Killer Year–The Class of 2007


My Louisiana
July 7, 2006, 8:00 am
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Uncategorized

I always knew we were close when we got to the silos on highway 190: tall, white cylinders, built to house the predominate crop of rice, their domes gleaming in the sun, they were a sign that we were almost to my paternal grandparents’ home. I thought of the silos as the three soldiers, guarding a gateway to a different place in time. We would have been driving west two or so hours by that point to get to Kinder, Louisiana, — just northeast of Lake Charles — all the way from Baton Rouge, where my parents had moved so my dad could find a job.

My very first memory is of me sitting in the middle of my grandparents’ living room on the hardwood floor in their small shotgun house, the attic fan rattling, dragging in muggy air from the hot spring day outside the screen door. Aunts, uncles, cousins were standing, leaning or seated in stiff ladder back chairs around the perimeter of the room. Most of the ladies wore cotton print dresses and flat shoes; the men had on slacks and short sleeve shirts, and cowboy boots, of course. A few of the men had their dress straw hats propped on their knees. My Paw Paw (for that’s the common term there, Maw Maw and Paw Paw) usually had the nicer chair next to the door. It would be years before I would realize that worn, green, stained-armed, sagging seat, broken-back chair wasn’t a throne.

Hazy cigarette smoke swirled above our heads, sucked into the attic fan and the evening light dappled through the open windows (always with screens to keep out the mosquitoes). Something played in the background, a crackly radio sawing out Cajun music, and the hum in the room would ebb and flow with stories. Always the stories. Sometimes, the story tellers would be quiet, somber, sometimes picking up to a lively jaunt. Cajuns thrived on the telling, passing along reminiscences, which in turn, passed along heritage. Tales which gained in fame and embellishments with every incarnation. Cajuns loved good practical jokes, crazy lore, and it was more about the event of telling and hearing the story than the facts, anyway. It was, as my friend Kitty says, the ‘supped up version. And sometimes, in the telling, they would switch over to Cajun if they didn’t want the kids to understand, saddened, though, that they knew the kids really wouldn’t understand. Most of us grandkids were far flung from our heritage already.

Like my dad, I was born there, in pure Cajun country. Unlike my dad, I would never know the language, not in its full, rich glory, neither French, nor a corruption of it, but an altered language, spoken still in old cafés with threadbare linoleum and Formica countertops in small towns, dim and dusty and far from the interstate. My dad spoke only Cajun until he was in the first grade, when the teachers had been instructed to force all of the kids to speak only English, and stabbed a heritage in its soul without a single blade falling.

I remember spending time in Kinder–sometimes a week in the summer–exploring the creek in the back, watching the crawfish build their mud huts, “fishing” for them with a piece of bacon tied to a string, running barefoot through grass and always getting stickers embedded in my toes, never wanting to put on shoes in spite of that because the loss of the feel of fresh, cool grass between my toes was a greater loss than the annoyance of the stickers. I remember watching the ceiling fans, listening to the rhythm of the attic fan, and always smelling the dark, loamy aroma of coffee brewed so strong, it practically sat up and had a conversation. I remember my Maw Maw hanging the white sheets on the clothesline that was strung from a post near her back door out toward the edge of the lawn near the creek, and the game we’d make of dodging around them, and the sweet, sunny smell we’d breathe in from them at night, as if they’d absorbed our happiness. I remember the spicy food, the rice with every meal, the constant ribbing and teasing and arguing. I remember the nights so quiet, I’d get up and walk around just to make sure I was still alive, and I’d sit on the front porch, listening to the crickets and the croaking bullfrogs and the grunts of other animals not far away, sometimes still seeing fireflies dancing in the dark. I remember the biggest treat was hand-cranked ice-cream, which usually signaled our last night there, and I remember the voices in my dreams.

I haven’t kept the accent, though I fall back into it as soon as I’m around my cousins or friends back there. I haven’t kept as many of the customs, though we do have our own version of a fais do do (party) here every year, with everyone knowing what date and time and if they ever cross my threshold during the year, they have a permanent invitation to return for the party. I haven’t kept as many memories as I wish I had, though I can still see my Paw Paw, strong as ever, approaching the porch and taking off his hat before he entered. My dad told me that since I was the oldest granddaughter and we lived with them at the time, my Paw Paw loved to come in from work and chat with me, only I’d cry as soon as he’d approach. It broke his heart, because apparently, I hung the moon, quite a feat for a two-year-old, but I was always an overachiever. And then one day, he took off his hat first (a straw cowboy hat), and I laughed and went straight to him. My dad said that he never had a memory of his father without a hat on prior to that, not once. I have no memories of him wearing one.

Cajuns are not just about the food and the accent, the fais do do, the playing hard. Yes, the food is important, because it was the social gathering. Yes, it’s spicy, and full of flavors, as befitting a people who had to flee a country and hide out in a land and learn to live off it, best they could, and use what they had to hand. No, we won’t eat everything, though many eat a few things I think are weird. Believe me, we’re pretty freaked out over you eating (drinking?) wheat grass and tofu (which I have yet to understand) or go purely vegan.

Cajuns are stubborn, ornery, argumentative, ornery, mule-headed, ornery, determined, bossy, ornery, and in case I didn’t mention it, ornery. They each are one hundred percent certain they are right, except when they’re not, and it’s your fault they weren’t anyway, so what are you arguing about? At the same time, we’ll work hard to go the extra mile, give whatever needs to be given. I grew up with people who thought it was normal to give whatever they could give and not count it as favors which needed to be repaid. It was just a matter of course that if they needed something in return, it would be done. Part of that came from being a people desperate for survival, clinging to their own cultures and traditions, knowing that to survive, they needed each other as well as their neighbors.

When we’d drive back home to Baton Rouge, the time travel reversed itself as fields fanning out to the side of the car gave way to small towns and industries and then the scary red Old Mississippi River bridge and finally into the suburbs of a city. There was a campaign here not so long ago, and the pithy slogan someone came up with to encourage city pride was, “We are B.R.” Each time I’d see that slogan, I’d feel a disconnect, and then I realized, one day, that no, I’m not. I live here, and it’s been my home most of my adult life and the few years I spent in Cajun country shouldn’t have had such a profound lasting imprint.

But it did.

My Louisiana is a place of swamps and rivers and lakes and eating crawfish out at the fishing camp and drifting in a bateau with my dad, fishing early in the morning for the big bream. My Louisiana is a place of flavors and seasonings, a place of coffee and heat, of mosquitoes at sunset and screen doors. It’s a place of hard work, intense play and loyalty beyond life. It’s a place of belly laughs and counting on your neighbor. It’s a place where you can try and fail and try again, as many times as you’ve got the strength, and they’ll help you if they can; they may shake their heads, bemused at your attempts, but they’ll reach a hand out, nonetheless, if there’s any way to help. My Louisiana has open arms and a big heart, even when it’s singing the blues. It’s a place rich in dreams, and a place where those dreams can come true. It is home.

And I’m glad it’s mine.

There have been many travels in recent years, and often I judge a place by whether I could live there, knowing I’ll always carry “home” with me, wherever I go. How about you? What is there of your home town, of your heritage, that will always be a part of who you are?

Toni McGee Causey
Bobbi Faye’s Very (Very, Very, Very) Bad Day

May 2007

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18 Comments so far
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You make me wish I was born Cajun. This is beautiful, Toni.

I grew up with the roar of fighter jets over head in the dry and brown Mojave Desert. It was a navy base, almost two hundred miles from the Ocean, but with the beautiful backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains seemingly shooting up out of our backyard.

And hot. I mean Phoenix hot in the summer, and occassionally one or two days of snow in the winter. It was a place where parents didn’t worry about their kids playing out late. It was a place where as a teenager we all wanted to get away from as soon as we could. But, looking back, I realize it was a great place to grow up. There was a whole lot of room to screw up and still survive.

Not quite Cajun country, though. In fact, probably close to the exact opposite.

Comment by Brett Battles

I grew up so many places I can’t honestly say where I’m from. This place and that.

This was beautiful, Toni. Thank you.

Comment by Bill Cameron

That was lovely, Toni. Makes me miss Southern living all over again. I’ve been prone to that lately.

Like Bill, I had a pretty nomadic childhood. Most of it was in the South, though. Georgia, Arkansas (briefly) and Mississippi. I used to be so jealous of kids who could run over to their Mee Maw’s and Paw Paw’s – all of my relatives were in the Mid-West. I’m still kinda jealous of people who have those deep roots. Living a tumbleweed existence has had its benefits, but to feel that kind of connection to family, land and culture is truly special.

Comment by Angie

Beautifully written, Toni.

I had the Southern California surf and an occasional jaunt to see family in Hawai’i. Spoke Pidgin, and Chinese as a kid. Lost it all by the time I was 6. Heard a tape made of myself and my Chinese great-grandmother when I was three. Couldn’t understand a goddamn word.

I still keep a few Hawaiian phrases around and people look at me funny when they come out. And much as I’ve never spent more than a few weeks there at a time, the idea of Hawai’i is as important to me as Los Angeles is. My dad and grandparents brought it over and, diluted through LA smog as it is, it’s still a piece of home. Even if it’s not really my home.

There’s something about the ocean, and the salt air, the rice and portuguese sausage. Eating shave ice at a Ho’olau’lea. Pulling kahlua pig from six feet of sand where it’s been cooking all day, and watermelon so cold it makes your teeth hurt.

I think home is memories. I know the feel of lava rock under my shoes, the smell of warm rain and hibiscus in a place where everything’s glows in primary colors. Wherever I go there’s always going to be that heritage to draw on. Even if I can’t speak the language anymore.

Comment by Stephen Blackmoore

That’s not why they look at you funny, Stephen.

Comment by Brett Battles

Brett, that does sound very opposite, environment-wise, but still evocative and a great place to grow up.

Stephen, you made me want to go there and see that kahlua pig being pulled from the pit. (I am not on a pig theme, I swear.)

Angie and Bill — I can’t imagine having a nomadic life. Did you pick one place as the longest lived-in and call it “home” or do you really not have a sense of place internally (except where you may be now)?

Comment by toni mcgee causey

Toni, a lovely story. It’s wonderful to have such strong memories. I moved around a bit growing up, but spent the formative years in Colorado, another of those geographical locations that are characters unto themselves in your life.
Thank you for sharing!

Comment by JT Ellison

Toni, I feel like Portland is home now. I still have fond memories of certain places, but they are mostly fond because I have friends or family there. I don’t really think of the places I lived growing up as home, even though I know that my “homes” over the years have had a great influence in making me who I am today. I know there are bits of Ohio and Georgia and Rhode Island and many more places coursing through my veins now.

Comment by Bill Cameron

Toni, you painted some really beautiful images in today’s piece. Wow!

And you set such an inviting mood. I want to go fishing for crawfish.

What a wonderful way to end my day.

Phil

Comment by Philip Hawley

That was beautiful. I think there’s something about young memories that they stay with you and are so strong. I lived in Bosnia with my grandparents between the ages of 8 and 12. It was the best and weirdest time of my life. Sometimes I still dream I’m floating above the backyard and looking down on the village I lived in. It’s all gone now. The town my mother’s family came from now belongs to Serbia. I have no photos of that time because my family left during the war as refugees. The only place those memories exist are in my imagination.

Thank you for sharing your memories. I could almost imagine I was with you.

Comment by Amra Pajalic

J.T., thank you — and oh, how I envy you the weather in Colorado, as well as the views. That must have been a beautiful place to grow up.

Bill, I sometimes wonder if nomads have a bit of an advantage. I think sometimes it’s difficult to truly “see” a place when you’ve always been in the middle of it, but by moving outside it and being able to compare it to the next, the idiosyncracies of the first come into full relief. A great benefit for a writer, I would think.

Aw, Phil — thank you. And the next time we all get together, I’m going to bring some of Carl’s cooking with me (if I have to put it on dry ice to get it there, I can). He makes the most amazing crawfish dishes.

Amra, I’m so glad you posted! I cannot fathom having my childhood home obliterated and then overtaken by another government. It makes me wish we could sit somewhere over coffee (or diet cokes, in my case) and hear your stories and “see” where you grow up. I think it’s so important to preserve those places that will never come back the same again. Thank you for reminding us how important those memories are.

Comment by toni mcgee causey

I’ve had two days to think on this, and what can I say? There are many places that resonate with me, but it will always be the trees and lakes and the fall colours of the maples in Muskoka reflecting off the water that hold a special place in my heart.

Beautiful post Toni.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Like Bill and Angie, I’m a nomad. But I feel very attached to all the places I’ve lived. Which makes for some pretty interesting conversations at times:

“You’re from New Jersey? I was born in East Orange!”

“You’re from Connecticut? I grew up in Darien!”

“You’re from California? I grew up in Marin County!”

“You’re from Michigan? I used to live in Bloomfield Hills!”

“You’re from…”

Well, you get the picture.

Playing patriot games in the forests of Weston CT, collecting tadpoles in the ponds of Darien, CT, riding bikes through the hills of in Lucas Valley, CA, riding horses and dodging rattlesnakes in the deserts north of Phoenix…there are stories to be told from wherever I’ve been.

Comment by Elizabeth

I’m sorry, Toni, I should have added…stunning post! It makes me wish I could add Louisiana to my list!

Comment by Elizabeth

I love this essay. It hits home, right on the bullseye. It’s wonderful that you’re writing about it in your book series, too.

Comment by cinemagypsy

Class mate.
Tim

Comment by tim

Very amazing site! I wish I could do something as nice as you did…

mary

Comment by Economy news and blog

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Comment by Best Home




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