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.

Posted in Family

My 3 Sons

My three sons and me in 1993

by Ginger Keller Gannaway

A picture from 2006 hints at the overwhelming pride I have for my three sons. They’re in the frothy waves on a Pensacola beach. The water in the foreground is a light green with a hint of yellow sunshine on one side. Beyond my boys the water goes from steel blue to a deeper (pardon the pun) blue that connects to the calm azure of the sky. They’re in thigh-high water and are caught in stop-action poses. Shane, the oldest, holds a Nerf football that he’s aiming towards his brothers who are both facing straight ahead. He clutches the ball at an awkward angle, illustrating his bookish, nerdy nature. Casey, a few yards away, holds his hands up with palms splayed open as if to say, “Here I am! Watch me!” He’s the only one looking at the camera as if he’s used to getting the world’s attention. Evan, a few feet behind and to Casey’s left, jumps up in the surf. His right arm is straight out and his left is down and away from his side, almost as if he’s balancing on a surf board or dancing across a smooth glass floor. White water droplets surround his face while he smiles at Casey. 

They are all so at home on a beach. Most summers Papa paid for week-long vacations in Pensacola, Florida or Gulf Shores, Alabama. He’d rent a huge house that faced the Gulf of Mexico, and my siblings and I and our families showed up for hot days that centered around sand and surf with nightly meals for at least sixteen people. A trip to a putt-putt golf course, an amusement park, or Fort Morgan could interrupt the routine of hanging on the beach, but the pull of those crashing waves and the sparkling sand held most of us in a trance that lasted all seven days. The beach has a power that grabs ahold of all of our senses and makes us reluctant to leave her intoxication.

Evan, Casey, and Shane with Papa in 1997

My three sons each possess different talents and abundant cleverness. They know the importance of good music and cool movies, and they all respect the Cajun “lassiez les bon temps rouler” philosophy. When any one of them lets loose his good times laugh, I believe in all of life’s best possibilities.

I love the beauty of my boys in that beach photo. Somehow the three very different brothers are balanced in the breaking waves. I’m amazed that they really are my sons – wonderful individuals with big hearts and strong personalities; the source of endless surprises. I’m reminded of the lyrics from the Sound of Music song “I Must have Done Something Good.” (“Nothing comes from nothing/ Nothing ever could/ So somewhere in my youth/ Or childhood/ I must have done something good”)

As a parent, I made too many mistakes to even remember; however, I must have  gotten some things right because Shane, Casey, and Evan are like winning the Powerball lottery on Monday, giving it all away to help stop world hunger and protect the whales on Tuesday, and then winning the Mega Millions on Wednesday!!! (and I am NOT prone to hyperbole)

My 3 Sons, 2006

Posted in Contemplations

Sunflowers by Ginger Keller Gannaway

Nancy’s Sunflower

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.

Italian Sunflower

Posted in Cajuns, Contemplations, Family

South Central Louisiana Proud by Ginger Keller Gannaway

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.

Shane, Catherine, and Casey on our way to Eunice, Louisiana

Posted in Pets

Gotta Get your Poop Out by Ginger Keller Gannaway

       

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.

*Aunt-Momma is a story for a whole other essay!

Posted in Family

Up on the Roof by Ginger Keller Gannaway

View of our backyard in 1970s

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!

Dad and Momma in Gubbio, Italy

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!

Easter Fun

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!

Posted in Aging, Family

Not that Kind of Girl

by Ginger Keller Gannaway

I’m not that kind of girl.

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.

At a fancy place (Alhambra Palace) with my non-fancy family (Kelly, Momma, and Gayle)

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. 

Barbra’s Cool Eyes

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.

Me and my Boys in 1995

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.”

Me at 15

Posted in Cajuns, Mothers

Poulette by Ginger Keller Gannaway

Geraldine Latour (aka Poulette)

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.

Momma with her kids, (Kelly, Gayle, Ginger & Emile)1960

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.  

Momma and me, 1959

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.

Momma Poulette, 2012