Kittie Howard

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.