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.