As if celebrating our country opening up and people getting back to normal, sunflowers are popping up all around me. In backyards and parks, along highways, sidewalks and construction sites. These bright flowers worship the sun with their tall, strong presence.
I love sunflowers! Their thick prickly stalks and itchy leaves contrast with their bright and sunny proclamation:“Hey there! Good morning. Get up and greet the sun with me.”
I remember a field of large sunflowers in Tuscany right outside our bedroom window in the countryside near Pisa in June of 2003. The confident flowers were like a crowd of beaming faces welcoming us to Italy. We stayed there one night before driving to Lucca to meet my parents and sisters at an idyllic villa. Gary’s friend Morgan, who lives in London, had found Hotel Villa Maya for us. Our room was like an apartment for my family of five. The sunflowers seemed to stretch for miles and matched the joy of being in a country which valued delicious meals that lasted hours with families who sought out good times. We had a glorious Italian dinner in a large dining room the night we arrived and a fresh breakfast in the courtyard the next morning.
Sunflowers proclaim optimism to the world. They symbolize light, truth, strength, and loyalty. No other flower has such an open-faced smile and rustic beauty. And they’re as tough as Huckleberry Finn. The stalk will not yield to a pinch and a pull; you need clippers or scissors to cut a bloom.
The National Garden Bureau has named 2021 The Year of the Sunflower, and our unusual wet spring, typical ever-present sunshine, and increase in new construction has given central Texas an abundance of sunflowers this summer.
So as we get back to life beyond the pandemic, we can follow the sunflower’s example. Stand firm, face the sun, and proclaim our readiness to meet and greet the world again. Van Gogh would approve of our sun-worshipping teacher.
Some say I drive too slow and always follow the rules. I cannot tell a lie and prefer to not jay walk. I take my vitamins every day, save money every month and recycle. I got my COVID vaccine and brush my teeth twice a day, but I love to gamble!
I love the lights, bells, whistles, and smells. I get invigorated when I hear cards shuffle or someone yells, “Seven-eleven, baby needs shoes!” And although I do not smoke, I love the casino’s smokey smell and faint mix of cheap liquor and cheaper cologne.
Years ago, when my children were young, I despised gambling and the toll it took on my marriage, at the time. I prayed for all those people gambling away their grocery money or milk for their babies. I detested seeing little old ladies being pushed up to a slot machine, cup of nickels in hand, and an oxygen tank attached to their wheelchair. The whole environment made me feel unsettled and out of control.
But, twenty years ago, when I took a gamble on Boo, everything changed. I never feared he might bet the deed on our house or sell my wedding ring to pay off a debt. Boo was disciplined in how much he allowed himself to gamble and when our money was gone, it was time to go home. Not to the ATM.
We’ve gambled on cruise ships in the Caribbean, in Louisiana, Colorado, Vegas and once in an obscure casino in Montana. Two years ago, when we went to Niagara Falls, we stayed at the Seneca Casino and Resort which was just blocks from the beautiful falls.
Once, and only once, we stayed at the Isle of Capri in Bossier City, Louisiana, way before their remodel. Boo was more excited about the buffet than gambling, but “I got us a great room,” he said. We checked in and when we opened the door to our musty smelling room with bright green carpet, there was a huge hot tub right next to the bed.
“What in the world?” I gasped!
“I thought you’d like it!”
Three years ago, we stayed at the Paris Hotel, in Vegas. Our ‘gambling’ trips to Vegas are really more about people watching, seeing shows and walking the Strip, but one night I stumbled upon a Britney Spears penny slot that was life changing. For the next two days, I was all Britney, all day! Every time I hit big, she sang “Baby One More Time” and as I tumbled into extra spins she belted out, “Oops! I Did It Again.” Even as we ate lunch or walked down the strip, I could hear Britney in my ears, singing away, coaxing me to come back. It was “Toxic!” In two days, Boo and I won $900 and bought a Britney CD.
Just two weeks ago we went to Coushatta, in Kinder, Louisiana, surprisingly, the home of Britney Spears. We were only staying one night and by 9:30 p.m. I turned to Boo and whined, “I hate this place. I’ve lost all of my money! I wanted to play the Heidi’s Bier Haus penny slot, but it’s too crowded and no one will leave. I’m going to bed.”
Boo leaned over and handed me a twenty spot. “Here, go see if Heidi’s got an empty seat.”
As luck would have it, I found an empty chair at Heidi’s. I put my $20 in and I knew, betting sixty cents a pop, I could at least play for fifteen minutes. The second time I hit PLAY, music started blaring and Heidi popped up, pouring beer, and spinning reels. Even the guy next to me said, “Oh, you’re going to win big.”
I said, “Thanks, but it’s only $7.50.”
He looked at me, pointed to the screen, and said, “Lady, that’s $750.00!”
I looked around for Boo, needing his validation that this was real, when I suddenly hit on forty extra spins. End of story, I won $1000.00 with Heidi, betting sixty cents with Boo’s twenty- dollar bill. There was a small crowd around me and an old man singing the German beer songs right along with Heidi. Boo videoed the whole thing.
I gave Boo back $30 as interest on his $20.
“I thought we would split the whole winnings, Love Bug.” He said.
“No way! I’m saving it for Vegas and your birthday trip to the Venetian.”
I safely hid my thousand dollars in my sock drawer as soon as we got home.
Being such a high roller has not changed me. I’ll still continue on my Safety Sue lifestyle of driving slowly and flossing my teeth. I’ll always try to tell the truth and tithe to the church. But, as long as we’re able, I hope Boo will take me gambling, at least to the Winstar, every year until I’m one hundred years old. Heck, if I make it to a hundred, maybe I should double down and go twice a year to improve my odds. Why not?
I wish I had a dollar for every time I said, “Help me remember that.” or “Let me write that down.” Other times I get cocky and just know I will remember that we need milk, olive oil and toilet paper. Usually, obscure bits of information like security codes or an old phone number from our landline remain intact inside my mental steel trap.
The other 99% of the time, Boo will find a scrap of paper I’ve written on and confront my faculties.
“Babe, do you really need to remind yourself to eat lunch? That worries me.”
“It’s more like a plan for the day, so I can maximize my time,” I counter.
Lots of people write packing lists before they go on a trip and strangely enough, I do not. However, I do start packing a week in advance and as I remember things I want to take, I put them in the suitcase. Very efficient, I think, versus Boo who packs the night before or morning of. He has left for a week’s vacation with only shorts and no shirts.
My problem is that I frequently write more than one note for the same thing, and because of that, I now make my grocery list on Alexa.
Boo will sometimes holler from the kitchen, “We need more mayo!”
“Don’t tell me, tell Alexa,” I say.
Boo will then holler at Alexa, from the other room, “Alexa, add mayo and cookies to the grocery list.”
“Mycookplease added to grocery.”
“No, Alexa. Add mayo and chocolate chip cookies to grocery list.” Boo corrects.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t get that.”
“Alexa, add mayo and chocolate chip cookies to grocery.”
“Admochip cookies added to grocery.”
“Oh, good grief!” I hear from the kitchen.
But Alexa has my lists for the grocery store, Costco, Walgreens and Target and she is amazing as long as I remember to take my phone when I leave the house.
As much as Boo makes fun of my post-it notes lists, or scraps of paper reminders, he has at least three spiral notebooks going at all times. One for things to do, another for the number of miles he walks a week and then one for writing down his checks, like a giant check register.
YES. I know what you are thinking. Y E S he does.
“You know you could check your balance online,” I say.
“I want to subtract it myself,” he says. “That way there’s no mistake.”
I’m really good at remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and doctor appointments, but my to-do list of lunch, walking and Target sometimes slip my mind.
I can remember vacations we’ve taken, dreams I’ve had, and Bible verses learned in first grade, but song lyrics and directions to Tyler, Texas sometimes throw me for a loop.
My memory is selective, some would say, but I prefer to think I have so many intelligent and important bits of information in my brain, that it is prudent to remind myself of the mundane.
Once, after a weekend with the grandkids, eating cookies, fish sticks, and McDonalds, I wrote a post-it note that said, “EAT HEALTHY.” It was just my reminder to get back on track and stop sneaking M&M’s, but Boo saw it stuck on my bathroom mirror and laughed, “I don’t have to remind myself to poop every day! You’re a hoot!”
I think he missed the point.
I’ve always had this need to jot things down, or record information, like blood pressure or books I’ve read. I love making a list of things I want to accomplish for the day and then marking them off one by one. I’m crazy for note pads, post-it notes, or journals and I have stacks of them to prove it. I don’t know if there’s a name for that or not, but I’ll just take organized, efficient or conscientious.
Don’t listen to Boo, I’m not losing it, I’m maximizing it!
Going home to Eunice, Louisiana for Daddy’s funeral memorial was a humid, eye-opening experience. We rented a small wooden house on 4th Street, two blocks from my grandma’s extra-large home on 2nd Street, the place I visited Grandma and Stel almost everyday of my childhood, the place Momma and Dad moved into after Grandma died.
I don’t know when I will return to Eunice; however, I had an epiphany that weekend – I truly appreciate the place I grew up in. I am South-central Louisiana proud.
I love a place where the woman who measures out my two pounds of morning boudin asks, “You want that cut, Boo?” and a priest says, “The Body of Christ, Cha,” during communion.
I love Rita, the tiny Cajun in Fred’s Lounge in Mamou who greets people at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings for the live Cajun radio broadcast and asks “Who’s your momma, hon?” Then she points to a bald man named Barry who plays the triangle for the band. “That’s my son,” Rita says holding her spiral notebook and Bic pen for signing in visitors. “He’s brain damaged, ya know.” I love how Rita later grabs my niece Jessica’s hand when the old me launch into their first French Cajun song, and the dancers two-step around the band that plays in the center of the tiny bar where the dusty, cracked framed photos on the walls and the tattered hand-lettered signs have not changed for over 50 years.
I love the sign outside Ronnie’s Cajun Cafe in Eunice (formerly the E-Z Shop Grocery) that lists the day’s plate lunch choices on a marquee: meatballs with rice and gravy, liver and onions, or backbone stew.
I love our local choices for damn good boudin: Eunice Superette Slaughter House, T-Boys, and my favorite- Eunice Poultry.
I love the new Clovis Crawfish statue (modeled after my dad’s illustrations for Mary Alice Fontenot’s book Clovis Crawfish and his Friends in 1961) set in front of the Eunice Depot Museum and the metal sign for the Reginald Keller Tennis Courts, even though everyone in town will always refer to them as the Fairgrounds Courts because they were built in a huge field where floats gathered before starting their homecoming or Mardi Gras parades.
Most of all, I love the Queen Cinema that felt like a ghost town when Gary, Evan, and I walked there for a Saturday matinee. The guys chose a horror movie, but I headed into a small empty theater (the Queen now has three separate screens) with my popcorn and Dr. Pepper to watch In the Heights. I enjoyed a private screening in the picture show that Grandma Keller owned once, a place where my sisters and I saw almost every movie in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and we worked in the concession stand. My brother Emile was an usher and projectionist.
I shared a cool moment with the young girls working there. They were outside putting up a movie poster for the upcoming James Bond flick and moved inside to sell us our tickets and then went up the steps to the concession area to fix our movie snacks. I told them I once worked there and asked if the very yellow popcorn was fresh. They assured me it had just been popped and let me rattle on about my picture show connections. The fresh faced girls wore uniforms from a national theater chain, and there was a clear plastic cup for tips in front of the cash register. Other than that, the Queen Cinema felt the same.
For me, a cool dark movie theater on a hot afternoon is perfection. That Saturday I felt close to Grandma, to my parents, to my siblings, and to my hometown. The Queen Cinema was like coming home.
Eunice ain’t perfect or pretty – racism and sexism share space with spicy food and devout religion. A massive Wal-Mart claims the land my childhood home once stood on. Failed businesses like Jimbos dot the highway and give the town a tired look. But the Mosaic Coffee Shop, just a half-block from the Queen, has survived and LSU-Eunice keeps expanding.
At sixteen I felt embarrassed to say I lived in a small town in south central Louisiana. I preferred the congested streets and “sophistication” of Lafayette. Getting away from old people who spoke French and the predictability of the noon whistle and the town’s prejudice had me straining to get to LSU in Baton Rouge as soon as possible.
For so many years I did not anticipate driving home to Eunice. It was an obligation, a responsibility to visit my parents (and a chance to buy a box of LeJeune’s pork/garlic sausage). Eunice’s small town charms eluded me. Its fierce mosquitos and slow motion pace had me planning my escape right after I got my fill of Momma’s cooking and Daddy’s jokes.
Now I claim my south central Louisiana roots. The spicy boudin, the rich farmland, KBon’s zydeco and Cajun playlist, and the residents’ straight-forward, tell-it-like-it-is attitude are things I’m proud of. The relentless humidity matches the strong, firm hugs and raucous laughter I share with cousins and friends from across south Louisiana. Cajuns are tough and brave and practice unapologetic honesty. I hope to forever be grateful I grew up with more cousins than I could count, rice & gravy and gumbo, a bi-lingual place with traditions that grab us when we’re little and keep most of us coming home for music festivals and Cajun cook-offs. When I drive from Texas and exit the interstate I call I-Tense onto the two-lane Highway 97 that runs through Evangeline and Iota, I smile when I see flooded rice fields full of crawfish nets and I smell those piney woods I call home.
As much as my father was a stern, ex-Navy, electrical engineer, rule follower; he had a light, gentle side that was creative and musical. This lighter side occasionally escaped to participate in artistic activities, but they were short-lived and methodically planned. Happiness came when he was outdoors, building things with his hands, fishing or traveling. The rest of his encouragement came from music, specifically jazz.
When Daddy played his Pete Fountain 33 LP and Just a Closer Walk with Thee came alive, there was a shift in his demeaner. His feet moved and his face smiled. He was transported from our little three-bedroom rental, away from the duties of work and caring for two small children without a mother. He was at peace.
I am weak, but Thou art strong. Jesus, keep me from all wrong.
I’ll be satisfied as long, as I walk, let me walk close to Thee.
He would sing and dance around the house while those smooth clarinet sounds came through the speaker. We only had a turntable that played one album at a time, but we knew Daddy’s albums were sacred. He wiped them off before and after each use with a special soft, black cloth and when finished, gently slid them into the correct cover jacket. “There’s only one way to take care of your records and that’s ‘the right way.’”
Just a closer walk with Thee. Grant it, Jesus, is my plea.
Daily walking close to Thee. Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
When my feeble life is o’er, time for me will be no more.
Guide me gently, safely o’er, to Thy kingdom’s shore, to Thy shore.
When Daddy passed away in 2009, we opened the white, 3-ring binder that would guide us through his service, burial, insurance, obituary, and anything else we needed to know or do. We would have expected no less from his take-charge personality, as organization was one of his greatest skills. He planned for everything from vacations to tornados, so it was only natural that he planned for his death.
Although most of us considered him tight with his money, he loved to save it, make spread sheets about it, and keep track of every penny. Thus, his funeral was pre-paid, meticulously planned and organized in that 3-ring binder with homemade dividers. The dividers were yet another example of his creativity and frugalness. Why buy something when you could make it yourself?
Years before his death, he tried to show me his binder every time I came for a visit.
“Everything you need to know will be in here,” he’d say.
“I know, Daddy. I just hate to think of you being gone.”
Still, I would sit beside him and let him go page to page explaining every detail.
When Daddy passed, Just A Closer Walk with Thee was played, as he requested, piped in over the mourners. It was not Pete Fountain, but the good old Methodist hymn played by an organ. In the end, my father stuck by his rigid, conventional rules for a proper send off. But I have often wondered if Pete Fountain might have led him with a smile as he reached those kingdom shores.
I wish Daddy could have stepped out of his fixed way of thinking and had a little piece of himself that might have surprised a few. Not everyone knew he had a softer side and maybe he liked it that way. The old hymns were his comfort zone and whether heard from an organ or a smooth clarinet, his funeral was just as he wanted.
In this fast-paced, all-about-me, live for today world, I fear the pre-planning folks may be few and far between. Daddy’s propensity to control and prepare gives me pause, as I realize how thoughtful it was in the end, like a gift from beyond. He saved us from worry, and more stress. He kept us from having to make decisions on what we ‘thought’ he might want, and mostly he had everything just the way he wanted.
As for me, I hope to be prepared and pre-paid. I want an old-fashioned sing-along with hymns and songs that express my sentiment. I want my girls to know that I’m ok and happily crossing to that kingdom shore, and if Pete Fountain happens to make his way onto the play-list, well, you’ll know I’m dancing on streets of gold. “This one’s for you, Daddy!”
Just a closer walk with Thee. Grant it Jesus, is my plea.
Daily walking close to Thee. Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
Every morning my husband and I count poops. While we walk our dog Millie, I move out in front and alert Gary about possible pet disturbances. I’m on the look out for bold cats who taunt us as they strut in their grassy lawns, other dogs on leashes who either ignore us or strain and bark as if our dog had just stolen their last pig’s ear, and any skateboarders. Millie is high-strung and the skateboarders’ whizzing wheels send her into fire-alarm barking. Her mother was an Australian shepherd, and even at eleven years old, she is a fluffy 60-pound bundle of nervous curiosity and hunger. We never know which passing dog deserves a quick glance and tail wag greeting or which ones earn aggressive barks and angry leash lunges. When a dog we know Millie does not feel friendly towards or any skateboarder (aged 5 or 25) is within sight, Gary leads Millie to the other side of the street and does his best to distract her with doggie treats.
I also scan the sidewalk and grassy areas for discarded food scraps. Millie’s insanely powerful nose can detect a tiny barbecue chicken bone or a half-eaten tortilla chip a block away. Her sniffs will switch from the non-urgent “Who just peed here?” (so she can cover the piss with her own) to frantic, fast-moving sniffs that exclaim, “Where the hell is that blob of rotten cheese?!” I inevitably miss a hidden half cookie under some leaves or a week-old bite of ham sandwich camouflaged beneath a battered face mask. A dog-walker must be on high alert throughout the dog’s walk.
And to get back to my first sentence, we also scoop the poop. I may be several feet in the lead when Gary announces, “We got poop!” And he counts the droppings and notes their locations because our dog likes the crop dusting approach when she defecates. She averages three to four turds per dump (and two poops per walk). I use thin plastic bags to gather the waste and dispose of it in the nearest public trash can. (Apologies for TMI ).
We count the poops because we don’t want to be someone who leaves dog ca-ca for others to step in. Of course, I’ve picked up dog poo for years, but we once had a yard, and I did not keep track of all of Millie’s poo. These days I’m so in tune with my pet’s bowel movements, I have asked Gary, “Did she poop today?” if he took her on a walk without me. This reminds me of my friend Mary’s memory of her “Aunt-Momma.”* Aunt-Momma believed all headaches, stomach issues, and general malaise were connected to one’s irregularity. Mary remembers how any time someone complained of a physical ailment, Aunt-Momma raised an index finger and made a quick hand flip before pointing at the child and asking, “When have you doo-dooed?”
We all need regular doo-doos. They keep us feeling better about life in general. One of my kids’ favorite books was “Everybody Poops” a gift from our friend Sue when she lived in Japan. The straight-forward artwork of animals and humans doing their business made sense even without a translation of the Japanese text. When we accept the stuff that makes us hold our noses and deal with the mess, we can get on with our day, realizing “Shit happens.” That’s it. We would not want it not to be a regular part of our lives.
So I’ve gotten used to counting Millie’s poops and picking them up. Life will always drop shit in my path, and I deal with it and move on. Everybody poops and everybody feels better after a good doo-doo.
When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.
When I am behind my camera, I see things that others miss. I feel new and young and inquisitive. My world is more interesting, with colors so vivid it is almost too much to bear, and I am able to focus on what really matters, the fine details of the bigger picture.
When I retired, I upgraded my little Nikon Coolpix to this bad boy, Nikon D3500. The 3500 came with one lens that was adequate and allowed me to snap pics from 17-55 feet, but as I got used to taking photos and our travels expanded, I soon “needed” a larger lens. (18-400)
On a trip to Mount Vernon, Virginia, the historic home of George and Martha Washington, I found myself enthralled with the immaculate grounds, gardens, and the Potomac River. You can actually sit in rocking chairs on the back porch and just stare at the beautiful trees, river, and horizon. There are probably 40 plus rocking chairs set up just for visitors.
By now, Boo knows nothing means more to me on vacation than taking photos. He lets me wander and stop to snap as much as I want. Sometimes he will call out worthy subjects and point to interesting sights, as he did at Mount Vernon.
“Babe, look at the cool bird sitting on top of that huge magnolia tree.”
I love photographing trees and as I was snapping away, I felt something behind me as two rather ‘weathered’ ladies tiptoed up, whispering, “We saw it too. You’ve got quite an eye.”
I turned smiling, “Thank you. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“Have you seen one before?” they asked, still whispering.
“Oh sure, lots of times. We have them in Texas.” I whispered back.
“Ohhhhhh my, that’s rare. They are usually only seen in this region. Do you use a journal or keep track online?” One lady asked.
And that is when I realized that they thought I was a Birder. Before I had to admit I was talking about the tree, the bird flew off and two more with it that had been hiding in the tree.
Impressively, I snapped photo after photo of the birds in flight and was able to follow the birds across the sky, all the while not having a clue as to what kind of birds they were.
The ladies stopped and burst into an applause. Then waved fondly as they moved on down the path.
“Good luck!” they called.
There is something about a large camera that makes people think you must be taking important photos and you must know what you are doing. On my first ever trip to Mardi Gras, I went with my Sittn’ Ugly Sistah, Ginger, to her parents’ home in Eunice, Louisiana. Our friends, Mary and Cynthia went too and the three of them really schooled me as to Mardi Gras etiquette. Once we got to downtown Eunice, I was behind my camera soaking up the colors, sights, and action.
People would stop and ask, “Will you take our picture?” They never seemed to worry about seeing the picture or wondering where it would go, they just wanted to be photographed. Couples would dance by on the street and pose, waiting for me to snap. I gladly obliged. I could almost hear the band and smell the gumbo through my lens.
I love photographing pets, and I could make a large coffee table book just on the pictures I have of our cat. She’s very photogenic, if I do say so myself, and she is a subject that never gets old.
On a beach trip to Galveston, Boo broke speed limits and raced against time to get me to ‘the best place in Galveston to capture a sunset.’ He googled the location and even carried my tripod, while helping me out onto the pier. In Maine, he carried my camera backpack all the way on our three-mile hike around the pond.
In Glacier National Park, he sprinted through the rain with my camera under his shirt just to make sure the camera stayed dry. At family gatherings, he’s constantly asking, “Did you get that?” He’s happy to see me happy taking pictures. Even Uncle B, Boo’s brother, is supportive. He gave me his tripod and is always sending me photos he knows I would appreciate.
When your heart jumps every time your camera locks focus- You’ve become a photographer.
My heart jumps when I photograph my grandkids. In fact, my favorite subjects are the people I love. My second favorite is nature. Any raindrop, insect, flower, tree, or animal; all gardens, mountains, oceans, and clouds. My mind actually sees things within a frame. It’s as if my vision is a camera lens.
Most of my photography is what the professionals call a “happy accident.” I accidently get a beautiful shot and I’m not sure how it happened. I’ve taken classes, yet sometimes I feel intimidated by people with seemingly more knowledge, bigger vocabularies, and fancier equipment. But, as with writing, there are a lot of people who talk about it, think about it and plan to do it, and there are those of us who do. I’m taking a chance, embracing imperfection and enjoying my photography more than I could ever explain. It simply fills my soul, and that’s all I need to know.
Daddy could think like a kid. He sought out new experiences and made games out of mundane experiences. He’d invent silly activities a child could get excited about and a momma would fuss about.
“Reginald! Stop working the kids up! Tete dure!” was a go-to complaint from Momma.
One of Daddy’s kid ideas was putting us on his high, broad shoulders so we could climb onto our home’s roof and run around and be eye-level with the birds.
Maybe the activity originated from Emile’s football getting thrown up there by accident or Gayle throwing Kelly’s favorite stuffed animal up there on purpose. But it became a thing to do on slow afternoons.
No matter how the idea originated, Daddy understood the thrill of doing something unusual and with a dash of danger. I remember my hesitancy on the sloping asphalt-like roof tiles as we chased each other from the area above our den, down the long hall of bedrooms, toward the big living room, dining room, and above Momma’s kitchen. The experience could be scary, but I felt invincible and wild to be so near those long live oak branches as if I were a bold bluejay. We never stayed on the roof long. After a few whoops and hesitant games of tag, we’d hear the shrill call from the kitchen below us.
“Reginald! Mon Dieu! Get those kids off the roof! Tete dure!”
Momma had spoken. Her feisty anger was the voice of reason to Dad’s love of adventure.
Also, he gave us cool vacations every summer: from countless Florida beach trips to a drive up to visit cousin Ozman in Michigan with a stop in Chicago to see cousin Lucille. We all learned to appreciate the joy of travel.
One year Dad got us a pony from his close friend Coach Cormier. We learned to ride Red bareback in our yard and in the rice fields that surrounded our property. Dad made us jump into the deep end of the swimming pool before we knew how to swim. He’d tread water in the ten-foot deep water and grab us when we bobbed to the surface. He invented the Bangberry Ride where we took “rides” on a long tree branch, and he fixed us a tire swing on a giant rope that hung from a branch twenty feet above our heads. After the tire fell off, he tied the rope into a massive knot so kids could swing out of the tree’s tall fork like Tarzan. He once scared a living room full of slumber party girls by coming out of the wood box next to our fireplace on his knees with Momma’s stocking over his face. He loved to surprise us!
When we became adults, he organized and paid for trips to Italy (one in Tuscany, another in Umbria). Dad never moved out of Eunice (until age 89) and ended up living in the home he grew up in: however, he and Mom traveled the globe when he worked for Southwestern Life: Hawaii, Japan, France, Germany, Greece, Bermuda.
He loved to go, go, go as much as he loved creating unexpected adventures. Driving home from a Carlsbad Cavern vacation, he stopped the car in west Texas on an empty stretch of highway and said, “Let’s climb that mountain!” Coming from the flat, flat south Louisiana area, the rocky hill of about 200 feet did seem mountainous. Emile, Gayle, Kelly and I followed Dad’s lead and scrambled up the rough terrain full of cacti, sticky shrubs, and sliding rocks. Only Emile made it to the top, and even he got nervous after someone pointed out a large snake between some rocks. Momma stayed at the car with Kelly who was too young to climb very far. With the snake alert Momma let out a terrified, “Oh! Merde!” grabbed Kelly and got inside the car despite the hot summer temperature. On our way down the hill Gayle jumped atop a huge flat rock and pronounced herself “King of the hill!”
Daddy took an immediate liking to that rock and said, “Let’s take this rock home! A souvenir!” We kids helped him dig around the base until he and Emile could free it and drag it back towards the car.
Forgetting the snake, Momma jumped out of the car to declare, “Reginald, what in the world are you doing?”
Emile and Dad were struggling to get a 140-pound rock into our trunk. Gayle and I had moved a suitcase and Mom’s vanity case to the backseat to give the rock room.
“Tete dure! We do not need that!” Mom said as we all ignored her.
That small boulder then lived in our backyard where we found lots of uses for it: a makeshift table for tea parties, a home base for hide-and-seek games, a cool resting spot for cats and dogs during summer, a place to sit and dig mud off the sides of your shoes, and a low pedestal for young imaginary royalty.
Dad’s spontaneous and fearless ideas often clashed with Momma’s anxious and reasonable thoughts. He could be short-tempered and loud and bossy, yet he never lost that spark of kid-like fun. He played tennis until his mid 80’s and he went to the casino past the age of 90. Always up for a game of cards, a new restaurant, or a road trip!
As parents, we do our best to give our kids as many good times as we can manage. Dad gave us vacations every summer: beaches, national parks, Six Flags, and Disney World. But my fondest memories are of playing in our own backyard. We were barefoot most of the time and always had a dog and some cats around. If a cousin came to visit, it felt cool to impress her with a unique form of fun. “Wanna get up on the roof?”
Then after Dad’s nap, if he was in a good mood, I’d tell him, “Gina wants to get on the roof, Daddy.”
And he’d stretch his long arms and look toward the kitchen where Mom was cleaning or cooking. He’d give us a conspiratorial wink and head toward the back yard. First, Dad would bend low to the ground and help me climb onto his shoulders with my legs dangling around his neck. Then he’d take my right hand and I’d put my right foot on his shoulder. Next he’d hold my weak left hand tightly and give me time to put my left foot on his shoulder. I clung to his extra-large hands with bated breath as he walked my shaking torso right next to the lowest spot of our roof. My more agile brother and sisters had already shimmied up the metal T.V. antenna pole right next to our wooden garage. Gayle lay flat on the roof and grabbed both of my arms as Dad put one huge palm under my butt and got all of me up on the roof. Gayle then smiled at our cousin’s big blue eyes as Gina considered the risks involved in our game.
“Come on, Gina! If I can do it, you know you can!” I said.
Soon five squealing kids were running like monkeys just let loose from a cage. My siblings were fearless and kept their hands in the air as they padded along the hot roof tiles, but I preferred the Mowgli walk. Gina took her time getting her “roof legs” screaming as she figured out if the game with no rules was worth the risk. As our bare feet got used to the rough surface, we all moved faster and squealed louder. The five pairs of small feet made padding noises with uneven rhythms because we all made short runs and sudden stops. Our heads told us we were as powerful and brave as eagles, but suddenly we’d hear a strident shout from the kitchen area below us.
“RE-GI-NALD!! Get those kids off the roof! MAINTENANT!”
Merci beaucoup, Daddy! For being an exciting instigator and a wonderful partner-in-crime!
The first time it happened, I was not prepared. The sun was shining, and I had a spring in my step as I headed outside for my walk. Two blocks down I heard, “Oh, howdy neighbor,” as I ran smack dab into John.
On our first meeting I learned John was a retired college professor, married to a woman whose mother was ill, the mother lived in Poland, and he knew three languages.
He was going home after his walk but decided to walk with me for a while, just to chat.
“Won’t you be going the wrong way?” I smiled.
“Oh, I don’t mind, I’ll walk with you at least to the next street. What did you say your name was?”
“Nancy,” I said. “I live on the corner, there.”
“I know,” he said, and we walked together to the next street.
John, bless his heart, is in his late seventies. He uses a cane to support his stooped frame but is surprisingly agile as he sprints across the street to see me. Most days he has on a faded baseball cap, PBS t-shirt, and plaid pajama pants with tennis shoes. He sports a dashing mustache and has twinkling blue eyes that light up when he smiles, and he’s always smiling.
Because John often needs to stop and catch his breath, I slow down and just wait while he rests and entertains me with his steady stream of stories from the past.
Lest you think I am sweet for listening, I have been known to look out my front door and scan the streets before starting to walk. I selfishly want to be alone with my thoughts or Spotify favorites, and walk at a faster pace. But, on many occasions when I thought the coast was clear, he will come out of nowhere and POOF, I’ll hear him calling my name.
Once I left the house, calling to Boo, “I’m going to get the mail. Be right back.”
It takes me fifteen minutes to walk up the street and back to our community mailboxes. Forty-five minutes later when I returned; Boo was standing in the kitchen,
“He’s a walker stalker!” Boo laughed.
John will start talking fifty feet before he gets to me, and ever the gentleman he says, “I see you’re going for your walk. Do you mind if I join you?”
Another time I lied, “Sorry, John, I’m trying to get a short walk in before I have to go to a doctor’s appointment.”
But he said, “Me too, which doctor are you going to? I’ll just walk with you to the next street.”
John asks me questions about myself, too. He now knows my husband’s name, how long I worked in education, how many children we have and how long we’ve lived in our house.
Boo was mowing the front yard one day, when I suddenly heard the mower stop. I figured he was emptying the clippings, but when the mower never started back up, I opened the door to check. One foot out the door and I saw John, leaning on his cane, chatting up a storm with Boo. I quickly and quietly shut the door and hid. Some time later the mower sputtered back up and soon Boo came in calling, “John says hello. Did you know he was a college professor?”
Last year with the Pandemic and all, John would always stay a respectable distance while we walked, asking if I was comfortable about the six-foot rule. But now I know John is vaccinated, his wife is visiting her mother, he married late in life at fifty-three, he has sciatica and he had lunch with two friends yesterday. Things are getting back to normal.
When I’m walking with John, he smiles and greets everyone on our path. He knows most of them by name and can tell me something interesting about each one. He’s amazing. His seventy-plus-year-old mind is as sharp as ever. When I stop to think about it, John has been the highlight of my shelter in place, stay at home days. He’s upbeat, never feels sorry for himself, and although he has to stop now and again to rest, he’s out there doing his thing.
As much as I selfishly want to walk faster some days, I know there will come a time when I miss seeing John and hearing about his life. Perhaps divine providence brought me John to slow me down and refine my patience. He certainly has brought me company along my walks and a smile on those lonely COVID days. It’s hard to believe that someday I may be out walking the neighborhood, looking for friendship and a listening ear. I hope you’ll slow down and walk with me, at least to the next street.
Disclaimer: I have not technically been “a girl” in over five decades. In four months, I’ll qualify for Medicare! “Girl” is an affectionate way some women, even old ones, communicate. “Hey, Girl! Can you believe this weather!?” or “Girl! It’s been too long since we got together!”
Anyway…I’m not the girl who cares if my clothes match perfectly or I have on make-up or if my hair looks great. I’m tempted to use the current scapegoat, the pandemic, but I really blame my appearance apathy on my mom. She used to wear two shades of blue that were close to the same color but not quite. She’d sport an aqua top with cobalt pants with confidence. She got her hair dyed and styled every week and she liked getting dressed up for events every now and then, but she never spent more than ten minutes in front of a mirror before she faced the world. She cared how she looked but she cared more about other things, like good food, good company, and good times.
A week ago I wore my Catcher in the Rye sweatshirt backwards for my morning walk without noticing, and yesterday I sat in my car ready to drive to the grocery store, looked down, noticed a large round grease stain on my navy pants, and never considered going inside to change. I will not retire a favorite t-shirt even after washing machine gremlins have eaten several tiny holes in the front of the shirt. I will wear black sandals with a navy skirt, and I’m not sure of the fall date that decides when it’s illegal to wear white shoes.
When I was teaching, I did my best to look presentable. Our English department wing had a psycho central heating and cooling unit that liked to match the outside weather. If it was 88 in the Texas shade, our classrooms’ temp hovered between 86 and 90. If the fall air was around 52, that was the temperature setting for our rooms. I kept a brass coatrack in the back of my class full of hoodies and sweaters for kids to use while we read Dante’s Inferno or Into Thin Air (an account of climbing Mount Everest). I also had a lumpy multi-colored sweater draped over my teacher chair to help me with the frigid days. I remember a time I’d worn my maroon corduroy jacket with my thin cotton knit skirt and blouse as kids shivered in their desks. During the passing period I noticed my teacher friend in the hall with crossed, goose-bump covered arms. I offered her my lumpy sweater. She gave me a sweet, blue-lipped smile and rubbed her bare forearms.
“Thanks, but that sweater won’t match my dress,” she said right before the tardy bell rang and we each turned to enter our walk-in freezer rooms.
I am not that kind of girl! Looking well put together matters to me, but being cold or uncomfortable trumps style and beauty every time. I put extra time into looking presentable for weddings, funerals, and senior proms (when I’m a chaperone), but even then I’m okay, not great.
In 1989 when I was pregnant with my second son, I decided to get my hair cut extra short so that I could wash it, towel dry it, and go. I never mastered styling hair with a blow dryer, and I do not allow my hair stylist for over thirty years to use “products” on my hair.
I’ve let my hair grow out in 2020 partly because… well… we were on pandemic lockdown, partly to let my hair cover up what old age has been doing to my neck. Then my sister convinced me to stop coloring my hair, and I now have the elderly version of Billie Eilish hair: whitish gray up to my ears and light brown to the top of my shoulders.
When it comes to makeup, I use lip gloss most days and a smear of liquid foundation if I’m going somewhere fancy (like the post office or Target) or have a work-related Zoom meeting. I should not be trusted with eyeliner, mascara, or any other advanced beauty product. During my teens when my Barbra Streisand obsession was at its peak, I worked hard to imitate her smokey eye make-up that involved liner, eye shadow and black mascara, but I’m sure I succeeded in looking like a 15-year-old trying out for a part as a raccoon in her high school’s version of Dr. Doolittle. Once in the 1980’s I read in a Glamour magazine an interview with a model who complained that her sister “put her makeup on with her hooves!” I have always connected with that description of makeup application.
In 1985, after meeting Gary’s family for the first time, I asked him what his brother and sister-in-law thought of me (we stayed at their home). He said, “They said you were nice and that you didn’t wear much makeup.” I felt but a few seconds of disappointment until I remembered his family lived in the land of big hair and abundant makeup.
I am not that kind of girl. Not fancy. No frills. Come as you are kind of person. And almost all of my friends in Austin are similar. Maybe we like a throw-back, retro hippy look. Or perhaps I hold on to growing up in Eunice in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Long loose hair and braless halter top memories. In college it was thrift stores and jeans that got their holes and tears from honest living not from the manufacture’s assembly line. Even our stockings were full of holes!
I remember a scene in the movie Julie and Julia. Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) and Jane Lynch (as her sister Dorothy) are looking in front of a full mirror as they put on pearls to match their fancy dresses before entering a big party downstairs. Julia looks sideways toward her sister after they both consider their reflections, and starts with, “Pretty good.” Then a short pause and “But not great.” They shrug and laugh and head to the party. That’s how I feel about my looks after I try to get “all dolled up.” Pretty good. But not great.
I do not care whether my hair looks styled, my clothes are neat and coordinated, or my face is blemish-free. With hooves for hands and a far from perfect body, I am content to be pretty good because I hope to never be “that kind of girl.”