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 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 #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 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 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. 

Posted in Contemplations, Gratitude, Nature

Routines by Ginger Keller Gannaway   

Routines fool me into believing all is right with my world. When I follow my morning ritual, the day has the promised sweetness of a crisp, polished apple or a nectarine begging me to enjoy its juiciness. I get up with fresh brewed coffee and read, pray, think, and write while I “sit ugly.” Next, I go on a two-mile walk by myself and catch the sun winking at me through trees both bald and full. This by-myself walk lets ideas bounce around my brain while my feet do heel/toe steps, and I observe the natural world coexisting with the city. Birds perch in branches and on electrical power lines. Squirrels race through crunchy fallen leaves and greasy discarded food wrappers. The grass grows confidently in lush wooded areas and between uneven sidewalk cracks. Dogs’ barks mix with cars’ revving engines. And sweet flower fragrances swirl around the aroma of onions and potatoes frying on a stove.

I get tricked into believing life is balanced.

Millie Biscuit

I carry pepper spray in my front pants pocket, and the thumb of my right hand rubs the gadget’s activation button at the same time I give familiar fellow walkers a head nod.

Wake. Pray. Sip. Think. Write. Walk alone. Observe. Think. Connect. Walk. Think some more.

I need my five to seven a.m. time to myself. And when Millie pants too loud or J.T. meows incessantly, I curse the interruptions. I want morning rituals to calm the fears that hide just below the surface of my even breaths and soulful stares outside my office window. My nasty thoughts, like zombies, push through the dirt of their graves. Their thin, bloodless hands come out first followed by rotting faces with hanging eyeballs and slack-jawed mouths. Uneven groans and weak cries accompany their struggle to enter the world of the living. Some horror flicks claim they want to eat our brains. Sounds right. They’re after my wise thoughts, my positive vibes, and my fragile faith. So to avoid the zombies, I head out the door and let nature clear my head.

I enjoy the predictable moments of my walk, and I give strangers complimentary nicknames. On the spooky street, I see “The Other Aunt Toni,” a tall slim woman in her eighties who lives alone and sweeps her front porch or takes in the garbage bin with her walker nearby. Her solid independence and short, stylish white hair remind me of my dad’s younger sister who just turned 93. Further down the street, I wave to “John Goodman’s Brother,” a large retired guy with a spunky dog. His smooth voice, long, full face, and cool demeanor (he was once a part of a local rock band) evoke the essence of the actor who graced both The Big Lebowski and the Treme series. Sometimes I spot “Minari Grandma” – an energetic Asian woman in a large front yard with a wild-looking garden that she tends with a determined, don’t-mess-with-me-attitude. The flowers, vegetables, and ferns all vie for her attention as she tends to the wildness wearing a floppy wide-brimmed hat and bringing to mind the untraditional grandma in the movie Minari.  Seeing the same houses, yards, cats and people each morning gives me comfort. Predictability clears my head of predatory thoughts.

Until something makes me raise both eyebrows. A for-real dead opossum next to an overwhelmed garbage bin. A slumped over person sleeping in his parked car. A loose dog giving me the eye. 

Then I’m sure the zombies are hiding around the corner of the next house. And my mind remembers that life’s surprises are not always good. And the whatifs get more convincing. What if that person in the car was not just asleep? Could he have overdosed? Should I go back and knock on the car window? Do I need to call 9-1-1?

But I keep walking and a large beige and orange window cat looks at me, and I realize the zombies are not in that yard. And I turn down a wider street with fewer cracked segments of sidewalk. I see Walking Lady coming my way, and I know we will smile, wave, and comment on the weather when we get closer to each other. Soon I’ll get back to my condo where Millie will be pacing and Gary is sipping his first cup of coffee and working a Sudoko. I’ll eat a banana and in twenty minutes Gary and I will take Millie for a long walk. We may take a route similar to my by-myself walk

Sam & June

We will share our day’s agendas and comment on the a hot news topic or mention the emotional and physical states of our three grown sons. And we’ll stay aware of Millie’s poops. More routines to follow. 

Grandma’s Recipe

And the balance I first felt with my first cup of coffee may not be as steady, but I do know I am very fortunate. I keep on believing the world is more like eating a just-right banana than stepping in dog shit. The zombies in my brain will stay below the earth for now because I have three wonderful sons living nearby. Each has someone he loves above all others. I have a stereo system from the 1970s with a turntable that only sometimes goes backwards. I’m making my grandma’s “Madame Queen Cornbread Dressing” today (and a shrimp and mushroom dressing for my youngest son) in preparation for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. And my momma’s version of turkey and sausage gumbo will be made on Friday.

So Turkey Day’s routines will happen, and I feel mostly sure “all shall be well” and if things veer off course (like someone brings extra-powerful magic cookies) and the hosts become incapacitated for awhile, that will be a family story to tell one day. All will still be mostly ok. Wabi-Sabi, y’all!

Turkey Bob
Posted in Confessions, Contemplations

Kitchen Window by Ginger Keller Gannaway

My favorite Hitchcock movie is Rear Window, a perfect mix of mystery, romance, social commentary, and humor.  (And that’s not even including Grace Kelly’s beauty and costumes!)  Jimmy Stewart spies on his neighbors from his NYC apartment during a summer when he’s stuck in a wheelchair with an up-to-his-hip plaster cast. As a photojournalist he has fancy zoom lenses to complement the basic snooping tool – binoculars. Jimmy and his diverse neighbors’ rear apartment windows all open up to a courtyard where residents plant gardens, make sculptures, do exercises, and entertain guests. Jimmy spends so much time observing his neighbors, he learns their occupations, their personalities, and their secrets. 

I can relate to the thrill of spying on others.  When as a kid I rode in the back seat of our car as Dad drove down two-lane country roads, I loved looking into the windows of strangers’ homes. Early evening lighting made for the best views and entertaining speculations. Was the blue glow from a TV soothing a lonely widow or an exhausted parent? Did dim yellow light mean a candlelit dinner for two? What about glaring white lights that flooded several rooms? Could it mean a birthday celebration or a kid home alone and afraid of the dark? Every window held different story possibilities.

Now we live in a condo, and our second floor kitchen window has a front row view of the courtyard and pool, a laundry room, and the mailbox area. I watch my neighbors go to and from work, walk their dogs, lounge at the pool, or chat near the mailboxes. I have, like Jimmy Stewart, given them nicknames as I guess about their private lives. There’s “T-Squared,” a young guy who spends hours tanning and texting at the pool in hopes of winning the George Hamilton Lookalike Award. There’s “BB,” an older well-endowed, talkative busybody who goes braless and knows all the condo scoop, and “Solo,” a longtime resident who lurks poolside with his ever-present red plastic cup. And “Cookie Monster’s Owner” whose dog snarls at pets and people alike. (BB told me Cookie Monster once bit the guy who lives right below me). There’s soft-spoken “Poodle Man”, a smiling, kind guy with a well-groomed dog. “ER” has the apartment across the courtyard from me. He uses a walker, doesn’t respond to health workers knocking on his door, and gets wheeled out on ambulance stretchers twice a month. 

Although I’ve never suspected anyone in our complex of killing his/her spouse (as in Rear Window), a guy did die during the pandemic lockdown. His death went undiscovered for days! Also, the day we first moved into our unit, an angry couple screamed at one another from the sidewalk outside our condo fence until a resident  called the cops. As I lugged boxes of photo albums and kitchenware up my stairs, I heard a female from the sidewalk yell, “Hide behind your damn gate, assholes!” I had a small pang of worry that day; however, our apartments apparently hide only tiny dramas.

I like to wash dishes and survey the area outside my window. I notice when a resident has her grandkids visit and they take over the pool area. I take note of who swims laps on a regular basis, who reads in the loungers, who barbecues. I remember when Solo put tiny strips of paper on all of our door clips inviting us to his poolside birthday celebration one Sunday afternoon. It was a BYOB affair with chips and dip provided. Several of us showed up while Solo held court and someone in the pool blasted oldies from phone speakers. For a little while those of us there acted like neighbors who knew and cared about each other, yet most days we do little more than wave howdy. 

Sometimes I create back stories for those I see from my window. Did Solo once have an affair with BB but broke up with her after she told her next-door neighbor about his collection of bizarre Troll dolls? Is T-Squared texting conspiracy theories to Alex Jones’ Infowars? Will Poodle Man plot to poison Cookie Monster?

Just silly scenarios that stem from too many Netflix nights. Too many thrillers and true-crime dramas. As we start venturing out beyond our homes and apartments, will we get to know our neighbors better, or will we maintain our safe, private ways? Is it not easier and less messy to view others from a distance, choosing mystery over fact, imagination over reality?

My kitchen window

Posted in Confessions, Dreams, Gratitude

Funny Girl Fanatic by Ginger Keller Gannaway

“I’d Rather Be Blue” song

I grew up a faithful patron of the Liberty Theater and the Queen Cinema in Eunice, Louisiana where I saw almost every movie shown from 1960 through 1972 (beginning of ratings system).  But I did not become an obsessive film fan until I saw Funny Girl in 1968.

Barbra Streisand’s unique voice and dramatic delivery made me want to stay for the 8:30 feature that followed the 6:00 p.m. one I’d just seen. At first “The Greatest Star” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” were my favorite songs. My sisters and I pantomimed these tunes at home while Momma’s hi-fi in the den blasted through the ceiling speakers in the living room. After fourteen viewings, “My Man” (the one song filmed before a live audience) became my favorite. Barbra’s cool short haircut that framed her anguished face and her long drop pearl earrings were spotlit. All but her fabulous face, sleek hands and long fingernails seemed to disappear into the blackness of the stage. She began the torch song fighting back tears with a halting delivery. But her strength grew as her voice got steadier and louder until she threw out both arms and belted the last line with a power that made me hold my breath while my thirteen-year-old heart ached for reasons it could not yet comprehend.

The movie earned eight Oscar nominations and Barbra got the film’s one Best Actress win for her portrayal of the incredible Fanny Brice. Her self-deprecating humor and durable-as-rubber-tubing ambition spoke to my wallflower teen angst, and her rise to stardom despite her nontraditional beauty gave me hope. 

I was an extra shy girl with a limping left leg and a skinny, spastic left arm. I hid my mild cerebral palsy from most folks until a situation required the use of two healthy limbs. In my mind, I clapped with a hand and a claw. If I had to hold two paper cups at the same time, I’d touch the sides together in hopes my steady right hand could keep my shaky left from spilling the cups’ contents. Yet even if luck shone on me and very little water splashed over the rim, my CP hand could involuntarily squeeze the stupid flimsy cup and dump half its contents onto the floor.

Watching Funny Girl gave me hope of reaching my life goal of being the first big movie star to emerge from Eunice, Louisiana or become Barbra Streisand’s new best friend – two equally worthy aspirations.

So I spent nights at Grandma’s house where I could walk to the Queen Cinema three blocks away, and no adult needed to drop me off or pick me up. In the dark theater with my long-lasting Toostsie Roll, I could watch Barbra sing and roller skate her way to fame and later have Omar Sharif kiss her neck while he seduced her with dinner and song.

My naive self believed that I (like my movie idol) could conquer all challenges. My small Cajun existence could tell me I was weak and awkward and invisible to the boys I had crushes on. But in my mind I’d be wearing a red and black sailor top with black bloomers and stockings, and I’d have two long graceful arms of the same length extended while I threw my head back and twirled on an empty stage and sang, “Have you guessed yet/ Who’s the best yet/ If you ain’t I’ll tell you one more time/ you bet your last dime./ I am the greatest, the greatest star!”

“The Greatest Star”

The Liberty and Queen were like my second home, and Funny Girl made that home a portal of possibilities. Barbra inspired me to be braver. Maybe I had a crooked left side and I wore uncool corrective shoes. Maybe my hair frizzed out and my pimples surprised me on the most inconvenient days. My parents misunderstood me, my sisters ganged up against me, and the boys at school made me wish I could crawfish my way into a mud home whenever they were near. But Barbra had not listened to critics or let rejection stop her from conquering Broadway and Hollywood in her early twenties. She faced off with anyone who tried to rain on her parade. Her talent astounded me, but more importantly her confidence and tenacity made the teenage me feel less like a loser. Barbra Streisand’s movies and albums made me believe I was one of those “luckiest people in the world.”

Posted in Contemplations, Nature, Pets, Relationships

Mary Sunshine by Ginger Keller Gannaway

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Before we downsized to life in a condo, we lived a half block from a Catholic university. The campus was the perfect size for my early morning dog walks with Millie. We got up and out before classes began and made a big loop around the school, enjoying sun rise and the shady green areas. We didn’t see many people, mostly the groundkeepers and a few eager freshmen, with a rare professor spotting.

I noticed that other neighborhood walkers would often return my head nod, smile, or wave after they had seen me a few times. Some were natural greeters and said hi the first time our paths crossed, but most needed to get used to Millie and me first.

As for the students, the return greetings for my outreach attempts were about fifty percent. Often the young people wore ear buds and looked sleep deprived as they passed us. I’d catch whiffs of soap, body spray, or pot as they ignored my half wave or “Morning.” 

One September morning a gangly girl with jet black hair and rumpled shirt and jeans gave us an earnest, “Hey there.” I gave her a large smile and Millie wagged her tail.

“What a great dog! Can I pet her?”

Millie Biscuit

“Sure! Her name’s Millie.”

The girl got down on one knee and gave my energetic dog two-handed pets and ear rubs with praise like “You a sweetie! Good girl, Millie!”

We chatted and she told me she was a freshman and terribly missed her dog back home. She did not mind that an excited Millie pushed her dark-rimmed glasses off her nose. The girl left us with a huge smile as she repositioned her backpack and headed to a campus coffee shop.

I never ran into this sweet souled girl again even though Millie and I both wished we had.

We got regular waves from almost every person driving a cart loaded with gardening tools, but never ever from a blonde woman who seemed to be a groundskeeper supervisor. She drove her cart with a no-nonsense demeanor and wore a crisp, clean khaki uniform. Her short, curly hair hid under a university cap, and her snug shirt stayed tucked in her pants with her plain black no-name sneakers completing her all work/no play look. Once she caught me letting Millie off leash to run through a small overgrown field on the edge of campus. 

“Dogs on leash!” she snapped.

“Sorry,” I said as I used a dog treat to get Millie to head back to me. After that I let Millie off leash only on holidays and weekends when I wouldn’t run into Ms. Mary Sunshine.

In the early evenings we took Millie for another university stroll and came to know other dog owners.  We shared stories about the campus, and none of us had ever seen the blonde groundskeeper smile. She was known for her frowns and dog fussing. So it wasn’t just me and Millie.

For awhile I tried to get more than a scowl from Mary Sunshine, but I soon gave up and avoided her as much as I could. Who wants to encounter someone who glares at your smiles, looks right through your waves, and acts deaf to your, “Good Mornings”? I told myself she was the campus curmudgeon who hated her job and other living individuals as well.

On a random weekday morning Millie and I were finishing our university loop when I noticed Mary Sunshine near a small gas pump encircled by a chainlink fence that the university cart-drivers used. She knelt and shook dry cat food into a small bowl. I could make out a sweet voice calling the cats to breakfast. I couldn’t hear her exact words, but the tone was high-pitched and welcoming. I slowed Millie’s walk and gave Mary Sunshine alone time with her three cats who curled in and around her feet as she kept up the tender sounds.

Photo by umit ozbek on Pexels.com

I had noticed cats there before when Millie pulled on her leash as we walked past the gas pump, but I would never have guessed who was filling those water and food bowls.

I did not try greeting the blonde woman even after I learned she had a tender side. But I did think of her differently. She reminded me to be less quick-to-judge others, even people with permanent frowns and angry eyes. To stop jumping to conclusions about those who dress, speak, walk, or look at the world a certain way. A Mary Sunshine will not necessarily deserve my sarcastic name-calling. Maybe we all have a hidden softness that’s reserved for secret times with a selected few.

Posted in Family, Mothers

Crooked Love by Ginger Keller Gannaway

I wrote and performed this essay in 2014 at  a Listen to Your Mother program. My son Casey is getting married next week (after two previous COVID cancellations) to a wonderful, beautiful woman named Catherine. I thought of how love travels down curvy, bumpy roads, yet those obstacles may make the love deeper, stronger. 

I was born crooked. I was a C-section baby, and the oxygen apparatus did not work in the delivery room, so the doctor had to give me mouth-to- mouth resuscitation to save my life. I suppose the time without oxygen caused my Cerebral Palsy brain damage.  My whole left side was affected: smaller, weaker, crooked left arm and leg.  

When Evan, my youngest son, at age five asked me, “Momma, are you handicapped?”  the query caught me off-guard, but I calmly answered, “Well, yes, I suppose I am.”  He accepted this fact and then thoughtfully added,“ But you’re just a lil bit handicapped, right?” So, I feel fortunate that I’m “just a lil’ bit” affected by C. P. even though I am always aware of my crooked self. 

Then how ironic is life, when ten years ago Casey, my middle son, had a horrendous accident (at age 20), and now his left arm won’t fully straighten and he has lost some mobility in his left side?  He, like me, has become a bit crooked. Is not all love, especially mother-child love, somewhat crooked?                            

1995 when I believed I had control of my 3 sons.

Mothers travel a truly crooked road. We begin the journey with quintessential closeness: breast-feeding and a connection that keeps us from sleeping through the night. We even convince ourselves our children are safe. Then God laughs and shoves the reality of the precariousness of parenthood in our faces. You think you are SAFE. Ha! Here’s an ear infection with a 102 fever.  How about an asthma attack?  Or a drug-related hellish accident?  Anytime that tight mother/child bond is fractured, we start to curse the heavens. “Why me?”  Our journey of love takes a sudden hairpin turn or it hits a pot hole, or a sudden speed trap, or a dense fog. The possibilities are endless.  And since mothers have indomitable spirits and bearlike bravery and superhero strength, we maneuver these highway dangers and we fight to keep our most precious loved ones protected. So surviving these inevitable pitfalls of motherly love tightens that mother/child closeness, no matter how old our child may be.                                            

Casey from birth has been my rough and tumble child. He was born so fast I couldn’t get the epidural I so wanted, and his face was bruised and smashed-looking.  At age two, he got stitches in his forehead, at four -staples at the back of his head, at seven- more stitches, at thirteen, a broken arm, and at fifteen-staples again. Later came the drinking, pot-smoking, speeding tickets, and DWI. The girlfriend drama and the pill problem followed.  On November 31, 2010 the whole teenage mess culminated around midnight when Casey fell 40 feet from an interstate overpass.  At six a.m. the next morning a passing jogger found him, unconscious, on a grassy patch of ground.

To this day Casey does not remember everything that led up to his fall, except that he had taken an abundance of Xanax. He shattered his pelvis, broke his left arm in several places, fractured two vertebrae, and sustained severe internal injuries (including a collapsed lung and a damaged section of his colon that had to be cut out). Miraculously he had no head injuries. I spent countless hours in the hospital: helping arrange Casey’s eight-plus pillows around his many broken parts, watching several seasons of Always Sunny in Philadelphia as a distraction from the pain and the boredom, making special smoothies his stomach would tolerate, learning about wound care, pampering him like when he was my bouncing baby boy.  After six weeks in the hospital and twelve different surgeries, Casey came home in a body brace and a partially-open stomach wound.                                                                                                                           

Today Casey is fine and living on his own, but he is still my rough and tumble boy. That dark, twisted nightmare of his accident has somehow toughened our mother-son connection. I remember walking into his hospital room at 6 a.m. once and Casey, sleeping with nuts and bolts sticking out of his arm, opened his eyes, smiled, and said it was “wonderful” when I arrived before he woke up.  Those long hours in the hospital, a mixture of shared silences and sudden heart-to-heart revelations, have made us better understand each other.

When we accept life’s crooked, rough side as much as we treasure life’s straight, smooth moments, we more fully understand the mystery and wonder of love….even when it’s crooked.  

I do not resent or hate my or my son’s crookedness, nor do I need to fix it. From the allure of a crooked grin to the loveliness of a crooked curl, I embrace life’s crooked love.