Thursday, December 11, 2008

More sightseeing: Lois Luftin Doll Museum

You know the local attractions are sparse when a doll museum is in the top five...My great uncle, LaRue (also known as Brother), brought us there on one of our visits. All I know is a local couple--the Luftins--apparently collected more than 3,000 from around the world. I thought I remembered some back story to the effect that Lois Luftin had come from a modest background and hadn't been able to have dolls growing up, hence her adult fascination with collecting them. But I can't find any online confirmation of that. At any rate, the museum is still a main attraction in town.

Sightseeing in DeRidder: The Hanging Jail

The Hanging Jail is tops on DeRidder's must-see list.

It's a gothic structure built with shallow arches, dormer windows, and central tower. Inside, a spiral staircase leads up to three floors of jail cells. Condemned persons were hanged by an apparatus at the top of the spiral staircase.

Most of the prisoners could easily watch the hanging from the "comfort" of their cells. (I put that in quotes, but actually, each cell had a toilet, shower AND a window--an unusual degree of luxury at that time.) Rumor has it that passersby could see prisoners waving to them through the bars on the windows.

In 1928, there was a famous double execution in the jail. On a Saturday night, August 26th, Joe Genna and Molton Brasseaux got in J.J Brevelle's cab and asked him to take them to the Joe Miller place on Three Pine Church Road.

On the way, they stopped for some moonshine whisky. It was then that Genna and Brasseaux made their move, first beating Brevelle and then stabbing him with a screwdriver. They took the money from his pockets and tossed his body off a bridge.

Well, long story short, they were caught, put in DeRidder's jail, and hanged. Genna tried to poison himself the night before, to avoid the gallows. But he'd eaten such a big pre-execution dinner (chicken) that he ended up throwing up the chicken and the poison. The executioners also thoughtfully pumped his stomach, to make sure he made it to the big day.

Both men were hung on March 9, 1928--Genna first.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Keep DeRidder Beautiful

This article was in the Beauregard Daily News. It's clean up time.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A careful tap dance

The governor of Louisiana addressed a crowd at the Longville Baptist Church last week....he was obviously trying to get a positive message across without offending people. But ouch....the message is clear....schools are in trouble, teachers leave, young people leave the state, the economy is in trouble. Why is this state struggling so?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Assault rifles are flying off the shelves

Well, Obama appears to be scaring the cr*p out of gun enthusiasts according to an article entitled "Locked and loaded on uncertainty" in the Beauregard Daily News:

Faster than a speeding bullet, assault rifles and ammunition are flying off of the racks in Louisiana’s gun shops. It’s a nationwide trend that is shooting across the country since President-elect Barack Obama’s victory last week, as gun enthusiasts are concerned that an Obama administration will ban certain weapons and ammunition.

According to local law enforcement authorities, there are no gun stores in Beauregard Parish currently selling assault rifles; however, many residents travel a few miles north to Leesville’s Star Pawn and Gun store to “zero in” on their weapons of choice. “We have a lot of customers from DeRidder,” said shop owner, Tonya McKee.

Honestly, of all the changes that are bound to come when Obama takes office, gun laws were the last thing on my mind. Not so for many, though. No wonder Louisiana went McCain.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hanging on

New signs? A downtown festival (and new paint jobs to go with it), a Keep DeRidder Beautiful campaign? Sounds like DeRidder is trying hard to re-invent itself.

For the record, DeRidder was a company town--created, almost overnight, by a lumber company (Long Bell, I think) that came to claim the pine trees that once grew in abundance in this part of western Louisiana (and on into east Texas). The lumber company owned the stores, built the houses, etc. etc. Nice for people, I guess, for awhile--until the trees ran out and the lumber companies (there were several, ultimately) split, leaving the town without an industry.

From what I gather, this started to happen even before my mom was born in DeRidder. She remembers it as a thriving town. But it didn't take long for the dearth of jobs and income to affect the area. People my mom grew up with left to find jobs and a life elsewhere and didn't come back. Businesses died. The downtown looked--last time I was there with my mother--like a ghost town compared to what she'd grown up with.

The town, I think, has been scrabbling for an identity and an income ever since. By the looks of things, they don't intend to go down without a fight.

But it makes me think about the psychology of place once again...this place, in particular, had such a defined identity. It was created for a specific purpose. What happens when the purpose leaves--and the people who once inhabited it (the place, the purpose) remain? They have to find a new purpose, I guess, if they want to stay. Is that what's happening here?

As soon as I pushed "publish post" I had another I had to come back and add it. Isn't what I was just talking about--a place and a people that lost its purpose--what happened to Flint, Michigan, the subject of Michael Moore's documentary "Roger and Me."...? Here was a town whose entire identity and livelihood was built on the car industry...and then the car industry pulled out, leaving it rudderless. And like a rudderless ambled about, aimlessly, trying to re-group.

I don't know if Flint was actually created by the car companies, but it sounds awfully similar to what happened in DeRidder. I wonder if Flint ever found its feet again.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Doings in DeRidder

This is where I wish I was last Saturday--$5 for food, a Zydeco dance lesson and a beignet tutorial!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Family death dates and ages...

There is something very odd, in my family, about death dates. And ages. Everyone tends to die at, or close to, 82. And people have a habit of dying on or very near birthdays.

My mother’s grandmother, Mama Anne, died December 18, 1973, at the age of 82.

She died on the birthday of her daughter, Aurelia, who was also 82 when she died in 1993.

Mama Anne’s son, LaRue, was also 82 when he died, on his own birthday, August 8th, in 1998.

And I just discovered that LaRue’s wife, Corinne, died on August 7th, 1993, a day before LaRue’s birthday, at the age of 81.

I guess I should get my affairs in order roundabout age 80. What do you think?

Saturday, November 8, 2008


Speaking of critters in Louisiana, I've always wanted to go to this. Frogs don't have fangs.

Snakes in a swamp

My aunt Corinne was a good story teller. Once she told me a story about being a little girl in Louisiana and crossing a river by walking across a tree that had fallen across it…I guess the banks were high, because the tree was four or five feet above the water. At one point, as she was balancing her way across, Corinne looked down and saw a water moccasin in the water, paralleling her journey across the tree, just waiting, it seemed, to see if she’d fall.

In a word, creepy.

All of this is to explain why I idly googled “louisiana” and “snakes” just a bit ago, and discovered that there are four different species of poisonous snakes in North America, and Louisiana is home to them all: the copperhead, the cottonmouth water moccasin, the eastern coral snake, and the rattlesnake. Louisiana boasts three varieties of rattlesnake: the pygmy rattlesnake, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (reputed to be the most dangerous snake in North America) and the timber rattlesnake.

The same website mentioned that Louisiana is also home to two venomous spiders: the black widow and the brown recluse.

Living in an apartment in NYC, the closest I get to snakes is in the pet store next door, which houses teeny tiny snakes in aquariums dressed up with fake rocks and rubber plants. Henry loves them. I think they’re kind of cute—as long as they’re behind glass and not coming home with me. Sounds like in Louisiana, you don’t have all that much choice. Yikes. Do I really want to live here?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Louisiana goes for McCain

It sure sounds like Louisiana should have gone Obama...wonder what happened. I'm guessing race had to be a part of it, but I'm sure we'll hear more about all that in the days to come.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Johnson's Grocery

A couple of years ago Paul and I flew into New Orleans, spent a couple of days there, and then rented a car and lit out on 10W, en route to DeRidder. On the way we passed through Cajun country, and before long we started seeing gas stations and ramshackle little buildings with “Specialty Meats” signs outside. Music to my stomach.

In Louisiana, “Specialty Meats” is code for boudin, a delicacy that consists of rice, ground pork, and savory seasonings stuffed into a sausage casing. (You can also find versions made with crawfish, or catfish, etc…but the pork is the best.) Each place has it’s own recipe and there is no end of discussion, sometimes heated, as to the best ratio of rice to pork, etc. Most people have a favorite place they’re devoted to. My aunt Corinne—our family Cajun--used to insist on driving an hour away, from Oakdale to Bunkie, to get her favorite boudin.

I think it was Calvin Trillin, in an homage to boudin in The New Yorker, who once said you had to buy two batches of boudin—one to eat in the parking lot, the other to bring home. (It’s that good.) Corinne used to run a knife through each sausage, splitting the casings, and then put them under the broiler until the casings crisped up. Then she’d scoop out the boudin, spread it on a Club cracker, and douse it with Tiger Sauce—a sweet, sour, spicy sauce that used to only be available in Louisiana. (I can buy it in my local grocery store now.)

Anyway, Paul, who is game for just about any food, had read Trillin’s New Yorker homage, and was intrigued. And I was more than ready for another dose. It had been eons. So we began stopping…at every one. Our favorite place was a place called Johnson’s Grocery, in Eunice, a Cajun town about forty miles north of Lafayette (Cajun central). I think Johnson’s was mentioned in one of my guidebooks, and it took a little doing to find it. We were a tad nervous because in the book it said Johnson’s didn’t make boudin every day.

Lo and behold, we turned a corner and saw a hand-lettered sign stuck in the ground near that said “Hot boudin today!” (Somewhere I have a picture of Paul sitting next to the sign.) We pulled into a gravel parking lot in front of a little, white one story building, opened the screen door, and made our way past rows of shelves with things like fishing tackle and random groceries to the back, where there was one man grinding sausage and filling casings. One pound of boudin: $2.67. I think, as Trillin had advised, we got two.

We were standing in the parking lot, squeezing boudin straight from the casings into our mouths, when we heard the screen door screech. The owner of the store, an elderly gentleman wearing a cowboy hat, leaned out and said “My wife just put on a pot of coffee. Would you like a cup?” We probably stood there for an open mouthed second before Paul—who can drink hot coffee in 90 degree weather—said “Sure!” and headed back into the store.

“I wasn’t sure whether to pay for it or not,” he said later. It became clear pretty soon, however, that it was just a friendly gesture. One of many we jaded northerners would encounter on that trip. While inside, Paul also got a boudin lesson from the old guy, who proceeded to tell him exactly how he made it. “You’re going to show me all the secret ingredients?” Paul joked. No secret ingredients, the guy said. It was all in the making. And they’d been making it a long time.

The reason I bring this up is because a) we’re on our last package of boudin in the freezer—you can order it online, though not, alas, from Johnson’s. (I order from Poche’s which is also darn good.) And b) In searching the web on the subject of boudin and Johnson’s in particular I was, at first, horrified to see a note that Johnson’s had closed. But it’s okay. It turns out that the family has just decided to eschew the grocery business and focus on making boudin. Well, hey, you can buy eggs anywhere. But boudin this good? It’s worth travelling for—even all the way from New York.

Monday, November 3, 2008


I stand between my father and mother in the searing Louisiana heat, watching my grandmother’s casket—silver blue, a color she would have admired—be lowered into the ground. I am crying, quietly, my face crumpling in a way I’ve hated since I hit puberty and began a mental list of my unattractive qualities. (Face crumpling, check.) Despite my silence, my father notices. He leans down and whispers, “You really liked her, didn’t you?”

For the record, it’s a real question. He’s truly curious. No one liked my grandmother. Not even the array of Snopes-like relatives—some of them clad in overalls, one in a polyester blue suit that brought John Travolta of a certain era to mind—who’d taken the trouble to pay their respects when her body had been on display in DeRidder’s only funeral home. (My favorite had been an old fellow, clearly not all there, who’d peered into the casket like someone perusing a freezer compartment for their favorite ice cream, before announcing, in loud tones, that he didn’t know her.)

Anyway. It had nothing to do with the fact that she was old. This isn’t a story of a likeable person consumed, to the point of unrecognizability, by dementia. She had, apparently, always been odd, something I knew about mostly from stories. I did have some real experience with it, though. There was the way she’d regulary sent us all news clippings echoing our worst nightmares—for me, an article about a girl who’d been raped and murdred while jogging alone at night; for my mother, one about a doctor who’d had two families—with chirpy little notes (“Thought you’d be interested!”) attached.

There was the pillow—a pink satin bridge meant for neck support—that she insisted on sleeping on so that her head never hit the bed and mussed her falsely flaxen hair, which she had fashioned into an elaborate twist once a week at the beauty salon. (Imagine Tippy Hedron in “The Birds,” with a little more height and perhaps a seashell sprayed a pastel hue adorning it, for good measure.) There were the forties style negligles, inappropriate for someone—anyone—whose girdle turned her midsection into a drum. There were the tottery high heels, the languid gestures, and the sugary, sweet southern drawl—almost baby talk—that became throatier and quite adult when she was angry.

And she was, often, angry. There were the tantrums, reserved for her hapless, amiable husbands, but earlier in her life, aimed at my mother, her daughter, who still could not forgive her. And there was the time she’d called our house, after my brother died, wanting to know the dates of his birth and death so she could play the lottery. That incident had been the most personal for me. At fourteen, I still didn’t always know when adults were within their rights, behavior-wise. This, I knew, was over the line.

But still. I liked her. Or was fascinated by her. Or both. She may, admittedly, have been hard to love, but it was hard to look away from her, too. Until she died, I’d been content enough to relegate her to the category of family joke, which was the way everyone else—everyone being my parents, and when he was alive, my brother—liked it. Mention of her name could always elicit an eye-roll and a good anecdote. But, too late, I wanted to understand her. Who she was, or rather why she was the way she was.

She’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only three months earlier. It had all happened so fast that I’d never really got to spend time with her to really understand who she was, or what her life had really been like. Once, perhaps tellingly, she’d sent us a clay sculpture of a boat, about a foot in length. In it, twisted in paroxysms of agony that bring Dante’s Inferno to mind, were seated a series of tiny figures in front of equally tiny oars. The name of the piece: “We’re all in this boat together.”

I’d always wondered what the boat looked like from her point of view. Now it seemed I’d never know.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

An interesting quote on place.....

"Americans are woefully ignorant of geography and of place—ignorant, that is, of the natural and humanly constructed worlds that have nurtured us, inspired us, and, sad to say, too often frustrated us. It is hard to imagine concretely how we can envisage the good life (the humane life), and plan for the future, unless we have some clear idea as to the sort of places that we wish to exist."

Yi-Fu Tuan, geographer

Do you think anyone thinks about this kind of thing when a new building gets approved? I'm thinking of the zillions of high end rental apartments that are going up in NYC (although I guess some are going to stall, mid-way, due to the financial crisis). The only people who can afford these places, or would rent, rather than buy, at these prices, are those who are temporarily here to make a lot of money on Wall Street. (Though, whoops, jobs are scarce there now, too.) It makes me think that no one thinks--or cares, maybe--about what kind of place they want New York to be. All the artists, the people who give this place its reputation for creativity and uniqueness, are moving out...they can't afford to live here anymore.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Cute...but will people stop?

New signs for DeRidder...One of the donors who paid for one of the four new signs says he thinks it might make people decide to stop in and take a look. What do you think?

Finally buried....

Eighty-five bodies of victims of hurricane Katrina were finally buried, thanks to Funeral Services Foundation. What an appalling and amazing story.

Got a gun you'd like to swap for that tuba?

Just try imagining this anywhere else.

Thoughts on the psychology of place

“I turned, at that point, to John Bowlby, known principally for his work on the mother-child attachment, but who also had seminal insights into the relationships between people and their near environments. Bowlby thought this near environment so important, he called it ‘an outer ring of homeostatic mechanisms,’ as important to life support as the physiological homeostasis inside the human body. In Bowlby’s terms, this near environment was an important object of attachment.”

-from The House of Joshua, by Mindy Thompson Fullilove

Mindy was one of my professors and mentors (my only mentor, really) when I was getting my MPH at Columbia. She’s probably the most original thinker I’ve ever encountered. When I went to her classes, I used to silently pray for my fellow classmates to stop yammering…because it was so much more interesting to hear Mindy talk. (They never did. Oh well.)

Anyway, I didn’t have Mindy or her work on the psychology of place in mind when I started noodling around with the Louisiana idea, but somehow all roads seem to lead back to her. I’m totally fascinated with her comment, above, which appeared in her first book, The House of Joshua, in which she explores the place stories of her own family.

Her later work has focused a lot on urban renewal and the physical displacement of African American communities, and the destruction that wrought—psychologically and physically—on these people and their descendents. More recently she’s been drawn into stories like the post-911 mess, which she called “an attack upon the landscape,” and Hurricane Katrina.

But I digress. John Bowlby was a British psychologist who among the first to get the field away from notions of Freudian fantasies and talk about relationships as the foundation for who we are. I read and thought a lot about his work when I was working on The Empty Room, because I was interested in the notion of siblings as attachment figures. (I believe they are, but Bowlby and most psychologists since still focus on the mother-child bond. Wrongly, I think—but that’s another story entirely.)

Bowlby’s idea, in a very small nutshell: Secure, stable parents and secure stable bonds create secure stable “attached” kids. Anxious, depressed parents create the opposite kind of parent-child bonds and poorly attached kids.

But what if we extend the figure of attachment to include a place—the home where you grew up, the hometown where you grew up? What happens to you—emotionally, and in terms of your identity-- if you move away or they get destroyed? What happens if your environment is unstable?

It’s interesting, when you start thinking about how mobile our society is….And when you start thinking about next generations, and “homes” in generic suburbs that sprang out of nothing…what impact does the moving, the loss of ancestral environments and growing up in placeless suburbs have on us?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Placeless, U.S.A.

My mother grew up in DeRidder, Louisiana. Her childhood was full of sweltering summers and southern food. Radios played country music. Fig trees grew in her backyard, and hens—which often wound up as dinner—clucked around there, too. (She still shudders at the memory of her grandmother wringing their necks.)

Saturdays she walked ten minutes to “downtown,” where they had TWO movie theaters, and, for the price of less than a quarter, watched a double feature—a western and a Hollywood flick—as well as cartoons. She knew just about everyone in town, and they knew her. (One of her elementary school teachers became known to her, forevermore, as “Aunt Esther.”)

She lived with her grandmother and grandfather, in a boarding house my grandmother bought with the insurance money from her first husband’s death in a lumber mill accident. My mother’s mother, Aurelia, had divorced my mother’s father when my mother was still an infant, and gone off to nursing school in New Orleans, and from there to make a life for herself. A child didn’t fit in too well with that plan, so my mother stayed behind in DeRidder.

When my mother was 16, Aurelia re-married and sent for my mother. It was a difficult move, partly because Aurelia was difficult. But my mother went off to college a couple of years later, anyway. She went to William and Mary, where she met my father, a New Yorker. They got married after graduation and eventually settled in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of D.C. That’s where I was born and raised.

Bethesda was rich in…what? Roads. Roads that led to more roads and strip malls laced with donut shops and grocery stores and aerobics studios. And big indoor malls featuring generic stores like The Gap and Bloomingdales and food courts. And houses that looked alike. All the houses on our block looked just like one another. Cookie cutters, my mother used to say. Every once in awhile, someone would do something different—like put a deck on. But before long, everyone else would admire the improvement and do it, too (they already knew how it was going to look). Sameness begot sameness, it seemed.

We lived there because it was close to the hospital where my father, a doctor, worked, and where my brother was later hospitalized.

There was no local food. No local music. No local culture. No one, aside from the people on the block, would know you by name. It was a place, like most suburbs, that had grown up out of convenience and necessity. People who worked in D.C. needed an affordable and relatively close place to live.

But it’s finally occurred to me that growing up in placeless place like this might be one reason I pine so much for Louisiana, which seems like a REAL place. When my parents finally sold the house in Bethesda, in fact, I could have cared less. What was there to hang onto? The houses were still the same on our block, but the people had shifted—the older ones, who didn’t need close proximity to D.C. or public school, had passed the torch (and their houses) on to a new generation of young families.

I had already moved to New York, a place rich in sense of place. But the thing about New York is that there are two kinds of people here—natives, and those of us drawn here from another part of the country for one reason or another. And after the thrill of adopting the city wears off a bit, that non-native status does eventually beg the question: What am I? In my case, the most accurate answer would be that I’m a native Bethesdan. But that thought leaves me absolutely empty. I don’t think so. I think there’s a void where my roots should be.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Trouble the Water

Wow. Just got back from the documentary “Trouble the Water,” which tells the story of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the 9th ward, largely from the perspective of ward resident Kim Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott.

From what I gather from hearing her interviewed, she’d acquired a video camera, which was probably hot, the week before the storm. She and her husband and a handful of neighbors stayed behind during the storm because they couldn’t afford to leave. You watch as Roberts roams her neighborhood, taking before shots, and then the rain starts, ultimately you see what they saw from their attic---a torrent of water running through the streets, rising up through their houses. There are literally waves in the water.

They make their way out, and at some point must meet up with the directors of the movie, who decide it would be smart—and it is—to follow the Roberts as they navigate their lives post-Katrina. It’s artful and stunning and upsetting and inspiring. That the film makers happened to stumble upon this couple, who would have just been sweaty faces in the crowd of the T.V. footage we all saw from afar, was such a gift. They are uneducated. They sold drugs to get by in their pre-Katrina lives. They are also insightful, funny, warm, thoughtful and heroic in their drive to move forward and to help those around them.

The movie ends showing footage of the 9th ward, still devastated, a year after Katrina. Meanwhile, the downtown of New Orleans, the touristy part, is going strong. No one seems to care about the people who made the wider environs of New Orleans their home. You have to try hard not to feel outraged for these people.

A special bonus of this film: Music by Kim Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rap artist. This woman has a knack for storytelling. One of her songs is called “Amazing.” It starts “You don’t have to tell me that I’m amazing.” It’s nice that she doesn’t need to hear it, but she is. I hope I’d be as tough, warm and strong if everything I owned and knew were wiped out, and most of the world didn’t seem to care.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why do I care?

Why would you long for a place you weren’t from?

Honestly, I don’t even get why Louisiana has this hold on me. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid, my family rarely made the trek down there to visit the southern relatives. (My brother was hospitalized for 8 years, and traveling meant leaving him—not something anyone was eager to do.)

And save for one adventurous aunt, my Louisiana relatives weren’t much into traveling. I can count the number of times we visited—us there, them up here—without exceeding the digits on two hands. And my mom never really talked about her relatives, or growing up there, much. In fact, there wasn’t much evidence of this piece of my family heritage in my life at all.

Once, as a kid, I remember lying in my usual spot in front of the TV—probably watching Star Trek—when my mom appeared at the top of the stairs, holding something out to me. She’d been frying bacon for dinner, and on impulse, had fried a piece of bread in the bacon fat left behind. It was, she said, a taste from her childhood. She seemed pleased with herself. But it’s the only time I ever remember her making any food related to Louisiana.

My father’s family food—Italian American fare—dominated our table. And I always identified with my father’s family growing up. It was cool to be Italian. In fact, I always wished we were more Italian, somehow. That we spoke it, or could claim closer ties to the homeland than we did. (It was my great-grandparents who came over…and no one kept in touch with the family that stayed in Italy.)

But still, we knew were the family was from, there were signature dishes, the recipes for which were passed around the relatives, with much arguing over who did them best.

In contrast, my Louisiana heritage always seemed vague and fragmented, hard to get a handle on. Ask my mother what we were, on her side, and she’d rattle of a distressingly long list of possibilities—English, Irish, Scottish, French. It was all very vague and unsatisfying. Nothing you could glom onto, like Italian. Nothing that could allow you to say “this is what I am” or “I’m half this.”

Maybe that’s what’s bugging me. I’m missing a piece of my identity. I’m only half Italian. What’s the rest of me? Whatever it is, even if it’s an amalgam of ethnicities, the key to piecing it together is Louisiana, where they were all forged together.

It has occurred to me to wonder why I care so much about this. There are plenty of people, all around me, with similar stories, who don’t seem to pine, as I do, for their roots in this way. The way I feel reminds me of the way people who are adopted seem to search for their parents, and through them a piece of their own identity. I don’t put my situation on par with theirs. But I do seem to need to connect, more than most, with this piece of my geographic identity.

It makes me think of the X-Files, and that slogan that followed Mulder around “I want to believe.” Except in my case, it’s “I want to belong.” But in a place like Louisiana, I’m not sure that’s possible, as an outsider. And there’s no denying that, despite the entrée of my mom’s origins, that’s what I am.

Monday, July 21, 2008


In my family, names are…flexible. I don’t know if it’s a southern thing (that’s what I’m trying to find out, right?) but it sure seems that way.

Here’s the run-down:

My great-grandmother, Phareby Anne, went by Anne, but was known around town in DeRidder as Miss Annie, and by my mother as Mama Anne.

Mama Anne’s daughter, my grandmother, started out life as Arilla but later changed it to Aurelia.

Mama Anne’s son, William LaRue, went by LaRue, but everyone called him Brother. He had a daughter, Linda, who, as far as I know, still goes by Linda. But LaRue’s son, Calvin, goes by Bubba.

Linda’s son, who went by his middle name, Len, for most of his early life, later decided he preferred his first name, Jeremy, better. As a kid, I thought his name was Lynne—because that’s how it sounded colored by my relatives’ southern accents. (I thought it was odd he had a girl’s name, but thought, you know, the south is different.) It wasn’t until I received a letter from him, when I was in my mid-twenties, that I realized it was actually Len. But by that time, he was Jeremy, anyway.

Mama Anne’s second husband, Roy Marshall, was known around town as Mate (sounds like Moddy). My mother called him Mate Dear (see my post of 7/18 for the back-story on that one).

My mom goes by her given name, Mary Kay, though she is prone to playing with it a bit…Mary K. instead of Kay written out.

Honestly, it’s like trying to keep up with all the name variations in War and Peace.

The funny thing is that my mother always militantly protected my name, and just about killed anyone who Liz-d or Beth-d me. And she insisted that I enforce full pronunciation, too. It’s ironic, really. I guess she knew—better than I—that you have to protect a name if you want to hold on to it.

Small town McDonalds…

Okay, we hear a lot about how chains have ruined small towns. (It’s one reason my mother says she loathes Wal-Mart.) But here’s a nice story about a chain in a small town.

Brother, my mom’s uncle, lived in Oakdale, a small town about 40 minutes away from DeRidder. (He moved there from DeRidder to open an auto parts store.) Every morning, Brother met his buddies for coffee. And they met at the most convenient spot: McDonalds.

When I think McDonalds, I think anonymous, good but bad cheap food, and not a whole lot of warmth from those behind the counter. But I guess it’s different in small towns. Or maybe it’s different in small towns in the south.

They are definitely friendly down there. One visit, en route to DeRidder, Paul and I were leaving a Specialty Meats store in Eunice, where we’d just bought a pound of boudin we were intent on devouring in the parking lot, when the old guy who owned the store popped his head out the screen door and said his wife had just put on a fresh pot of coffee, did we want a cup?

Anyway, I guess Brother and his buddies must have decided they preferred mugs to Styrofoam cups. So they started bringing them. And somehow, this evolved to the folks at McDonalds keeping their mugs there for them, at the ready, behind the counter.

After Brother died of heart failure, in 1998, one of my idle thoughts was: I wonder what they did with his mug?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Memory of my first trip (or the first one I remember) to DeRidder….

I am, perhaps, three… I remember standing up in the backseat of a car, facing backwards, peering out the back window. All I see is a long ribbon of road lined by pine trees on either side. This view goes on and on and on.

It is on this trip—I think—that the family buries Mate (pronounced Moddy) Dear, my great-grandmother’s second husband, and the man who helped raise my mother. His real name was Roy Marshall, and he worked for the bus company. The story goes that it was my mother, a toddler fond of playing in the front yard, who first struck up an acquaintance with Moddy Dear as he passed by on his way to and from work.

It was also my mother who came up with the name Mate Dear. First she called him Middy Moddy (Mister Marshall)…which eventually morphed into Mate Dear. So my mother was raised by Mama Anne (her grandmother) and Mate Dear. And she called her uncle, LaRue, Brother.

In my mind’s eye, I have a glimmer of memory from this trip that can’t be true…I see Mate Dear lying in state in a funeral parlor. There are rows of folding wooden chairs in front of me, some inhabited by people. People also mill around in front of his coffin.

The part that can’t be true is that I recall seeing him through a clear glass coffin…I see his profile. Maybe his coffin was open, and my neurons have re-shaped the memory in different form.

At another point that day, I recall standing in a backroom of the funeral parlor…There is a red Coca-Cola vending machine against one wall. Across from it, two adults whose faces I don’t remember (but they seem old to me) are stooped down talking to me in that way that adults talk to toddlers…high pitched voices, making a little fun of you. (Do adults realize how often they make jokes at kid’s expense?)

The funny thing is that, years later, when we go to bury Aurelia, my mother’s mother, I notice the same view alongside the road—miles and miles of piney woods. Turns out this is lumber country. Or was, before the lumber companies took it all and split. I also suddenly realize that Aurelia is laid out in the same funeral home Mate Dear was. In fact, the back room and the Coca Cola machine are still there.

My mother and I sit back there, at a table with old family friends, reminiscing. At least my mother reminisces. At one point, my mother asks Aunt Esther (who is not her aunt, but was once her elementary school teacher) about someone she used to know. Aunt Esther says, “Oh honey, he’s died a thousand times.” Just flips that line off, like it’s nothing. I am both awed, and crushed…crushed because that kind of language will never come naturally to me. I am a northerner. Damn.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Long Hot Summer

Back when I was maybe ten I was sitting in front of the television set, flipping channels, when I came across a movie called “The Long Hot Summer.” Normally, I’d watch an “adult” film, i.e. one of the non-“Pink Panther” oeuvre, for about three seconds before changing the channel. But this time, I hesitated.

In fact, I ended up watching the whole movie, and loved it. I remember thinking, “Wow, I watched a whole adult movie.” I also remember thinking Paul Newman was hot. (And having just caught another glimpse of him in this movie, gratis of Netflix, I have to say I still think so.)

Recently, while digging up information on the various family-relevant locales in Louisiana, I discovered that the movie was filmed on location in Clinton, Louisiana, which happens to be where my mother owns some land she inherited from her stepfather, Jimmy. Jimmy inherited it on his mother’s side, I think. They were Lauves. And I believe they were French.

Clinton is apparently a legal center--lots of lawyers, a famous courthouse—and filmmakers like it. (More recently “The Dukes of Hazards” –retch—featured a scene shot there.) Paul and I have a fantasy about building a house on the land. But I’ve never seen it. We’ve been dying to get down and take a look. (My mother tells me I’m going to be sorely disappointed. We’ll see.)

So it was amusing to realize that A) I had seen it, though Paul Newman probably eclipsed the town’s beauty at the time and B) I can see it again, any time I feel like stoking up Netflix’s instant watch feature. (Love it.) This time, though, I may be mentally urging Paul Newman to get out of the way, so I can get a better look at the town square.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Good Doctor

A couple of years ago Paul and I went to Deridder, Louisiana, my mother’s home town, to check it out. I’d been there before, but not in years. We stayed with Gretchen, Brother’s best friend. (Brother, who died in the late 90’s, was my mom’s uncle. She always called him Brother…and thus, so did I.)

Gretchen lives in the house in which she was born, on a Christmas day eighty-something (I’m guessing) years ago. It’s a pretty, three bedroom white house raised a bit, off the ground. Her parents put a bow on her and put her under the tree and “gave” her to her older brother as a present—an introduction that she says set the tone for their future relationship.

One morning we sat at her kitchen table, eating boudin, and she told us a bit about her family, including her father, who’d died when she was growing up. It seemed he’d had stomach problems for a long time. What they were she wasn’t clear on, except that he became something of an invalid.

At one point, they took him to the doctor in Lake Charles. Lake Charles is an hour away and right near the Texas border. For those in towns like DeRidder, it was big city—where you went shopping for school clothes, and went to see the doctor, if you had something serious the local guy couldn’t handle.

It was decided that Gretchen’s father needed surgery. And the man for it, the best guy in the state, rumor had it, was a young surgeon, a Lake Charles boy, who was lightning fast-- his speed on the table, it was rumored, resulted in fewer complications and infections.

The surgeon was Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famous heart surgeon, who died July 11th at the age of 99. I guess the Lake Charles boy was doing all kinds of operations way back when. Small world.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Flashback: August 26, 2005…

I am trying my best to spend the day baking by the pool in the tropical gardens of the Key West B&B I checked into yesterday. But I can’t focus on my book-- Hemingway, in honor of his one time residence here. Nor can I simply lounge and marvel at the bananas and coconuts growing over my head. Instead, I keep climbing the wooden stairs that lead to my porch and my room, racing to close the door on the resident and aptly named cat, Meanie, who has a habit of bolting into guest rooms uninvited.

The draw is not the darkened room, a shock after the searing brightness outside. (Outside, when I close my eyes, I can see the blood vessels in my eyelids.) Nor is it the A.C., which is huffing along on high, turning the room into an ice box and making me shiver in my damp bathing suit. It’s CNN, which is broadcasting around-the-clock coverage of hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wreaked in New Orleans.

I’d woken to the news that the storm hadn’t been as bad as expected. But over the course of the day it had become clear to everyone—most of all to the residents of New Orleans—that we’d exhaled too early. Water from Lake Ponchetrain, which had been separated by the city by poorly constructed levees, was seeping into the city, submerging it. Footage of people stranded on houses, of people stuck at hotels and convention centers, of stranded cats and dogs, kept spooling, endlessly, on my T.V. set. I’m sure everyone watching was horrified. But I liked to think that it was more personal for me.

My mother is from Louisiana. Not New Orleans, though. She’s from the western-most part of the state, an area peopled not by those of French or Cajun descent, but, as my mother once put it, “farmers, white trash, and lumbermen.” It’s not considered the most interesting part of the state. At least not compared to New Orleans and Cajun country. (Who could compete with that?) Which is why, when I tell people that my mother is from there, I usually delete the details of where she’s from. I like the fact that people attribute all that cool Cajun stuff—the food, the eccentricities (thank you, Emeril)—to me.

But the truth is, the worst thing that happens to the people where my mother is from, weather-wise, tends to be the stifling summer heat and humidity and the occasional tornado, a side effect of the hurricanes that afflict the coastal regions. And the only Cajun I know of in the family was my great uncle LaRue’s wife, Corinne, who was the one who used to whip up batch after batch of gumbo (chicken, squirrel, okra), and make us drive an hour away for the best boudin, a Cajun sausage stuffed with pork liver, spices and rice, though there were closer places that made it.

Corinne is dead now. Heart attack. Ditto for LaRue. LaRue’s sister, my grandmother, Aurelia, is also long gone, though she fled Louisiana for other zones decades ago, anyway. LaRue’s cousin, Bates, is also dead. As are most of the relatives my mother remembers. There is little holding me to this place, this state. And none of it is in New Orleans. But, watching the footage on T.V. that August day, I want to feel tethered to it. I want it to be my home.

On 9/11 and the days following it, I got tons of calls from friends and acquaintances I hadn’t heard from in years. My guess, then, was that they were trying to connect with someone who lived in New York, trying to find a concrete emotional connection to the tragedy. A way in. People, I reasoned, felt like it had happened to them, too, but they were so far removed to feel entitled to the pain. That’s why they needed me, a legitimate link. I suspect that was part of what was going on with me. I wanted to feel entitled to the pain I felt as I watched those poor people wading through water that just had to be—though CNN never mentioned it—loaded with alligators and snakes and God knows what else.

But the truth was, that day, that event, just crystallized something I’d always felt about Louisiana—a place that was, and was not, mine.