Kittie Howard

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Shiloh and Meet Peter

Shiloh is a new beginning. It's great feeling better. (And I guess I shouldn't have whined yesterday, but, oh, what a challenging day...thanks for your get-well wishes. Trust me, they helped!) A visit to the internist said I had a massive ear infection, separate from the scratched cornea. The antibiotics kicked in during the night. Today seems, well, normal, without all that dizziness. But, I had to chuckle at myself...before going to bed I "straightened" the holiday candles in the family room...this morning they looked like little leaning Towers of Pisa!

Tomorrow or Friday will be Peter's Christmas story, a 1988 vintage story. I'm just going to jump into the story. So, a bit of set-up today. How my husband and I got to live in Nairobi, Kenya, for three years I'll leave for another day. (Actually, after you read about Peter, you'll see that there are "Nairobi stories" in the wings.)

Peter was our housekeeper. I know that sounds Grand; however, the reality was much needed local employment. We didn't really need or want a housekeeper. But, when word spread that new Americans had moved onto Chalbi Lane, we were inundated with resumes. (Anyone new would have generated the same employment push.)

In 1989, Kenya was (and remains somewhat) a country of contrasts. A very small middle class existed. Think Rich or Poor...with gradients on either side. (There is now a much larger middle class, with many living in Western-style townhouses, and who may not have housekeepers. However, a housekeeper position in Nairobi is still considered upscale employment among those other than the Kikuyu, the ethnic group/tribe that pretty much runs the city and looks down upon those not Kikuyu, making it difficult for people like Peter, a Luo, to obtain a government position.

Anyway, in a country with few factories, intense rivalries among the 54 ethnic groups, and a predominately tourist-based economy, the housekeeper position was (and is) considered coveted employment, with serious resume and interview competition.

Since the dollar was high and we'd be living off the local economy, finances expanded to afford Peter's salary, a very high salary, higher than what a government employee made. We also paid into the national health care program and so on. And, once a month a representative from the National Labor Board visited the premises to ensure that everyone involved honored the contracts entered into. This contract included living quarters for Peter on the premises, which, for our particular house (Think: colonial), were attractive (Think: studio apartment) and included running water and electricity at no cost to Peter.

Peter was 50 years old, spoke four languages (but, as we later learned, most Kenyans speak four languages: Kiswahili, English, and two or more tribal languages) and had an impressive resume from working in the international community. Peter promised to "protect the house", an uspoken service a housekeeper provided.

Africans lived in the majority of houses on Chalbi Lane, with a sprinkling of Indians and foreign nationals like us. Not to hire a housekeeper would mean our house would be the only house on Chalbi Lane, actually a very long street, without a housekeeper. This would be totally unacceptable to Kenyans, where individuality takes a back seat to the collective effort. With so many looking for work, it was our responsibility to hire a housekeeper. End of discussion.

Behind our house was the opening of what city planners had hoped would be a park. But, squatters had long occupied the open land, constructing one-room dwellings out of mis-matched, scavenged materials that somehow remained standing. Packed dirt roads, narrow and filled with deep holes, meandered through this community of 10,000 or so inhabitants that backed onto Chalbi Lane (and looked much like you see on TV). Small stores, dukas, with comparable, over-priced 7-11 items dotted neighborhoods.

This community lacked comprehensive electricity and running water. Those dukas and houses that backed to our fence had found a way to tap into our electricity and share that luxury (charging a price for sharing). Our electricity bills were beyond belief; our employer said, "Let it go," and paid the bills without complaint.

And, so, I'd sometimes accompany Peter into the village behind us, along the widened path turned into a mini road that ran parallel to one side of our house. I'd decided that to get along, I'd have to go along and that, whenever possible, we'd buy vegetables, soft drinks, and so on from the merchants in the village. They appreciated the business and, after several months, prices didn't require the lengthy bargaining common to Kenya (and other African countries). However, relations didn't really cement until some children, totos, kicked a soccer ball that deflated when it bounced onto the barbed wire/spiked glass atop our fence. I bought them a new ball. The village chief took this opportunity to get the kids to play in another area...small delivery trucks turned into the village, to the left of where the kids played and would dart out...and, so, everyone was pleased.

Especially Peter. He liked to brag that he worked in a house "with a good name". Unfortunately, this bragging usually occurred in the village bar. Peter had a serious binge-drinking problem that he had hidden during the hiring process. With my husband traveling elsewhere in Africa most of the time and with me being the only other occupant in the house, Peter had quickly figured out that there really wasn't much for him to do. But when there was work to do, Peter was often drunk (a happy drunk, but still drunk) or nursing a hangover. Even the Labor Board rep had said I should fire Peter.

But every time I came close to doing so, Mama Mary, his senior wife, would show up at the house, holding a fat, gurgling baby. Mama Mary couldn't have children. She had "disappeared" for nine months, only to re-appear with this baby. Peter told me she had paid $200.00 for the baby, which, they then said was Peter's child, and, so, legally it was. This news, of course, shocked me...because the baby wasn't adopted; the child, a girl, had been bought outright. Peter said buying a boy would be too much. (Another gasp!) But the deed was done, a common deed in parts of Africa I soon learned, and Mama Mary would plead with me not to fire Peter because he really did send money to his family.

I knew this to be true and, so, Peter remained (my husband agreed, for work was difficiult to find, with so many dependent upon a paycheck) and life went on...until Peter couldn't resist that never knew when this would happen...two days later...two weeks later...three months later...and the cycle would begin again.

Peter also possessed one of those upbeat, happy personalities that could sell snow to an Eskimo. He was smart, very smart, and could solve problems/resolve situations (that seem to abound in Africa) with efficiency and diplomacy. And not just for my husband and me. He had a reputation among the Kenyans as a fair, honest person, so much so that they often forgave him individual loans for changa, the local, potent brew, that Peter had run up. Everyone recognized Peter's problem which was, in essence, Africa's problem. But we'll talk about that another day.

In the meantime, Peter's personality was such that when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, his answer really, really surprised me.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Pineapple Upside-down Cake

I'm thankful that Thanksgiving exists, that preparations trigger a pause to think about what's really important. And, like you, thoughts of my many blessings have swirled in my head.

Happily, my mental list appears endless. A few of those blessings: an understanding, loving husband who's also my BFF; a wacky, fun-filled, often dysfunctional family; friends who go Way Back, new friends who go with the flow; Nature's beauty...the spider that lives in a crevice outside our front door...a neighbor's dog whose tail wags and wags and loves hugs; and You, dear, dear Reader, for being who you are...for your comments, for sticking with me...Thank You and've enriched my life.

Today's story, a story without a moral or hidden meaning, remains a family favorite every Thanksgiving. This story jumps a bit, from the farm to when we'd moved into town. I'm now in fourth grade. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina would destroy the New Orleans house I describe. Anyway, I hope you enjoy our family favorite.


Great Aunt Winnie, my grandfather's sister, lived in the Garden District in New Orleans, but in one of the more modest homes in that exclusive area. Her daughters, Winifred and Josephine, both spinsters, lived with her in the white-sided, two-story house with a deep front porch they had called home for decades.

Family lore maintains that Winifred once had a suitor and wanted to marry, but Aunt Winnie, newly widowed, pressured Winifred to reject the suitor. She did. And, so, Winifred and Josephine, born a year apart, both on November 1st, grew to dress alike, sit alike, and speak alike (almost in a whispered Southern drawl). In fact, my great-cousins looked so much alike that if it weren't for Cousin Winifred's earlier sprinkle of grey hair, we kids wouldn't have been able to tell them apart.

Like their mother, Winifred and Josephine wore their light brown hair in buns neatly pinned at the nape of long necks. I remember watching Winifred and Josephine fix (Southerners use 'fix' for everything) their hair one morning: each combed her long tresses in the same direction, switched to the opposite side in tandem and twisted her hair up, into a bun, again, in tandem.

The sisters then turned from the mirror, and faced me, both smiling in tandem, their make-up free, very white oval faces beaming with love. However, even at that tender age, I thought the hair ritual a bit odd, but remembered to return their smiles. My parents had sternly warned us (in the way that parents do) that Sarah, Dan, and I had to smile a lot when our Old School relations visited for Thanksgiving. And we weren't to speak unless spoken to, both smiles and quietude the hallmark of well-bred children.

Actually, Winifred and Josephine looked like younger versions of Aunt Winnie. But, unlike Winifred and Josephine, Aunt Winnie had snow-white hair, also parted down the middle, and was a bit plump, not fat, just a soft and cuddly petitness that invited warmth. My grandfather's sister also had deep blue, very kind eyes in a round face that crinkled into gentle wrinkles when she smiled.

Aunt Winnie and her daughters smiled a lot. Wherever they sat in our house, the trio would sit very straight, hands folded in laps, and nod and smile at whatever was said, with Aunt Winnie replying for the three, if an answer were required. Aunt Winnie always sat in the middle.

Of course, even in our spacious house, not every room contained three straight back chairs. So, my parents faced a logistical problem re-positioning chairs so Aunt Winnie and Winifred and Josephine could sit, hands folded in laps, and nod and smile. But my father held a deep respect for Aunt Winnie, his only aunt from his father's side.

Now, it just so happened that about a month prior to Thanksgiving and Aunt Winnie's visit, my parents had purchased an electric skillet, a relatively new kitchen gadget. With the purchase came a recipe for a Pineapple Upside-down Cake. My mother gave the recipe a try and, with cries for More, made another. These successes put this recipe into the running for Thanksgiving dessert. (Pumpkin pie was totally unheard of Back Then.)

We kids became the happy dessert tasters in the days that followed because Thanksgiving desert made my parents nervous. No one had been known to out-bake Aunt Winnie. Not that my parents held that goal. Since neither could bake their way out of a burnt pan, the object was a non-burnt dessert. Now, my mother could make a scrumptious batch of fudge. But fudge remained fudge and not a Thanksgiving dessert. So, the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake became the Chosen Dessert.

And everyone sat around the Thanksgiving table, much like in a Normal Rockwell painting, and, with a lot of nods and smiles, thoroughly enjoyed a picture-perfect turkey and all the trimmings. In Southern fashion, the meal lasted several hours. Everyone told stories, including us kids. But the best part occurred when Aunt Winnie related stories about when she was a little girl. And when our aunt finished, everyone nodded and smiled, for we had all fallen into doing that. And it was actually very nice.

When it came time for dessert, my mother returned to the dining room with the prized Pineapple Upside-down Cake centered on a treasured serving plate. Everyone beamed. The electric skillet had baked the pineapple rings a deep golden yellow. The red cherries that centered the lucious pineapple rings begged to be plucked by young fingers.

As my mother approached the table and the chair where Aunt Winnie sat, her foot got tangled a bit in an area carpet. The Pineapple Upside-down Cake flew from the serving plate.

The soaring cake seemed to suck the air out of the room. I don't remember a sound, but can still feel my eyes frozen wide, not believing what young eyes saw. After hanging suspended for long seconds, the cake made a rapid descent, straight toward Aunt Winnie's plump lap.

Aunt Winnie nonchalantly turned her daintily folded hands upward, caught the cake, and calmly placed the Pineapple Upside-down cake back onto the serving plate my mother had rushed over. Aunt Winnie then positioned the rescued cake on the table. Amazingly, the cake looked as golden and scrumptious as before, not a crumb out of place, nor a cherry rolled astray.

Everyone nodded and smiled. No one uttered a word about the cake-that-almost-was, except that it was delicious. Truly!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Raindrops and Memories -- Kittie's Today

Yesterday evening a gentle rain fell. When the drops hit the skylight above the family room, the falling tap, tap, tap became a lullaby that gave an already peaceful evening a deeper coziness. I snuggled into the sofa, toes tucked into an afghan, with every intent of losing myself in a really good book. But I soon fell sleep and awoke only when the book hit the floor with a thud. The sudden sound awoke Harry, too. He had dozed while reading the paper.

We exchanged smiles, the smiles of contentment and peace that are treasures. The fast-paced life near Washington, D.C. can totally drain one's mental and physical energy. And evenings can turn into snatched conversations while catching the news or scanning the paper, all the while thinking of sleep, the next day's fuel.

But, as the holidays approach, these contented evenings increase, not only in our household, but, according to Harry, among co-workers, and, according to neighbors, in their households, too. Harry thinks it's because lifestyle stress has peaked, that so many people, tired and beaten down by life's demands and rejections, have begun to rise above the swirling clouds: the Recession/Depression, congested commutes, the fear of losing a job and not commuting, and, most of all, the fear of not knowing.

A certain acceptance has bred a certain peacefulness. Not denial, for everyone knows the problems Out There are very real and much hinges on What Happens Next. And people also know they have to soldier on, not give up. But a reality check now exists for many: people can only work so hard, accomplish so much and that, what happens next, either bad or good, is out of individual control. Let go, Let God/Higher Power/Inner Spirituality prevails. And this is good.

The approaching holidays also stir memories: family gatherings, wished-for family gatherings, trips near and far, and, well, personalized memories without translation, sometimes warm and tingly, sometimes sad and empty. As I prepared for bed last night a memory from five years earlier stirred. I'd like to share it with you. Because what happened kicked like a mule.

Now, this incident wasn't the first time Life had kicked. (After all, each day isn't a Free Pass where people stand in line to get only the Good Stuff.) A more serious kick had occurred twenty years ago when doctors had erred when they told me I had terminal cancer and six months to live. Kicks like that make one stand taller and fight back.

So, the incident five years ago with a BFF still kicked, but in a different way. The kick confused me, hurt deep inside where no one else goes, and made me wonder what the hell was going on. For Harry and I had returned to the States after two years overseas, in Macedonia. I hadn't fully comprehended how The Boom had capitalized money, put an S on all things material...houseS, clotheS, carS, weddingS.

My BFF's two sons, and also our godsons, were getting married, the younger one in April, the older one in August. Harry and I would return from Macedonia a month before the first wedding. For some time, my BFF of thirty years and I had been in e-mail communication about wedding gifts. As godparents, Harry and I wanted to give both boys a memorable gift.

But, with time quickly passing, Linda and I concentrated on the more immediate wedding in April. Everything I suggested she rejected, from a nice collectible to an area carpet from Istanbul (where we'd go once more prior to returning to the States). These rejected gifts should have triggered trouble brewing. But Linda and I had an honest, open relationship, so I fobbed off the rejections on her wanting us to give the right memorable gift. A mistake.

Upon our return to the States, Linda and I continued our telephone chats, not as frequently as I had hoped. But I rationalized Linda had a lot on her plate. However, with her son's wedding now two weeks away, I grew more and more concerned that Harry and I lacked a proper wedding gift and, more so, that Linda would turn curt at anything I mentioned...and, to be sure, her rejections had accumulated. Gift options were now running out, including the gift registry, which had filled.

This time, though, when the phone rang, Linda opened with, "I know what you can give for a wedding gift."

I responded with an enthused, "What? Tell me."

What followed was a recital that began with the younger son having considerable debt, how he needed to pay off a trip to South Africa, how he needed to pay off a trip to Europe, how he needed to pay off a skiing trip, how he needed to pay off bills accumulated from the large lilfestyle he had enjoyed, and how I needed to write a check for $10,000 to help pay off these bills.

And, oh, by the way, it wouldn't be fair to give one son $10,000 without giving the other son $10,000 (who had led a responsible life). But fair was fair, I was told.

Ka-ching, $20,000 smackers....I exhaled slowly and responded as politely as I could that such a large monetary gift wasn't possible and suggested a respectable but lower amount and that this gift would be to the couple, not an individual gift to the son. Linda angrily rejected my offer, saying her son needed to get his debt load down because he was marrying into a rich, politically-connected family and didn't want to appear a pauper. I said that her son's debts were not my responsibility, that he should have lived within his means in the first place, and that I wasn't going to enable deceit.

The conversation ended with Linda saying, "Everything hinges on you writing that check."

Harry and I didn't write that check. Instead, we gave the couple a traditional gift, a collectible others the same age as the bride and groom said they'd love to have.

We attended the wedding. It was lovely, even if Linda barely acknowledged me.

Linda and I exchanged our last telephone conversation the week prior to Thanksgiving. Actually, I called her. When she flipped me off, I knew that that was that.

Like I said, the end kicked. For we had been through thirty years of Life together. But deeper than that, what really kicked was that Harry and I had returned to the States just as The Boom had kicked into high gear. Everything was for sale. I can be naive, too innocent for my own good, too reflective and couldn't understand how a friendship could have a price tag.

This swirled in my thoughts for a year. Of course, I had moved on...I'm blessed to have a strong network of friends...and am not one to sit idle...but, still, what happened nagged. Until the day the nagging stopped a year later...I can't tell you which day...but it stopped. And when Linda sent word that we should be friends again, I shook my head no and continued to move on. For I had grown stronger. I had developed a deeper spirituality that more clearly differentiated Light from Dark, the Abstract from the Concrete, between what Is and what Should Be. I had acquired an acceptance of Being that calmed the waters that sometimes surged, for life can be unfair, for I am imperfect and strive for the better that doesn't always come.

And, so, Linda and I now have in common What Was...and this is good.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Viva Louisiana: You Gotta Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em, Know When to Walk Away

Las Vegas hosts major poker tournaments, in step with the game's growing popularity. But, there was a time when Las Vegas was a twinkle in the desert, when Louisiana's open swamps and shrouded bayous hosted a tournament or two or three ...and, all the while, the brown pelican and the red egret feasted in harmony, more interested in the earth's hidden treasures than man's follies.

Pa's grandfather, my great-great grandfather, was a gamblin' man. Stilly couldn't resist a good cut of the cards. He especially loved poker. Actually, gamblin' provided Stilly and his family with a decent income, enough to maintain a small spread or farm near Ponchatoula in Tangiphoa Parish. Situated north of New Orleans, Ponchatoula provided easy access to the riverboat gambling in the booming port city and the numerous poker games that occurred in the East Louisiana backwoods, even north into Mississippi (where strict Protestants frowned upon poker.)

In 1857, Southeast Louisiana bustled with energy. Money or land lost one night reappeared in another jackpot. Gambling men like Stilly didn't care, didn't worry. Money flowed from the farmers, fishermen, fur traders, lumbermen, and merchants who had settled in Southeast Louisiana's flat piney woods, along riverbanks and streams or within scattered, one-horse towns like Ponchatoula. Catfish and trout, beef, vegetable crops, logs, and beaver pelts found an easy market in New Orleans, especially among the more sophisticated elite in the French Quarter or along St. Charles Street.

Stilly invested a percentage of gambling winnings in his spread, but saved the larger percentage for poker games, his real future, because ambition flowed through Stilly's veins. As such, he and his wife maintained a small herd of cattle, raised pigs and chickens, and otherwise enjoyed a respectable standard of living.

It was probably a good thing that Stilly's love of gambling conflicted with his English sense of frugality. Hard-nosed poker had tarnished his financial acumen. Without a self-inflicted kick in the ass, Stilly's family could have suffered hardship. But Stilly's English frugality kicked in often enough for the errant, but conscientious, husband and father to walk away from the poker table. An open, daredevil personality protected his manhood. Then, as now, the table got offended if a winning player left early; harsh words, and worse, often flew.

Stilly's forebears left England in 1700, more in search of adventure than quick money. But, marriage into like-minded Welsh and English families in the Colonies soon clipped wings and forced domesticity. Somehow, word had spread among the many Welsh and English adventurers that East Louisiana provided the best opportunity for advancement. And, so, pockets of very Protestant, very British homesteads and settlements sprang up, across the Mississippi River and a world away from the predominate Cajun culture to the west (and remain so today).

But the gambling maverick never heard this cultural drum, paid scant attention to his Protestant roots, and really didn't give a damn if others spoke Cajun French, French or Spanish. If living the dream meant learning these languages to enlarge his poker-playing sphere, so be it. But, Stilly being Stilly, he learned to speak Cajun French, French, and Spanish as if he'd been born into these languages. Stilly was shrewd, knew how to read people, and understood no one ventured onto another man's turf without knowing the house rules, in whatever language it took.

My great-great grandfather stood tall, about six-foot, four inches. Lean, but muscled and hardened, Stilly reacted with a cat's agility when threatened. Otherwise, he walked with a confident gait that both intimidated and impressed others. Somewhat of a dandy, Stilly meticulously groomed his half-beard and kept a shock of sandy brown hair under control. A wide-brimmed hat, won in a tournament in Vermilion Parish, shaded angular features and a weathered countenance, skin once fair but now tanned by the outdoors. But it was the eyes, though, Stilly's piercing blue eyes that became his calling card: These eyes held a glint of laughter or the promise of trouble if crossed. Stilly never shot a man, never had to, didn't want to. But a gamblin' man who lived by the cut of the card also needed a facade that kept others at bay.

In an era of bragging rights, Stilly maintained he could shoot off a mosquito's wing at twenty paces. When bystanders hooted, the master of bravado laughed louder. But if the ruckus grew too loud and threatened an undefined sense of respect, Stilly would pull out his pistol and make a rock dance, each bullet on target, dancing that rock along until the maestro stopped the music. Then, respect in hand, the cigar-chomping Marlboro Man from an earlier era would climb on his horse and ride away. It didn't matter where. Stilly could sleep just as good curled up under a live oak tree as he could in his own bed. Stilly may have been a God-fearing man who didn't believe in whoring around, but, when away from the family, his mistress was the Call of the Wild.

By his late twenties, Stilly had earned a reputation as a formidable poker player. As stakes had enlarged to include quit claims to land and livestock and logging rights, so had Stilly's lifestyle enlarged. His family now lived in an enviable house that was more in keeping with his reputation and status. Way Back Then, a gambling man in Louisiana enjoyed serious respect.

Stilly had also earned a reputation as one who could survive in Louisiana's deep marshes and cypress-studded bayous. Survival skills had enabled him to participate in poker games as far west as the Texas border. He rode his horse westward through the marshes and, sometimes, along what is today called the Creole Nature Trail National Scenic Byway, 180 miles of salt- and freshwater marshes locals have nicknamed the "Louisiana Outback". Stilly had learned how to navigate "cheniers" or ridges that rose up in the marshes for maximum speed, avoid the treacherous quicksand, and coexist with the aggressive Appalousa Indians.

And, like anyone else who ventured into swamps turned dark-as-night by gnarled cypress trees heavy with Spanish moss, Stilly coped with avoiding alligators. And the numerous black bears that populated the long expanse, more home to brown pelicans and egrets than man. And the mosquitoes and malaria. Thirty-nine types of mosquitoes inhabited the swamps, marshes, and lowlands. He survived on fish, small game, and ground roots, primarily the Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.) This flowering tuber, with its bright yellow petals and orange center, dotted landscapes. The diced tuber turned into a quick stew or a calorie-rich gravy (that remains popular in Cajun country today.)

So, Stilly rode his horse with confident optimim when he left Ponchatoula and headed south, deep into Plaquemines (means "Persimmon") Parish. (Plaquemines Parish is the long toe of the boot that protrudes into the Gulf of Mexico.) A major poker tournament beckoned. The event was a three-day, best two out of three, winner-take-all-tournament. Players from as far west as Vermilion Parish, 150 miles away, headed in the same direction as Stilly and toward ambitious dreams. Days later, these swamp-hardened players converged outside Pointe a' la Hache, a town, but more of an outpost, that centered activity in Plaquemines Parish.

Players chose the Point a' la Hache area for its higher ground because water covered 60% of Plaquemines Parish. (Why the players chose this God-forsaken area from a list of challenging, swamp-infested contenders remains anybody's guess.) Nevermind. This was 1857, not 1869, when oil would be discovered up in Pennyslvania. Way Back Then, the Atakapa and Appalousa Indians, Cajuns, fur trappers, and poker players like Stilly hadn't a clue that liquid gold ran beneath the open marshes and thick bayous, out into the Gulf of Mexico, the world's seventh largest body of water. Stilly's grandiose future meant winning a pot-rich tournament, one of the largest ever.

And,indeed, Lady Luck had smiled upon Stilly. At the end of the first day of tournament play in Plaquemines Parish, my great-great grandfather had won a significant amount of gold coins and quit claims for marsh land and swamp that spread westward for 75 miles. Stilly went to sleep that night a proud man, a victorious man, the tournament's leading player. All he had to do was maintain his winning streak one more day. All that he had won and whatever else he could win would be his: As much gold as his horse could carry; as much land as the mind could imagine.

Early the next morning, though, someone shot Stilly while he slept.

Someone shot my great, great grandfather dead.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ma Throws a Hail Mary Pass

A large Roman Catholic church usually centers most small towns in South Louisiana. The various rules of France and Spain, both strong Catholic countries, the Acadian (Cajun) migration from Nova Scotia, Canada, and a small Italian presence ensured this Catholic hegemony. Like Back Then, South Louisianians love to party, eat, drink, and be merry, but, beneath the frivolity, religion remains serious business.
(Note: Please see epilogue at very end.)

Visiting neighbors and friends oohed and ahhed over Dan, my new brother; no one mentioned Danva, my father's other child with Mona Rae. Of course, visitors knew. Mona Rae had teased the situation along with dropped hints and sly innuendos that had impacted more like gossip bombs. But people along that twenty-mile stretch of road weren't stupid.

Folks knew Mona Rae's marriage lacked fire, that she probed for a more secure financial future. Her wealthy in-laws, though depressed and out-of-sorts with life, didn't look like they were dyin' anytime soon. My father and his randy ways had come along at just the right time. Despite the Great Depression and the transition from the dairy into cattle farming, our farm showed steady progress. True, the land lacked the oil money Mona Rae's in-laws enjoyed. But, with my father on the edge of becoming an attorney, the slot machine rolled toward a jackpot. Divorce was very, very rare in Catholic Louisiana, but not impossible.

I didn't know it at the time, but Danva's birth had hit my mother like a ton of bricks. Only an intense anger at the dual betrayal by her husband and best friend had trumped the depression that waited. Of course, it's never good to trade one negative emotion for another. Matters need to be sorted out. But my mother had heard the divorce whispers, a stigma beyond belief at that time, and focused energies on a strong defense. She also had financial reason: My mother had signed over a considerable inheritance to my father, the real money that would finance the more complete transition into cattle farming and would accomplish in months what would have required several years.

My mother's grandmother, her mother's mother, had lived in one of the very large brownstones with high ceilings and expansive rooms that fronted St. Charles Street, one of the most exclusive areas in New Orleans (and still is). When my grandfather had taken Sarah and me to Miss Kitty's for dinner, this was because my parents had gone to New Orleans for my great-grandmother's funeral. Long widowed, she had died of old age. My mother, her brother and sister had inherited the house no one wanted to live in. The mansion had quickly sold for a pretty penny.

So, my mother had real reason to be angry. A house she could have lived in was gone. Or, the money she could have spent on another house was gone. And another woman worked to push her out of the farm cottage. But she never showed this anger, acknowledged an insecure position, or talked about the betrayals. Instead, my mother sucked it in and acted as if nothing had happened, as if Danva's birth were just another birth among many in Catholic Louisiana.

She smiled and laughed and still spent a lot of time with Sarah and me. My father and mother continued to attend parties, within their group, just not with Mona Rae, not as often now, what with three kids and my father soon entering his last semester at LSU's Law School. As such, life went on pretty much as usual. Sarah and I played outside a lot and loved the invented games that kept us running, chasing, jumping or just kneeling, trying to coax a doodle bug out of its hole. The usually mild weather in Louisiana in October begged for outdoor activity or patient moments watching a spider spin a web.

It was a bit odd, though, that grandfather spent more time with my father. Actually, they were close and talked a lot. After Dan's birth, their time together seemed to multiply. And I noticed they argued a couple of times, that my grandfather actually lost his temper once, a rare occurrence for him.

These observances aside, the golden fall days happily rolled into one another. The days seemed endless, with only meals and nighttime to mark a day's passage, without worry or fear into another beautiful day. So, when my parents announced they were taking Sarah and Dan to New Orleans to visit my mother's mother, and that I would stay with my grandparents, I didn't mind. In fact, the news made me very happy. Sarah and I had a new puppy, a black mutt we called Sugarbowl. I wanted to play with Sugarbowl; Sarah wanted to see the bright lights on Canal Street. (I think she didn't really remember the lights I talked about and wanted to be grown-up, like me.)

When I stood between my grandparents and everybody waved good-bye as the grey Ford rumbled across the cattle guard, everyone beamed with happiness. Indeed, I was blissfully happy. Sarah was fun, but a two-and-a-half year old sister always tagging along had gotten a bit tiresome. Being older by two years, I thought I could better explore parts of the farm by myself.

With the car out of sight and my grandfather headed toward the pastures, my grandmother led me inside The Big House for milk and cookies.

After I learned grace, the Catholic grace, she announced.

This surprised me because, before, we just ate cookies. And I didn't know a Catholic (or any formal grace) existed. Or that different religions existed. But if my grandmother wanted me to memorize a grace before we ate cookies, okay. I knew that my father always said Ma was 'too pious', didn't know what that really meant, only that pious connected with church.

This is because my father always said Ma was too pious when he talked about my grandmother saying her rosary every afternoon or when she had to go to church in town. So, it came about that I connected grace and the cookies with church. Not that I didn't know what grace was. Sarah and I competed to say our special words to thank God for the food we ate. So, after all this freedom, my young mind didn't really understand what Ma meant when she said God only wanted to hear a special grace, special words, like in church.

But the milk and cookies beckoned, so I learned and said the grace. Afterwards, my grandmother brought out her rosary. She taught me the Hail Mary prayer. I had to get down on my knees and say the Hail Mary prayer, a prayer for each bead. When this got boring (and my knees hurt), we sat on the porch.

My grandmother told me about hell, a place I didn't know existed. And that I would go to hell if I committed sins. Since I didn't know what sins were either, she explained that I always had to be a good girl and not break The Ten Commandments. I thought I was doing pretty good in that category until she got to Adultery. Hadn't a clue about that one. So Ma explained that only married people had babies together. And people who did not were Really, Really Bad and would burn Forever in Hell.

This got my attention. But I didn't know anyone who committed adultry. Since I was still like a kitten, I knew I couldn't have babies and only wanted to go outside and play. But Ma said too much play was a sin, that I could only stay out of Hell if I prayed a lot. So, in order to stay out of Hell, I got back on my knees (now under a dish towel) and prayed the Hail Mary with my grandmother. She remained in her chair, though, because she said the rules said she was older and could do that. Nevermind. We prayed. And Sugarbowl howled while I prayed. Because I couldn't play with him. And I tried not to cry about Sugarbowl. I had to pray. Hell was a bad, scary place. I didn't want to go there. And I wouldn't go there if I stayed away from Adultery.

And, with Christmas coming in two months (about a hundred years from Now), Ma decided I should know more about Jesus. I already knew about Jesus and the Christmas story. Now much. Just enough to know that's why we celebrated Christmas. So, this part about religion got my attention, when Ma talked about Bethelem and Nazareth, where Jesus was born, and how Jesus lived.

As such, prayer commenced each afternoon for a week, the entire week my parents and Lucky Sarah and Crying-Pooping Dan lived it up in New Orleans. The entire week that lasted a million years. True, I'd learned a lot about religion and knew prayers to keep me out of Hell. But I'd also learned to worry that if I didn't pray enough I'd go to Hell. Ma kept saying a person couldn't pray too much. I couldn't get her to tell me how much that was. I prayed and prayed every afternoon to stay out of Hell. I couldn't sleep at night because I worried about going to Hell. I had stopped taking that second cookie in order to sacrifice, a new word I'd learned, to keep me out of Hell.

And Ma had gotten me to promise that I'd keep these prayers a secret from my parents, that she wanted to surprise my Lutheran mother and lapsed-Catholic father when I made my First Communion. I didn't know what that was, was actually afraid to ask, because staying out of Hell had gotten very complicated. And other things, too. When I'd asked Ma where Mary and Joseph had gotten married she'd exploded like a firecracker. That had bothered me. I mean, with adultery being so bad, Mary and Joesph had to have had a big church wedding like the ones we sometimes went to.

By the time the grey Ford rumbled across the cattle guard and back onto the farm, I was some scared.

As soon as my father got out of the car, I ran crying and screaming to him that I'd committed adultery and was going to Hell. Through buffalo tears that wouldn't stop, still clinging to my father, I sobbed, terrified, as everyone turned to look at my grandmother.

A few seconds later all hell broke lose.

(Epilogue: I never got to know Danva, either as a toddler or later, after my parents moved into town. Danva became a doctor and lives in Texas with her family. Mona Rae and her husband eventually moved into The Big House. But that didn't work out for them either. Decades ago they left the area. The two families never connected on a familial level, tried to connect or felt a need to connect. This may not sound pretty, but that's what happened, and, probably, for the best.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Child Care Issues on the Farm

Back Then, child care issues on the farm held a certain simplicity.

Babies ate, slept, cried, and pooped. Just like kittens. And kittens looked at their mama just like a baby did: with soft, shimmering eyes, these deep pools of love, so calm and trusting. Babies and kittens hadn't learned to hide from Life. So they looked up at their mothers with adoring eyes, suckled with deep contentment, and slept without fear. My young mind, though, had forgotten all about the Tom Cat.


My mother's Best Friend Forever lived about five miles from our farm. Both were in their mid-twenties, not from the area, struggled with difficult mothers-in-law, and coped with absentee husbands. During the week, my father lived in a modest apartment in Baton Rouge, not far from the LSU campus, along with other married men who commuted between Law School and home. Mona Rae's husband traveled for longer periods. I think he was a salesman. I thought this because men sometimes came to the farm with mops and brooms and encyclopedias to sell. After one such visit, my father said the salesman lived like Mona Rae's husband, always hustling a dollar. So, that's how I learned what a salesman did and why Mona Rae's husband came and went

My mother, tall and slim, had light blond hair that framed an oval face with fair, Nordic features and blue eyes. Her hair fell in natural waves, thick and healthy, to the base of her long neck. Mona Rae had dark brown hair, cut short to make her look taller, and a round face with huge brown eyes, full lips and a clear English complexion that reflected her heritage.

My mother loved to sew, had learned to copy the latest fashions without a pattern, and had developed a fashion sense around clean lines and understated accents. Think Jackie Kennedy.

Mona Rae couldn't sew, but as fast as her husband's salary came in, the money went out. Mona Rae adored expensive clothes, also with clean lines, but preferred dresses and skirts that hugged her full hips and showed her ample bosom. She matched bright red lipstick with everything. Think Jennifer Lopez.

The two women, both very pretty, loved to laugh and smoke, Mona Rae with her whiskey highball, my mother with her Community Roast coffee, and compare mother-in-law stories. Since Mona Rae's in-laws terrified me, I'd hang close to their conversations (until they'd shoo me out to play.) I'd just learned, from a playmate, that voodoo existed in the bayous south of us. I didn't really, really know what voodoo involved, but had a growing suspicion that Mona Rae's in-laws practiced voodoo.

Mona Rae's in-laws lived in The Big House, across the pasture from her cottage house, just like our multi-generational arrangement. However, outside of the few remaining plantation homes in the area, this Big House, more a McMansion, possessed two floors and multiple protruding wings, porches, and porticoes. Mona Rae's in-laws were rich, very rich.

The wood-sided house, with its many windows and drawn shades, projected a certain gloom that I associated with secrets, and, by extension to voodoo. I was wrong about the voodoo, but too-right about the secrets. Mona Rae's in-laws mourned the death of their eldest son in World War II. This was the son they had groomed to run the farm, manage the considerable oil income, and hoped would produce an heir to continue the legacy. Indeed, stories about the favorite son had turned into legend.

Their remaining son, Mona Rae's husband, appeared more non-descript, a soft-spoken man without a personality. Everyone knew he wasn't what the parents had in mind, now when it came to money and family legacy. And, to make sure Mona Rae and her husband understood the parents' displeasure, they had built a house with a tin roof for the young couple. There was no way in hell Mona Rae was getting her hands on all that loot.

Mona Rae, the vavoom gal with the open personality, lived across from in-laws who wore black and had long faces that grew wrinkles. Unlike Miss Kitty, whose eyes danced with happiness, their eyes were big and black and and deep, like a well where voices disappeared. Their eyes scared me. I knew that their son had died in the War. I knew they were sad. But others in our area had lost sons in the War and still laughed, didn't talk in whispers, didn't stare into the distance for long periods, didn't grab my shoulder with a bony hand and dig in with nails that hurt, like I could take away something I didn't exactly know existed.

However, I really liked it when my parents and Mona Rae took me with them to a lounge on Highway 90, the road to Baton Rouge. (My grandparents babysat Sarah.) I'd learned that my going with them meant there was a party for the adults. We kids would get to play in the open room adjacent to the party room. Or run and play among the adults until they shooed us out. For about a year, there had been a party about once a month. Mona Rae's husband went with us a couple of times, when he was home.

The adults put money in the jukebox and danced and danced and danced. Glenn Miller's In The Mood rocked the house down. The young husbands and fathers in this party group had survived World War II (and more bloody combat than wives and parents realized), knew Korea was heating up, that a lucky roll of the dice couldn't last forever, and they had to grab life Now. (Two decades later I'd work for the Department of Defense on Okinawa, a staging area, during the Vietnam war, and understand that Now menality; our theme song was We Gotta Get Outta This Place.)

Anyway, I loved to watch my parents jitterbug. Especially my mother. She knew more steps than my father and would quick-step her feet, faster than my father, until they both laughed and he whirled her out, and around, and into his arms, and then out again. Whenever I hear In The Mood I think of my parents, as they were, laughing and dancing, young and carefree, lost in the music's magic, and feel a sense of contentment that there were good times when they tasted Life together.

My parents also danced cheek-to-cheek to the slow music. So Mona Rae wouldn't feel left out, my father also danced with her, mostly cheek-to-cheek. Mona Rae didn't like to jitterbug. And, as my mother got more and more pregnant and preferred sitting to dancing, my father danced more with Mona Rae. Until she got too big.

That October my mother gave birth to a very healthy baby boy. Delighted to have an heir, my father entered the hospital room with two dozen yellow roses and a huge smile. They named by brother Dan.

A few weeks later, Mona Rae gave birth to a very healthy baby girl. She named the baby Danva. I haven't a clue what my father gave Mona Rae.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Clabber: Milk, Vanity Fair, Louisiana and Monsanto

I loved milk as a kid growing up on the farm in Louisiana, still do. However, a Vanity Fair article investigates life in a different era and how the policies of Monsanto (the international agra-mega giant) affect, not only the milk industry, but rice paddies in Asia and so much more. Please follow the link to a Vanity Fair acticle to read more about Monsanto. I think you will be surprised.


If you read "Sittin' on the Stoop", you know that the war between my grandmother and my mother ended in a truce. Life on the farm returned to normal, sorta.

Sarah, my younger sister, cried, begged, and pleaded (as only a two-year-old can do) with my grandfather not to sell Banana Horns, a cow with horns so-shaped, that she'd taken a fancy to. Pa had released Banana Horns and other cows into the pasture behind the front acres, where we lived. He wanted to fatten up the cows a bit more prior to market.

Banana Horns plodded over to the fence whenever Sarah approached. Sarah giggled with delight when she tickled the cow's nose. This very fat cow with big brown eyes and yellowish-brown hide would even lower her head so Sarah could touch her horns. And, so, Banana Horns didn't go to market.

In the meantime, while Banana Horns worked her magic, my grandmother brought my mother a pail of thick cream. At the sight, my heart sank. Mom possessed the key ingredient to make clabber.

With an eagerness that totally ruined my day, mom pulled out the clabber diaper and the whatchamacallit (a series of intertwined coat hangers), from which the diaper would hang. I swear, if I'd known the French Foreign Legion existed, my little legs would have taken off, nevermind the hot noon-day sun.

Clabber looked nasty, tasted worse. My grandparents, mother, and sister loved clabber. More than apple pie. More than homemade ice cream. Only my father and I hated the white curdles. But he was at LSU.

Within minutes, my mother and grandmother had hung the wired contraption over the kitchen sink, placed a pot in the sink, poured the cream into the diaper, and attached the stork-like bundle to the hanging wire. The cream began to drip into the metal pot. Drip! Drip! Drip!

By late evening, the fast drips would turn into slow, uneven spats. Even buried under the covers, I'd hear those splats all night. Sarah and I shared a bedroom off the kitchen. Everyone joked that Sarah could sleep through a hurricane and not stir. Not me, oh, no. I could hear a mosquito sneeze two pastures over.

At bedtime, my mother remained adamant; interior doors remained open. (So she could monitor us.) I went to bed hating clabber, woke up the same.

By morning, the cream that remained in the diaper had curdled into large white clumps. Bacteria (which I hadn't known existed) had flavored the clumps with a certain tartness. After lunch, Mom prepared generous bowls of clabber for Sarah and herself. I stared at a smaller bowl. Sarah's eyes popped with delight when Mom sprinkled sugar over the clabber, groan.

Mom and Sarah tucked into the clabber with relish. I just sat there. Now, why parents do this, I don't know, but Mom dug in, insisted I "at least try" the clabber (as if this batch tasted better.) After tearful protestations, I eventually managed to get a spoonful into my mouth. But it wouldn't go down.

My cheeks bulged. The clabber just sat in my mouth, tasting awful, swelling into a slimy glob. My cheeks bulged some more. Just as Daddy walked in and Mom stood and turned toward him, the clabber whooshed out of my mouth, like a big hurricane wind, and splattered the refrigerator with the white goo. Daddy laughed until he couldn't laugh any more. Mom beamed with happiness to see Daddy, and forgot about my whoshing clabber.

And, so, Daddy's coming home a day early from LSU ended my clabber career. Mom continued to make clabber, though. My grandfather kept milk cows on the farm. Ma pasteurized the milk. She had the proper equipment. Years earlier, Pa had worked to establish a dairy on the farm and had enjoyed success until it became apparent he lacked the resources to compete with growing dairies, like Kleinpeter Dairy, in Baton Rouge. And that turned out for the best. Pa was a cattleman, not a dairyman.

Still, we enjoyed having milk cows. Our milk tasted fresh, really fresh, with a thick foam that made a big moustache. Our milk also tasted a little sweet. Not like chocolate or a cookie. Just a little sweet that perked up the taste buds.

Pa kept his milk cows clean (they can be messy). He rotated them through the pastures. He made sure the cows grazed on grass, good sweet, bright green grasses, and not weeds and dandelions. Because what a cow eats turns into what you drink or eat.

So, interest perked when my May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair contained an investigative article about Monsanato (the global agra-giant) and seeds and farming and milk. "Monsanto's Harvest of Fear, by Donald Bartlett and James Steele, contains six pages of hard-hitting investigative journalism. Everyone concerned about what goes into their bodies should read this article.

After reading about how Monsanto threw its considerable weight around, a sense of pride emerged when I read how Kleinpeter Dairy had stood up to Monsanto's pushiness. Kleinpeter Dairy did not sell milk that contained growth hormones and stated as such on milk cartons. Kleinpeter Dairy used milk from cows "not given artificial bovine growth hormone, a supplement developed by Monsanto that can be injected into dairy cows to increase their milk output." (Monsanto's Harvest of Fear, page 5) And this had put Monsanto on the legal ceiling.

My research consisently agreed with the authors of the Vanity Fair article: The F.D.A. has not approved rBGH; studies about rBGH come from Monsnato, not outside, unbiased sources. Hence, numerous questions remain about this data, growth hormones, and milk.

Since the Vanity Fair article appeared in 2008, I didn't know who had won the battle. So, a few minutes ago I called Kleinpeter Dairy, the dairy of my youth. A real person with a delightful personality answered the phone! Soon I was speaking with a Kleinpeter representative who had time to speak to me (and who knew about clabber).

I am happy to report that Kleinpeter Dairy still does not use milk with growth hormones, that all of their dairy products are hormone free, that their dairy products are their products and not out-sourced. Someone with principles runs Kleinpeter Dairy.

But, annoyingly, if you read the Vanity Fair article you'll read where Monsanto got some of its power from a guy associated with Fox News. Pass the smellin' salts. The vapors are comin' on.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Miss Kitty, Little Kittie, and Rush Limbaugh

In an era when adults were adults and kids were kids, I didn't know why my grandmother, mother, and father had to go to New Orleans for the weekend. A tinge of disappointment at not being able to see my grandmother in New Orleans disappeared when my sister and I learned we had our grandfather all to ourselves.

Pa stood over six feet tall, with a muscled leanness and angular features that made him appear taller. He was fair-complexioned, like me, with thick, light brown hair that he kept covered with a felt hat, a style popular in the Fifties. Life had added character to his face, little crow's feet, small wrinkles from squinting into the sun. It was Pa's deep blue eyes, though, that pulled you into an orbit of love and kindness and gentleness. He was a God-fearing man, a man of few words, but when he spoke, it was from the heart and from a sense of what was right and what was wrong.

Now, for all the many things Pa could do, there was one thing Pa couldn't do: He couldn't cook.

After a breakfast of burned scrambled eggs a definite problem existed. My sister and I were little whirlwinds, constantly in motion, and needed food.

So, mid-morning, just as starvation approached, Pa announced that we'd drive into town for dinner (which was lunch; supper was dinner). My sister and I perked up.

Then, the telephone rang. My grandfather's face soon broke into a wide grin. Miss Kitty had invited us to dinner (lunch). My sister and I clapped our hands with glee and didn't have to be told to comb our hair, wash our hands and get spruced up. Everyone knew Miss Kitty was the best cook for miles around, even better than the restaurant in town.

Miss Kitty lived in a shotgun house, painted a deep, deep red on the outside. The roof was a proper roof, not a painted tin roof, and symbolized hard work and frugal finances. (There were those within this twenty-mile stretch who gambled or drank away their money or were too lazy to work. A proper roof often covered the character of those who lived within the house.)

Now, for those of you not familiar with shotgun houses, they are so named because if the front door and the back door were open, one could fire a shotgun, and the bullet would fly straight through. Shotgun houses were narrow, with a lone window on either side of the front door, and with rooms off the hall that ran through the house. Many had small front porches.

If you've visited New Orleans, especially Magazine Street in the French Quarter, you've seen a shotgun house. Within the Historic District, they are protected, very much a lifestyle status symbol for young couples.

When we arrived at Miss Kitty's, it was like entering a Norman Rockwell scene yet-to-come. A white picket fence surrounded Miss Kitty's emerald green lawn. A panoply of colorful marigolds, petunias, and verbenas in well-tended beds wrapped around the porch.

Like my great-grandmother, my grandmother's mother, Miss Kitty wore a long dress (a calico print), and a bonnet, like pioneer women wear in Western movies. And, like my great-grandmother, Miss Kitty was a little stooped over and walked with a cane.

After the proper greetings, Miss Kitty ushered us into her immaculate kitchen. The most delicious chicken stew and homemade bread awaited us.

Miss Kitty didn't let age get in the way of her life. In 1950, Miss Kitty was between 90 and 93 years old. She wasn't sure about her exact birth date.

Miss Kitty loved children. She liked to sing fun songs where we kids would clap and sing the refrain with her. We didn't know what we were singing, but it was fun. Miss Kitty spoke fluent English, fluent French, and fluent Cajun French. But her first language was a language no one in the farming community recognized. Even Miss Kitty didn't know the name of the country where this lilting language originated.

You see, Miss Kitty had been a slave. She had been born in the United States but born into slavery.

Like her parents, she had worked as a slave, the officially listed property of what the law then recognized as the rightful owner.

Miss Kitty now lived in a neat house on a farmette on what had once been a larger plantation. Where she had worked as a slave.

After the Civil War, the plantation owner's widowed wife had deeded this parcel of land (and given an unknown sum of money) to Miss Kitty. She had built the shotgun house, the house she wanted, and established the life she wanted to live. Miss Kitty had never been known to lose her temper or speak poorly of others. She never gambled or drank or smoked or ran with loose men. Miss Kitty was known as a good wife and mother, a hard worker, a person of good character, attributes anyone with any sense values. (This is not to say Miss Kitty was perfect; she'd have been the first to say No Way. Like everyone else, Miss Kitty got through challenges, sometimes of her own making, when days seemed without end, and she wished she had said or done otherwise.)

One of Miss Kitty's grown sons, with his children, also lived on the property. They worked hard to maintain a house garden, a chicken coop, and raise a few cattle for market. But it was too much for one person, even if kids helped, so farmers and cattlemen in the area, like my grandfather, volunteered their skills. Not so much with money. Miss Kitty didn't suffer financial problems.

But those who volunteered wanted Miss Kitty to enjoy her home, her flowers, her immaculate lawn, wanted Miss Kitty to maintain her high standards, wanted Miss Kitty to remain part of a community where it was common for people to help each other. Those who helped Miss Kitty knew she had been a slave, knew it hadn't been right, and felt they had a certain responsibility to ease a long-ago wrong.

Ironically, one of Miss Kitty's neighbors belonged to the KKK. No, this family didn't help Miss Kitty. But, in an era when the Klan used intimidation (and worse) for a land grab, the Klan left Miss Kitty alone.

Several years later, when Miss Kitty still lived in her house but needed a live-in relative's help to walk about, I asked my grandfather why the Klan hadn't targeted Miss Kitty. I can hear his reply now, "Miss Kitty was stronger than the Klan."

It wasn't until I was in high school, when I had accumulated more years and experiences, that I could understand the thin veneer that had separated sanity from insanity along that twenty-mile stretch of road. It was then that I realized that a certain type of Southerner knew (and knows) exactly what he/she was (is) doing, exactly what he/she was (is) saying.

I learned that Southern whites speak another English, a coded English, that is subtle and very layered. Some whites outside the South have learned this English, this English that uses the Constitution to validate racism and hate and discord and jealousy. Professors of this language, like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, speak this coded language fluently.

Let me be very clear: Southern whites know each other very, very well. Within five minutes of meeting another Southerner (whether from Louisiana or not), I can tell you that person's politics, religion and overall character. Likewise, they know where I'm coming from. And, yes, there are times when we lock horns. And, yes, there are times when I walk away, just don't go There, because I can feel that physical danger lurks.

I felt trouble when I was out campaigning for President Obama. In one 'bubbha' neighborhood, two middle-aged white women, independent of each other, told me they were voting for Obama, that their husbands weren't and "to get out of here; it's not safe." But I decided to continue with my list. As any Southerner will tell you, there's a difference between feeling trouble coming and feeling danger lurking. (And nothing happened.)

And, so, I'm sending this posting to the St. Louis Rams. When Rush Limbaugh announced that he was part of a group that wanted to buy the Rams, the team said No, we're not going to work for a bigot, we're not going to be muscled slaves, we're not going to be owned by a guy everyone knows is The Man.

My blog is small, not even an Internet blink in a stratosphere of blogs. But I can hear Miss Kitty's lilting singing, see her thin face crinkled with laughter, see the wisps of grey hair beneath her bonnet, feel her long fingers cupping my chin, feel her soft, watery eyes looking into my soul and know she'd be happy this posting will have wings and fly. Thank you, St. Louis Rams. Like Miss Kitty, you're a class act.

I'm also sending this blog to Rush Limbaugh. You see, on a small table in the living room, Miss Kitty kept an American flag, neatly folded into waxed paper and tied with string. Each Fourth of July she proudly flew this beautiful flag -- the flag my father fought for on Iwo Jima, my husband in Vietnam -- in front of her house.

Miss Kitty, the former slave, wasn't an American citizen. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, the American citizen who hasn't done much besides sit in front of a microphone and spew hate, Miss Kitty wasn't filled with anger. She only had good things to say about the United States of America.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sittin' on the Stoop Down on the Louisiana Farm

During my father's second year at LSU's Law School, his parents built a small house for us on their farm, across 'the pasture' from their house. Their house now became known in the farming area as The Big House. This raised pedestal of public opinion pleased my grandmother. The Big House was new, her dream come true, and indeed big.

However, the move from from LSU's Quonset huts, where married students then lived, to this small house, more a cottage with a front porch, proved a challenge for my mother. In Baton Rouge she'd had friends her age, could relate to others with young children, and otherwise felt part of a community. Now she lived on what she considered an isolated farm, without a support network her age, with a mother-in-law as the nearest neighbor. Without television and with spotty radio reception she had a long week to fill. My father commuted to the farm on weekends.

My grandmother and my mother didn't get along. My mother was a New Orleans city gal who missed riding the St. Charles street car to her job at a boutique fur store on Canal Street. She also missed managing her own finances, and, in reality, managing her own life. Mother was an Independent Woman ahead of her time, the product of a strong German heritage. Her great-grandparents had migrated to Louisiana from Mississippi, after the Civil War, when Carpetbaggers forced them off their land. And New Orleans being New Orleans, a world unto itself, my mother knew little about the Cajun and French cultures and had absolutely no desire to enlarge that knowledge.

Cajun aficionados commonly agree that the 'Cajun Triangle' stretches from Beaumont, Texas, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. This triangle is called the Three B's. Situated somewhat north of Baton Rouge, our farm was technically out of the Cajun triangle, but that meant little. Most in our rural area spoke or understood Cajun French to some degree, carried a Cajun or French surname, and otherwise lived within the Cajun or French culture.

My grandmother relished the role as the modern, petite matriarch of a family that had come to Louisiana in 1679. Her first language was French, Parisian French. Although she understood and spoke Cajun French, only a dire situation forced her to speak the patois. (Since she was a long-time area resident, her linguistic quirk provided a bravo spark others admired.) She also spoke fluent English. Born in 1898, Ma was the first woman of her generation to graduate from high school in the parish and was the recipient of many other firsts not common among women then.

So, two very independent women from two very different cultures locked horns.

Men being men, it took a bit for my father to realize that two opposing forces prepared for War, right under his nose. When reality finally dawned, he spoke individually to the opposing forces, thought his wisdom had worked, and returned to LSU to earn a degree to earn a living.

On weekends, my parents, my sister, and I enjoyed farm fresh eggs, fried, but a bit runny, and smothered with grits for breakfast. Once my father left for Baton Rouge, these eggs stopped. (My grandmother would place the basket of eggs on our porch just prior to her son's arrival. Unlike us, she had a telephone, a party-line, and friends would alert her when my father had driven past their houses.)

During the week, my mother cooked grits, the original grits that required time to even look like grits. She'd make a pot of grits that lasted the week. (My mother didn't like to cook and didn't particularly want to expand the subject.)

Ma seized upon her adversary's weakness. Soon, the aroma of French toast, fried dough that swelled with pockets that begged for jam, and homemade pancakes wafted across 'the pasture'.

My sister and I would slip out of the house and race across 'the pasture', on the path between the houses, that we fast created, and entered a country kitchen filled with warm aromas that couldn't be resisted. (My mouth waters now at the memory.)

Knowing what his wife was up to, my grandfather entered the fray. Pa released a small herd of his 600 cattle into the fenced-off frontage we called 'the pasture'. The excuse was that the grass needed trimming. But the goal was to nullify his wife's advantage. It failed. My sister and I learned that if we walked among the cows as if they didn't scare us, they wouldn't bother us. And they didn't. Our escapades continued.

However, my grandfather proved the cleverer of the lot. When my father returned home and saw cows grazing out of their proper pastures, he exploded. He knew cows could turn and butt us. My grandfather shrugged and pulled him aside.

The next evening, Saturday, as if by magic, neighbors appeared, at our house and at The Big House. Many brought pies and cookies and other yummy desserts.

How it happened, I don't know, but everyone ended up at my grandmother's, sitting outside, on the stoop or in chairs or spread out on the lawn, talking and laughing and enjoying the desserts. When my father announced, with great pride, that my mother was expecting their third child, applause and good cheer followed. My mother blushed, very pleased at the attention, if not exactly pleased at another pregnancy.

And, so, the ritual of gathering every Saturday evening on the stoop began. My mother and grandmother never really warmed up to each other. But they did declare a truce. The war ended, to everyone's relief. Everyone along the bayou (it wasn't but was so-called) relaxed.

When my mother made friends among those her age, my grandmother didn't interfere.

For reasons known to the telephone company, a phone couldn't be installed in our house, but my mother's friends would call my grandmother who would, in turn, come get my mother.

Since my mother didn't like gathering eggs, my grandmother taught me how (as long as she accompanied me), and, once again, like magic, we had fresh eggs all the time.

And we kids (for neighbors brought their kids) loved it when everyone gathered on the stoop. We'd run and chase each other or play hide and seek until we were tuckered out. We'd straggle in from 'the pasture' (cows now gone) for a glass of homemade lemonade and cookies, then snuggle into our parents or lean against them and hug their knees. We knew not to listen and not interrupt when the elders talked.

And the elders would talk into the evening, sharing stories, giving each other advice, bolstering each other up, all without argument or coarseness, often with laughter and good humor. As such, this continued for some years, even after we left the farm and moved into town. For my family often returned on weekends, as did the neighbors. Or, we'd sit outside, just my grandparents and us. And talk into the night. Even as a grown, married woman, when I returned to Louisiana, my grandmother and I would sit on the stoop and talk the hours away. My grandfather had long passed, but his wisdom remained and influence remained.

I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Louisiana State University and am proud of it. But so much of what helped me in Life I learned on the stoop.

Friday, October 16, 2009

SOMEONE STOLE MY PUMPKIN -- (Beginning of the Louisiana Stories)

Fall is special. I love it when the leaves begin to turn and, like bright orange and red feathers, flutter to the ground. And, as the weather turns into crisper days, sometimes with a drizzle of rain, I love to snuggle into jeans, a turtleneck, and hoodie and walk through the leaves, the right loafer lightly kicking them up, just to enjoy their fluttery descent once again. I also like to think about things during these walks. There's no need to explain what runs through my mind. You probably have your own favorite way to meditate or talk to God or commune with Nature and know about things that run through the mind.

I usually return home rejuvenated, that the only problem is there is no problem and where's my cookie? Fall is the only time of the year cookies, especially oatmeal raisin cookies, tickle the taste buds, not every day, for sure, but after a nice walk through our mini forest, absolutely. I'm pretty sure this results from when I was a kid growing up in a small town in predominantly rural South Central Louisiana.

The school bus didn't pick up 'townies'. Every week day I'd meet my friend Marilyn at a designated street corner, and we'd walk the long mile to school, chatting non-stop about This and That. It never seemed like we walked a mile. Exercise was part of our lifestyle. We all had mandatory P.E. at school. Early fall meant basketball for all the girls, football and basketball for however the boys split up. There were no exceptions; everyone had to sign up.

Actually, no one complained. We girls would run our 10 laps around the gym before practice began and think nothing of it. So, by the time the school day ended at 3:15 and Marilyn and I had walked the long mile home, we were hungry for a snack.

In each house near me the routine was the same: Drop books on the counter, hop on the bike, and peddle as fast as the wind to Mr. Morel's. For one cent we could purchase two huge oatmeal raisin cookies. A Nehi strawberry pop was a nickle more. But, since those in my group received a nickel a day allowance, we'd usually settle for the cookies and save the Nehi for a weekend purchase, minus the cookies, and save the rest (because we knew saving money was important.) We couldn't have it all and knew it.

There were two bakeries in my small town. Mr. Morel knew when the hungry hoard would run laughing and giggling into his store and had the cookies waiting. Sometimes they were still warm. Mr. Morel never really said much. He wore baggy pants and a white shirt with suspenders and had small glasses that sat down on his nose. We thought he was maybe a hundred years old.

We knew that if we didn't say Please and Thank You he'd tell our parents we were rude and something awful would happen. We never figured out what that would be. No one ever really said. But we never took any chances and always minded our manners.

There were also times when Mr. Morel was busy at his desk at the back of the store, behind a bookcase, where he couldn't see us. But he knew the ritual, recognized the excited brouhaha, and would call out for us to take our cookies and leave the pennies on the counter. And we did, always with a chorused Thank You, Mr. Morel before leaving. No one ever cheated Mr. Morel. No one.

After munching our cookies, we'd hop back onto our bikes and ride and race each other for another hour or so, until it was time for dinner, always at 5:00. We kids knew to wash our hands, set the dinner table, and otherwise help out. We didn't think to think otherwise. That's just the way it was. And we didn't complain about doing our homework after dinner. And parents didn't supervise us. It was quite clear who did what in our relationships; no one questioned otherwise.

As such, the days passed. Fall deepened into Thanksgiving, when grandparents and relatives from New Orleans visited. What, with my parents, five kids, and a ton of relatives, by the time Christmas approached, the sounds of laughter and kids playing games (sometimes arguing) and the teasing aromas of holiday pies and cookies, happy excitement filled the house.

My father always purchased a Christmas tree. The fresh-cut scent filled the living room. After waiting a couple of days for the branches to fall, we'd gather to decorate the tree. My father managed the lights. My mother placed the angel at the top. I hung ornaments just below the middle of the tree. And so it went, with each of us having an age-appropriate responsibility, until we finished our tasks, stepped back, and beamed with pride at what we'd accomplished.

I don't remember the exact year, but I do remember that, one year, about a week before Christmas, my father had the idea to drive around and look at the brightly-lit Christmas trees shining from living room windows. And so we did. And it was a lot of fun, with all of us oohing and ahhing over the lights.

That is, until we left our neighborhood and drove farther, to the edge of town and beyond, where the school bus stopped, where some of my classmates lived. The merriment that had filled our car soon turned into a puzzled silence. Very few had Christmas trees. In the three houses where my classmates lived, there wasn't a Christmas tree, even a hint that Christmas was coming. Of course I knew where my classmates lived. Except during winter (too much slick rain) we peddled our bikes everywhere and were regularly inside of each other's houses.

My father saw my sadness and began to explain, in the way that parents did, that my classmates' parents lacked the money to buy a tree, the lights or ornaments. I remember listening intently, but still feeling sad, when my father pulled into a long driveway. We went inside. I didn't know these people, but they seemed to be waiting for us. In proper Southern fashion, we were ushered into the living room. There, standing next to drawn curtains, was a tall tree, without lights or glass ornaments, but with brightly painted tin cans hanging. It was a Cajun Christmas tree!

These days, Cajun Christmas trees are a major competitive Christmas ritual in Cajun Louisiana. Back when I was a kid, it was Christmas spirit without the money. And, so, we kids sat politely and sipped Kool-Aid. The adults sipped egg nog and laughed and talked. Soon, it felt like Christmas in that small room with the Cajun Christmas tree.

When we returned home, full of holiday spirit and a bit wiser for my tender years, we just opened the door and walked in. No one locked doors in those days. There was no need.

And, just like I've grown up to enjoy that fall cookie, I've also grown up believing in that Cajun Christmas tree. Holiday spirit is in the heart, not with anything one buys. Nor can anyone steal holiday spirit.

So, imagine my surprise, my sadness, when I awoke Monday morning to discover that someone had stolen my pumpkin outside.

As much as anyone could love a pumpkin, my inner child loved the one we had selected. Our pumpkin was a vibrant orange, like the leaves that turn, and was almost perfectly round. Too round was too perfect. We wanted a pumpkin with a few flaws, like life, not always smoothe, but made more beautiful from life's challenges. We wanted a pumpkin with little crow's feet that smiled.

Five days later I'm still perturbed about the stolen pumpkin, the bright orange pumpkin with the green stem, the one among many in the bin that screamed Buy Me, Buy Me! And, so, we did, my inner child and I.

I know, I know, it's silly to personalize a pumpkin. But there's more to it than that. The pumpkin personalizes the Spirit of the Season, a time of warmth, good cheer and all those Hallmark words that everyone wants to be real.

Anyway, I'm still an adult and have to say that it's been a very good week, pumpkin aside, with hectic activities, visits with old friends and enough to keep me beyond busy to shake the stolen pumpkin. But I haven't. I can't stop wondering, what's so wrong Out There that someone would steal a two-dollar pumpkin? Harry and I live in an established neighborhood with few kids and little outside traffic. Stealing a pumpkin is too mean-spirited and just doesn't fit.

I guess I need to take a long walk and watch the leaves flutter and think about things.