I Stand As Witness

by Toni McGee Causey

Sometimes, there are moments that redefine a life.

And sometimes those moments are when someone else is the star of the show, when you’re in the audience, third row, fourth seat from the left.

I stand as witness.

I stand as witness for a sixteen-year-old boy I never met. He changed our lives.

I understand he had an easy smile, dark mop of hair, about-to-grow-into his looks. That gangly stage of boyhood, steaming, bubbling, nearly ready to change the world.

I never saw it.

He was inclusive. Whether by nature or taught at home, it’s unclear, but he was the rare kind of kid who would look at someone new at school, and say, “Come on, join us.” He was, from what I heard, warm and friendly. Flawed, sure. Normal. He liked sports and computers and had a new girlfriend.

I never knew him.

There were rounds of meetings in L.A., producers who’d read my latest script. I was on top of the world, in one sense, this was my “show” and yet, I was wondering how to make this work, how to pull up my family and move them a couple of thousand miles away from their home. I remember the evening as clearly as yesterday: I was in a friend’s home–he’d had a party so I could see everyone at one time. He’d cooked three kinds of soup and I was astounded at how very good they all were, that he really ought to be a chef somewhere.

His bungalow was not far from Paramount’s entrance, and I saw the Hollywood sign on my way there and the night felt light and innocent and full of hope. Laughter erupted every few seconds at the gathering, people mingled, and I had just heard the voices of long-known friends come through the front door when my cell phone rang.

It was my son.

“Mom. Ryan was killed tonight.”

I stand as witness.

In the previous months, my son had gone from alone-at-a-new-school to having a circle of friends, and Ryan had been the ringleader. Our lives went from being unsure and wary and tense to being happy because of the actions of this kid. He changed everything.

I never heard him laugh. I had been traveling and had deadlines and teenage boys are not exactly wont to hang out with mom.

I’d heard about him, though. Nearly every day. He brought a light into our home with my son’s tales of their latest antics.
I stood in the line to greet his parents at the funeral. They managed to have a grace I could not have mustered, had a drunk driver killed my son.

All of the kids in his class would go on to graduate and some have families. My son now has a daughter. His life changed twice–once when he met Ryan, and again when he lost him.

Because of Ryan, he had made friends, some who will last a lifetime.

I realized that night I did not want to be 2000 miles away if there were ever another call. I did not want to uproot our lives, because there are some things that matter so much more than the latest round of meetings. There are some things we have to do, and some things we choose to do, and for me, while writing was the dream, I realized I already held the other: my family.

My life changed. I decided to pursue fiction and wrote something funny, because I needed something in the face of tragedy, and it’s comedy I turned to. I realized that if my life were cut short the next day, I’d have at least been working on something I loved, something I wanted to do, to please my own instincts instead of doing whatever misguided thing I thought I was “supposed” to do as a writer.

At sixteen, Ryan may not have had a chance to change the world, but he changed my part of it.

He was here. He mattered. He affected so many.

The power of one word, one welcoming gesture, can ripple out, affecting those around them for the rest of their lives. In fiction, the power of one act of cruelty or bravery can drive a story. Zoë’s post Thursday reminded me of this. I try to remember that the minor characters are witness to the events around them. Writing isn’t just about the protagonist and hero–we’re all protagonists and heroes in our own stories. Writing is capturing the ripple, from the point of impact.
At Ryan’s funeral, six years ago, I was sitting third row, fourth seat from the left.

But I stand as witness.

[I originally published this essay back in 2008 over on Murderati, when I blogged there.]

Write What You Know

by Toni McGee Causey

Write what you know.

That’s the big stick sometimes used on writers, especially new writers. The implication, of course, is that you’d better not start writing until you know stuff. I went for years thinking that one of these days, I was going to get to a point where I knew for sure that I knew stuff and horns were going to sound or maybe music would play or some crisp-suited pseudo-TV-host would pop up and let me know that I’d just won the ability to go forward and write. Then I came to the realization, of course, that other people were writing about murders (and one hopes not from first-hand experience) and writing about blowing up the world (again, hoping that’s not a part of their resumé) or assassinating the president (now there’s one to guarantee Google hits), and that’s when I understood that I didn’t have to know anything, and since I was an expert at that, it was quite freeing. Not having a clue? I’m so there.

Which is when I really examined that old piece of advice, the one that felt like it was keeping me from breaking through, and I realized, I already know what’s important. It’s one of those pieces of advice which can sound very limiting, until you turn it around a bit.

I know the sound of the crack of a watermelon rind as it splits open, juice dribbling down onto the table, and the sweet cold crunch of the first bite on a hot summer day.

I know the electrical shock of betrayal in the midst of utter silence as I see a boyfriend’s other woman.

I know the stunning incredulity of how one three-year-old can fill an entire bathroom with suds, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with just a little shampoo and a whirlpool attachment for a tub.

I know the chaos and terror of running red lights to get to a hospital in time.

I know the shushing, oppressive silence of standing in the back of a funeral home.

The thing I’ve been asked at writer’s workshops I’ve given lately is, “How can I write about anything exciting? I have a normal life, but I’ve been told not to write something so autobiographical for a first novel, that that’s the kiss of death. So what do I do?”

And my answer is simple: you know yourself. You know people. And you know how to research whatever it is you need to know.

I know the scent of an old, worn leather glove and the sting of a line drive ball hit across the pitcher’s mound.

I know the first strawberry of the season, picked from my paw paw’s farm, eaten right there as I sat in the dirt between rows.

I know the clink of fine white china as it’s set down on a glossy mahogany table.

I know the safety of my dad’s hug, the tears in my mom’s eyes, the laughter of my brother.

I know my husband’s smile, the sly one he doesn’t show to others.

“But how,” someone asked at the same workshop, “will I know I have a story? How will I know where to begin?”

Begin where the conflict starts. That’s where your story begins, and trust the reader to know that. This, I think was the hardest thing for me to internalize, was that I could trust that the reader knew that in the world of these characters, stuff had happened to them before this point. That there was backstory, that there were reasons for them being the way they were, and I had to break myself of wanting to put all of that in so that the reader understood them so that they would know this moment, this conflict was a big deal.

The conflict does need to be a big deal — to that character. But readers don’t have to know everything about the characters in the beginning to know that. They’re going to trust that you’re starting at the point where something in the character’s life has come to an abrupt, dramatic moment. Or maybe it’s a quiet, dramatic moment, but the point is, there is a moment. There is conflict. It may be internal, it may be external or some combination, but the story we care about as a reader is that struggle. They may not even overcome it, but if you connect us to their lives, to the little details that make them unique, we’re going to care if they try to win that conflict.

I know the feel of rain on my face, sluicing down my clothes, saturating through to the bone.

I know the joy in my sons’ eyes on Christmas morning.

I know the chaos of running out of time, everyone depending on me to get there, with the thing, whatever the thing was.

I know the rush of relief when I made it.

I know failing, the sitting-on-the-floor, stunned, too stunned to breathe, to form tears, to speak.

I know the rush of success, wanting to dance with the world.

What you know, already, is wanting something. You already know successes, and you know failures. I’m betting most of you know losing something that you never, ever wanted to lose, and the numbing pain that caused. That’s where your story starts: the character is going to lose something. And they care, deeply, that they not lose it.

So, write what you know.

Benediction

by Toni McGee Causey

“Can I help you, sir?” she asked from behind the counter.

He pushed his deposit slip forward with his check. The last check he’d be depositing. They’d let everyone go today. It was his fourth layoff. He kept being hired; the companies kept going under. He’d been making half what he used to, and he was out of answers.

He shoved his hands into his jeans, rolling his shoulders beneath his too-thin coat. Blizzard conditions expected. Near white-out warnings. Not that he cared. He wouldn’t be out in it.

Everything was done. This was the last of it.

He watched her hands as she slid the check along the counter, ran it and then the deposit slip through the machine. He didn’t normally bank at this branch, though it had been convenient today, at the end of his errands. She finished her work and fished off the receipt, tucking it into an envelope and asked, “Anything else I can do for you?” as she handed it over.

“Nothing,” he shrugged and headed for the door across the big marble floor of the lobby. This building had been built nearly a century ago, back when everyone knew their customers, knew their daily lives, the ins and outs of things, could call them by name. He was invisible here, now.

Later, they would see he’d been here, see the deposit. Wonder what he was thinking. And all he’d been able to think about was being invisible.

He was almost to the door when her hand was on his arm and her brown eyes smiled at him. She’d been calling his name and he hadn’t heard, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from yanking his arm from her and pushing on through the door. She was breathless for the short run, and expectant. It was one more minute, and one more minute didn’t really matter.

“I remember you,” she was saying. “Over on Stempley.” He must’ve given her a look as blank as he felt inside, and she smiled, and squeezed his arm a little. He hadn’t realized she hadn’t dropped her hand away. “The flat tire. Weather almost as bad as today. You saved my mom’s life.”

“You have the wrong man,” he said. Gruff, probably. Didn’t matter. He just wanted to get out of there.

She laughed. “No, no, I don’t mean there, on Stempley. You stopped and changed my tire. And then my battery was dead because I was stupid and left the headlights on that whole time I’d been waiting for the tow truck, so you had to jump off my car.”

Ah, yeah. He remembered. The collage girl. He’d thought she looked like a nearly drowned puppy when he’d seen her, shivering, trying to change the tire. The lug nuts had been put on by some idiot with an impact wrench and were too tight for her to loosen. The tow truck still hadn’t come by the time he’d finished.

“I lost your name,” she said. “I got home to my mom’s–that’s where I was going that night–and when I got there, she’d fallen. She’d had a heart attack, and if you hadn’t stopped, I’d have been an hour or more later. The paramedic said she wouldn’t have made it.” She stood on her tip toes and threw her arms around him. “Thank you. I have wanted to say thank you for so long. You have no idea how much you mean to me.”

He stood dumbly with her arms around him and everyone in the lobby stared, wondering what this was all about, and the warmth of her pressed against his coat. She wasn’t about to let go, this enthusiastic half-grown puppy, and he patted her on the head, and cleared his throat.

She eased back and looked up at him and beamed. “I’d like to buy you coffee. Next week sometime? I’ll be here, every day.”

He nodded. He wouldn’t be there, but it would be too much trouble to make up a reason. “Sure. Coffee. Next week.” Then he pushed on out the door.

I sat across from him at the little table, some twenty years later. I had only known him this way, old and creased, hair silvered to a sheen, blue eyes dancing. He smiled often and well, a warm event that pulled you in.

“I went home,” he said, finishing his story, his thumb running across the rim of his coffee cup, his eyes grown distant. “And thought. A lot of thinking. Poured the Jack down the drain. Unloaded the gun. Threw the bullets out in the ditch, so I wouldn’t change my mind. I could get another job. Another house. And I did.”

Be the gift, he was fond of saying, and I heard that echo when I stood a few years later at the back of the church. It was a packed place, many mourners, and I had to press through the crowd to work my way to the front to pay my respects to his wife. I could see the warm brown eyes he’d described, the brown hair gone gray. He’d gone back for coffee that next week, he’d told me. His daughter had his eyes.

I told her he’d read my writing when no one else had, and had smiled, and said, “You can do this.”

Be the gift.

The Tipping Point

by Toni McGee Causey

Eleventy quibillion years ago, when I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote terrible poems, which I think only got worse as I got older and the teenage years descended like locusts, leaving only WOE and ANGST. By college, I had brief bouts of sanity, whereupon I attempted architecture (ohmyGod, they do not tell you about the math), business (my first accounting teacher gave me the final exam in advance, with the answers, if I would swear to her I would never, ever, take another accounting class again), and then journalism (where I learned they had the picky little annoying habit of wanting reporters to not make crap up)(this was before Fox News).

And in spite of a fine history of liking to eat and wanting a roof over my head, I still wanted to be a writer. If you asked a question, you would get a story instead of an answer. If I could sidetrack into a couple of tangents? You might as well park a while, because the stories? They would not stop.

All the while, I wrote. Much of it was bad.

I ran into a former high-school teacher, who’d also been a librarian, who asked me the tough question: why wasn’t I submitting for publication? Have you ever run into one of your former teachers? THEY ARE SCARY. It’s like they can retroactively fail you or their eyes shoot truth serum rays or something, and I did not want to stand there in front of my two-year-old and explain I hadn’t submitted anything because I was a big honking chicken. So I took her advice and started writing and submitting to the local paper. (They were insane enough to buy the very first one. That’s like feeding a stray puppy. They did not realize this, I think, until I was around so much, they added me to the regular staff AND the food staff, and this was a fairly prominent paper. One of my relatives realized that I was being assigned to write about how people COOK things. He asked, “Isn’t that… fraud? You use the fire alarm as an oven timer.” I look back on this as the beginning of my fiction career.)

Over the years, and we are not discussing how many, maybe more than two but less than a hundred, I wrote more articles than I can remember or count for newspapers and magazines. I started querying and submitting (and getting sales) at national magazines, but my real love was fiction. I tried my hand at a novel, but it was a spiraling mess, and my husband could see how frustrated I was. (And EVERY husband out there just substituted the words “complete raving loon” for “frustrated.”) So, being a very wise man who liked to wake up breathing in the mornings, he encouraged me to go back to school for some writing classes.

For a while, I was lured to the dark side (screenwriting), and landed an agent, and did a lot of stuff that was almost-but-not-quite what I wanted to do, which was to sell something I made up. Hollywood, by the way, will kill you with encouragement, because when you meet the executives, you will be told you are the most brilliant writer they have read in forever and where the hell have you been all this time and they want to be in the “Toni Causey” business. Swear to God, they will say it and you will believe it because they are that good at sincere. Until you’re sitting in the Warner Brothers commissary waiting for the next meeting, furtively looking around to see the FRIENDS stars on their lunch break (yes, I am dating myself, hush), and the same executive walks by with his arm around someone else who is not you, telling them how utterly brilliant they were, the most brilliant person they’d ever read. That’s when you look down at the script in your hand that is an action thriller that everyone absolutely loves but could you make the man a woman and the woman a duck and wouldn’t it be great if the horse saved the day? and you think, “I’m crazy, but I’m not this crazy.” Some writers (our very own Alex and Rob) have the tenacity for that. Me? I kinda wanted to just kick people. (I never claimed to be mature.)

See, I had this idea. An idea for this funny, take-no-prisoners kind of southern woman, who loves deeply and means well, in spite of the chaos she causes, and I wanted to write that story and be true to that story. So I quit screenwriting. (I had had some offers if I’d move out there. I was not going to move the family.) I had a hard time convincing my former agent that yes, I was serious. I was quitting to write a novel. (I think she still thinks I am going to change my mind.) But I quit, and I started writing Bobbie Faye. I wrote a quick draft in script form, because I was used to that format, then a friend showed a friend, the lovely Rosemary Edghill, who said, “Send me some chapters.” And I did. She gave me some notes (smart, smart woman), and taught me how to write the kind of synopsis an agent needs (“I did not think you could make this worse,” she said of one draft of that synopsis, “but you did.” That’s because I am an overachiever. It took a lot of tries before I figured out that writing a marketing synopsis is a lot like writing a non-fiction article, and that I could do.) Next thing I know, I’d signed with an agent and Rosemary had pitched it to an editor, who made an offer, and St. Martin’s Press bought that book and the next two based on three sample chapters and a synopsis. Almost twenty years from the point where I saw my old high-school English teacher and she’d said, “Why aren’t you submitting for publication?”

(Thank you, Mrs. Ross.)**

There is a great big huge world of “no” out there. Sometimes, following the dream does not mean hoppity-skipping down the easy path. In fact, a lot of times, it means zig zagging past mortars and incoming and a lot of almosts-not-quites and despair and frustration what-the-hell-were-you-thinking? and ugh-this-sucks and occasionally wow-show-me-more. And in spite of how long it took, and how much hard work, I have been exceptionally lucky–there have been friends and mentors who’ve said, “keep going,” and who’ve said, “send that in.” They changed my life. They were the tipping point for me.

Dear God, The Stick Turned Blue

by Toni McGee Causey

Dear God, Universe, or Elves (I am covering all bases, I cannot afford to be picky here):

The stick turned blue. I’m 19. And a half. The stick turned blue. I think my brains just leaked out of my ears because THE STICK TURNED BLUE. It cannot turn blue. I only had sex once. Okay, maybe twice. That’s in base 200. Or something. (Shut up, I am an English major, we’re not expected to know higher math.)

Is this like… trial-sies? Practice run? Just to see how good my adrenal system works because let me reassure you right now, IT WORKS JUST FINE, though I think my neighbors might need a hearing aid after all the shrieking died down.

Signed,

Seriously, you’re kidding, right?
_______________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

This is pregnant? This can’t stand to move morning sickness bloated pasty can’t fit into anything anymore look like a whale and where thehell is my GLOWY feeling? What? Were you out of Deep Fried Crazy Hot for the highs this summer and thought you’d just go ahead and substitute Miserable Seventh Level Of Hades and thought I wouldn’t notice?

Signed,

So very not happy with you right now.
_____________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

It’s a boy. Two-and-a-half weeks overdue. GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT GET HIM OUT.

Signed,

Hate you and your shoes.
_________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

HE CAN STAY IN, I swear, I will shut up, forever, please do not make me have to OHMYGODTHATHURT. If I die and there is a heaven, I am bringing a LEAD BASKETBALL and you’d better not bend over.

Signed,

Never having sex again, ever.
_____________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Wow. I just… wow. He’s perfect. Unbelievably perfect. And just… wow. Who knew?

Signed,

Okay, you’re forgiven.
_____________________

Dear God, Universe, Or Elves:

Oh, damn. How am I supposed to know what to do? How am I not going to break him? I don’t know enough. Maybe when I’m forty. Or fifty. Maybe. I am so going to screw this up.

Signed,

What the hell were you thinking, trusting me?
_____________________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Um, I hate to mention this, but there is one SERIOUS flaw in your design here. WHERE IS THE OFF SWITCH? I’d like to be able to shower, five minutes. Five. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Signed,

So bringing my stinky self to your doorstep in about three seconds if you don’t FIX THIS.
______________________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

My husband came home and heard me arguing with our two-year-old and took me aside and said, “You’re the adult. You have to outsmart him.”

The sad thing is, I’M TRYING TO.

Signed,

Send brains. Quick.
___________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Okay, I get the whole “have sex, can get pregnant” thing, you can’t fool me. And okay, I’m not wholly surprised that I look like I ate an entire football stadium, but they just told me they expect this one to be over nine pounds. NINE. That’s like giving birth to a TWO MONTH OLD. WITH TEETH. Why not just go ahead and shoehorn in a COLLEGE GRADUATE while you’re at it. Maybe you’ve got a couple of missing OCEAN LINERS from the Bermuda triangle you don’t know what to do with; you can just SHOVE THEM IN MY UTERUS, I DON’T MIND.

Signed,

I hope your hair falls out.
_________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

That was really freaking EVIL of you, playing that “cutest kid on the planet” card, twice in a row. It gets easy after this, right?

Signed,

Delirious.
__________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Look, I know you’re really busy with all that famine and war and mythical alternate universe of Reaganomics and Wham!, but if you could just take a couple of seconds out of your busy schedule? Because my kids are infected with the HE’S TOUCHING ME HE’S LOOKING AT MY STUFF OH WOE!!!! disease. How much trouble will I be in if I duct tape them together?

Signed,

Duct Tape On Sale Now
_______________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

He’s never going to forgive me for wrapping him in multiple rolls of aluminum foil to turn him into the Tin Man for Halloween, is he? Or the eighteen blocks I made him walk (while re-wrapping him) because we were going to trick-or-treat and we were going to BY GOD HAVE FUN, DAMMIT. I’m still going to hear about this when he’s twenty-five, aren’t I?

Signed,

Seriously thought about tying the bathroom rug around him for “lion fur”–he doesn’t know how lucky he is.
___________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

They are sticking a needle in my four-year-old’s back. A needle. They are holding him down in the other room, and he is screaming. They made me leave, because he was lunging for me and he’s supposed to be absolutely still.

I just sat across from one of my childhood friends. She’s our pediatrician now, and one of the smartest people on the planet. We made mud pies together when we were five and six years old. We even managed to sell them (well, she did, she is that smart).

I never dreamed I would be sitting across from her one day and that she would have to say, “meningitis.” That the words “risks” and “death” and “possible brain damage” and “spinal tap” and “could paralyze him” would float, jumbled, over the space between us, that we’d ever talk about the fact that she had to stick a needle in my son’s back. A pediatric emergency.

She is sending me to the ER. I’m carrying him (passed out), while my oldest son is clutching his brother’s spinal fluids in some sort of glass flask, and I’m supposed to drive to the ER, because we do not have time for an ambulance.

She said to try not to stop for red lights. I CANNOT BREATHE right now, and there is no oxygen going to my brain and I CANNOT STOP FOR RED LIGHTS.

I don’t care what it takes, do it to me, not him. I will give you anything. I will give you everything. Just do not do this.

Signed,

begging.
____________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

Four days later, and his brother and he are making a slide out of the hospital bed’s mattress.
It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Signed,

thank you.
(your hair grew back in nicely, by the way)
_________________________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

The oldest is fifteen, and in this state, he can legally drive. HAVE YOU FREAKING LOST CONTROL OF THE UNIVERSE, OR WHAT? How in the world am I supposed to let him drive? I can barely keep from hurling myself in his path to keep him safe while he’s WALKING AROUND, BREATHING AIR, dammit. I have tried to remember that they are supposed to grow up to be independent, strong men. I have tried to remember to reinforce their decision-making skills. But this is just asking TOO DAMNED MUCH. It’s too soon.

Signed,

Where is the time machine?
___________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

ANY PHONE CALL THAT STARTS WITH “Mom, I’m okay, DON’T WORRY,” is NOT GOING TO BE GOOD, I don’t care HOW earnest you make them sound.

Signed,

Like I am that easily fooled. Ha.
_______________________________

Dear God, Universe, or Elves:

I sat on the floor in the hallway today where I could see into the door of each of their rooms. They are empty, now, of boy stuff. One is an exercise room, and one a guest bedroom.

I did not break them. I screwed up. A lot, sometimes. I got self absorbed and busy and short tempered. I lost confidence and lost my way, but I did not break them. I remember the smiles, the laughter, the tooth fairy, the Christmas mornings, the late night talks. There were baseball games, wrestling tournaments, graduations and hysterically funny meals. I remember tears and heartache and not knowing if just loving them more than breathing was going to be enough. I remember too many close calls where it seemed like it might not be. But they are funny and smart and good hearted men. They have (mostly) outgrown the HE’S TOUCHING ME HE’S LOOKING AT MY STUFF OH WOE!!!! disease, and so get along pretty amazingly well. They make me laugh and surprise me and are fascinating people. They are kind. They treat people well, and they not only love deeply, but they are loved deeply in return. They are both the kind of men who, if I just met them somewhere, I’d like them tremendously. They have started families. Wonderful women I’m so lucky to have in our family. A granddaughter (the most beautiful, happy baby in the world).

You did not tell me when you gave me that blue stick that you were giving me my heart. You did not tell me that you were giving me everything that mattered.

Dear God, the stick turned blue.

THANK YOU.

Signed,

toni, a mom.
_____________

(March 17th will be the 32nd anniversary of that first event.)

[I originally published this on Murderati when I blogged there.]

Sense of Place

by: Toni McGee Causey

I always knew we were close when we got to the silos on highway 190. Tall, white, 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, (pronounced kender) — 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–I think I might have been two or three–is of me sitting in the middle of my grandparents’ living room on the hardwood floor in their small 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 ladderback chairs around the perimeter of the room. Most of the ladies wore cotten 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 quiet 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 embelishments 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 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, and 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. 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 signalled 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, 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 ovearchiever. 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.

I’m usually amused by what people think of when they think of Cajuns, or horrified (may Adam Sandler die of a thousand paper cuts from the atrocity that was Water Boy, and no, I’m not even giving it the courtesy of linking to it… in fact, if you substituted any other ethnic background for that main character in that film, there would have a full-on battle cry of discrimination.)

I digress.

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 spicey, 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 stuborn, ornery, argumentative, ornery, muleheaded, 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 extremely narrow 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.

And I’m glad it’s mine.

[This piece was originally published by me when I blogged over on Murderati. I have many essays there, as do a lot of fine colleagues.]

Jackson Square and the Petite Theater at 5:30 a.m.

This was another very difficult-to-get shot; it was a rainy morning, and the Square was empty of even the tarot card tables and the various homeless who’ll sometimes sleep on the benches. The sky was staring to pink up and there was a big garbage truck just beyond the site of the buildings, on Chartres, about to come into view. Its headlights, though, illuminated the street for me as if they knew I needed the extra help, and I grabbed this shot. About two minutes later, someone who’d had too much to drink the night before (and was apparently still drinking), ambled into my camera’s view and no matter which way I pointed, they ambled over to be in the shot. By the time they stumbled back out of view, the garbage truck had made the corner and was heading up St. Peter, and the buildings were too dark to grab this kind of detail.

I love, too, how the Cabildo lights were on upstairs. That’s not usual, from what I’ve seen, for them to be on that early. There’s a yoga class that takes place up there where those lights are, about 7:30 every morning, and one day, I’m going to live close enough to that spot to walk there. (And everyone I know just cracked up laughing.) (It could happen.)

 

[singlepic id=19 w=883 h=600 ]

LaTrobe Park in the French Quarter near the French Market

There’s a very pretty little micro-park right near the French Market that a lot of people miss. It’s a lovely place to have beignets and coffee and sit and people watch.

I edited this shot so that it was more painting-like. Sometimes I like to play with light and see what I can mix up in Photoshop. I used to paint (oils) as a kid through my teen years, and I’ve wanted to start back a number of times, but I have no place for the mess, and the smell permeates any place where you set up–not a great idea for where we live. I’m not even sure I could pick up a brush again after all these years and remotely like the process; I think I’ve gotten used to painting in photoshop and the speed that gives me something finished vs. the hours of painting. Instant (nearly) gratification.

 

[singlepic id=20 w=883 h=600 ]

Streetcar on St. Charles

I almost missed this shot. It was close to seven a.m., and a young man from West London (I later learned) came out of his apartment with the cutest
puppy on the planet–a miniature dachshund, and he proceeded to bring said cuteness up to me and strike up a conversation. The cuteness, it overwhelmed. He turned out to be quite talkative, telling me all about his life, his girlfriend, where they’d lived, what he did, and I was amused; I cannot tell you how many times perfect strangers have volunteered really salient details to me, just because I don’t look like someone who would kill people for a living. (Well, fictionally, of course, but still. I could be dangerous, in that ax-weilding psycho sort of way. You know, if I didn’t have to actually lift the ax or see blood or… okay, never mind.)

[singlepic id=15 w=806 h=600 ]