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.
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.
Putting a jigsaw puzzle together with pieces that look like they should fit together but don’t takes patience, tons of it. And it takes careful noticing. Does the piece I need have two knobs and two holes (also called keys & locks or tabs & pockets)? Or three knobs and one hole? Are the knobs on opposite sides of the piece or next to one another? What colors am I looking for? Are the pieces skinny, fat, large or small? Does my sought after piece have unique curves or weird indentations? Good lighting is crucial, as is enough space – to spread out all those pieces and divide the colors and designs of the puzzle. But PATIENCE is what I need most of.
Some people are drawn to puzzles. These COVID Days can feel long, boring, repetitive, and uncertain because the future ain’t nothing but a fat, shaky, stuck-up question mark! During these pandemic months, jigsaw puzzles have soared in popularity. Perhaps people stuck inside enjoy the challenge and the distraction of complicated puzzles. However, in my speck of space, I have a complicated relationship with jigsaw puzzles – I loathe them but can’t seem to avoid them.
During the second week of 2021 our good friend Sandra gave Gary a 1000 piece jigsaw that depicted the Dracula movie poster from 1931. This gift took up over eighteen square feet in our den of 100 square feet in a condo of just over 900 square feet. Both our coffee/dining table and a folding table we had stored in a closet were covered with 1,026 ( the true number of puzzle pieces) stiff paperboard pieces, leaving no room for four tv controllers and our dinner plates. I felt like the puzzle’s Bela Lugosi vampire had his arms raised and his cape spread open, forever looming over me in my home. The poster depicted the caped bloodsucker with outspread arms hovering over the red letters of his name with a huge spider web backdrop. It was almost all black except for Dracula’s red name and a few yellow accents. Over a thousand pieces of frustration!
It took us five weeks to complete that jigsaw, and it would have taken double that time if our son had not stopped by to help us so often. Casey has the gifted puzzler’s keen eye and the stamina that can study the photo on the puzzle box, scan a few hundred same-colored pieces, locate the needed one with the correct holes and nubs and neatly snap it into place before wanting to scream and run from the challenge.
Casey’s skill sometimes inspired me to use my own plodding puzzle strategy: to staring at an empty spot, counting the holes and nubs needed, and then methodically trying every piece of the correct color that has the nubs and holes in the right places. I would try all 211 black pieces with three nubs and one hole as if I were an assembly line worker at the beginning of a shift who fit small round loops into tight square sockets coming down my conveyor belt. I used mechanical movements that made finding the correct puzzle piece catch me off guard. After 87 minutes of looking, I’d break into an idiotic grin when the piece of cardboard connected with its mate. I’d stand up, slap the edge of the table, tap the piece twice with two fingers and exclaim, “Ah ha!” to my dog sleeping under the folding table.
The first night Gary and I turned off the tv distraction, set the radio dial to Sun Radio’s “Blue Monday” program, and gave the puzzle three hours of our lives, Gary had searing lower back pain, and I had a headache that felt like bats was eating my brain. I think we had found a third of the straight edge pieces. And those are supposed to be EASY to find!
Thirty-six days (and nights) later we finished the horrific Dracula puzzle. We left it out on the folding table and ignored people’s suggestion: “You should frame it!” Gary wanted to drive a stake through its heart.
For two full days we let our pride make us feel like we were somehow now productive members of society because we had correctly interlocked 1026 pieces of paperboard into their right spots on a 38X27 picture of an undead creature that sucks the life blood from healthy humans in order to exist. There’s some kind of irony in this nightmare!
Then the next morning after I masked up and got ready to venture out to our HEB grocery store, I told Gary, “Get rid of that damn puzzle before I get back.” I had hopes for returning to a light and airy apartment with more table and floor space and less stress.
Fifty minutes later I returned home to find Dracula gone, but a new pile of over a 1,000 small pieces of cardboard – all white and blue – on the folding and coffee tables in our main living space: Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Wave”!!!!
How could he!?
As I dropped grocery bags on our 4X3 foot kitchen table – the only flat surface in our whole condo with any available space, Gary unbelievably smiled and said, “I found this in my closet – the puzzle Evan gave me for my 70th birthday!”
My melting ice cream delayed me from verbally abusing my husband. I whisper-prayed a Hail Mary through clenched teeth and asked for patience. I unloaded the groceries as Gary separated 126 border pieces from the rest of the nuisances that left superfine puzzle dust behind in the box. I hid my anxiety behind the statement, “Maybe purchasing this 48-roll package of paper towels wasn’t a wise idea.”
He ignored my lame attempt at humor as he hunched over the coffee table and used his index finger to separate 605 pale beige and white pieces from 421 light and dark blue pieces.
Our struggle to locate and connect all the frame pieces would last eight days. Only after Casey gave up half of his Sunday did we have The Wave’s full border. Holding up an amoeba shaped piece with no holes or nubs, Casey said, “This is a true jigsaw! No two pieces are alike.” I picked up a piece with four holes and one part looking like Thor’s hammer hand.
“You’re right,” I said.
Gary added, “That should make this puzzle easier!”
Three weeks later Hokusai’s Wave is about to drown us in despair.
I find myself sitting at the folding table, staring at a spot for two missing pieces of white and blue sea foam in the bottom left corner of the jigsaw. Then 86 minutes later, I’ve forgotten to take the dog on his afternoon walk, the cat is meowing, and my throbbing headache convinces me I may have COVID. And I’ve found neither puzzle piece.
I daily remind Gary, “This is the last damn jigsaw this apartment will ever know! You understand?” And if he pretends to not hear me, I say, “This place is not big enough for two adults, a 60-pound long haired dog, an ancient forever-meowing cat, AND a thousand piece puzzle!”
I believe Casey’s cool spatial recognition skills and his visual stamina will keep me from divorcing his father. And I don’t think I will really accidentally overturn my grandma’s old folding table while sweeping up dog hair one morning. That’s the optimist in me.
However, I have begun to regret downsizing from our 1,600 square foot, four bedroom home for this “cozy” condo. The jigsaw frustration and the pandemic uncertainty may be what sends me over the edge of Nietzsche’s abyss.
Katsushika Hokusai said, “It was not until after my 70th year that I produced anything of significance,” but at age 64, I do not feel I have the time or the patience to reconstruct his fantastic wave out of misshapen bits of colored paperboard before I enter a new decade!
Dogs are easy to please. They give out affection as naturally as they receive pets, treats, and almost any kind of attention. When we got Jambo, our first dog, in 1993, Gary looked at the five month old puppy one morning as the dog put paws on his knee and looked up with the imploring eyes of a small child who has lost the top of her first ever ice cream cone on a hot August day. Or Oliver Twist begging in the movie, ”Please, sir, may I have some more?” Gary stared into those eyes of trust and hope and said, “Why are you so needy!?”
Cats tend to be much cooler creatures. They meow for food and occasionally allow us to pet them, but they rarely let us know what goes on in their cat brains. They seem to have knowledge mere mortals do not possess.
During my early walks I love seeing cats perched in kitchen, bedroom, and living room windows, looking out with the wisdom of Buddha or the bored disinterest of Marlena Deitrich.
From their thrones behind clear glass they stare at me without a smidgen of concern. As if all they survey is theirs and they have no reason to worry about anything. Do cats have everything all figured out?
During these uncertain days of the pandemic, I wish I could think like the window cats.
I would watch the bad weather and the worried humans pass by. I would observe without judgement or fear. I might have a sweet pea amount of curiosity about something, but it’s not enough to make me uncomfortable where I sit and survey all that is not me. For my minutes at the window, I am satisfied to meet others’ gazes and I might turn my head at the sudden movement of a squirrel or close my eyes when the sun shines on me just right, yet I am comfortable for the moment, and the window ledge or armchair or doorway is where I need to be for now. All is well.
For twenty years my friend Crystal Fox has been a steadfast source of laughter and support. She lets me dump my food scraps in her city-issued compost bin; her granddaughter, Sunday Joy, is one of my remarkable “practice grandchildren,” and we share food. I drop off containers of lentil soup, and she gives me homemade loaves of bread. Crystal has more good qualities than a thirteen-year-old has sassy looks! For me her sense of humor is her magic power, and her explosive laugh cannot be topped by anyone, anywhere. It begins in her throat – a rich guttural sound that soon moves to her belly and takes control of her torso. She bends over and her laugh continues for at least 45 seconds as she pulls others along for the kind of laughter that leaves one breathless, with stomach cramps, and sometimes in dire need of finding a bathroom.
Crystal and I first met at Crockett High School while attempting to educate teenagers whose hormones were stronger than our computer skills. At work we struggled alongside our teacher peers to deal with the usual high school shenanigans: dreaded state-mandated tests, meandering eye-glazing meetings, countless committees (eye-glazing), unavoidable staff development (more eye-glazing), and classes with more students than we had desks for.
Outside of school we shared happy hours, movie nights, and pool parties. However, what we did best together was getting lost.
We are both blessed with a cockeyed sense of direction that makes all journeys unpredictable and any destination a crap shoot. The two of us get turned around on the streets of Austin and the highways of Texas.
Crystal told me that when her husband Ric used to ask her “Which way should we go?” (whether on a road trip or nature hike) and she gave her answer, he would go in the opposite direction.
Because of our off kilter inner compasses, we often feel like Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy any time we venture into new territories (or even to ones we’ve been to before). But like the black and white t.v. gal pals, we find humor in our mess-ups and camaraderie in our wanderings.
Though I’ve played Ethel to Crystal’s Lucy, and she’s been a stalwart Ethel to my Lucy for several years, one of our best episodes took place in 2017 when we planned a trip to New York City with the hope of seeing Bette Midler on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! I’m fortunate enough to have Gayle as my sister – a casting agent who is as generous and helpful as the Big Apple is big, and she had scored tickets to see the Divine Miss M portray Dolly Levi at the Shubert Theater.
Our anticipation to visit my sister, explore NYC, and see Bette in a Broadway show (Crystal’s first!) had us feeling like Charlie when he opened his last chocolate Wonka bar and discovered that magic golden ticket! We had also found budget-priced airline tickets and a friend of a friend’s Brooklyn apartment to stay in for free. A jackpot of a trip for two high school teachers!
Days before our adventure we coordinated packing, reviewed the subway maps of the City, and giggled like schoolgirls getting away with borrowing the family car and smoking Grandma’s cigarettes while we got lost driving around at midnight.
Then at the height of our unbridled joy, I got a text from United Airlines the night before our trip. Our 7 a.m. departure flight was cancelled due to bad weather! We had booked the early flight to give us time to get lost in JFK Airport, secure a cab, meet Gayle, get lost taking the subway to Brooklyn and maybe get turned around finding the apartment we’d be staying in, get gussied up for the theater, walk the wrong way toward the subway, take the wrong exit out of the underground before walking up instead down the avenue that took us to the Shubert to experience Bette’s Tony award-winning performance from our orchestra seats on the fifteenth row!
Pessimism teased its way into my head when I first read the American Airlines text at 8:30 p.m. Crystal had not received any messages from United, so I pushed aside negative vibes as I tried calling the airline over and over. Nothing but busy signals. By 9:10, my palms were sweaty and my stomach felt like I’d eaten a chicken and sausage gumbo appetizer followed by a Wendy’s Baconator. Gary had gone online to see that our flight was cancelled and the next flight from Austin to NYC would not land in the city that never slept until 7:45 p.m. Our curtain call was at 8!
I was about to call Crystal and share some tears when Gary said, “Let’s drive to the airport and talk to a human.”
At 9:20 p.m. we walked into the Austin airport’s empty check-in area, saw the dark counter for American, and headed downstairs to baggage claim. Someone pointed us to a quiet corner and a dim lost luggage window where a lone American employee waited. The urgency in our voices convinced Majorie that we had to get to New York as early as possible the next day. She looked energetic in her crisp navy uniform with the red accents that matched her lipstick, and she started tapping her computer keys and nodding her head of long jet black hair that was teased and styled to handle all airline emergencies. Gary gave her our cancelled flight details. He also explained about the Hello, Dolly! tickets and how my friend Crystal had never seen a show on Broadway.
“Oh, they have to see Bette,” said Majorie and she focused on her computer screen to work her magic. I stayed quiet because I knew I’d cry if I spoke about my greatest fear – missing seeing Bette live.
Majorie squinted at her screen, furrowed her brow, and allowed her red lips a brief pout before she typed faster. I let out a sigh and stared at the dirty floor while saying a quick Hail Mary. Gary drummed his fingers on the counter and said, “They’d fly into New Jersey if that would help.” Majorie typed even faster. My blood pressure rose as my hopes of sharing Hello, Dolly! with Crystal dwindled.
“That 7 a.m. flight was the only direct one to New York. All the others have connections in Houston or Dallas,” said Majorie. “Earliest I could get you there from here is 7:30 p.m.,” said Majorie. She gave me a sad slow smile.
Gary interrupted our brief connection of empathy. “What time is the first flight out of Houston?”
Majorie followed his thought process, raised her perfectly plucked eyebrows, and typed with hopeful fingers. Then she smiled at Gary. “I got seats on a 7:45 a.m. plane to LaGuardia!”
Gary looked at our heroine. “I’ll drive them to Houston!”
Majorie straightened her shoulders and clicked with confidence. I stared at my husband in disbelief. Houston was three hours away. “But we’d have to leave Austin at…” I struggled with the head math.
“Leave at 3 a.m. to be safe,” said Majorie as she finished her typing and Gary smiled at me.
“You’d take us?” I said. “And drive right back home?”
“It’s Bette!” was his answer.
Majorie gave us a glorious smile and handed me the new airline tickets. “You just got to see Bette!”
As we drove home, I called and woke up Crystal (it was now 10:40 p.m.).
“Gary offered to drive us to Houston to catch a flight that will get us to New York in time to get to the theater. You up for leaving in four hours?”
“Of course!” said the Ethel to my Lucy idea.
The drive down a very dark Hwy. 71 and a mostly empty Interstate 10 went quickly because our shared adrenaline kept us giddy with the refreshed joy of getting to see Bette on Broadway.
The brightness of the airport and the thought of seeing Bette made our first hour in Houston joyful. As we sat at our gate, even the initial flight delay of one hour did not squelch our excitement. We walked a couple of laps around our terminal and returned to our gate in time for the announcement: “Due to weather concerns, Flight 1313 to New York is delayed and will depart at 12:07.”
Crystal and I exchanged worried looks, but ever the optimist, she said, “We’ll get to New York around 3 and have time to meet Gayle and go to Brooklyn and get to the show.” She paused. “Right?”
“Sure, sure,” I said and imagined a taxi strike in the city (unlikely) or us getting lost in the airport as we tried to find the taxi stand (likely).
We now had two hours to kill so we decided to do more walking. When we passed an empty bar just opening up, I said, “Let’s have a drink.” We bellied up to the bar with our luggage beneath our stools. “Two Kir Royals,” I said.
Crystal smiled and told the bartender, “We’re seeing Bette on Broadway!”
The bartender put on a little show adding the creme de cassis to the champagne, and we toasted to Bette, to Gayle, to Gary, and to New York City.
“We’re doing this!” said Crystal.
The 10 a.m. cocktail revived our hopes and warmed our insides. The bartender took a picture of us smiling like Cajuns on a Mardi Gras morning with a cold beer in one hand a link of hot boudin in the other.
Forty minutes later we settled into blue plastic chairs near our gate and nibbled peanut butter sandwiches and cut up apple slices Crystal had brought along. We reviewed our plans to grab a cab, get to my sister’s place in Greenwich Village, hightail it to Brooklyn, and make it to Times Square and the Shubert before the stage curtain rose. We leaned back in our chairs confidently, and soon we were both fast asleep – probably dreaming of a dancing and singing Bette.
Two hours later, I awoke to an intercom voice: “Final boarding call for Flight 1313 to New York City. Final call!” I punched a snoring Crystal who jumped up, grabbed her suitcase, and led the charge to our departure gate.
We got settled into our seats and did not close our eyes for the duration of the flight. When we clicked on our seat belts and watched the stewardess make the final seat check and snap shut all the overhead bins, we truly believed we would see Bette on Broadway. Crystal and I clasped hands and took a selfie as the plane backed away from the gate and rolled its way forward for take-off.
My husband Gary wakes up with a head full of Gary. Like a toddler or teenager, he has perfected the art of self-absorption.
In the 1990s when our three sons were young and Gary and I both taught full-time, I woke up early to make little lunches and plot the day’s obligations: get the boys to two different schools before getting to my own school and teaching five sections of seventh grade language arts; remind Shane he had jazz band practice after school, Casey he had computer class at Boys and Girls Club, and Evan to do homework at his elementary’s Extend-a-Care program; stop by HEB for supper ingredients and swing by Terra Toys for a birthday party gift on Saturday before I picked up my sons.
All day the kid details fought for control of my brain with lesson plans about teaching the difference between “your and you’re” or nuances of dramatic irony in Roald Dahl”s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
Gary’s brain lived a different existence. It woke up an hour and a half later than mine, and after his mandatory two cups of coffee, it was awake enough to carefully fry three neat strips of bacon for his own breakfast. He did help with the dropping off and picking up of children if I wrote him detailed notes and reminded him during his lunch break and ten minutes after his school’s final bell.
As our boys grew up and needed more rides to more places, Gary became a trusted driver as long as my directions were specific and did not impose on his weekend jogs and his Thursday “pint night” at the Dog and Duck Pub.
Now our boys are men and living their own lives. Gary and I have been navigating the pandemic and aging as best we can. We walk our dog each morning as a team – he’s on lookout duty for other dogs on leashes and for free-range cats. He also scans the sidewalks and grassy areas for discarded scraps of food or other potential dog distractions. Millie pulls on her leash as I follow, and Gary calls out helpful warnings like “Big brown dog at twelve o’clock” or “Broken beer bottle on my right.” Sometimes, however, his head fills up with his own thoughts, and he misses telling me about a stray fried chicken bone or a big turd dropped in the middle of the sidewalk. We have brief spats and he may say, “Don’t you have two good eyes as well?”
Gary has admitted to not being a noticer. And he’s not talkative when he gets in his “me zone.” Also, now that he’s lost hearing in his right ear, I take no offense when he sometimes does not respond to my insightful comments during our dog walks. Did I remember to direct my voice to his left side? Or is his mind too preoccupied with more important things like his latest film script or the current Amazon rental sales of the horror/comedy movie he wrote and self-produced in 2013: Virgin Cheerleaders in Chains?
Gary is a natural at self-promotion. He raised thousands of dollars on Indiegogo to realize his dream of being a film producer! He will tell our condo neighbors or grocery cashiers or anyone who comments on his Virgin Cheerleaders inChains t-shirt, “I wrote and produced this movie! Available on Amazon! Very meta; not a porno!” I envy his confidence and bravery.
Am I any less self-obsessed with writing blog essays and linking them to my FB and Twitter accounts? What is the line between “Look at me!” and “Give me your money”?
Most mornings my head fills up with thoughts of my family and friends. I worry about their health, their happiness, and what I can do to help them with either one.
I blame my momma. She took care of my dad, my brother, my sisters, and me like the strong Cajun force she was. She cooked and cleaned nonstop and insisted we spend all our time with her because she did not want to miss a bouree card game, a trip to the drive-through Daiquiri Shack, or hanging out on the front porch. At the end of our holiday visits, she hated telling us good-bye.
“Oh, oh, I don’t want y’all to go,” she’d say and give me the biggest hugs her 5’2” ninety-nine pound frame could produce. She’d lock her arms around my waist and give me three short but intense hugs. “Humph! Humph! Humph!” My body would tense waiting for those squeezes of love. She cared and worried about those she loved. However, she also realized that not everyone needed looking after.
Every Christmas holiday, Gary spent a night in Baton Rouge with his best friend Richard. One time I was concerned about saving enough turkey gumbo for my husband when he returned to Eunice. Momma focused her bright blue eyes at me and said, “Don’t you worry about Gary. Gary will always take care of Gary.”
My momma knew some big truths!
My husband may think about himself a lot. He may need a little guidance with remembering others’ needs sometimes. But self-reliance is a very positive attribute. Emerson said, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” As I follow Gary on our dog walks, and he clasps his hands loosely behind his back and strolls a half block ahead and he tilts his head to look at tree branches dancing in the wind, I will recognize a man comfortable with himself and at peace with his own thoughts.
Note: I didn’t get pictures of the dogs in this essay, so I included pictures of the dogs I know best.
I started my by-myself walk during the pandemic. It’s earlier than my walk with my dog Millie and my husband Gary.
I cover a couple of miles; I pay attention to bird songs and the sun rising and people’s homes and yards, and the unevensidewalks I walk on.
I make connections with people who also walk in my neighborhood before cars head to work.
I also encounter different dogs along my route. First, I pass a place where two monster guard dogs live. It’s a head shop, and if I walk after 9 AM the employee has released one white and one black dog who make me cross the street as they growl, bark, and run along a crooked chain link fence that extends to the business’s back parking lot. One scary morning those dogs squeezed through the back gate and ran toward me, Gary, and Millie at first. However, we were lucky that they were more interested in their unexpected freedom than attacking us or our startled dog.
The second street I walk down has a house with a mid-sized brown dog who claws at his window and the rest of the Venetian blinds he’s managed to destroy half of while frantically barking at passers-by. Another place has a wooden fence that’s undecided in its leanings and hides two small dogs who take turns yipping and yapping while I walk by.
After I turn onto the next street, I see an elderly housing solutions development (for older folks with problems to solve I suppose), and I sometimes see a dachshund wearing a smart blue coat who searches the sparse grass for the best spot to pee. He seems as unaware of me as his hunched over owner is.
Later, I turn down my favorite street that runs alongside a small, tree-filled park. At the corner of Armadillo and Cottontail, a Pomeranian on the other side of a barely standing chain link fence barks at me nonstop with yaps as fast and high as his blood pressure must be.
However, my favorite dog I pass during my daybreak walks made himself known to me in pieces. I first met his nose. I was walking past the house with the vintage baby blue Dodge Charger in its driveway. The place has a long wooden side fence, and one misty morning I spotted a large pink nose thrust through an arched mouse-sized hole when I’d reached the fence’s midpoint. I startled a second and walked on. The dog did not bark, but sniffed my presence as best she could. The next day when I passed that same fence, someone had forced a rock of concrete into the hole. (This reminded me of the tree’s knot hole being filled with cement in To Kill a Mockingbird). It wasn’t until a week later that I met the dog face that belonged to that inquisitive nose. The long fence ends at an enclosure for the house’s garbage and recycling bins, and right at that corner at the bottom of the fence is a rectangular cut-out about 6×4 inches.
As I strolled past the small fence opening, my dog acquaintance shoved her nose, mouth, and one eye into that missing piece of fence. My shoulders jumped when I noticed the white face, red-rimmed eye, and pink nose of a pit bull. No barking, just an intense glare and a sniffing nose. The next day I got ready to acknowledge my dog friend, and I was surprised to see the top half of her body atop an upholstered chair in a window right before where the fence started. She barked twice, and as I kept walking the fence line, someone let her outside and she hurried to catch up with me as I could barely see bits of white dog running in the backyard. Then at that fence cut out she once again pushed her face towards me. Both of us shared a few seconds of silent appraisal of one another.
Now I look forward to seeing my pit bull friend’s face. Some days I catch her in the window first and we meet at the end of the fence; other times she’s already in the yard and I see snatches of her muscular form dashing to our meeting spot. Sad to say, she’s not been there this week. The Charger is also gone. I hope she and her owner are on a vacation and will return soon.
I don’t know why, but I enjoy the dog’s intense perusal of me, and I tell myself she does not give everyone who passes her the same look – all curiosity and intelligence, no anger or fear.
To be honest, broad-headed, confident pit bulls normally frighten me. I think they want to start a fight or at least show me who’s boss.
So I think this pit bull is teaching me something. I need less fear and more curiosity in my life? Understanding others is crucial to respect? I was looking over some MLK quotes Monday and I focused on the one about light and darkness: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
My morning walks and the yard dogs I meet may lead me to a more hopeful kind of light.
In 1968 I got a 3×5 inch red five-year diary with a tiny lock and key to protect all the wisdom and intrigue I would pour onto its pages. Each day of the year was allowed four lines, and profundity like “Today I quit playing paper dolls forever” (first entry) or “Kelly made her confirmation. It lasted 2 and a half hours. But it was comfortable with the new cushioned pews” (last entry) filled its pages.
I was a faithful writer for four years, never neglecting to document a day’s monumental trivia. I hid these pencil-written treasures in the bottom drawer of the heavy blonde oak night table next to my bed. Two years ago I reread my 12-year-old regimented thoughts and found at least three interesting entries over that four year span.
A year before I received my diary, I had tried to write a children’s book. I made up a tale about a rabbit and a crawfish and mailed off this masterpiece to the “Be a Writer!” course advertised in the back of an Archie comic book. The writing professionals sent me a typed letter that proclaimed I had “potential”! They promised me fame and publishing creds if I sent them $50. My dad exposed the company for the scam it was, and in 1967 I decided I should settle for being a world class actress instead of a writer.
Still I kept writing, and in 1971 I traded my red diary for a blue 8×13 ledger that expanded my writing experience. I no longer wrote every day, and a day’s entry could take up four full pages. I obsessed over fights with my sisters and crushes on boys I was terrified to talk to. My ideas danced around philosophical questions like why cousin Gina liked my sister Gayle more than me or who Bobby G. was taking to the homecoming dance. Also, my Barbra Streisand fanaticism screamed from these pages because I always wrote her name in all caps and underlined it.
Despite the banality of what I wrote, I still felt compelled to fill the ledger’s pages and apologized for sometimes letting weeks go by between entries. After the blow of the children’s book writing course, I no longer believed I was a writer; however, I needed to write for my own sanity. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in ninth grade I loved Scout’s thoughts on being a reader before she went to school: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
When I move my pen across blank pages, ideas often come faster than I can write. Even if I later loathe what I’ve written, I feel stronger and saner. Now that I have the time to write every day, a day is not pointless if I have made time to write something down. Life is somehow easier if I write. It’s my Balm in Gilead, my parade I don’t want people raining on, and the actual rain that washes dust and bird poop off my car.
As much as I hate the word “blog” because it sounds like a portmanteau of “blah” and “slog,” I’ll keep posting essays online because it feels equally right and ugly. I may be vomiting words that are unworthy of others’ attention, but filling pages in notebooks lets me process life’s joys and tragedies. I write for myself for sure, yet pressing the “Publish” button on a wordpress blog gives me a jolt of bravery that I think I’m addicted to.