My 3 grown sons rule my world as my husband of 31 years rules my heart. I love reading, writing, watching movies, and listening to music. I believe connections and balance will give me contentment in this complex, hurried world.
Bette Midler has long known, “You’ve Got to Have Friends.” From the first friend I made in kindergarten to the dog-walking friend I made a month ago, friends have given me the support and the empathy I need to stay sane.
Ever since I read Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, I daydreamed about that group of best friends that sticks together even after troubles may temporarily pull them apart. They snap back together even stronger.
Growing up in south Louisiana, my sisters were my closest friends, but technically they’re sisters, and each has her own best friend. I also have a first cousin I’ve gone through tragedies and comedies with, but she too has her own best friend.
In Texas I have friends who could be BFF’s, but they have friends they’ve known longer than me, and these friends know “where more of the bodies are buried” than I do.
So the single-best-friend-in-all-the-world is not my reality.
Instead, I have a group of Jockstrap Friends: friends who are close and supportive and know all my stinky secrets. (I considered calling them Bra Buddies, but a brassiere does not have the smelly, sweaty essence of a jockstrap). Jockstraps hold “the family jewels” in place, and in the bumpy, unpredictable ride we call Life, jockstraps have the comfortable elasticity to protect our most precious “friends” from sudden shocks and shoves.
Jockstrap Friends show up at hospitals and funerals as well as weddings and birthdays. In extreme situations they will even clean your house, cook your meals, hold your hair back while you puke, and take off work to drive to the International Crawfish Etoufee Cookoff in Eunice, Louisiana with you. Once three of my Jockstrap Friends even decorated my whole home for Christmas when my son was in the hospital!
Jockstrap Friends share many of your tastes in food, music, and movies. They accept your idiosyncrasies the same way your family does; however, you laugh more with Jockstrap Friends. Ya’ll share a 100%breathable cotton kind of comfortableness without them “riding your ass” the way family members might. You “show your butt” with a jockstrap friend and still maintain “optimum support and comfort.”
At times I’m sad I don’t have a one & only best friend, but it’s probably better to have a mess of Jockstrap Friends.That way whenever my next catastrophe hits, if one friend is having a hip replacement and another is flying to Oregon for the birth of her grandchild, I’ll still have that one friend who will help me clean out my grandma’s attic in August, help decorate the church’s activity hall for Momma’s memorial, or read the first draft of my YA novel.
In 1961 my dad created a 16-foot tall Santa Claus.At the time, he owned Keller Advertising and painted huge roadside billboards and local storefront windows. When I was 5, he designed, drew, and painted four wooden pieces that when connected made a smiling Santa that he would raise and attach to our 18-foot chimney. Our1950’s ranch style home was at the end of a winding gravel road off of Highway 190 on the outskirts of town. Dad set a spot light on Big Santa so cars could see him waving as they drove by. Also, Dad made the back view ofa 7 year-old boy and a 5 year-old girl waving at Santa. My red tricycle was set next to thepigtailed girl to create a Rockwell Christmas moment.
Over the years, my feelings about Big Santa have changed.
In the 1960’s Big Santa added magical excitement to my kid dreams of Mr. Claus’s superpowers. Santa’s smiling presence also gave my family a touch of local fame as folks drove past our place each Christmas, and we even made the Eunice News once.
Fast forward to the 1980’s after my grandma died, and my parents bought her 100 year-old home and we moved to town. Now Big Santa needed an 18-foot pole to support him as he waved to sidewalk visitors and Second Street motorists.Now Santa was a novelty who made his December appearance when I swooped into town for my mandatory college semester break.
In the beginning of the 21st century Big Santa loomed large in a different way.After my three sons were past their “I believe in Santa” phase, they helped their Papa put up the Santa the day after Thanksgiving and take him down right after Christmas day chaos.
Putting up Big Santa became a complicated family tradition.In 2007 my
dad was 80, so he mostly directed his grandsons (my boys and their 2 cousins) in the raising of the Santa.First, they hauled the four sections from the back of the garage and cleaned up Mr. Claus before laying him facedown on the front lawn.Then several wooded 2X4’s were arranged and screwed to the Santa sections to pull him all together. Next 4 or 5 guys sorta lifted and walked Santa towards his standing pole and secured him in place with screws and wire.Papa sat in a folding chair and barked orders to his grandsons. By 2012 he had his walker beside him, and the boys did their best to keep Papa from grunting and struggling to stand to correct their construction mistakes. Of course, mistakes were as inevitable as Papa’s complaining and cussing. Once my middle son wisely suggested they buy new tools since my dad’s hammer head had a tendency to fall off its wooden handle, and the screws were more rust than metal. (“This would be a lot easier if we weren’t using tools from the Stone Age!”) Papa scoffed at such nonsense: “Give me that damn hammer! I’ll do it.”
So the grandsons worked with worn-out tools and rotting wood as they maneuvered around a short-tempered, crooked-backed, bossy-coach of a grandpa. Big Santa became a dreaded sort of family tradition. “If we get up early enough tomorrow, we can get Santa up before Papa wakes up,” said my youngest on the fortunate Black Friday of 2014.
Despite the frustration and anger that accompanied Big Santa’s arrival, family and friends still loved to pose in front of him each holiday. He made a dramatic backdrop, and passers-by often stopped to snap their own Big Santa moment.
Now Dad is 90 and living with us in Texas. Big Santa still spends his off-season days in Grandma’s garage. His fate now is in cousin Chiquita’s hands since she bought Grandma’s home.Hopefully Big Santa will still come out to wave at the small town folks of Eunice, Louisiana, who parade past his tall smile.
Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining” is one of my favorite songs.At the New Orleans Jazz Festival once Irma was walking around the fair grounds when a light rain started falling, and a group of festival-goers serenaded the Queen of New Orleans so she gave them a royal bow.
Growing up in Louisiana, I have a reverence for rain. Driving in a blinding downpour can be a nuisance, but it’s not scary for me. Like folks in Fargo and their snow, folks in Cajun land are used to their rain.
Plus there’s the comfort of a steady rain, especially if you’re on a front porch in a comfy chair sipping something good with good friends or sharing the serenity with your own self.
I know rain also arrives angry as a demon during storms and hurricanes. I remember my dad boarding up windows and us losing power for days. Back in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans,I remember Dad driving down I-10 and seeing the flooded streets with tricycles and sofas floating by.
A few years ago some friends and I were driving on Texas Hwy. 71 when we broke the “Turn around; don’t drown” rule. We had stopped at a stretch of road that was covered with water, and we debated risking going across. After we saw 3 cars in front of us drive through (and rats swimming across the road), I urged our driver to “Go!!! Now.” as another voice demanded, “Don’t do it!” We made it over safely although we also yelled at the top of our lungs for good luck.
I have, however, more comforting rain memories than scary ones. Like being at Grandma’s camp in Indian Village on that perfect screened-in porch. I’m sitting at one of the two picnic tables coloring with my cousins. Grandma and Stella Parrottsit in large wooden rockers with other less-important adults sitting in folding chairs at the other side of the porch, drinking Salty Dogs, telling stories, and playing gin rummy on TV trays.Not far away the Calcasieu River is being replenished, getting ready for the fishing boats to visit her soon.
I let the fat steady drops of rain match the contented beats of my 7-year-old heart. And if I have any thoughts of the future it’s that the river water will be higher and more exciting when an adult takes us down to the sand bar the next day.
Nothing like rainy afternoons to remind us to live in the moment and absorb the sounds and smells of a natural kind ofcalm.
Yesterday at the Texas Teen Book Festival I heard the powerful writer, poet, rapper Jason Reynolds speak. He talked about a teenaged student he once taught who regularly cussed him out in class, and later Reynolds realized the boy was illiterate. However, this student was also extremely clever, creative, and very resourceful. Not being able to read or write caused him to act out in school because of frustration and anger.
Reading and writing can give us powerful ways to connect with our world. Literacy gives us voices. And just like the frustrated toddler who cannot make his mother understand that he does not want apple juice; he wants grape juice because apple juice reminds him of the time his cousin force-fed him a jar of apple sauce, we need to communicate our desires as specifically as possible to those around us. Also, this need to communicate grows larger as we grow older. Our world becomes flooded with information from so many sources, and we receive info all day long so that we often feel the need to respond with our own opinions, thoughts, and dreams. We take in so, so much that we naturally want to give out or give back to the universe that is always trying to get our attention.
Some people respond to the world with physical actions (athletes, dancers, builders, designers); others make music or paint or act or create comedy; others do research, conduct experiments, invent things, or study formulas; others pray, advise, teach, protect, or help others. Some connect to their world through writing. They share ideas that inform and entertain others. They examine past worlds, evaluate our present world, or create new worlds. No matter the method or aim, they write these “words, words, words” to help themselves make sense or even cope with their own lives.
Even though I have written all my life, I did not consider myself a “writer” until about three years ago. Now I remember way back in the third grade when I had gotten on a silly poetry kick where I wrote terrible riddles and rhymes for my classmates. I produced notebooks full of pitiful poems for an audience that admired unoriginal and ridiculous rhymes. (Remember they were 8 years old!)
“We might cry
and wonder why
Our world’s a mess
with nothing but tests.
But don’t give up.
Don’t hit your pup.
Don’t go in a trance
or poop your pants.
We will soon have nothing to fear
Cause in just 10 days summer is here!”
As a timid, bespectacled girl who walked with a limp, I basked in my peers’ brief attention like a happy turtle on a sunny stone in a small pond. My little head poked out and I was smiling at the bright warmth of their third grade praise. But in less than a week the world returned to its normal ways and I went back to my shell of shyness.
Fast forward 50 years and now I write for family and friends on a blog with a fellow writing friend. The experience actually reminds me a lot of third grade. I feel comfortable and uneasy at the same time. I enjoy the little blue-colored likes and the comment here and there about what I write, yet I also worry that I will either bore or annoy my not-8-year-old audience. However, my writing uneasiness is nowhere as strong as the joy I get when I write. Writing makes me feel worthwhile, and all my physical and emotional shortcomings are revealed only when I decide to uncover them.
Is that not powerful? I control what is thrown up on the computer screen or down on the page. Freedom of expression can be like wiping the sweat from your forehead or pulling a splinter from your thumb or letting out a laugh that I fought to hold in and then I laugh until it almost hurts and I take a deep breath that turns into a soft sigh and ahhhhhh. All seems right with my world for a short time.
Nowadays even folks who claim to “hate writing” have power of expression with their tweets and their FB posts. And the Instagrammers and the Snapchatters use pictures and videos to express themselves.
BUT the power of words for me is the most special. Words are not full of color and sound and flash and movement. They are mostly basic black and are carefully arranged like sticks and stones in row after row. They could be scrawled on a filthy bathroom wall or printed unevenly on a homemade Valentine or etched into granite or scripted with swirls and dots on a suicide note, but all the words were written to connect with someone, somewhere. These stick figures of anger, pain, love, hope, despair and wit have the ability to cause us to think and to feel deeply.
These days I do not feel powerful about anything in my life except writing. Most of life feels way beyond my control. I scribble my way through heartaches and confusion as well as through successes and celebrations. I fill journals, yellow tablets, cards, and letters with sorrow and regret and joy and gratitude. And whether the words I write make sentences that have honest strength or sentences that have awkward confusion, the sentences are mine. I may throw the words away or rewrite them in different ways or hide them in the back of a junk drawer. But I have power over my words and every time I write I feel less alone and less powerless.
Famous writers tell unknown writers that they should continue writing whether or not their writing ever finds an audience because writers write because they feel they must. It does not matter if anyone ever reads what they have written.
Such advice looks good on paper and sounds good in a pep talk; however, in reality writers usually write for others, not only for themselves. Writers may feel powerful as they write, write, write. However, if their words are never read by others, that power fades over time as their sentences get cozy with a small kind of silence.
So thank you, thank you to those who read my words.
At 61, I am out-of-shape and off-balance (both physically and mentally).
It makes perfect sense that I’m prone to falls. In the last year or so, I’ve had 3 falls. Each time I felt like it was a slo-mo fall. In those 3 or 4 seconds I told myself, “Get a grip and straighten up! You don’t have to fall.” Of course, I fell faster than I could utter the previous words.
Two of the falls happened as I was walking my 60 pound dog, Millie. Millie did not yank me down outright, but on both occasions she tugged at her leash enough to throw me off balance. Both times I was not properly monitoring Millie’s unpredictable behavior. For Millie, another dog seven blocks away seems like special canine crack.. Her ears wiggle, her head faces the distraction and her eyes look for what her nose smells. At such times, I wrap her leash tighter in my hand and I search for what has excited her senses. When I discover the approaching dog, I say, “Leave it, Millie” and I follow with “Good girl!” if she fights her urge to bark like a fire alarm and try to run toward the other animal. However, before Fall #1 I was chatting with my brother as we walked and I fell in the damp grass when Millie made an extra-quick turn around. And for Fall #2 I thought Millie and I had safely walked past a strange dog with no barking, and then she split up my “Good” and “Girl” with a sudden halt to smell a branch near a gutter. And both of my knees slapped the pavement in a flash. For both falls I inwardly cursed Millie even though I knew my crappy balance and old lady reflexes were to blame.
Lately, I feel like my skin, my bones, and my internal organs are conspiring to murder me. They are sick and tired of my clumsy stumbles and my spastic trips & falls. “Just die already” they mutter to each other. “All you do is bumble, fumble, and tumble your way thru a day.”
Although my two aforementioned falls were superficial and handled with a few 4X4 band-aids and some Neosporin, my 3rd fall was a bit messier. It happened in the summer when I was in my hometown with my siblings and a very loyal friend cleaning out my grandma’s attic.
Our first mistake was deciding to clean out an attic in a 152 year old house in south Louisiana in August! We would get up early to face the attic’s heat and dirt and chaos, and then get the hell out of Dante’s Inferno before noon. Then we’d walk to Ruby’s for our plate lunch reward. That Monday as we were walking back to our attic work, I tripped on an uneven piece of sidewalk and made an ungraceful dive into the concrete. The fall included an elbow scrape and a quick head-bounce as a finale. I did not pop up after this fall. I thought I heard muffled snickers, so I pitifully said, “I’m really hurt here.” Loyal Mark immediately tried to help me up, but I told him to hold up as I needed to carefully figure out how I was gonna pull my overweight, off-center self up from the ground.
I managed an unladylike, slow, painful rise from the broken sidewalk as I brushed twigs, grass, and leaves from my palms, forearm, and knees. I straightened my cockeyed glasses and discovered the plastic frame was cracked to the left of the nose bridge. Now I was humiliated, scraped-up, and potentially blind.
“Falling” sounds so much like “failing” and I feel like a falling failure a lot lately.
My mirror states the obvious- “You old…Bitch!” Yet my mind and my heart argue with the obvious truth of my aging. I still understand a novel’s subtle themes or a movie’s complex visual metaphors. My insides still flutter when I hear a powerful song, and I still yearn to enjoy cool going-ons around town. However, when I do go out, the risk of embarrassment has gone way up. My physically crooked, lazy, off-balance, inflexible, unsightly self will most likely show itself to be the 61-year-old specimen it is.
I will continue to fall down a lot. And that’s just a chance I gotta take.
That cliched image of a small girl’s feet atop her daddy’s dress shoes as he dances with her captures my relationship with my dad.
I am the oldest of 3 daughters of a demanding father. He has that “you don’t ask ‘why’ when he tells you to jump; you say ‘how high?’” attitude toward parenting. My sisters and older brother and I grew up with a protective mom who gave us warnings like, “You better be quiet; Daddy’s napping” or “You don’t want me to tell your daddy about this!”
However, his stern demeanor was often overpowered by his protective love and boundless generosity, especially for me, a kid who was different.
I have cerebral palsy, and my left side is smaller and weaker. I walk with a limp and have very limited use of my crooked left arm. Still, Daddy always told me I could do whatever my brother and sisters did. So I took swimming lessons, rode our Shetland pony, played kickball, softball, and a bit of basketball. And since we were a tennis-obsessed family, Dad even taught me an under-handed (but still legal) serve so I could play in tournaments.
His insistence for me to not let my disability constrain me gave me a cock-eyed view of reality. I believed I could do anything and thus I tried everything my siblings did. Not until high school did real life pull off that Dad-created self-assurance when a strict nun yanked me out of typing class because she realized I was typing with only my right hand. So like an episode of Malcolm in the Middle when the mom Lois watches a video of herself and sadly realizes she can’t dance gracefully like she thought she could, I began to see I was bumbling my way through most physical endeavors.
With the awkwardness and self-doubt of adolescence, I became more hesitant and shy although I did continue to play on the school’s tennis team and to excel in French which I took instead of typing. So however skewed my self-image had been, Daddy still instilled enough confidence in me so that I believed him when he said, “Go ahead and dive into the deep end of that pool”; “Get on that pony and ride bare-back”; “Climb that tree and grab the rope swing”; “Keep your knees bent and hold tight to that water-ski rope”; “Serve to her backhand and you’ll win that tennis match.”
So thank you, Daddy, for guiding me down life’s bumpy gravel roads and through the dark halls of loss and pain. Your unwavering belief in me and your support when I clung to your belt loop as you glided me across Grandma’s big living room floor have been enough for me to believe in what I can do more than what I can’t.
I tell my high school kids that I stopped teaching middle school because I was tired of students falling out of their desks for no apparent reason.No shoves or outside forces were involved.I could look up from taking roll and a typical 7th grade boy would suddenly be seized by an unexplainable spasm and be half on the floor, half in his seat as he struggled to hold on to his pencil.
I suppose between the sudden hormonal changes and the powerful mood swings these 11 to 13-year-olds lost control of their own bodies and their minds as well.
While teaching for 15 years in Texas middle schools, every day was like spending time in a Louisiana casino.Full of annoying sounds and ever-changing emotions!Each class was a crap shoot or a sudden spin of a roulette wheel.You never knew what you were gonna get, and at the end of the day you either felt like a lucky winner or a huge loser.
Maybe managing a middle school felt more like being a steel ball in a pinball machine.As the school bell rang, I’d spin out onto the playing field where I’d bump from one desk to another while a variety of issues and voices would light up the board.From the front of the class to the middle row and then to the back left corner, the class’s demands and emotions would pop and sling me from one ding to the next ping.Questions like flippers would hurl me around the room as personalities clashed and kids played slap/ tickle.At the end of the period, I’d be swept down the machine’s drain, only to have the spring-loaded rod pull back and send me spinning onto the next class’s playing field of slingshots and ramps and bumpers and kickers.
So, so many different kids were part of the pinball machine; however, one student I’ll always remember was Victoria.What a bold, loud, and commanding presence she was!Whether Victoria was trying to get a friend’s attention by throwing a pencil at his head or trying to finish writing a personal narrative by demanding, “Miss!Make those ‘fruit bowls’ behind me shut up!” she made herself known.
One afternoon another student, Sonya, particularly pissed-off Victoria, and the two girls started yelling at each other from across the room of my rickety portable building.My feeble efforts to calm the girls down completely failed when Sonya lunged at Victoria after Sonya’s friend Amos urged her to “Get the bitch!”The noise quickly drew my next door teacher neighbor ( and former Army sergeant) Mr. Samuels into my room.Mr. Samuels grabbed Sonya while I ushered Victoria to the back corner of the room.As Sonya proudly displayeda tangled yard of braided hair in the air the same way Beowulf victoriously held up Grendel’s bloody arm, Victoria grabbed the last word and exclaimed, “Give me my weave back, Bitch!I paid good money for that!”
Sad to say, I remember another fight that broke out one day when Mr. Samuels had taken his class on a field trip.
This time two boys had decided to take their mutual dislike of one another to the “who’s the alpha dog here?” level.In a typical 7th grade class two simple words may be all it takes to set off a “throw down.”On this day during Sustained Silent Reading time, Randy had motioned to Sarah to look over at Josh (the football team’s star tackle) who was moving his lips as he read his Goosebumps novel.Sarah noticed what Randy wanted her to see, and the mean-spirited boy loudly whispered, “Jumbo Dumbo!” loud enough for several kids AND Josh to hear.In an instant, Josh was out of his seat and had overturned Randy’s desk. The class erupted into a welcomed frenzy that ended their SRR.Soon others were moving desks around to create a fighting ring, as my loud demands to “Come on! Cut it out!” were drowned out by, “FIGHT! FIGHT!FIGHT!”
Now slimy Randy was no fighter , so he actually picked up his desk and held it in front of himself like a shield.Josh just smiled and swatted the desk out of Randy’s shaking hands.
As much as I wished Randy would get the comeuppance he deserved (He was a habitual liar, cheater, slacker, instigator, and all-around jerk), I knew his blood would ultimately be on my hands, so I frantically used the class landline to call for help.
Even though Randy started to try some ridiculous Tai Kwon Do moves, Josh had a smirk on his lips and hate in his eyes as he moved in for the pummeling.
Then out of nowhere Victoria jumped off the ground and onto Josh’s back! (Did I mention she was a big-boned girl?) She actually had Josh in a headlock.“Ms. G, don’t worry! I got him!” she exclaimed.“I got ’em!”I think the unexpectedness of my rescuer’s actions caught most of the room by surprise.Two of Josh’s teammates lost their mob mentality and helped Victoria subdue Josh.I quickly got Sarah to take Randy outside on the portable’s porch, and within minutes the school’s SRO arrived to help contain the situation.
Now, Victoria may not have been an A-student or an eager writer or a lover of literature, but that day she proved a strong asset in my chaotic pinball class.The moment of that chokehold told me Victoria was ultimately on my side and she became one of my most trusted and respected middle school allies in education!
A momma’s love shines through her children, and Mama Joe’s eleven children wonderfully displayed their love for her.Lizo Vidrine married when she was 15 and she and Joe Latour raised their 11 kids in Ville Platte, Louisiana.As a kid, I remember going to Mama and PapaJoe’s every week, mostly on Sunday afternoons.When Dad drove the family from Eunice to Ville Platte my siblings and I played a very lame car game called “Counting Horses” ( that’s a “whole ‘nother Oprah” as one of my good friends would say). We traveled a distance of 17 miles, but to 4 restless kids, it seemed like 77 at least!
Back then we mostly kissed Mama & Papa hello and then headed to the backyard to chase Papa’s chickens and eat his scuppernong grapes until he came out yelling at us to leave his chickens alone.Then we fidgeted inside for 8 or so minutes until Dad gave us each a dime to walk to Mr. Theophile’s tiny store on the corner where we each bought 10 penny candies that were placed in small paper bags.To get to the store we had to pass Mama’s next door neighbor’s house that would later remind me of Boo Radley’s place.My sisters and I usually ran when we passed neighbor Gazelle’s because she and her “not-quite-right” daughters lived there with at least 100 cats, and Gazelle yelled at us if she was sitting on the front porch with a gun beneath her chair.(another Oprah-type tale).
However, many years later, Papa Joe has died and Mama Joe is bedridden and somewhat senile.Now her seven children who live closest to her have each claimed a day of the week to come take care of her (or pay for a sitter if they cannot come that week). Usually my momma drives my two sisters and me to visit Mama Joe.Now the house is quiet and after Gayle, Kelly and I kiss Mama Joe hello in her bed full of pillows, we move to the small living room to read or watch a little t.v.Momma stays in Mama’s bedroom and time ticks slowly be with the soft sounds of Momma talking to Mama. Later, the sitter arrives and talks with Momma in Cajun French.Sometimes my sisters and I go outside and pick these hard pears or sour plums from Mama’s trees. Papa Joe had been a gifted gardener, and years earlier he had grown vegetables and fruits galore in his extensive garden.Gayle remembers when he pulled a carrot from the ground once and handed her the best carrot she has ever tasted!
Mama Joe’s yard also had this mimosa tree I really loved.Its beautiful softness, the feathery green leaves, with the flowers that looked like pink dandelions remind me now of my grandmother’s soft, strong beauty. Mimosa trees produce fragile, sweet blossoms in the late spring that attract butterflies and birds and that also contrast with the tree’s tough nature. According to some gardening websites, mimosas do well in droughts and heat, which explains their abundance along southern highways.Also, they produce these elongated seedpods that drop and spread their “offspring” far and wide.The Japanese call mimosas the “sleeping tree” because their leaves gently fold for the night.Like the mimosa tree, Mama Joe had a strong, calm beauty that mixed the Cajun Vidrine in her with the Native American blood my momma always claimed she had. (“Your mama’s great-great grandmother was an Indian princess, for real!”)Also, her eleven seedpods heeded the Catholic directiveto “go forth and multiply” well. Mama and Papa Joe had 48 grandchildren and over 60 great-grandchildren and I don’t know how many great-grandchildren since the Latours are still healthily multiplying.
Overall, Mama Joe was a sweet, smiling & laughing Cajun who married at age 15 and raised a family of 11, who only spoke Cajun French until her son P.J. married Polly (an amazing woman from California),and so she learned to speak English to welcome a new member of her family, who cooked rice and gravy like a top chef, who loved life and good times almost as much as she loved all of her many children and their children, and their children’s children, and so on.All Mama Joe gave forth was love and joy which she taught my own mother, Geraldine, to do for her 4 children, who then did her best to teach me to do for my 3 boys.Like the mimosa tree, may all mothers continue to spread strong, soft feathery blossoms of love for their own seedpods.
Thank you to Uncle Jack (Mama’s baby) and Aunt Faye for helping me with some Mama Joe details!
At age 13, I began my job in the family’s movie business at the Liberty Theater in Eunice, Louisiana. I worked the concession stand at my grandma’s picture show. Grandpa Keller had opened it in 1924 and had in later years owned 5 movie theaters in a town of about 10,000.
In 1969 when I started my picture show career, my grandpa had died and my Uncle Jake and Aunt Rose managed both the Liberty and the Queen Cinema. Even though I was his niece (and a star concession worker), Uncle Jake terrified me. Frowning and growling were his favored forms of communication with his employees. One Sunday afternoon my dad picked me up from an afternoon swim at the local city pool “to go work at the show” because the matinee that day had drawn a bigger crowd than expected. Dad rushed me to the Liberty to help out. I jumped from the pool, quickly dressed and showed up with a still-dripping ponytail to start boxing popcorn and waiting on the long line of costumers. When Uncle Jake showed up to check on his employees, I felt pride inside for being such a loyal worker. He emitted a soft snarl to get my attention and grumbled, “Ya look like a drowned rat.”
Luckily for me (and my fellow workers), Uncle Jake did not routinely check up on us at the show. So most of the time, concession stand work was a groovy gig. Opening up routines included wheeling the wooden carols that held the candy bars out of a storage closet and checking the Baby Ruths and Butterfingers for random rat bites. Then we pulled out large plastic bags filled with the previous night’s leftover popcorn. This stale stuff would then be mixed in with the day’s fresh popcorn. (Is this a normal practice in movie theaters, or was my uncle cheap as well as grouchy?) Next, we’d get money from the box office lady to start our shift with. Later we’d go back to Mrs. Pearl (our favorite) or Mrs. Fontenot (a bit fussy) for extra nickels, quarters, or dollar bills as the need arose.
We’d time popcorn popping with the film’s starting times since the smell lured in more customers. Most days the work came in spurts – the 15 minutes before the movie began. And since the Liberty had only one screen, that meant only two busy times a night (week-end had more because of the double feature specials). Once a movie began, only the random harried mom with a squirrelly lil one or a bored teenager with a sweet tooth bothered us concession workers. On slow week nights I always had a book to read, and I’d sometimes kill time with the teenaged ticket-taker/ usher boy .
The job paid a slim $1.25 an hour, but it did include the perk of getting in free to movies. However, as a Keller I already saw all movies for free, so I added a perk of my own. I’d sometimes take candy bars to share with friends at school the day after one of my shifts. I’d even “take orders” from some of my closest friends or a cute guy I was crushin’ on. (“Hey, get me a couple of Milky Ways, will ya?”)
One of my favorite things about working at the show was that super-fine ice we used for the soft drinks. Since workers unofficially got free drinks during our shifts, I’d pack my 8 oz. paper cup to the rim with that heavenly ice and then fill it with the best Dr. Pepper on the planet. I think the syrup content on our soda machine was set too high, so our drinks were sweet, sweet. And when a blockbuster like MASH or Patton was showing and we sweated to keep the popcorn popping and the masses served before the opening credits, a super-icy, super-sweet beverage never tasted better!
The jobs only 3 hazards were: 1. Getting burned while making popcorn or cleaning the antique machine 2. Getting the stink eye or criticism from my uncle (“Quit over-filling the popcorn boxes; don’t make the sides pooch-out.” or “Put more ice in those drink cups!”) 3. Running out of popcorn during a rush.
For the four and a half years I worked at the “Liberty Thayter” (as Mrs. Fontenot would say), my good times far outweighed my bad times. I was surrounded by folks who liked watching movies, talking about movies, and sharing movies. Often the usher, my fellow concession gal, and even the ticket-taker lady (especially sweet and witty Mrs. Pearl) discussed a movie’s good points, bad points, or its message. Like the circus worker who shoveled elephant poop responded when asked why he didn’t leave such a shitty job. “What?? And give up show business?!”