.  At my 8-week check-up, my doctor was very pleased.  “You’re one-third of the way healed.  Keep up the good work.”  He also told me it will take one full year to feel normal and strong, and I’m starting to believe him.

Everyday, there is a little less pain and stiffness, and everyday there is hope for better sleep. I’m walking, driving, sitting, standing.  I’m off my addiction to Cheetos.  I’ve gone on a trip, grocery shopped, and been to Costco twice.  I’m still telling Boo, I may not be able to cook for another month or so, but he’s fine with that because it means fewer vegetables.

I’m grateful to have insurance and Medicare.  I’m grateful to all my friends who loaned me the walker, icing machines, and tall potty chair.  The friends who brought me food and visited when I was still in my wrinkled pajama pants and greasy hair, and I’m grateful to Boo who never left my side, even when he wanted to!  Who has put up with my groaning and moaning and talking about myself until we are both sick of it. 

Sometimes Boo is a saint.

Originally, I planned to have my other knee done in March, but as time goes on, I think it best to wait until July. We have a trip planned for the end of March and one in June. Feeling stronger and having a little fun will put me in the right frame of mind to do this all again. (I hope).  And Boo will have a chance to rest up before his next nursing duty.

People continue to ask me, “Aren’t you so glad you had the surgery?” 

“Not yet,” I answer, “But, I know I will be.”  And that really is the truth.  I know I will be, especially after the next surgery.  As my grandma used to say, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.”  I will be so, so glad I’ve had the opportunity to get my new pair of knees!”

My girls, my grandma, and my cane.
Ready for an outing with Grandma and her walker!

Posted in Cajuns, Family, Holidays

Lost and Found by Ginger Keller Gannaway

Christmas 1964

My childhood Christmases were down a winding gravel road in a ranch style brick home with my two little sisters and one older brother. The tree was displayed in the big living room between the fireplace and a large picture window that revealed some farmer’s soy bean fields and the broken remnants of a drive-in movie theater. On Christmas mornings Dad took soundless home movies of us dancing in our p.j.s while we held up that year’s Santa loot – 1960’s classics like Creepy Crawlers, a Midge doll (Barbie’s cousin), and a Mouse Trap game. Momma sat on the sofa and sipped Community Coffee.

Christmas breakfast was served in the best kitchen I’ve ever known. One swinging door opened to the cooking half and the other door swung into the eating area. That kitchen meant strong coffee and boudin with biscuits in the mornings, substantial noon time dinners that had to include rice and gravy, and mid-afternoon coffee with cake or pie. Supper was often leftovers or po-boys from Momma’s Fried Chicken. In between meals the kitchen housed bouree card games and Daddy (Papa) entertaining others with tall tales and bawdy Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes.

Grandma Keller’s House

Decades later after my grandma died, my parents moved into her two-story wooden home (built in late 1800’s). My husband, three sons, and I (plus my siblings and their families) celebrated all of our Christmases in their huge living room with a ten-foot tree crammed with ornaments and Momma’s gold colored paper-mache angel that stood in for the customary star. Momma arranged holiday decor in all the home’s rooms including fresh garland wound around the upstairs bannister.

My sons grew up with Christmas for sixteen people in that home, but in the 1960s and ‘70s, Grandma had Christmas Eve parties for sixty to eighty people: cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends who felt like family. Kids ran up and down the long, long hall between the crowded kitchen where grown-ups smoked cigarettes and spiked the egg-nog and the big living room where knee-deep stacks of presents took up most of the floor space. Kids waited for Big Jim (the picture show’s usher/bouncer) to climb the front porch steps and act as Santa for kids reluctant to get too close to the man who often told them, “Don’t make me take off my belt” when they got rowdy during a Saturday matinee.

For my kids, MaMa’s exuberance made Christmas mornings special. She would blast “Cajun Jingle Bells” to wake up the house, and she and Papa danced in the hall as their grandkids rushed to see what Santa had delivered. Even when the kids became cranky teens who worked hard to look unimpressed, Mama’s smile and her Christmas joy made all of us believe in holiday magic. The living room exploded with wrapping paper and boxes and pieces of plastic toys and opened candy containers.

However, by 2021 Mama and Papa have died and COVID has made travel difficult or unwise. So Christmas is smaller and less exciting. I’m relieved not to drive seven hours on I-Tense to Louisiana with its eighteen-wheelers and reckless drivers, who weave in and out of five lanes of traffic as if the cars did not hold babies and grandparents and pets.

And I don’t miss hauling presents in a van that barely had room for its occupants and luggage and special pillows and Beanie Babies. The year we gave Mama and Papa a Pottery Barn coat & hat rack, my youngest son wore no seatbelt and had to curl himself next to that five-foot tall present

We have lost some of that Christmas excitement we used to share back home in Cajun Country. We don’t see our huggin’ and kissin’ cousins or have Mama’s tight, tight hugs. And no Big Santa on the lawn to welcome us to Eunice. No boudin and coffee or Champagne’s stuffed pork roast (and Mama’s dynamite pork gravy to go with Christmas dinner) or LeJeune’s sausage or Maudry’s sweet dough pies.

Lil Shane and Papa with Big Santa

However, a smaller, no travel holiday does have its benefits. More time with my three grown sons and their special ladies. We play board games and we watch some TV – football or streaming movies. And we sit and talk and laugh a lot.

I lack Mama’s extreme Christmas joy, and we don’t rush off to early mass, but I feel extra blessed. This year we toasted to Mama and Papa (and Kelly). We told Papa jokes and Mama stories and remembered what Eunice felt like – walking to the Queen Cinema or Nick’s Restaurant or the circle tennis courts (now renamed the R.A. Keller Courts).

Yet our tiny condo crams us all together in new, calmer ways. We still follow our favorite recipes: Grandma’s cornbread dressing, Mama’s green beans with potatoes and her sweet potato souffle, and turkey and sausage gumbo the day after Christmas. We remember to “Laissez les bons temps rouler” like Mama and Papa taught us to do.

Gary and I get to know our sons as adults. We share opinions about movies, music, sports, and even politics without wanting to slap someone. We enjoy spicy foods we grew up with and learn new ones. We laugh a lot and become closer to our sons and their lovely partners. Now Christmas with eight of us in a 900-square foot dwelling feels as right as biscuits and boudin in Grandma’s kitchen.