Posted in Cajuns, Family, Holidays

Lost and Found by Ginger Keller Gannaway

Christmas 1964

My childhood Christmases were down a winding gravel road in a ranch style brick home with my two little sisters and one older brother. The tree was displayed in the big living room between the fireplace and a large picture window that revealed some farmer’s soy bean fields and the broken remnants of a drive-in movie theater. On Christmas mornings Dad took soundless home movies of us dancing in our p.j.s while we held up that year’s Santa loot – 1960’s classics like Creepy Crawlers, a Midge doll (Barbie’s cousin), and a Mouse Trap game. Momma sat on the sofa and sipped Community Coffee.

Christmas breakfast was served in the best kitchen I’ve ever known. One swinging door opened to the cooking half and the other door swung into the eating area. That kitchen meant strong coffee and boudin with biscuits in the mornings, substantial noon time dinners that had to include rice and gravy, and mid-afternoon coffee with cake or pie. Supper was often leftovers or po-boys from Momma’s Fried Chicken. In between meals the kitchen housed bouree card games and Daddy (Papa) entertaining others with tall tales and bawdy Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes.

Grandma Keller’s House

Decades later after my grandma died, my parents moved into her two-story wooden home (built in late 1800’s). My husband, three sons, and I (plus my siblings and their families) celebrated all of our Christmases in their huge living room with a ten-foot tree crammed with ornaments and Momma’s gold colored paper-mache angel that stood in for the customary star. Momma arranged holiday decor in all the home’s rooms including fresh garland wound around the upstairs bannister.

My sons grew up with Christmas for sixteen people in that home, but in the 1960s and ‘70s, Grandma had Christmas Eve parties for sixty to eighty people: cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends who felt like family. Kids ran up and down the long, long hall between the crowded kitchen where grown-ups smoked cigarettes and spiked the egg-nog and the big living room where knee-deep stacks of presents took up most of the floor space. Kids waited for Big Jim (the picture show’s usher/bouncer) to climb the front porch steps and act as Santa for kids reluctant to get too close to the man who often told them, “Don’t make me take off my belt” when they got rowdy during a Saturday matinee.

For my kids, MaMa’s exuberance made Christmas mornings special. She would blast “Cajun Jingle Bells” to wake up the house, and she and Papa danced in the hall as their grandkids rushed to see what Santa had delivered. Even when the kids became cranky teens who worked hard to look unimpressed, Mama’s smile and her Christmas joy made all of us believe in holiday magic. The living room exploded with wrapping paper and boxes and pieces of plastic toys and opened candy containers.

However, by 2021 Mama and Papa have died and COVID has made travel difficult or unwise. So Christmas is smaller and less exciting. I’m relieved not to drive seven hours on I-Tense to Louisiana with its eighteen-wheelers and reckless drivers, who weave in and out of five lanes of traffic as if the cars did not hold babies and grandparents and pets.

And I don’t miss hauling presents in a van that barely had room for its occupants and luggage and special pillows and Beanie Babies. The year we gave Mama and Papa a Pottery Barn coat & hat rack, my youngest son wore no seatbelt and had to curl himself next to that five-foot tall present

We have lost some of that Christmas excitement we used to share back home in Cajun Country. We don’t see our huggin’ and kissin’ cousins or have Mama’s tight, tight hugs. And no Big Santa on the lawn to welcome us to Eunice. No boudin and coffee or Champagne’s stuffed pork roast (and Mama’s dynamite pork gravy to go with Christmas dinner) or LeJeune’s sausage or Maudry’s sweet dough pies.

Lil Shane and Papa with Big Santa

However, a smaller, no travel holiday does have its benefits. More time with my three grown sons and their special ladies. We play board games and we watch some TV – football or streaming movies. And we sit and talk and laugh a lot.

I lack Mama’s extreme Christmas joy, and we don’t rush off to early mass, but I feel extra blessed. This year we toasted to Mama and Papa (and Kelly). We told Papa jokes and Mama stories and remembered what Eunice felt like – walking to the Queen Cinema or Nick’s Restaurant or the circle tennis courts (now renamed the R.A. Keller Courts).

Yet our tiny condo crams us all together in new, calmer ways. We still follow our favorite recipes: Grandma’s cornbread dressing, Mama’s green beans with potatoes and her sweet potato souffle, and turkey and sausage gumbo the day after Christmas. We remember to “Laissez les bons temps rouler” like Mama and Papa taught us to do.

Gary and I get to know our sons as adults. We share opinions about movies, music, sports, and even politics without wanting to slap someone. We enjoy spicy foods we grew up with and learn new ones. We laugh a lot and become closer to our sons and their lovely partners. Now Christmas with eight of us in a 900-square foot dwelling feels as right as biscuits and boudin in Grandma’s kitchen. 

Posted in Family, Relationships

Great Aunt Lena

            My great-aunt Lena, born Karolina Katharina in 1890, was one of nine children born to hard-working dirt farmers in Kansas.  In her youth and early adulthood, she was demurely beautiful, with large brown eyes and long brown hair that went nearly to her waist .  She was a humble soul and quiet by nature. She had the sweetest heart of anyone I have ever known.

            The story goes that in her twenties she married a good-looking man from Chicago.  They lived there, and Lena soon got a job as a seamstress at the Conrad Hilton Hotel.  She made draperies, napkins, and tablecloths for the hotel when she began her life as a city girl.  She was extremely talented and made all of her own clothes, coats, slips, robes, and nightgowns too.  In fact, I only knew her to have two store bought dresses in her lifetime- one for my brother’s wedding and one for mine.

Grandma, me and Aunt Lena

            Aunt Lena had only been married a year or two when that handsome husband went out late one night for the proverbial ‘pack of cigarettes’ and never came back.  Heartbroken and afraid of living in the city by herself, she packed up and moved to Amarillo, Texas to be near her sister, my grandma Martha Margaretha.  It would be years before she would divorce that wayward husband, and somewhere inside, Aunt Lena made a vow to never fall in love again.  She never did.

 She rode the train from Chicago to Amarillo bringing with her a large, black steamer trunk packed full of her belongings.  She also had a small, light brown suitcase with a darker brown stripe woven into the fabric that held her clothes.  Everything she owned came with her on the train, except her faithful, black, push-peddle Singer sewing machine, which would arrive at a later date.

            I remember well the small efficiency apartment she first lived in after arriving in Amarillo.   Lena made do with her tiny apartment complete with a hot plate, and Murphy pull down bed.  Complaining was not in her vocabulary, so Lena settled in, got a job, found the bus route, and waited patiently to move closer to her sister.

            My daddy, J.C. Claughton, Jr., was a lot of things, but one of his best qualities was being faithful to visit his parents and Aunt Lena once or twice a week.  He would drink coffee with them before work or stop by with some groceries on his way home from work.  He was loving and faithful for all of their days.

            My Grandma and Grandpa lived in a small duplex, apartment A.  Side B finally became available, and Aunt Lena was given first choice.   When she moved into apartment B, life truly began for Aunt Lena.  Most of her eighty-eight years on this earth were spent in that little, stucco duplex on Hayden Street, twenty-five steps away from her bossy, older sister.  Grandma and Grandpa had only one child, my dad, and Aunt Lena, never having children of her own, loved my dad something fierce.  She adored him, and when my brother and I came along, she adored us as well.

            Aunt Lena never said no to us, but she and grandma would go round and round when Lena would get tired of her bossiness and rules.  If Grandma prepared a Sunday lunch, she would tell Lena what side dish to bring.  If Grandma invited her friends over for Canasta, she would sometimes accuse Aunt Lena of cheating.

            “I see you looking at my cards, Lena!” Grandma would announce.

            “I don’t need to see your cards to win the game.”  Lena returned.

            “Well then, keep your eyes on your own cards.”

            “Same goes for you.”

            And this would go on until one of them either quit the game or Grandma would say lunch was ready.  I’ve been witness to Aunt Lena throwing her cards on the table and stomping off.

            “I’m going home.  I don’t have to put up with your nonsense.”  And she would walk the twenty-five steps home to duplex B.

Aunt Lena bought a television and Grandma had a phone line with an old black rotary phone, so they shared both the TV and the phone for the entirety of their duplex days.  If Aunt Lena needed to use the phone she would have to ask Grandma, and if Grandma wanted to watch one of her ‘programs’, like Lawrence Welk, she would have to ask Aunt Lena.  And I do recall Grandma paid for the newspaper, which Lena could read the next day when Grandma was finished.  The two sisters negotiated their daily life decisions as sisters are prone to do.

            Aunt Lena always let my brother and me have a Coca Cola at her house.  (Those small 6 oz. Coke’s that came in a bottle.)  Jimmy and I would be in her tiny little kitchen shaking up our coke bottles and spraying them into our mouths.  Once, I recall a rather messy incident when one of us, probably my brother, shook his Coke but missed his mouth.

            “Watch this,” he said.  And he stuck his thumb in the coke bottle and began to shake it.

            “I bet you can’t do this,” he taunted me.

            And all of a sudden he missed his mouth spewing the sticky, brown liquid all over Aunt Lena’s kitchen-walls, curtains, ceiling, and floor.  We stood frozen in time with our shoes stuck to the floor when Lena walked into the room. She never told on us, just helped us clean up and  made us promise not to do it again. 

Aunt Lena would patiently let me sit at her treadle sewing machine and sew straight lines on fabric until she taught me how to make skirts and aprons.  I would have to sit up close so my feet could touch the foot pedal giving me the control.  I would watch Aunt Lena take down her hair in the evenings and brush it, then braid it into one long plait down her back.  In the mornings, she would unbraid, brush, then put her hair into a bun at the base of her neck.  Always.  No variations.

            When my brother and I came by for a visit, we were supposed to go to Grandma’s house first.  Grandma would get terribly jealous if we saw Aunt Lena before her.  Aunt Lena would wave at us through her front window curtains as we bounded up the steps to the duplex and wait patiently until Grandma had her fill of us.  This was another of Grandma’s rules:  she wanted her grandkids all to herself at least for a little while.  Aunt Lena never complained, but we knew it seemed unfair.

            Aunt Lena was a sweet and pure soul.  I never knew her to say an unkind word about anyone, not even when she was mad at Grandma.  Her life was small in a lot of ways.  She never drove a car, always depending on the bus, my dad or walking.  On grocery day, she and Grandma would pull a little cart up the sidewalk, three blocks away to the Furr’s Grocery Store.  And after their shopping, they would take turns pulling the loaded cart all the way home.

            My Dad, till the day Aunt Lena died, would slip money into her checking account to supplement her small Social Security stipend.  He wanted her to feel independent.  She and grandma both, as they got older, would hand a blank, signed check to the grocery cashier and let her fill out the check and then they would show Daddy the receipt so he could balance their accounts.

1961 Lake Williams Colorado National Forrest Park

            Daddy was insistent that Grandma and Aunt Lena travel with us on our summer vacations-camping in Colorado.  Although anxious about heights, Lena was a trooper and participated in everything.  Once, we all rode the train from Silverton to Durango Colorado, and Aunt Lena refused to look out over the mountains, praying loudly and repeating, “Oh, the heights, the depths and the altitude!  God help us all.”

            Though Aunt Lena never spent money on herself, she was always generous to my dad, brother, and me.  On our birthdays, she would choose a card from her box of all-occasion cards from Woolworths, and sign it: Love, Aunt Lena, slipping a crisp five-dollar bill inside.

            As Aunt Lena got older, her fear and anxiety took over in ways my father could not understand.  She refused to wear her dentures after going through the painful process of teeth removal.  She refused to get hearing aids although she couldn’t hear what anyone was saying.   And eventually, she refused to eat anything besides what she wanted:  Coca Colas, peppermint candies and Tapioca pudding.  And at eighty-eight, won’t we all have earned the right to eat, live and love exactly as we wish?

            Dear, sweet, great Aunt Lena passed from this earth forty-four years ago.  I have her black, steamer trunk still packed with her sewing shears and threads, lots of old photo albums from my dad and assorted miscellaneous items from my youth.  When I pass by that old trunk, I think about a shy, young woman  riding the train from Chicago to Amarillo.  I think about her bravery to live life when many things seemed so scary.  And I think about the way she loved us with unconditional love and devotion.

Even if our worlds are small, and the ones we love turn out not to love us back; even if we have bossy siblings and no children to care for us in our old age, we can still have kindness and choose to love those close to us.  We can dare to be brave even when it hurts.  We can be generous of spirit and share our worldly belongings, knowing there is always enough for everyone.  Aunt Lena seemed to know all of this intuitively and perhaps that is why she was loved so dearly. 

Deer Hunting in Llano, Texas
Aunt Lena in the front seat

Posted in Family, Grandmother

The Power of Plants

Lee, Grandma, and Courtney (in Grandma’s apron)

            My grandma used to grow zinnias and nasturtiums in a long strip of a garden in her back yard.  As soon as you opened the side door, the colors and fragrance would greet you, instantly brightening the day.  The Amarillo, Texas soil was hard caliche, but Grandma had raked and tilled it in preparation for her flowers, so they would have the best chance to grow.  She cared for them maternally and took great pride in their beauty.  Grandma’s garden was in direct contrast from her years growing up on a dirt farm in Kansas.  The zinnias brought her pure joy.

            Grandma and I would go to the back yard and stand on the walkway surveying her garden.  “I sure wish it would rain,” she’d say. “We really need it.”  She talked a lot about rain, the lack of rain and when it was supposed to rain, and then we would turn on the hose and water her plants by hand.  “Be sure to give each one a good long drink,” she’d say.

            Bending down on her old, arthritic knees, Grandma would pick the weeds that dared to creep into her domain, and as she did, she talked to her zinnia’s as she would a child, “There you go, little girl.  Now you’re safe from those bad weeds.” 

“Help me up,”  she’d say, and I would.  Then we would stand on the sidewalk and just look.  I can see her now, standing tall, with her red and white checked gingham apron on, squinting into the sun, her detachable sunglasses flipped up, admiring her work, feeling satisfied at a job well done.

           “You know you can eat nasturtiums, but they sure are spicy,” she said.

  “Why would you eat a flower?” I asked.

  “I think some fancy people like to do that, but I just like to look at them.  They’re beautiful,” she answered.

            Before my grandpa died, he would let us go out to his vegetable garden and use a hoe or rake. It was a his and hers garden situation.  I don’t remember as much about his garden because Grandma made me help her outside and in the kitchen, her empire.  Not only did she have her flowers, but she also had a peach tree and a pecan tree.  Come June, the peaches would be ready to pick, and Grandma would begin her peachapalooza.  Peach pie, peach cobbler, peach ice cream, whole peaches, sliced peaches, poached peaches, canned peaches, peach preserves, and jam.  It was the same with her pecan tree too, as pecan pie was her real specialty, right up there with homemade cinnamon rolls and oatmeal cookies.

            When my girls were little, I had an outside plant or two, and the usual ivy growing in the kitchen window, but I had little time or thought for gardening.  I don’t recall feeling any kind of way about plants except for how much trouble they might be.  My friend, Chrys, used to have her whole patio covered in plants and I was always in awe.  How was she able to do it all with seemingly so little effort and so much joy?

            When I moved to Austin, twenty-three years ago, I fell in love with plants again. Even when Boo and I were dating, we would have competitions on who’s plants would grow the fastest and stay alive.  And although I would never call Boo Mr. Greenjeans,  he has taught me a lot about caring for plants.

            Our backyard and deck are home to thirty plus flowering plants that both give me joy and cause me angst.  Like Grandma, I fuss over watering or when it will rain and why it hasn’t rained.  I pick weeds and prune back.  I cover and uncover in the winter, and I coax the baby sprouts in the spring.  And as Grandma would, I often stand outside and survey my plants, talking sweetly to them as if they could hear me.

            “Will you water my plants in the front yard?” I recently asked Boo.

  “They are ‘our’ plants, you know.  You’re not the only one who takes care of them.”

 So, I corrected my wording to include “our”, but in my heart they are mine.  Mine and Grandma’s.  And when I see my flowers bloom or a tree branch with buds, I smile knowing Grandma would be proud of me. 

            The true meaning of the zinnia plant is affection, everlasting love, and remembrance. The zinnia symbolizes qualities that remind us to never take those we love for granted, and whether Grandma knew that or not, she lived it, wholeheartedly with her garden and with me.

My brother Jimmy, Great Aunt Lena, me, and Grandma under the Pecan Tree

Posted in Family, Mothers

Crooked Love by Ginger Keller Gannaway

I wrote and performed this essay in 2014 at  a Listen to Your Mother program. My son Casey is getting married next week (after two previous COVID cancellations) to a wonderful, beautiful woman named Catherine. I thought of how love travels down curvy, bumpy roads, yet those obstacles may make the love deeper, stronger. 

I was born crooked. I was a C-section baby, and the oxygen apparatus did not work in the delivery room, so the doctor had to give me mouth-to- mouth resuscitation to save my life. I suppose the time without oxygen caused my Cerebral Palsy brain damage.  My whole left side was affected: smaller, weaker, crooked left arm and leg.  

When Evan, my youngest son, at age five asked me, “Momma, are you handicapped?”  the query caught me off-guard, but I calmly answered, “Well, yes, I suppose I am.”  He accepted this fact and then thoughtfully added,“ But you’re just a lil bit handicapped, right?” So, I feel fortunate that I’m “just a lil’ bit” affected by C. P. even though I am always aware of my crooked self. 

Then how ironic is life, when ten years ago Casey, my middle son, had a horrendous accident (at age 20), and now his left arm won’t fully straighten and he has lost some mobility in his left side?  He, like me, has become a bit crooked. Is not all love, especially mother-child love, somewhat crooked?                            

1995 when I believed I had control of my 3 sons.

Mothers travel a truly crooked road. We begin the journey with quintessential closeness: breast-feeding and a connection that keeps us from sleeping through the night. We even convince ourselves our children are safe. Then God laughs and shoves the reality of the precariousness of parenthood in our faces. You think you are SAFE. Ha! Here’s an ear infection with a 102 fever.  How about an asthma attack?  Or a drug-related hellish accident?  Anytime that tight mother/child bond is fractured, we start to curse the heavens. “Why me?”  Our journey of love takes a sudden hairpin turn or it hits a pot hole, or a sudden speed trap, or a dense fog. The possibilities are endless.  And since mothers have indomitable spirits and bearlike bravery and superhero strength, we maneuver these highway dangers and we fight to keep our most precious loved ones protected. So surviving these inevitable pitfalls of motherly love tightens that mother/child closeness, no matter how old our child may be.                                            

Casey from birth has been my rough and tumble child. He was born so fast I couldn’t get the epidural I so wanted, and his face was bruised and smashed-looking.  At age two, he got stitches in his forehead, at four -staples at the back of his head, at seven- more stitches, at thirteen, a broken arm, and at fifteen-staples again. Later came the drinking, pot-smoking, speeding tickets, and DWI. The girlfriend drama and the pill problem followed.  On November 31, 2010 the whole teenage mess culminated around midnight when Casey fell 40 feet from an interstate overpass.  At six a.m. the next morning a passing jogger found him, unconscious, on a grassy patch of ground.

To this day Casey does not remember everything that led up to his fall, except that he had taken an abundance of Xanax. He shattered his pelvis, broke his left arm in several places, fractured two vertebrae, and sustained severe internal injuries (including a collapsed lung and a damaged section of his colon that had to be cut out). Miraculously he had no head injuries. I spent countless hours in the hospital: helping arrange Casey’s eight-plus pillows around his many broken parts, watching several seasons of Always Sunny in Philadelphia as a distraction from the pain and the boredom, making special smoothies his stomach would tolerate, learning about wound care, pampering him like when he was my bouncing baby boy.  After six weeks in the hospital and twelve different surgeries, Casey came home in a body brace and a partially-open stomach wound.                                                                                                                           

Today Casey is fine and living on his own, but he is still my rough and tumble boy. That dark, twisted nightmare of his accident has somehow toughened our mother-son connection. I remember walking into his hospital room at 6 a.m. once and Casey, sleeping with nuts and bolts sticking out of his arm, opened his eyes, smiled, and said it was “wonderful” when I arrived before he woke up.  Those long hours in the hospital, a mixture of shared silences and sudden heart-to-heart revelations, have made us better understand each other.

When we accept life’s crooked, rough side as much as we treasure life’s straight, smooth moments, we more fully understand the mystery and wonder of love….even when it’s crooked.  

I do not resent or hate my or my son’s crookedness, nor do I need to fix it. From the allure of a crooked grin to the loveliness of a crooked curl, I embrace life’s crooked love.

Posted in Family

My 3 Sons

My three sons and me in 1993

by Ginger Keller Gannaway

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

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

Evan, Casey, and Shane with Papa in 1997

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

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

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

My 3 Sons, 2006

Posted in Cajuns, Contemplations, Family

South Central Louisiana Proud by Ginger Keller Gannaway

Going home to Eunice, Louisiana for Daddy’s funeral memorial was a humid, eye-opening experience. We rented a small wooden house on 4th Street, two blocks from my grandma’s extra-large home on 2nd Street, the place I visited Grandma and Stel almost everyday of my childhood, the place Momma and Dad moved into after Grandma died.

I don’t know when I will return to Eunice; however, I had an epiphany that weekend – I truly appreciate the place I grew up in. I am South-central Louisiana proud. 

I love a place where the woman who measures out my two pounds of morning boudin asks, “You want that cut, Boo?” and a priest says, “The Body of Christ, Cha,” during communion. 

I love Rita, the tiny Cajun in Fred’s Lounge in Mamou who greets people at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings for the live Cajun radio broadcast and asks “Who’s your momma, hon?” Then she points to a bald man named Barry who plays the triangle for the band. “That’s my son,” Rita says holding her spiral notebook and Bic pen for signing in visitors. “He’s brain damaged, ya know.” I love how Rita later grabs my niece Jessica’s hand when the old me launch into their first French Cajun song, and the dancers two-step around the band that plays in the center of the tiny bar where the dusty, cracked framed photos on the walls and the tattered hand-lettered signs have not changed for over 50 years.

I love the sign outside Ronnie’s Cajun Cafe in Eunice (formerly the E-Z Shop Grocery) that lists the day’s plate lunch choices on a marquee: meatballs with rice and gravy, liver and onions, or backbone stew.

I love our local choices for damn good boudin: Eunice Superette Slaughter House, T-Boys, and my favorite- Eunice Poultry.

I love the new Clovis Crawfish statue (modeled after my dad’s illustrations for Mary Alice Fontenot’s book Clovis Crawfish and his Friends in 1961) set in front of the Eunice Depot Museum and the metal sign for the Reginald Keller Tennis Courts, even though everyone in town will always refer to them as the Fairgrounds Courts because they were built in a huge field where floats gathered before starting their homecoming or Mardi Gras parades.  

Most of all, I love the Queen Cinema that felt like a ghost town when Gary, Evan, and I walked there for a Saturday matinee. The guys chose a horror movie, but I headed into a small empty theater (the Queen now has three separate screens) with my popcorn and Dr. Pepper to watch In the Heights. I enjoyed a private screening in the picture show that Grandma Keller owned once, a place where my sisters and I saw almost every movie in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and we worked in the concession stand. My brother Emile was an usher and projectionist.

I shared a cool moment with the young girls working there. They were outside putting up a movie poster for the upcoming James Bond flick and moved inside to sell us our tickets and then went up the steps to the concession area to fix our movie snacks. I told them I once worked there and asked if the very yellow popcorn was fresh. They assured me it had just been popped and let me rattle on about my picture show connections. The fresh faced girls wore uniforms from a national theater chain, and there was a clear plastic cup for tips in front of the cash register. Other than that, the Queen Cinema felt the same.

For me, a cool dark movie theater on a hot afternoon is perfection. That Saturday I felt close to Grandma, to my parents, to my siblings, and to my hometown. The Queen Cinema was like coming home.

Eunice ain’t perfect or pretty – racism and sexism share space with spicy food and devout religion. A massive Wal-Mart claims the land my childhood home once stood on. Failed businesses like Jimbos dot the highway and give the town a tired look. But the Mosaic Coffee Shop, just a half-block from the Queen, has survived and LSU-Eunice keeps expanding.

At sixteen I felt embarrassed to say I lived in a small town in south central Louisiana. I preferred the congested streets and “sophistication” of Lafayette.  Getting away from old people who spoke French and the predictability of the noon whistle and the town’s prejudice had me straining to get to LSU in Baton Rouge as soon as possible.

For so many years I did not anticipate driving home to Eunice. It was an obligation, a responsibility to visit my parents (and a chance to buy a box of LeJeune’s pork/garlic sausage). Eunice’s small town charms eluded me. Its fierce mosquitos and slow motion pace had me planning my escape right after I got my fill of Momma’s cooking and Daddy’s jokes.

Now I claim my south central Louisiana roots. The spicy boudin, the rich farmland, KBon’s zydeco and Cajun playlist, and the residents’ straight-forward, tell-it-like-it-is attitude are things I’m proud of. The relentless humidity matches the strong, firm hugs and raucous laughter I share with cousins and friends from across south Louisiana. Cajuns are tough and brave and practice unapologetic honesty. I hope to forever be grateful I grew up with more cousins than I could count, rice & gravy and gumbo, a bi-lingual place with traditions that grab us when we’re little and keep most of us coming home for music festivals and Cajun cook-offs. When I drive from Texas and exit the interstate I call I-Tense onto the two-lane Highway 97 that runs through Evangeline and Iota, I smile when I see flooded rice fields full of crawfish nets and I smell those piney woods I call home.

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

Posted in Family

Up on the Roof by Ginger Keller Gannaway

View of our backyard in 1970s

Daddy could think like a kid. He sought out new experiences and made games out of mundane experiences. He’d invent silly activities a child could get excited about and a momma would fuss about.

“Reginald! Stop working the kids up! Tete dure!” was a go-to complaint from Momma.

One of Daddy’s kid ideas was putting us on his high, broad shoulders so we could climb onto our home’s roof and run around and be eye-level with the birds.

Maybe the activity originated from Emile’s football getting thrown up there by accident or Gayle throwing Kelly’s favorite stuffed animal up there on purpose. But it became a thing to do on slow afternoons.

No matter how the idea originated, Daddy understood the thrill of doing something unusual and with a dash of danger. I remember my hesitancy on the sloping asphalt-like roof tiles as we chased each other from the area above our den, down the long hall of bedrooms, toward the big living room, dining room, and above Momma’s kitchen. The experience could be scary, but I felt invincible and wild to be so near those long live oak branches as if I were a bold bluejay. We never stayed on the roof long. After a few whoops and hesitant games of tag, we’d hear the shrill call from the kitchen below us.

“Reginald! Mon Dieu! Get those kids off the roof! Tete dure!”

Momma had spoken. Her feisty anger was the voice of reason to Dad’s love of adventure.

Also, he gave us cool vacations every summer: from countless Florida beach trips to a drive up to visit cousin Ozman in Michigan with a stop in Chicago to see cousin Lucille. We all learned to appreciate the joy of  travel.

One year Dad got us a pony from his close friend Coach Cormier. We learned to ride Red bareback in our yard and in the rice fields that surrounded our property. Dad made us jump into the deep end of the swimming pool before we knew how to swim. He’d tread water in the ten-foot deep water and grab us when we bobbed to the surface. He invented the Bangberry Ride where we took “rides” on a long tree branch, and he fixed us a tire swing on a giant rope that hung from a branch twenty feet above our heads. After the tire fell off, he tied the rope into a massive knot so kids could swing out of the tree’s tall fork like Tarzan. He once scared a living room full of slumber party girls by coming out of the wood box next to our fireplace on his knees with Momma’s stocking over his face. He loved to surprise us!

Dad and Momma in Gubbio, Italy

When we became adults, he organized and paid for trips to Italy (one in Tuscany, another in Umbria). Dad never moved out of Eunice (until age 89) and ended up living in the home he grew up in: however, he and Mom traveled the globe when he worked for Southwestern Life: Hawaii, Japan, France, Germany, Greece, Bermuda. 

He loved to go, go, go as much as he loved creating unexpected adventures. Driving home from a Carlsbad Cavern vacation, he stopped the car in west Texas on an empty stretch of highway and said, “Let’s climb that mountain!” Coming from the flat, flat south Louisiana area, the rocky hill of about 200 feet did seem mountainous. Emile, Gayle, Kelly and I followed Dad’s lead and scrambled up the rough terrain full of cacti, sticky shrubs, and sliding rocks. Only Emile made it to the top, and even he got nervous after someone pointed out a large snake between some rocks. Momma stayed at the car with Kelly who was too young to climb very far. With the snake alert Momma let out a terrified, “Oh! Merde!” grabbed Kelly and got inside the car despite the hot summer temperature. On our way down the hill Gayle jumped atop a huge flat rock and pronounced herself “King of the hill!” 

Daddy took an immediate liking to that rock and said, “Let’s take this rock home! A souvenir!” We kids helped him dig around the base until he and Emile could free it and drag it back towards the car.

Forgetting the snake, Momma jumped out of the car to declare, “Reginald, what in the world are you doing?” 

Emile and Dad were struggling to get a 140-pound rock into our trunk. Gayle and I had moved a suitcase and Mom’s vanity case to the backseat to give the rock room. 

Tete dure! We do not need that!” Mom said as we all ignored her.

That small boulder then lived in our backyard where we found lots of uses for it: a makeshift table for tea parties, a home base for hide-and-seek games, a cool resting spot for cats and dogs during summer, a place to sit and dig mud off the sides of your shoes, and a low pedestal for young imaginary royalty.

Dad’s spontaneous and fearless ideas often clashed with Momma’s anxious and reasonable thoughts. He could be short-tempered and loud and bossy, yet he never lost that spark of kid-like fun. He played tennis until his mid 80’s and he went to the casino past the age of 90. Always up for a game of cards, a new restaurant, or a road trip!

Easter Fun

As parents, we do our best to give our kids as many good times as we can manage. Dad gave us vacations every summer: beaches, national parks, Six Flags, and Disney World. But my fondest memories are of playing in our own backyard. We were barefoot most of the time and always had a dog and some cats around. If a cousin came to visit, it felt cool to impress her with a unique form of fun. “Wanna get up on the roof?” 

Then after Dad’s nap, if he was in a good mood, I’d tell him, “Gina wants to get on the roof, Daddy.”

And he’d stretch his long arms and look toward the kitchen where Mom was cleaning or cooking. He’d give us a conspiratorial wink and head toward the back yard. First, Dad would bend low to the ground and help me climb onto his shoulders with my legs dangling around his neck. Then he’d take my right hand and I’d put my right foot on his shoulder. Next he’d hold my weak left hand tightly and give me time to put my left foot on his shoulder. I clung to his extra-large hands with bated breath as he walked my shaking torso right next to the lowest spot of our roof. My more agile brother and sisters had already shimmied up the metal T.V. antenna pole right next to our wooden garage. Gayle lay flat on the roof and grabbed both of my arms as Dad put one huge palm under my butt and got all of me up on the roof. Gayle then smiled at our cousin’s big blue eyes as Gina considered the risks involved in our game.

“Come on, Gina! If I can do it, you know you can!” I said.

Soon five squealing kids were running like monkeys just let loose from a cage. My siblings were fearless and kept their hands in the air as they padded along the hot roof tiles, but I preferred the Mowgli walk. Gina took her time getting her “roof legs” screaming as she figured out if the game with no rules was worth the risk. As our bare feet got used to the rough surface, we all moved faster and squealed louder. The five pairs of small feet made padding noises with uneven rhythms because we all made short runs and sudden stops. Our heads told us we were as powerful and brave as eagles, but suddenly we’d hear a strident shout from the kitchen area below us.

“RE-GI-NALD!! Get those kids off the roof! MAINTENANT!”

Merci beaucoup, Daddy! For being an exciting instigator and a wonderful partner-in-crime!

Posted in Aging, Family

Not that Kind of Girl

by Ginger Keller Gannaway

I’m not that kind of girl.

Disclaimer: I have not technically been “a girl” in over five decades. In four months, I’ll qualify for Medicare! “Girl” is an affectionate way some women, even old ones, communicate. “Hey, Girl! Can you believe this weather!?” or “Girl! It’s been too long since we got together!”

Anyway…I’m not the girl who cares if my clothes match perfectly or I have on make-up or if my hair looks great. I’m tempted to use the current scapegoat, the pandemic, but I really blame my appearance apathy on my mom. She used to wear two shades of blue that were close to the same color but not quite. She’d sport an aqua top with cobalt pants with confidence. She got her hair dyed and styled every week and she liked getting dressed up for events every now and then, but she never spent more than ten minutes in front of a mirror before she faced the world. She cared how she looked but she cared more about other things, like good food, good company, and good times.

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

A week ago I wore my Catcher in the Rye sweatshirt backwards for my morning walk without noticing, and yesterday I sat in my car ready to drive to the grocery store, looked down, noticed a large round grease stain on my navy pants, and never considered going inside to change. I will not retire a favorite t-shirt even after washing machine gremlins have eaten several tiny holes in the front of the shirt. I will wear black sandals with a navy skirt, and I’m not sure of the fall date that decides when it’s illegal to wear white shoes. 

When I was teaching, I did my best to look presentable. Our English department wing had a psycho central heating and cooling unit that liked to match the outside weather. If it was 88 in the Texas shade, our classrooms’ temp hovered between 86 and 90. If the fall air was around 52, that was the temperature setting for our rooms. I kept a brass coatrack in the back of my class full of hoodies and sweaters for kids to use while we read Dante’s Inferno or Into Thin Air (an account of climbing Mount Everest). I also had a lumpy multi-colored sweater draped over my teacher chair to help me with the frigid days. I remember a time I’d worn my maroon corduroy jacket with my thin cotton knit skirt and blouse as kids shivered in their desks. During the passing period I noticed my teacher friend in the hall with crossed, goose-bump covered arms. I offered her my lumpy sweater. She gave me a sweet, blue-lipped smile and rubbed her bare forearms.

“Thanks, but that sweater won’t match my dress,” she said right before the tardy bell rang and we each turned to enter our walk-in freezer rooms.

I am not that kind of girl! Looking well put together matters to me, but being cold or uncomfortable trumps style and beauty every time. I put extra time into looking presentable for weddings, funerals, and senior proms (when I’m a chaperone), but even then I’m okay, not great.

In 1989 when I was pregnant with my second son, I decided to get my hair cut extra short so that I could wash it, towel dry it, and go. I never mastered styling hair with a blow dryer, and I do not allow my hair stylist for over thirty years to use “products” on my hair. 

I’ve let my hair grow out in 2020 partly because… well… we were on pandemic lockdown, partly to let my hair cover up what old age has been doing to my neck. Then my sister convinced me to stop coloring my hair, and I now have the elderly version of Billie Eilish hair: whitish gray up to my ears and light brown to the top of my shoulders. 

Barbra’s Cool Eyes

When it comes to makeup, I use lip gloss most days and a smear of liquid foundation if I’m going somewhere fancy (like the post office or Target) or have a work-related Zoom meeting. I should not be trusted with eyeliner, mascara, or any other advanced beauty product. During my teens when my Barbra Streisand obsession was at its peak, I worked hard to imitate her smokey eye make-up that involved liner, eye shadow and black mascara, but I’m sure I succeeded in looking like a 15-year-old trying out for a part as a raccoon in her high school’s version of Dr. Doolittle. Once in the 1980’s I read in a Glamour magazine an interview with a model who complained that her sister “put her makeup on with her hooves!” I have always connected with that description of makeup application.

In 1985, after meeting Gary’s family for the first time, I asked him what his brother and sister-in-law thought of me (we stayed at their home). He said, “They said you were nice and that you didn’t wear much makeup.” I felt but a few seconds of disappointment until I remembered his family lived in the land of big hair and abundant makeup.

Me and my Boys in 1995

I am not that kind of girl. Not fancy. No frills. Come as you are kind of person. And almost all of my friends in Austin are similar. Maybe we like a throw-back, retro hippy look. Or perhaps I hold on to growing up in Eunice in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Long loose hair and braless halter top memories. In college it was thrift stores and jeans that got their holes and tears from honest living not from the manufacture’s assembly line. Even our stockings were full of holes!

I remember a scene in the movie Julie and Julia. Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) and Jane Lynch (as her sister Dorothy) are looking in front of a full mirror as they put on pearls to match their fancy dresses before entering a big party downstairs. Julia looks sideways toward her sister after they both consider their reflections, and starts with, “Pretty good.” Then a short pause and “But not great.” They shrug and laugh and head to the party. That’s how I feel about my looks after I try to get “all dolled up.” Pretty good. But not great.

I do not care whether my hair looks styled, my clothes are neat and coordinated, or my face is blemish-free. With hooves for hands and a far from perfect body, I am content to be pretty good because I hope to never be “that kind of girl.”

Me at 15

Posted in Cajuns, Family, Food

Louisiana Gold by Ginger Keller Gannaway

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.

Boiled Crawfish from Slim’s Spoon in Austin, Texas at Thicket Food Park

“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 Louisiana Lagniappe 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. 

Posted in Family, Grandmother

My Practice Grandchildren by Ginger Keller Gannaway

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!

Sunny

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.

Sunny & Crystal at The Cavalier’s Wickie Walkup
Musical Sunny Bunny

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.