À bientôt

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, I said my final goodbye to my dad or at least my final goodbye in this life. Being a faithful Catholic, however, I truly believe that I will see him again in eternal life, so perhaps Thursday’s goodbye was merely à bientôt.

Religious items from my father's funeral

Religious items from my father’s funeral

His funeral was beautiful. My brothers and I tried our best to include all the different branches of our extended families. An Irish priest, a longtime friend of the family, in his still thick Irish accent, celebrated the Mass, with another priest concelebrating. My older daughter was the cantor for the parts of the Mass and hymns, and my husband sang the responsorial psalm. My younger daughter, originally scheduled to read the first reading, served as lector reading both readings as my dad’s niece’s laryngitis kept her from doing the second reading. My nephews brought up the gifts, along with my mom’s niece and my parents’ godchild, my dad’s nephew. Pall bearers included my nephews and four men who were all very dear friends of my dad’s. Nearly a hundred people came to the church for the two-hour visitation prior to the funeral, and while there were many tears, there were also many light moments, reminiscing about my father’s legendary storytelling and practical jokes.

At the visitation, a family friend said to me, “Losing a parent is tough, but losing the last parent is something else, something greater.” He was so right. At my mother’s funeral, also beautiful with many family members and close family friends participating, I remember holding on to my dad’s arm. He cried throughout most of the Mass, and after that, he cried every time he went to Mass. He had been devoted to my mother throughout their nearly 53 years of marriage, but particularly so during the last fourteen years of her life, when he cared for her around the clock during many surgeries and medical treatments for heart and kidney disease. We all worried so about him and how he would cope with my mother’s death. The belief that they are together again is of some comfort, but losing him is the final ache in a series of pain that began with Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005.

As readers of my essays will remember, I lost my hometown to Hurricane Katrina, and along with my hometown, my parents lost their home and almost all of their possessions. My mother wasn’t feeling well preceding the mandatory evacuation order and did not pack to the same degree as she had for previous hurricanes. She later told me that she was lying on the sofa directing my father, tense and nervous about the storm, as to what to pack. Later, when unpacking her suitcase in a La Quinta motel room in Houston, she discovered she had mismatched pairs of shoes, pants with no matching tops, and an odd assortment of other items.

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

When news eventually arrived that the house was gone, and by gone, I mean totally gone-its remains were located weeks later on the back levee, broken in pieces-my mother was devastated and really never recovered from that. I recently learned from my mother’s sister, my beloved Nanny Pat, whose gift to my mother of a kidney in 1995 gifted all of us with twelve additional years with her, that my mother had said she really did not want to live through another anniversary of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. She died on August 23, 2007, just days before Katrina’s second anniversary. We all pretty much agree that she just gave up fighting as she had done for so long.

Everything changed after my mother passed away. In October of 2007, just a month and a half later, I realized I would never get another birthday card in the mail from her. My mother (as well as my Nanny Pat, who continues to this day in this family specialty) was a master of correspondence. She wrote to me almost daily during my four years of college, and sent many, many care packages. The contents were usually somewhat odd and I learned to open the care packages in the safety of my dorm room rather than in the student union where I picked up my mail. Once, the small box, heavily armored in scotch tape, contained about a hundred sticks of doublemint gumDoublemint gum (still individually wrapped, but loose, not in packages) and some personal sanitary products.

My mom sent out scores of greeting cards all year round. Hallmark was her favorite store, and no matter how poorly she was feeling, my dad’s offer of a trip to the Hallmark Gold Crown store was sure to perk up her spirits. Naturally, all birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays warranted a card, but so did the minor ones as well: Fourth of July, Halloween; if Hallmark had a card for it, a card was purchased. When family members married, their new spouses were added to the address book, along with their birthdays and special dates. My husband often remarked that he found it so touching, how my mom and my Nanny Pat never ever let his birthday or Father’s Day pass without Hallmark making an appearance in our mailbox.

My dad wasn’t much on correspondence although he would sign his name to any card my mom put in front of him. He was, however, very attached to his cell phone. While he never graduated to a smart phone, he and his flip phone were best friends. He was famous for calling people closest to him several times a day. While my mom’s cousin Anna was still alive in Glasgow, Scotland, he called her frequently. Once he pronounced his initial greeting, he immediately passed the phone to someone else. I will dearly miss talking to him and hearing his familiar “Whatcha doing?” which was always followed by a litany of what he had eaten that day, and sometimes, what he ate the day before. He loved to tell me exactly how he had cooked something. How many times did he tell me how he made his famous smothered chicken? “First, I rinse off the chicken pieces and dry them. Then, I lay them out on aluminum foil and season them with salt and pepper. Next, I brown them on all sides in a big pan with some olive oil. I set them aside and brown thinly sliced onions and bell peppers. When they are nice and soft, I put the chicken back in, add a little water, cover them with foil, and put the pan in the oven for about an hour. It’s so good it will make you slap your momma.”  This was always served with hot white rice and good French bread.

Food has always been an important part of the fabric of our family life. None of us were ever breakfast people, and lunch was usually leftovers or a sandwich (in my father’s case, a “half a sandwich”) but extensive discussions ensued each day about what would be cooked for supper. Most of the meals served at the supper tables of homes in southeast Louisiana need to be started early in the day and simmered for a long period of time. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage or ham needs to cook for hours. My dad’s smothered chicken also involves considerable prep and long, slow cooking. Gumbo is not a dish to throw together after work on a weekday night.

My parents also loved to eat out. My dad would first order his glass of red wine and settle in to study the menu, cover to cover, all the while asking what everyone at the table was going to order. He was always a gracious diner. I don’t think I ever saw him send anything back to the kitchen or complain about a dish served to him. He was not exactly a picky eater, but he was not very adventurous until he quit smoking in 1995. He claimed that his tastes changed after he quit smoking, that food tasted “more alive” and then he really branched out trying all sorts of things that shocked us, like Chinese take-out and delivery pizza. He loved to outsmart anyone at the table who was intent on paying the bill, often handing the waiter his credit card when he placed his order to ensure he would get the bill. The best you could do was to offer to pay the tip, and that was not always something you would win at either.

I feel so fortunate to have spent nine days with my dad in April, helping to get him out of the rehab facility he had been in and get him back home with my brother. My brothers and I worked together to make important health decisions for him. During that time, in spite of the stress and difficult decisions, my dad and I had such a good visit, shared some good meals, and had some nice chats. I was able to tell him thanks for being such a great father, for teaching me so much, for giving me a strong work ethic. None of that made it any easier when the news did come on Friday, May 8th, that he was gone. It is and will be for a long time incredibly hard. À bientôt, mon père, à bientôt.

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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.