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.