I grew up as a crooked girl who dealt with a mild case of cerebral palsy. In a small Cajun town during the 1960s, I relied on my little sisters' support and energy to give me confidence and our grandma's movie theater to help me escape when life's "pas bon" moments overwhelmed me.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
Momma’s nickname was Poulette (Cajun for lil’ chicken) because she was always pecking around, picking up, cleaning, cooking, just forever in motion. I remember Momma with a dishrag always in her hand, ready to clean any surface she passed. One of my favorite Poulette memories involves a hibou (Cajun for owl).
I was in high school and awoke in the middle of the night to strange sounds from the front of the house. I crept down our long hall towards rustling clinks and clatters in the kitchen. Was someone fixing a midnight snack? I froze mid-step when I saw a three-foot brown and white owl perched in our kitchen sink. It settled its wings and met my open-mouthed stare with a slow blink and a freeze-tag pose.
Like a first grader, I ran back down the hall to my parents’ bedroom.
I entered the dark room and said,“Hey! There’s an owl in the kitchen!” in a loud whisper as if embarrassed to utter such an unlikely statement.
Dad raised his head to ask,“Wha? Huh?”
“For real! An owl’s in our kitchen,” I said.
Daddy shook his head, lay back down, and rolled over.
But Momma was already putting her robe on and coming my way.
“A hibou? Let’s go,” she said.
We held hands as we walked down our long hall past bedrooms where my siblings slept and stopped at the orange Formica wall-mounted kitchen table four yards from the kitchen sink to have a staring contest with the owl. We now clutched each other’s forearm and accepted the reality of what we saw. The owl sat content in the spotless, stainless steel sink below a clean window with blue flowered curtains. Momma and I took measured breaths as if we were about to duck underwater for a long swim. Then she let go of my arm and tiptoed to the laundry room to the left of our kitchenette table. I headed back through the den to open our heavy back door. We had wordlessly planned to shoo the owl outside.
Poulette emerged from the laundry room holding a broom like a long spear as she slowly advanced toward the kitchen sink. Her strategy was to scare the owl towards the opened door and sweep him outside. A sensible plan until my blind cat Cupid dashed inside just as Poulette raised her broom spear toward the hibou. I screamed because I believed the owl would attack Cupid. Momma changed direction and hurried to the door. Her rule of “No pets in the house!” had been broken!
“Chat! Chat!” she yelled and tried to sweep my cat outside. Cupid dashed underneath the den’s couch thrilled and amazed to be indoors.
The owl watched our shenanigans without moving a feather. Momma stood next to me as I held the door open and she tapped the floor with the end of her broom handle like it was a sentinel’s staff, as angry at the cat for getting inside as she was annoyed to have an owl in her kitchen.
We sighed in unison just as the owl decided to spread its incredible wings and fly toward us. Momma’s broom went under-the-arm and we hightailed it toward the living room.
“Mon dieu!” said Momma while I let out an extended scream and forgot about my hiding cat. The owl calmly settled on a foot stool next to the sofa and became a statue again.
We clutched forearms again.With our backs now against the front door, we suddenly had the same idea: Open both front and back doors to create a draft!
So I opened the back door while Poulette turned the broom into a lance and headed back to the den and her hibou adversary. I noticed the broom’s bristles shake when I followed her and hid behind the fully opened back door and peeped out to watch the confrontation.
My 5’ 2”, 100 pound mom, who shrieked and hid when she saw a tiny lizard, was now a warrior. Her broom became Excalibur and she swung it above her head before thrusting it straight at her opponent. The owl had been looking longingly out the huge picture window in the den, but it now did that slow creepy head turn as Poulette advanced.
With her broom sword ten inches in front of the owl, Poulette yelled, “Shoo! Shoo!” Then she lowered her weapon to sweep the air around its feet. The owl blinked twice, opened his wings, and smoothly flew out the back door as I cheered from my hiding place. Poulette whooped and alternated wielding her broom like a sword and sweeping the doorway.
“We did it!” I bragged as we hugged and danced by the door.
“What a big hibou!” Momma declared.
“But not too big for a poulette with a broom,” I said.
She hugged me again and said, “ Cha, I need to sit down.” So we rested in the kitchen, took deep breaths, and laughed.
We never did find out how the owl made its way into our house. Maybe it was stunned or slightly hurt and a strong wind blew the back door open, so it coasted in. Maybe some prankster put it in our house. It stayed in our backyard in one of our live oak trees for an hour before taking flight and leaving us.
The Hibou event became part of our family folklore, an unsolved mystery. However, one part of that story holds no mystery whatsoever: Momma Poulette had heroic bravery when it came to protecting her “chicks.” Years later she may have no longer rushed about the house cleaning and organizing her family’s lives and ended up in a wheelchair before she passed away in 2015. But whenever she looked at me with her crystal-blue eyes and gave me her pure-love smile, I still saw the Poulette spark and remembered how she handled that hibou that weird pre-dawn morning.
Champagne’s grocery store in Eunice, Louisiana keeps the fresh crawfish tails in a special cooler in the back that customers don’t have access to. At the check-out you tell the cashier how many pounds of crawfish you want and they go to the “vault” in the back and return with your treasure. Before they ring up the pricey seafood, they count each of the crawfish packets in front of you.
“You wanted four pounds: one, two, three, four.”
And they bag them as if you’re at a bank where the teller counts your stack of twenty dollar bills.
(I dramatically imagine this is what a big drug deal is like. “Three kilos of cocaine: one, two, three.”)
When I first witnessed this transaction, I asked the cashier why they did it this way.
“Had to,” she said. “Folks would get home with their crawfish and call us and claim they’d paid for four pounds, but we gave ‘em only three.”
I nodded and thought, “Fresh crawfish tails are like gold or diamonds – precious, expensive, and hard to get.” They’re only available a few months a year and are mostly found in south Louisiana.
Crawfish, like small lobsters, have a rich sweetness that reminds me of being eight-years-old, barefoot on a May afternoon when I felt at home with myself and my family. My biggest worries involved sister fights and what sins I’d need to own up to once a week at school when the nuns led our class to that week’s Confession session. (Was it a sin when I made up a few extra sins because all I could think of was ‘I talked back to my mom’ or ‘I lied to my sisters’?)
I had not become fully aware of my cerebral palsy yet, and I didn’t realize the embarrassment of my left-leg limp or my left-arm crookedness. I played freeze tag with my friends and cousins. I bossed around my little sisters, and I believed my parents had more admirable traits than bad ones. Life was good! I took rice and gravy dinners and Friday fried catfish for granted.
However, I knew crawfish was special! Our huge Good Friday boil was one of the year’s biggest Keller family events. And crawfish etouffee was reserved for company from out-of-state or a wedding rehearsal’s supper or St Edmund’s Spring Fair.
I grew up around great Cajun cooks: my momma, Grandma’s hired help – Lee Ester Anderson and later Vivian Hill, my Uncle Jake, and a long list of Eunice ladies I knew. They cooked the Cajun Country way. “First you make a roux…” “Use the Holy Trinity: onions, bell pepper, and celery.” “Add green onions and parsley at the end.” “Cook until done.”
I didn’t start cooking like a Cajun until I moved to Texas and missed the gumbos and sauce piquantes. I had Mercedes Vidrine’s LouisianaLagniappe cookbook that was really four combined books ( Beaucoup Bon, Quelque Chose Piquante, Quelque Chose de Douce, and Joyeux Noel). I practiced and used the best ingredients: LeJuene’s garlic pork sausage and crawfish tails from south Louisiana when I could get them.
My favorite crawfish etouffee recipe was read to me over the phone by Momma. A friend from her bouree card games had shared it with her.
I like it because the crawfish tails are boss and do all the talking in that recipe. There’s not a roux or fancy veggies like mushrooms or asparagus trying to steal some of the attention. The recipe begins with the holy trinity cooked in a half stick of butter, and later you add a bit of white wine, the crawfish, some parsley and “C’est tout!” Of course, you use your favorite spice mix. I use Slap Ya’ Momma, partly because it’s made in Ville Platte and that’s where Momma’s from, but it also has the right amount of cayenne pepper. I have made this recipe for birthdays, Easter brunch, and special guests who visit us.
This past week our good friend Della was in the hospital and going through scary procedures and tests, and when I asked her what she needed, she answered, “Some of your crawfish etouffee.” I was thrilled to see her eat two servings from her hospital bed when we were allowed to visit.
Cooking good food for the best people I know brings me true joy. And when that food is part of my Cajun upbringing, the joy doubles and does backflips. Our Louisiana motto is, “Lassiez les bon temps rouler!” and that advice usually involves people dancing, laughing, and drinking. It also involves a big Magnalite pot simmering on a stove.
My best memories are times spent in my grandma’s kitchen (which later became my momma and dad’s kitchen) where people of all ages crowded together to tell Thibodeaux & Boudreaux jokes and exaggerated stories while they ate good food. Whether we had Louisiana gold like fresh crawfish or strong coffee and hot bouldin, it all tasted better because we shared it with those we loved.
Each of my three grown sons have wonderful ladies in their lives. Two are engaged! I’m thrilled to know they have love in their lives that has helped them navigate the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. I also have a selfish wish I never say in front of these very groovy couples: I want grandchildren!
One day I want to brag and smile when I tell friends about the unbelievable beauty and intelligence of my offsprings’ offspring. But until then, I will be happy with my three beautiful and intelligent “practice grandchildren.” Jaco, Sunny, and Guppy!!!
I first met Jaco when he was a baby and his mom and I walked our dogs together in my old neighborhood. She would walk towards my house early in the morning led by her dog Lou, a regal Great Pyrenees, and Jaco faced forward in a Babybjorn carrier. As Jaco got used to me, he’d kick both of his chubby legs and give me excited smiles when my dog and I came outside. After several months of shared walks, he’d say “Mi-Mi!” when he saw me. ( However, Natalie and I were not sure if he was referring to me or my dog Millie). He shared the same wide-eyed joy for an adult who tickled his bare feet or for a dragonfly that landed on his mom’s arm. (Babies from 4 to 10 months old are very easy audiences!) But on a stroll down a trail in an off-leash dog park when Jaco was the wise age of two and a half, he gave both of my knees a spontaneous hug and said, “I love you so much!” My heart filled with a rush of love that reminded me of that tummy flutter that happens in the early months of pregnancy.
Now at age four, Jaco has matured beyond such displays of affection. During our walks he talks nonstop about the movie Cars and quotes Lightening McQueen as if he’s the cartoon car’s agent. And his long light brown curls bounce when he’s reimagining a favorite movie scene until he stops along the trail to point at the ground and say, “Look!! A roly-poly party!” So I stop and marvel with him at the crowd of bugs squirming at the base of a cypress tree. His sharp eyes miss nothing, and his curious intelligence has that “carpe diem” attitude towards the natural world so that walking with him is always part Discovery channel and part Comedy Central when he makes up silly rhymes or remembers some of Tow-Mater’s best jokes. I’ve watched Jaco grow from a stationary baby to a super curious toddler to a confident older brother and he makes me believe the world can be sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows!
My second “practice grandchild” fits her nickname like fine crushed ice settles neatly into the thin paper cone of a snowball on a summer afternoon. Sunny’s presence is always as welcome as a cold treat on a hot day. Almost 3 years-old, Sunday Joy (my friend Crystal’s granddaughter) daily surprises her parents and friends with a capacity for love and creativity that’s only surpassed by her intelligence and wit.
Her clothing style reflects her multi-colored personality. Some days her flowered dress will match the colorful barrettes in her hair and her rainbow sneakers. Other days she’ll wear a couple of shirts, multiple scarves, five bracelets, a floppy hat and be naked from the waist down. Whatever outfit she chooses to throw together, she owns it whether she’s prancing in the backyard with her dog or chasing Oma Crystal around the living room. She started talking early and by two, she was belting out classics such as “The Wheels on the Bus” like a young diva or holding a small notepad and pencil while asking, “May I take your order?” when pretending to be a waiter at her parents’ bar and restaurant, the Cavalier.
Her grandpa Ric, who died of cancer before she was born, was the most soulful, wise, and loving human I’ve ever known. He had a smile reminiscent of Paul Newman’s grin in Cool Hand Luke. His joie de vivre lit up his whole face and shone through his mischievous eyes.
Sunny smiles like Grandpa Ric and she laughs like Oma Crystal, explosive and free. The way she greets a friends with a sweet-toned, “You want to play with me” reveals her big, generous heart, and the way she says good-bye with a hug shows her exuberant love.
Every time I see her smile it’s like I won the Trifecta in the day’s biggest race. I always greet her as “Sunny Bunny! Sunny Bunny!” in a bouncy voice because she’s 26 pounds of laughs and smiles and JOY.
I met my third “practice grandchild” the day she was born. Two years ago Natalie, Jaco’s mom, had a midwife help her deliver Gillespie, and I was lucky to be her first visitor because I picked up Jaco to give his parents a few hours of rest.
Guppy has large brown eyes that watch the world intensely. She took her time getting used to me. Like her brother, she surveyed me from her mom’s BabyJorn carrier. She did not smile as quickly as Jaco did. I had to earn Guppy’s smiles. During our dog park walks, I’d chat with Jaco about ladybugs and cacti. We’d find cool sticks to use as canes or drum sticks. And his little sister listened and watched, taking it all in and waiting for the time she’d have lots to say. The first time she called me, “Gingah,” it was barely above a whisper and she looked embarrassed by my huge smile and watery eyes. When she started walking she revealed her bold adventurous side. Her curiosity pulled her toddling ahead of us on the dirt trail. Soon she’d be climbing through a hole in a fence or chasing a butterfly without a thought of us.
She first showed her trust in me at a playground this past fall. She held my hand and guided me to the bright yellow plastic slide and let me help her up the steps before she went down the slide backwards and head first- a daring toddler full of confidence.
This Easter I dyed eggs with my “practice grandchildren” in Crystal’s backyard. Sunny, as hostess, made sure we all had enough Annie’s cheddar bunnies. Jaco sat next to me and reminded me of Lightning McQueen’s best scenes as he carefully placed eggs in blue, green, purple, and pink cups of dye. Guppy sat across from her brother and often dropped her eggs on the wooden picnic table where they cracked, so she’d start to peel the boiled egg, giving more attention to eating than coloring. Natalie, Crystal, and I used white crayons to draw flowers, stars, polka dots, and names on the pre-dyed eggs. The artistic dying of eggs interested the kids for 30 minutes before Sunny led her company to the yard’s sandbox and toy cars and trucks and a bubble machine. I felt honored to share an Easter tradition with my three favorite kids. No matter what trouble the news focuses on, I have hope that my “practice grandchildren” will continue to make the world sweeter, brighter, and better.
My two younger sisters and I grew up down a winding gravel road on the outskirts of a small south Louisiana town in the 1960’s. Spaced out two years apart, we shared our clothes, our secrets, and our hot and spicy tempers. Without nearby neighbors we were each other’s everyday friends, especially in summers. As the oldest, I’d often hold my sisters close and tight before sending them off and away on a long yo-yo string. We were pros at hair-pulling, hitting, and biting, yet we also shared a tight connection and learned how to balance our differences.
On a July afternoon in 1964 after some predictable kitten races and boring inside hide-and-seek games with my sisters, I wanted some alone time. So I decided to test our new green hammock that stretched stiffly between two live oak trees on the side of our home. I crawled up in the “lounger” with a paperback between my teeth, but my sixty-three pounds could not make the weaved nylon bend and dip. I was in no way cocooned the way magazine pictures of hammocks told me I should be. I stretched out and put the small round blue accent pillow I’d borrowed from our living room couch under my head. The hammock was as tight as Aunt Fanny who clutched her change purse like a Cajun guarding the last bowl of gumbo. I opened Pippi Longstocking to my bookmarked chapter and told my body to relax.
The sun’s rays peaked behind hundreds of small green oak leaves and gave my book’s pages a dappled look. I repositioned my pillow and held the book above my head long enough to read two pages. Feeling a stitch in my neck, I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the hammock. My ankles extended two inches over the edge, the blue pillow slid down to my lower back, and my weight still failed to create an indentation. My eight year-old self-awareness told me that I looked ridiculous. Then I heard my little sisters’ voices.
“My turn! My turn!” yelled Kelly as she ran toward the hammock wearing a new lime green seersucker two-piece short set. As the baby of the family and with dimples deep as a mother’s love, she grew up thinking all should bow to her charms. Gayle, wearing one of my hand-me-down t-shirts and elastic waisted shorts, followed carrying three library books of different sizes. As the middle girl she fought the unfairness of life with the determination of a seasoned Mardi Gras parade-goer grabbing beads.
“I just got here,” I said pretending that sitting on the unyielding fabric was comfortable. I cleared my throat and wiggled my hips as my round pillow fell to the ground. “I ‘m reading,” I said. With her hands above her head, Kelly pushed the hammock back and forth.
“I got books,” said Gayle as she dropped two books next to my pillow on the ground and held the remaining book over her head. “I have Alice in Wonderland.”
Kelly stopped pushing the hammock to beat the area under my butt with her fists. “Read it! Read it! Read it!” she said. The kid had excellent rhythm for a four-year-old.
I loved reading to my sisters, but I also loved bossing them around. “Pick up the pillow, Gayle. Quit messing with the hammock, Kelly!”
My youngest sister continued pushing the hammock and made me drop my paperback book while my middle sister struggled to join me in my position of power. “Lookit what you did, couillon!” I said to the former and, “I didn’t say you could get up here,” to the latter.
Gayle tossed her hardcover library book up towards me hitting my left cheek and knocking my brand new glasses askew. Kelly’s strength matched her stubbornness, and the hammock moved enough to keep her sister from climbing in. Then Gayle’s sideways hip bump landed Kelly on her skinny bottom and gave my middle sister confidence to believe she could join me in the hammock. She extended her arms and tried clawing her way onto the slick green lounger. Her clear blue eyes framed by black pixie-cut bangs peeked up at me. From her seat in the dirt, Kelly kicked at Gayle’s legs.
To avoid an all-out fight, I decided to give in and help my siblings join me. I pulled Gayle’s right arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder, but her determination to be first in the hammock kept her from yelling “Owww!” Kelly had scrambled to her feet and went back to moving the hammock back and forth.
“Stupid face!” said Gayle as she settled in next to me and set the library book in her lap and looked down on Kelly. Now with two sisters seated, the baby of our family had trouble rocking the hammock. She stuck out her tongue and bit down to concentrate on annoying us.
“If you stop pushing, you can get up here,” I said and reached out a hand. Kelly smirked and lifted two dusty arms. I succeeded in pulling her about three inches off the ground. “Help me,” I told my hammock companion.
“Poopee!” Gayle said to the sister below us before I grabbed her elastic waist band and Gayle pulled both of Kelly’s shoulders up and over. Our combined weight made the hammock finally relax a bit in the middle. Three small butts settled next to each other. We all gave our attention to the book now in my lap. Kelly leaned her head on my shoulder and Gayle popped the thumb of her right hand into her mouth as I opened the classic story. I straightened my blue cat-eyed glasses, and with a sister to my right and a sister to her left, I ironically began, “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister…”
No matter the species, I can strangle any root system or poison any shoot system in the modern botanical nomenclature.
I do enjoy plants, especially herbs like mint and basil and flowers such as magnolias and azaleas. I have tried for decades to keep small cacti and large-leafed friends alive, yet like a demented serial killer I can destroy what I admire.
Relatives and friends have tried over the years to break the curse of my plant murders. Just last year Cousin Claudia, who can work magic in any yard with her easy-going optimism, gave me a “condo warming” gift: an air plant. “You can’t kill it,” she said as she set it atop my great-grandma’s pie safe where it gasped its final breath thirteen days later.
I have a knack for overwatering or under-watering green things. In 2018 when we planned to sell our house, I needed indoor and outdoor plants to help give our place a welcoming vibe, so my Master Gardener friend Cynthia showed up to help. She is a modern day Artemis who is in tune with nature’s trees and flowers as well as the woodland creatures. She chose hearty plants from Home Depot for us and wrote detailed directions for their care before she left me alone with the blooming babies. Cynthia also got me a teen-aged ficus for staging the place for prospective buyers. She decluttered our home and had chrysanthemum “pops of color” for the front yard. My place was as neat and clean as a young private awaiting her first morning inspection from a hard-nosed drill sergeant.
Thankfully, our house sold in less than a week, and Cynthia swooped in to rescue the nervous yet brave plants from my clutches because she’s known me for many years and has witnessed my starving, drowning, or burning of healthy plants. Even if she believes the deaths were caused by neglect and not premeditated crimes, I wonder if she’d let me off with involuntary manslaughter if she were a juror at my trial for killing more plants than a low-grade natural disaster. Against her better judgement, Cynthia entrusted me with the ficus after she ran out of room in her Nissan Cube when she packed up the staging plants to offer them a safer home .
That spunky ficus managed to stay alive for eighteen months. When this year’s February snow surprised Texas, I brought the plant inside, hoping it had more life to live. Yet in days its leaves developed black spots as it shriveled in the corner of our guest bedroom/office and bid adieu to the cold, cruel world. I soon discovered I had horribly over-watered it when after the snow had melted, I hauled it outside and heard water sloshing around in the heavy planter it was set inside.
I used to feel guilty about dismembering, suffocating, maiming, and torturing innocent plants that came under my care. So many people love digging in the dirt, planting seeds, and tending their flowers and vegetables so that they later enjoy the beauty and bounty of their gardens.
In 1970 my favorite movie was Barbra Streisand’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Her Daisy Gamble character coaxed flowers from the soil by singing to them. The movie’s opening begins with “Hey, buds below! Up is where to grow!” as Barbra sings, skips, and swirls around an expansive rose garden while hundreds of flowers bloom with the help of the camera’s time-lapse magic. I loved that song (“Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here”) almost as much as I loved the 66 groovy outfits that costume designer Cecil Beacon had Barbra changing into during the movie. Her flowered babydoll p.j.s matched her flowered sheets which matched the flowered wallpaper of her bedroom!
Drowning or starving plants is not the worst confession I could make. It’s not like I throw every curse word I have ever heard at my cat when she meows incessantly at three a.m. for food. Or I fear newborn babies because they look like fragile, unpredictable aliens. I’m not a monster!
And to be honest, I have not killed every plant I have ever owned. I still have a weak ivy Cynthia left behind when she staged my house. A perky good luck bamboo from Crystal lives on my kitchen window sill. Crystal follows the law of averages rule when it comes to plants. She once told me, “I plant so many plants, trees, and vegetables, something is bound to survive!”
So my murder rate is close to 87% if I consider all the plants I have ever known.
Does a lawn count? The front yard of the home we sold had more St. Augustine grass than bald, brown patches two years ago. Also, the backyard had winter rye grass whose soft green blades stayed alive long enough for us to close the deal on the house. However, my son Evan was responsible for readying the backyard and planting those grass seeds. He even called to remind me to water the yard regularly until the tiny green shoots poked out of the dirt as if Barbra Streisand’s voice beckoned them to a world of promise.