My mother, when the whole Katrina thing hit, said DeRidder never really got hurricanes, they got tornados. So I sort of get the degree of alarm caused by this thunderstorm, last Wednesday. I was particularly amused by the last graph, which talks about a missing 6-year-old. (I'd be less amused, of course, if the child hadn't been found quickly.) Anyway, I was amused because, as a kid, my mother remembers walking home from school after a tornado had torn through town, eyeballing the desctruction. Meanwhile, her grandmother, who my mother lived with, was on the verge of a stroke wondering what had happened to her. Must have been one of those hug her? or kill her? moments when my mom finally sauntered in the door.
I’m trying to figure out what Louisiana means to me.
It’s the place my mother was born, in a town called DeRidder, in the western part of the state. It is the place my grandmother, Aurelia, who was Scarlet O’Hara’s bleach blond twin, was raised, too. And her mother, Anne—my great-grandmother. There’s a tiny cemetery, the Creel Family Cemetery, in Reeves, a tiny town not too far from DeRidder, where the Creel family farm used to be. Anne was a Creel. She moved to DeRidder—a metropolis compared to Reeves, but tiny by most standards--with the insurance money from her first husband’s death. She ran a rooming house, in which she raised Aurelia and Aurelia’s brother, LaRue. And, for a time, she raised my mother, as well.
But I digress already. The point is, this family is, or was, so rooted, so of a place. In that tiny cemetery are generations of extended family. And along those back roads, you can find other family cemeteries, too. How often do you see that? My mother ended up moving north when she was 16. She went to college in Virginia and married a northerner and settled in the north. Or the relative north. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. And I grew up with a sick brother, which meant we couldn’t travel often. And my southern relatives weren’t, for the most part, the traveling type. So I grew up not knowing them, or Louisiana, well. And because of that, I think there’s a part of my mother, and grandmother, and myself, that eludes me, too.
Here’s what I think: I think this is a story about identity, and the identity we get from place. We inherit that identity from our parents and where they, and their family of origin, are from. So what happens, what does it mean, when so many of us get geographically further and further away from those places or origin? In my case, it’s also a story about north and south…because, though these people in the south are my family, though this place is part of my heritage, I’m not sure I can know it, by virtue of the northern latitude where I grew up. Can a northerner truly understand a southerner—even if they are members of the same family?
This was brought home to me recently, as I talked with my mother about LaRue, who she, and thus I, called Brother. I was telling her that, when we were down for Aurelia’s funeral, I kept trying to get Brother to tell me stories about Aurelia, growing up. I really just wanted to know more about her, and why she was the way she was. (I’ll get to the way she was in a future post.) But he was evasive. Just kept wiggling the toothpick in the corner of his mouth, looking straight ahead as he drove us down the back roads of Louisiana, en route to see one relative or another. “I don’t know Shug,” he’d drawl. (Shug was short for sugar.) My mother said, “Well, it’s kind of a southern way with outsiders.” Touché. And ouch.
Because I wasn’t an outsider. But then again, I was. I am. So where does that leave me?