A Sea of Silver

braceletIt’s a thin bangle of sterling silver bearing a sliding charm, simple and low-profile like much of my jewelry. Etched into the silver charm shaped as a heraldic shield is a mighty ship, sails billowing in the wind. The bracelet, made by a popular
and trendy company, is called Steady Vessel: Journey/Fortune/Change. The card that accompanied the bracelet states, “Vessels are associated with discovery and fortune. Fortune awaits you. Set sail for life’s treasures.”

This was my Christmas present from my older daughter, who is my first of life’s treasures. How well she knows me and my love of water. On her Christmas card, she wrote that this bracelet was to remind me of all our times across the sea, our two years living abroad as a family when she was in middle school, and of all of my times on the bayou, because I was born and raised in southeast Louisiana with the Mississippi River for a back yard and the bayous leading to the Gulf of Mexico for a front yard.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the water, whether being in it, being on it, or just viewing it. Whether perched atop the levee of the Mississippi River on my first stop whenever I returned home or high above the Atlantic Ocean on my first trip to Europe at the age of 16, I have been filled with peace and inspiration whenever I am near the water. For several years, I rode the ferry to the old courthouse in Plaquemines Parish for my summer job working in the Clerk of Court’s office. I’ve taken an overnight ferry from Italy to Greece, and I’ve taken the Cape May ferry from Delaware to New Jersey. I’ve been on oyster boats, shrimp boats, deep sea fishing boats, whale-watching boats, and two cruise ships. And, near the end of each school year, I board an ancient skipjack and sail out of the port of Baltimore for a hands-on science field trip with my 8th graders.

This past fall on my 60th birthday, I paused to reflect upon my many blessings: a lifetime of satisfying work in two different careers; 27 years of marriage to my best friend and soulmate; raising two strong, independent, intelligent, and talented young women; and an enduring foundation of faith passed on to me by my parents. Undaunted by the notion of starting my 7th decade of life, I look forward to what the future holds in store. As I slip on this little sea of silver each morning, I find great inspiration in the symbolism of this bracelet, for I am the steady vessel, sailing ahead into the wind, looking forward to my next journey, my next fortune, my next change.

To sleep, perchance to dream . . .

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2002 Pulitzer Prize, Spot News Photography, Steve Ludlum, New York Times

On the morning of September 11, 2001, before all Hell broke loose, I was at my desk working on a lease agreement for a tenant moving into one of the shopping centers managed by the company where I worked. As I worked, writing and editing legal language to insert into the document, I could hear people talking about an accident. We had an open office environment, and while I was enclosed in a cubicle, it had no ceiling or door. I was used to tuning out, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, the conversations of my co-workers. I could hear talk of a plane crashing into a building in NYC. Voices around me became more and more agitated, however, so I got up to investigate what was going on. Within minutes, no one was working; everyone was congregating in the hallways or hovering over someone’s shoulder as they frantically searched the internet for the latest news. Someone shouted that the big screen projector in the board room was showing live feed from CNN so I rushed there. As I entered the board room, the second plane was hitting the second building. Then I heard that a truck bomb had crashed into the State Department, one of the many horrific examples of misinformation from that day among the many horrific examples of actual true information. Two planes crashing in NYC is one thing, but a truck bomb at the State Department meant that it had struck closer to home, so I ran back to my cubicle, grabbed my purse, and ran to my car. I had three goals as I tore out of the parking lot: pick up my daughters from school, make contact with my husband,  and call my parents.

There was no traffic yet but it took me many, many tries to get through to my husband on my cell phone, who only said, “I’m okay, gotta go,” and many, many more tries to get to my parents. My mother informed me that they were about to get on the Mississippi River Bridge in New Orleans, heading to a doctor’s appointment. I told them to pull over and not get on the bridge, and to turn around and go home. Was whatever was happening going on in other major cities? NYC and DC, perhaps New Orleans, too?

I was among the first of parents arriving at my daughters’ school, as I was only three miles away. I went immediately to the office where the school secretary told me, “Just wait here, the principal is speaking to the middle school students. We’ll get your girls in a minute.” No questions asked, she knew I was there to pick them up and get them home where I hoped we would all be safe from whatever was going on.

In the car I explained to them the basics, which was all I really knew at that point: two planes had crashed into two buildings in NYC, and there were all sorts of stories of bad things happening elsewhere, including in DC. Once home, I told them no TV but they could watch a Disney movie or go to the den to play. They were 11 and 9 at the time, and they did as I asked. I had planned to make lasagna for dinner that night so I decided I would go ahead and do that while I waited for further news from my husband. At this point it was virtually impossible to get through to anyone on the phone, landline or mobile. Being in the kitchen, making lasagna, gave me something to do.

As I finished up the lasagna and popped it in the oven, my husband got home. He told me what he knew, and we watched the news for a bit. At that point, the Pentagon had already been attacked, and the plane heading back to DC had crashed in Pennsylvania. A wave of fatigue swept over me, and I literally felt as though I might just collapse. So, I went to bed. I set the timer for the lasagna, told my husband to take it out when it was done, and I fell into a deep, deep sleep.

roy blanchard napping

My dad and one of his famous naps in 1990, Mozart keeping watch

For me, going to sleep in the face of such tragedy and chaos was not new. On November 22, 1963, I was in the second grade. Sometime just after lunch, there was a knock on my classroom door. My teacher went to the door and spoke to someone in the hall. When she came back into our classroom, she looked upset. She told us to put our heads down on our desks and sit silently until she told us we could sit back up. So, we did just that. Eventually, one by one, we were called out into the hallway, to be collected by our mothers, who had rushed to the school as soon as the news had been broadcast that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

kennedy assassination

Photograph by Justin Newman

In the car, she explained to me that the president had died. When we got home, just a very short car ride from my school to my house, she had me write a note to Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, telling her I was so sorry that her daddy had died. Then, my mother told me to go and take a nap. As a second grader, I was really past taking afternoon naps, but the strange events at school and being picked up early, along with the sad news about the president and writing the sympathy note, had made me very tired. So I went to sleep, and slept until dinner time.

Hurricane Katrina

Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Growing up in southeast Louisiana, hurricane season was a familiar evil. From June 1st to November 30th of each year, my father carefully watched the news and tracked any storms developing in the Atlantic Ocean. He was an expert at predicting whether they were a real threat or not, and subsequently whether we would need to evacuate or not. In August of 2005, he was very, very concerned about Hurricane Katrina. As the storm developed and grew stronger, we talked many times on the telephone about it. He knew it was going to be a bad one and began making plans where to take my mother, who was not well. Not New Orleans, not Baton Rouge, as they would normally go to my aunt’s house in the state’s capital, but this time to Houston, Texas.

With the enormity of this storm, all news stations covered it extensively.  And, as my father had predicted, along with nearly everyone else in southeast Louisiana, it was bad. The levee had broken north of my hometown, allowing the mighty Mississippi River free “reign” over Port Sulphur and the surrounding towns. My brother broke the bad news to my parents, the sheriff’s office had been down the road and there was nothing left in my hometown, except the Catholic church, which had been gutted by the storm waters, but the structure was still standing. My parents were devastated, and my poor mother, unwell and depressed, could not even tell me where she was staying in Houston. I finally got out of her that it was a motel with a foreign name starting with l-a-q. Eventually I figured out it was a La Quinta Inn in the Woodlands, a development in a Houston suburb.

PS after Katrina

Port Sulphur after Katrina. Photo by Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Aviation Weather Center, et al

Slowly the news began to sink in, that my hometown was gone, my parents’ home and all their belongings, except for whatever they had managed to pack in their car before evacuating, were all gone, every school I had ever attended was gone, and the homes of all my childhood friends, the sites of many birthday parties and sleepovers, all gone. The final straw was several days later my mother saying that she had gone into the bathroom and sat on the toilet to cry, after discovering that she had brought pantsuits with tops and bottoms that did not match, and one each of several pairs of shoes. She was a homeless person without even a matching pair of shoes. I felt so helpless and exhausted that I just went to bed.

Not all of these stress-induced naps have been over death or destruction. In 1990, my husband and I had our first child, a beautiful angel of a daughter named Margaret after my mother and Bellavia after my mother-in-law. It had been a difficult climax to an otherwise easy pregnancy. I had gone in for my weekly appointment during my ninth month and my blood pressure was extremely high. It was a Monday afternoon and my parents were flying in that night to be with us for the birth of their first grandchild. My OBGYN wanted to admit me right away but I explained the situation to her and she allowed me to go home provided I went right to bed and lay on my left side until morning, when I would be admitted and induced. We got to the hospital at 7:00 AM as instructed, and by 10:00 I was in a room with a dripping IV full of Pitocin. Absolutely nothing happened all day. Finally, in the late afternoon they changed the bag, and I started experiencing labor pains. By 9:00 PM, fourteen hours after being admitted, I was dilated ten centimeters and began to push. No baby, no progress. After three hours, my OBGYN decided it was time for a C-section, so off I went for an epidural, the one thing I was terrified of and had rejected when the labor pains had worsened earlier in the day. Just after midnight, our sweetly sleeping baby girl was brought into this world without so much as a whimper.

bringing baby home

Proud parents bringing baby home, 1990

Two days later we headed home in the blinding summer morning sunlight to our downtown Bethesda high-rise apartment, to be greeted by my mother handing me a cup of tea and buttered toast. No cup of tea has ever tasted so good, and after having my little snack, I lay down on my bed with my little baby sleeping in her crib nearby, and I fell fast asleep.

palm terrace

Port Sulphur Roundup, 1959, yearbook ad

As a young tot, when my parents could not get me to sleep, my father would bundle me up and take me for a ride down Highway 23 South to see the only neon light in my hometown, a giant palm tree advertising the Palm Terrace Motel owned by Mr. Roy Treadway. Once I saw that palm tree, I would settle down and fall fast asleep on the front seat of my dad’s car. Even today, if I am riding in the car for any length of time, I can put my head back and fall fast asleep. I guess I have my dad to thank for this, because one of the great joys of his life was every afternoon announcing to all, “You know what time it is? It’s naptime!”

evening prayer

Pinterest, Franciscan University of Steubenville

One of my favorite prayers comes from the Compline, the evening prayers of the Catholic Church. At night, after reading for a while, I say my evening prayers as my mother taught me so long ago: Hail Mary, Our Father, Guardian Angel, and Glory Be, and now I end with this simple request for protection while I sleep and rest. Thankfully, sleep has always been a restorative wonder for me, and I thank God for the ability to shut out the stresses of the day. Never having battled insomnia as some of my friends have, I have often thought that the moment I lay my head down on crisp, cool sheets, after a long day, whether it be one of normal work or play, or one of tragedy and chaos, is truly the best time of the day. “To sleep, perchance to dream…”, of a better and brighter day tomorrow.

 

Scent: Message Received

winter storm jonasThanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #Blizzard2016, I had an unexpected “winter break” from teaching, and I must say I have really enjoyed my #snowcation. Sandwiched nicely between my Christmas break and my Easter break, this one came with no expectations of shopping or meal planning. With my six school days I did some school work but mostly did things that I wanted to do, not that I had to do. I finished two knitting projects, crocheted a stack of make-up remover pads for my daughter Margaret who blogs about make-up and fashion, made a large batch of grapefruit orange marmalade, organized my bedside library (if you could see the number of books in my bedroom alone you would also designate this area as a library), did some writing and editing, and read several books.

oliver wendell holmesChris Grabenstein’s new book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, was great. I also read Janet Evanovich’s latest, Tricky Twenty-Two, and even though I am really done with Stephanie Plum and her band of misfit friends and family, for many years I have been reading each of Evanovich’s books as they come out and I just can’t quit on her yet. I am one-third in to Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, and I am hooked already. In fact, I was hooked by the very first sentence:

“These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.”

figI grew up on biscuits, not bagels; I despise Earl Grey tea; and I have no idea what a jar of whole soybeans “turning” in the sun would smell like. So, of that short list of items that Gretchen the protagonist is describing, the only one I can really identify with is the freshly cut figs. My Aunt Helen had a giant fig tree in her backyard and I used to retreat there when my mother would bring us over for a visit. I would literally climb inside the outer ring of larger branches and stand there, all but obscured from view, and eat fig after fig right off the tree. When I see what a small carton of four or five fresh figs cost at a gourmet grocery store here in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars in figs I ate in my childhood.

FigsI can’t bring myself to purchase them no matter how badly I want them these days, because I know deep down that they will not taste as good as the memory of my Aunt Helen’s figs tastes in my mind. I know this because when sniffing the carton of absurdly expensive nuggets, they do not smell like fresh figs pulled off the tree, one after another. And, that doesn’t count the preserved figs I’ve eaten. These are figs that were gently poached whole in simple syrup and then preserved in mason jars, given out to friends and family as casually as though everyone in the world had access to that sort of goodness on a regular basis. Those preserved figs were great plopped on homemade vanilla ice cream or pound cake, but they were just as good, if not better, draped across a slice of buttered toast.

Lewis ThomasThe connection of smell and memory is a powerful one. I was never much of an outdoorsy person but I did love the smell of the honeysuckle growing along the fence in my backyard as a child. I could stand there for hours, pulling the tender strands and sucking off the sweet nectar, one after another. The memory of pulling a satsuma off the tree in my backyard and eating it right there, dropping the peels and pithy stringy bits at my feet, is so powerful I can almost smell it right now, the citrus oils, almost acrid, slightly burning my nose.

Mississippi RiverClimbing up the levee to sit and watch the boats go by on the Mississippi River was a favorite pastime, something I did every time I went home for the weekend from college. I loved looking at the water, the soft waves lapping at the rocks along the bank, the pieces of driftwood floating by, but it is the smell of the Mississippi River that instantly told me I was home.

sulphurMy hometown had a smell all its own as well, although those of us growing up there couldn’t really smell it. You had to be away from it for a while to be able to smell it. Originally Port Sulphur was a town created to house the workers of the Freeport Sulphur Company, the townsite as it was called. With its close proximity to the shipping channel via the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, it was the perfect location to fill tanker ships carrying the liquid sulphur away to foreign lands. When I had friends come for the weekend they all noticed it right away, but to us it just smelled like home. If you aren’t familiar with the smell of sulphur, you can get an idea of it by smelling the yolk of a hard-boiled egg (especially one boiled long enough for the green ring to appear around the yolk) or the tip of a kitchen match just as it starts to burn.

king cakeEveryone knows the smell of freshly baked bread, the earthy smell of yeast turning a bowl of plain flour and water into the bread of your culture, whatever that might be. In Louisiana, that would be French bread, not really a baguette as it has a soft exterior as well as a pillowy interior. It is the platform for po-boys of every kind: fried shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, fried catfish, and more. It is just as good slathered with butter and eaten as is. Add some sugar, eggs, and milk to your bowl of yeast and flour and you get brioche, the bread of kings, Mardi Gras kings that is, the king cake. We have one shipped to us every year, just to get a bit of Mardi Gras here in our home in Maryland. Opening the Fed Ex box and then the Gambino’s box, and then the twist tie on the plastic bag, and wow, the aroma of that still fresh brioche hits your nose like a ton of bricks.

For Italians, the smell of a pot of tomato gravy bubbling away on the stove or a pan of lasagna baking in the oven is the smell of their grandmother, cooking love right there in her kitchen. For me, that would be the smell of a roux. It’s so simple, a roux, just equal parts of flour and fat. Yet, it is the basis of many a Louisiana recipe: First you make a roux. The trick is to cook it very, very slowly, until it simmers into a liquid pool of peanut butter-colored lava. I say lava because if you have ever had a bit of roux splash up on your hand while cooking, you will know exactly what I mean. Outside of cooking caramel (again equal parts of two otherwise benign ingredients, sugar and water), a cooking roux is the hottest substance in a kitchen. holy trinityWhen you add the holy trinity (chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery) to a hot roux, that smell can transport me to the kitchen of my mom, my Aunt Helen, my Uncle Guy’s make-shift kitchen in his grocery store, the kitchens of restaurants all over Louisiana. Both my daughters know that smell and when I am making a gumbo, they come out of their rooms, away from their phones and devices, to stand in the kitchen and smell the smell of a Louisiana they never lived in, a place where they have only visited, a place they only know through family and food.

mom's perfumesPeople have their own individual smells as well. My mother loved perfume and she loved trying them all. A walk through a department store with her meant an interminable amount of time spraying and spritzing one after another. She never wore a lot of perfume at any one time but she wore perfume every day. We all knew her favorites and there was always perfume under the Christmas tree for her. She loved the little sample bottles that came with cosmetic purchases. These miniature bottles became so popular that they started making them to sell as a boxed set. She received several of those as presents and long after she had tired of the perfume inside each one, she kept the bottles on a mirrored tray on her dresser. This collection of little glass memory containers was lovingly bestowed upon my fashionista daughter.

al di laI guess I have my own smell which has changed over the years. Fresh out of college in my first job I found a perfume I loved and wore it for years until the store where I bought it closed. I’ve never been able to find Al Di La since but I still have my last bottle of it. It has a few drops left in it, enough to whisk me back to driving my chocolate brown Ford LTD, a former unmarked police car that was my college graduation present from my parents, windows down, wind blowing my hair, feeling as young and carefree as I actually was at the time. From there I transitioned to many of my mom’s favorites, the Estee Lauder perfumes: Aliage, Estee, Youth Dew, and eventually landing on my all-time favorite, Cinnabar. my perfumesAs a young working mom in a big company, I was told many times my scent announced my visit before my colleagues saw or heard me coming. I never used a lot of perfume at any one time, much like my mom, but the spicy, warm smell of Cinnabar became my signature smell. One of my bosses from that same company announced one day that it was time I find a new scent, and she gave me for Christmas a gift set of Aromatic Elixir by Clinique. I am still wearing that scent to this very day, alternating occasionally with Cinnabar.

Rachel Carson, the environmentalist who wrote Silent Spring, once said,

“For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity that we use it so little.”

cruso quoteThis is so true for me. Today as I opened the little pink box where my daughter keeps those miniature perfume bottles, the smell of my mom enveloped me and brought a lump to my throat. Yes, the image of those little bottles, arranged just so on my mom’s dresser in my parents’ pre-Katrina home, is a strong one, but the soft, powdery smell emanating from that box made me yearn to give her a hug and make her a cup of tea. The smell of a roux cooking will always make me yearn for those simple times of eating a bowl of gumbo at my Aunt Helen’s house or a plate of my mom’s crab stew. These are the smells and scents of my life, each one cataloged and filed away for instant recall at the opening of a bottle or the making of a roux.

Just Around the River Bend

In June of 1995 my older daughter turned five years old and just after her birthday a new Disney movie was released, Pocahontas. She was crazy about that movie. She had Pocahontas pajamas, t-shirts, bathing suit, bed sheets, and that Halloween she was Pocahontas head to toe. Just recently when going through some boxes of old clothes I found the white crew socks that when folded down sported an embroidered image of Pocahontas, complete with “leather” fringe around the cuff. I saved them.

Growing up in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, walking distance from my backyard to the mighty Mississippi River, I am familiar with the term river bend. There are several bends in the river in the area where I grew up. When I would come home from college on the weekends, I would head for one of these bends, park the car, and climb up on the levee to sit and watch the ships go by. I would climb down a bit of the levee so I wasn’t visible, but still safe from danger of the fast-moving currents and rocky shoreline. I always felt like I was home once I had seen the river up close like that.

After college, I chose to stay in my college town and seek employment there. I had lots of friends in that town and compared to my hometown, it felt like city-life. I loved living there and participated in the community in many ways: serving on the parish council at church, singing in the church choir, volunteering on political campaigns, doing service work with the undergraduate members of my sorority, and eventually, becoming very active in the local community theatre troupe. Still, whenever I went home to see my parents, I would head for the levee to sit and stare and smell and feel the Mississippi River rolling past me.

I missed my parents and my brothers, my aunt and uncle, and other relatives in my hometown, but I always felt like whatever it was I was searching for was elsewhere, like Pocahontas sings, “just around the river bend”.

Hurricane Katrina changed everything. My parents lost their home, and my mother lost her will to fight. Katrina struck in 2005 and my mother passed away in 2007. She had fought kidney disease and other illnesses since 1993, but after Katrina, she just gave up. She had lost everything, and found herself starting over in “the apartment” which she said as though it were a four-letter word. In reality it was a duplex, and it was lovely, but it wasn’t hers, it wasn’t home.

And, so, I don’t go to my hometown and sit on the levee and revel in the beauty of the Mississippi River. My dad now lives with my brother about forty miles from our hometown, and he is battling congestive heart failure. This week I have been here with them as my father bounced back and forth between the hospital ER and the rehab facility/nursing home poignantly called River Bend. Pops and grandsonsDriving there to see him, I was struck by the irony of him being there, in a place called river bend, when that term had always brought such warm and happy thoughts to me.

For four days I went to River Bend to sit with him, visit with him, help him sit up for meals and to go to the bathroom, and sometimes, I just sat there while he napped. I saw a lot in four days. I saw nurses and nursing aides treating patients with kindness and compassion. I saw staff smiling and joking with one another and with family members of the residents. I saw clean floors and good medical care being demonstrated. I saw familiar faces of people I from my hometown who were there for a variety of reasons: rehab, recovery from a stroke or hip surgery, and some who had nowhere else to go. I visited with my fourth grade teacher, who was lucid and witty. I visited with the sister-in-law of my first grade teacher, who was still sharp as a tack at the age of 90.

Miss Elsie and me

Miss Elsie and me

I also saw some things there that made me incredibly sad.  Some of those things will stay with me forever, burned into my memory in a way that only that kind of sadness can do.

In the end, we decided to bring my daddy home to my brother’s house for home health care. He was very unhappy at River Bend, mostly because he was out of his element and partially saddened by what he was seeing there. He is very weak and his prognosis is not good, but he is happy to be home in familiar surroundings, with my brother and his gentle giant of a chocolate lab.

My dad napping in his recliner with ever-present Beau napping nearby

My dad napping in his recliner with ever-present Beau napping nearby

After nine days, I had to head back home. As much as I love my daddy and want to be with him, and as much as I want to stay and help my brother take care of him, I have to return to my own family, to my husband and daughters, to my sweet little dog, and to my 7th and 8th grade classroom. Just like Pocahontas, many years ago, I looked beyond the river bend and found my dreams, and it took me far away from Louisiana, far away from my hometown, far away from the mighty Mississippi River.

A Narrow Sliver of Land

Map of Louisiana showing Plaquemines Parish in red

We all have our Proust moments: the singular bite of something that we loved and cherished in our childhood, re-tasted later as an adult, transporting us back in time to a particularly fond memory. Truman Capote, in his semi-autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory”, describes in great detail the food of his childhood in the Deep South during the Great Depression: fried squirrel, biscuits and ham, flapjacks, Christmas fruitcakes. Capote could not hardly write a paragraph without offering a food memory from his past and neither can I.

Just as with Proust and Capote, my childhood memories are also centered on the foods of my youth, and even today, small tastes of certain foods evoke large memories of my life lived on a narrow sliver of land called Plaquemines Parish. I grew up in the small town of Port Sulphur, located 45 miles southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. Originally founded as a sulphur mining town, it became the crown jewel of the “fisherman’s paradise” and home to groves of citrus fruit. Unfortunately, Port Sulphur is now known for something else: the exact spot of landfall of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. And, on that fateful day, I lost my hometown.

turkey and sausage gumo

Turkey and Sausage Gumbo

My mother’s parents emigrated from Scotland in the early 1920’s when my grandfather was hired by the Freeport Sulphur Company. Unfortunately they both died before my mother finished high school so I never had the opportunity to experience “boiled mince”, which is the first dish she cooked for my father as a newlywed. It did not go over well. So, she learned her Louisiana-style dishes from my father’s mother, known affectionately by all as “Mama the Cook”.

red beans and rice

Louisiana Red Beans and Smoked Sausage

Great cooks abound in my family.  I grew up on several different variations of gumbo, my mom’s versus my Aunt Helen’s and later, my brother Tommy’s.  My dad’s stewed chicken melts in your mouth and my brother John Roy fries a mean turkey. We each make our own version of the Louisiana staple, red beans and rice with smoked sausage (mine is pretty good). My cousin Kim’s crawfish maque choux won a local cooking competition. And then there’s the best jambalaya in the world, made by my Uncle Guy’s brother, Joe.

Uncle Guy, whose first language was Cajun French, married my dad’s sister and went into the grocery business with my grandmother.  He cooked every day in the back of his grocery store. When shopping in the store with my mom, I made a beeline dash to the back of the store to see Uncle Guy. He was my godfather, and I was his “Michelangelo”, his nickname for me. He always offered me a taste of what he was cooking. I would ask “what is it?” and he would invariably respond “chicken”. I lapped it up, only discovering much, much later in life that I had been eating goat, snapping turtle, wild duck, goose, alligator, and more. These foods all seem exotic and distant now, but were perfectly ordinary and normal at the time.

I have many fond memories of Friday nights, when we would all meet at my Aunt Helen’s for dinner.  Being Catholic during pre-Vatican II times, we abstained from meat on Fridays all year-long.  Luckily, given the abundance and quality of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, this was not a problem. My Uncle Guy and my dad would go out to the “pit”, a separate building next door to their house that had a great indoor barbeque and a small kitchen, to fry whatever fish he had caught that day at “the cut”, the local fishing hole, usually catfish or redfish, sometimes flounder.  He would also boil shrimp and crabs (as opposed to steaming as is done in the Chesapeake Bay region where I now live), and when the season was right, we had boiled crawfish.  My Aunt Helen had a huge pot of seafood gumbo simmering on the stove in the kitchen, and next to it would be a big pot of white rice.  My mom made potato salad and for my cousin Keith “macaroni salad”, a cold pasta salad of small elbow macaroni, mayonnaise, celery, and pickles, and oddly enough, eaten on saltine crackers.  There would be snacks out, too, normal things like potato chips and French onion dip, but also another Louisiana specialty, shrimp mold, which is a cold shrimp salad made with condensed tomato soup, unflavored gelatin, chopped celery and other seasonings, poured into a ring mold, and then after it has set, eaten as a spread on Ritz crackers.

There were always multiple desserts, the domain of my cousin Penny.  Some of her specialties were red velvet cake, carrot cake, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and usually some crazy cold concoction like “banana split surprise” or some other instant pudding/whipped topping/multiple layered gooey thing.  We often made ice cream: banana, peach, or strawberry, in an old hand-crank machine filled with crushed ice and rock salt, later upgraded to an electric one. My dad’s younger sister, Hilda (affectionately known as Susie), also a stellar cook, would come in from out-of-town laden with goodies such as her specialty, pecan pie. And, if my Aunt Lillian was there, we would have her famous peanut butter fudge, a recipe we all thought went with her to her grave until I found a handwritten copy in an unmarked box of miscellaneous papers after moving 4,000 miles to Waterloo, Belgium.

There were lots of family members but also present were neighbors and outsiders too, people who had been in my Uncle Guy’s grocery store at closing time, or his fishing buddies like my mother’s cousin Duffy or someone I remember calling Uncle David (pronounced the French way to rhyme with “speed”).  We would all sit around the den and eat in stages, eat whatever was ready next and then move on to the next item, never sitting down to a table set with silverware and such.  The boiled seafood was eaten either in the pit or in the garage, on big tables spread with newspaper.  When the steaming pots were dumped on the tables, out would tumble perfectly cooked shrimp, crabs, or crawfish, seasoned to perfection with Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and the “side dishes”, corn on the cob, whole heads of garlic, and new potatoes, all cooked together, truly a one-pot meal.

Extra fridges in the garage or in the “sewing room” held sodas and beers, and everyone just helped themselves.  Of course, most women did not drink beer then, so my Uncle Guy was called upon to make his famous “Old Fashioned” cocktails for Aunt Helen and any of the other ladies who wanted one.  After dinner, there would be homemade orange wine, made from the citrus grown on Uncle Guy’s land, “Songy’s Evergreen”, and cherry bounce, a deadly potent liqueur made by fermenting fresh cherries with bourbon and sugar for several months, usually served over vanilla ice cream or pound cake. Aunt Helen had a large glass jug that sat in a wooden stand which would be rotated daily during the fermenting process. If the top wasn’t removed periodically to release the pressure created by the fermentation process, you were likely to find the walls covered in sweet, sticky, dripping cherry bits, sort of like stumbling upon a homicide scene right out of CSI New Orleans!

After the men were finished cooking in the pit, they would play “pedro”, a card game distinctive for the manner in which the cards were played, by thumping them down hard on the table. I can almost still hear the sound of Uncle Guy’s knuckles hitting the table when he played his card, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a beer in a frosted mug at his elbow, complete with his customary pinch of salt added to the foam.  The men didn’t seem to eat much, other than pieces of fried fish as it came out of the cast iron skillet in the pit while it was cooking.

When the card game was over, and almost everyone was loosened up from the beers and Old Fashioneds, the coffee table was pushed aside, the lights in the den were dimmed, and records were played on the stereo for the grown ups to dance.  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, all were regulars at the Friday night parties.  While this was going on, my mom would give me the “signal” and I would reluctantly go to the kitchen and put the food away, unloading and loading the dishwasher, washing the huge gumbo pot, wiping down the countertops.

shrimp and crab stew

Shrimp and Crab Stew

Life first separated me from my hometown after college, and then more permanently when I moved to Maryland in 1988 for work and for love. But I returned home once a year, husband and babies in tow, for Christmas or Easter or during the summer, to visit family and get a refill of good food and the slow, laid-back lifestyle found only in Louisiana. During those years I made sure to learn the recipes for dishes that instantly transported me back home: the smell of a roux slowly cooking to the color of a copper penny, the smooth creaminess contrasted against the crunch of the celery in shrimp mold, the sweetness of crabmet juxtaposed against the cayenne pepper in crab stew, the irresistible velvety uniqueness of Aunt Lillian’s peanut butter fudge. Unfortunately, I never mastered Uncle Guy’s Old Fashioneds or Aunt Helen’s Cherry Bounce, but my daughters are both well versed in roux-making and beignet-frying, as well as how to determine if fudge has reached the critical soft-ball stage.

I’ve only returned to my hometown twice since Katrina, once in 2006 to see for myself the massive destruction, and then again, for my Aunt Helen’s funeral in 2012. It’s difficult to go back, and there is no one there to go back to. Except for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where I received my sacraments and was married, which miraculously survived Katrina’s violent flooding and high winds, there is no physical sign of my past in Port Sulphur:  my parents’ home, every school I attended, the homes of my childhood friends, my extensive collection of original Barbie dolls and their miniature exotic wardrobes, my yearbooks and mementos from high school, all gone.
As time marches on, and those I love age and leave me, all I have left of my hometown are my cherished Blanchard family recipes and memories like those Friday nights, sweet and poignant now, but taken for granted and viewed as an obligation by a sometimes sullen teenager. Home now means the place where my husband and daughters are . . . but deep down, home will always be that narrow sliver of land sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi and the bayous of southeast Louisiana.