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.)
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.]