sense of place

by Toni McGee Causey 

I always knew we were close when we got to the silos on highway 190. Tall, white, built to house the predominate crop of rice, their domes gleaming in the sun, they were a sign that we were almost to my paternal grandparents’ home. I thought of the silos as the three soldiers, guarding a gateway to a different place in time. We would have been driving west two or so hours by that point to get to Kinder, Louisiana, (pronounced kender) — just northeast of Lake Charles — all the way from Baton Rouge, where my parents had moved so my dad could find a job.

My very first memory–I think I might have been two or three–is of me sitting in the middle of my grandparents’ living room on the hardwood floor in their small house, the attic fan rattling, dragging in muggy air from the hot spring day outside the screen door. Aunts, uncles, cousins were standing, leaning or seated in stiff ladderback chairs around the perimeter of the room. Most of the ladies wore cotten print dresses and flat shoes; the men had on slacks and short sleeve shirts, and cowboy boots, of course. A few of the men had their dress straw hats propped on their knees. My Paw Paw (for that’s the common term there, Maw Maw and Paw Paw) usually had the nicer chair next to the door. It would be years before I would realize that worn, green, stained-armed, sagging seat, broken-back chair wasn’t a throne.

Hazy cigarette smoke swirled above our heads, sucked into the attic fan and the evening light dappled through the open windows (always with screens to keep out the mosquitoes). Something played in the background, a crackly radio sawing out Cajun music, and the quiet room would ebb and flow with stories. Always the stories. Sometimes, the story tellers would be quiet, somber, sometimes picking up to a lively jaunt. Cajuns thrived on the telling, passing along reminiscences, which in turn, passed along heritage. Tales which gained in fame and embelishments with every incarnation. Cajuns loved good practical jokes, crazy lore, and it was more about the event of telling and hearing the story than the facts, anyway. It was, as my friend Kitty says, the ‘supped up version. And sometimes, in the telling, they would switch over to Cajun if they didn’t want the kids to understand, saddened, though, that they knew the kids wouldn’t understand. Most of us grandkids were far flung from our heritage already.

Like my dad, I was born there, in pure Cajun country. Unlike my dad, I would never know the language, not in its full, rich glory, neither French, nor a corruption of it, but an altered language, spoken still in old cafés with threadbare linoleum and formica countertops in small towns, dim and dusty and far from the interstate. My dad spoke only Cajun until he was in the first grade, when the teachers had been instructed to force all of the kids to speak only English, and stabbed a heritage in its soul without a single blade falling.

I remember spending time in Kinder, sometimes a week in the summer, and exploring the creek in the back, watching the crawfish build their mud huts, "fishing" for them with a piece of bacon tied to a string, running barefoot through grass and always getting stickers embedded in my toes, never wanting to put on shoes in spite of that because the loss of the feel of fresh, cool grass between my toes was a greater loss than the annoyance of the stickers. I remember watching the ceiling fans, listening to the rhythm of the attic fan, and always smelling the dark, loamy aroma of coffee brewed so strong, it practically sat up and had a conversation. I remember my Maw Maw hanging the white sheets on the clothesline that was strung from a post near her back door out toward the edge of the lawn near the creek, and the game we’d make of dodging around them, and the sweet, sunny smell we’d breathe in from them at night, as if they’d absorbed our happiness. I remember the spicy food, the rice with every meal, the constant ribbing and teasing and arguing. I remember the nights so quiet, I’d get up and walk around just to make sure I was still alive. I’d sit on the front porch, listening to the crickets and the croaking bullfrogs and the grunts of other animals not far away, sometimes still seeing fireflies dancing in the dark. I remember the biggest treat was hand-cranked ice-cream, which usually signalled our last night there, and I remember the voices in my dreams.

I haven’t kept the accent, though I fall back into it as soon as I’m around my cousins or friends back there. I haven’t kept as many of the customs, though we do have our own version of a fais do do (party) here every year, with everyone knowing what date and time and if they ever cross my threshold, they have a permanent invitation to return for the party. I haven’t kept as many memories as I wish I had, though I can still see my Paw Paw, strong as ever, approaching the porch and taking off his hat before he entered. My dad told me that since I was the oldest granddaughter and we lived with them at the time, my Paw Paw loved to come in from work and chat with me, only I’d cry as soon as he’d approach. It broke his heart, because apparently, I hung the moon, quite a feat for a two-year-old, but I was always an ovearchiever. And then one day, he took off his hat first (a straw cowboy hat), and I laughed and went straight to him. My dad said that he never had a memory of his father without a hat on prior to that, not once. I have no memories of him wearing one.

I’m usually amused by what people think of when they think of Cajuns, or horrified (may Adam Sandler die of a thousand paper cuts from the atrocity that was Water Boy, and no, I’m not even giving it the courtesy of linking to it… in fact, if you substituted any other ethnic background for that main character in that film, there would have a full-on battle cry of discrimination.)

I digress.

Cajuns are not just about the food and the accent, the fais do do, the playing hard. Yes, the food is important, because it was the social gathering. Yes, it’s spicey, and full of flavors, as befitting a people who had to flee a country and hide out in a land and learn to live off it, best they could, and use what they had to hand. No, we won’t eat everything, though many eat a few things I think are weird. Believe me, we’re pretty freaked out over you eating (drinking?) wheat grass and tofu (which I have yet to understand) or go purely vegan.

Cajuns are stuborn, ornery, argumentative, ornery, muleheaded, ornery, determined, bossy, ornery, and in case I didn’t mention it, ornery. They each are one hundred percent certain they are right, except when they’re not, and it’s your fault they weren’t anyway, so what are you arguing about? At the same time, we’ll work hard to go the extra mile, give whatever needs to be given. I grew up with people who thought it was normal to give whatever they could give and not count it as favors which needed to be repaid. It was just a matter of course that if they needed something in return, it would be done. Part of that came from being a people desperate for survival, clinging to their own cultures and traditions, knowing that to survive, they needed each other as well as their neighbors.

When we’d drive back home to Baton Rouge, the time travel reversed itself as fields fanning out to the side of the car gave way to small towns and industries and then the scary red extremely narrow Old Mississippi River bridge and finally into the suburbs of a city. There was a campaign here not so long ago, and the pithy slogan someone came up with to encourage city pride was, "We are B.R." Each time I’d see that slogan, I’d feel a disconnect, and then I realized, one day, that no, I’m not. I live here, and it’s been my home most of my adult life and the few years I spent in Cajun country shouldn’t have had such a profound lasting imprint.

But it did.

My Louisiana is a place of swamps and rivers and lakes and eating crawfish out at the fishing camp and drifting in a bateau with my dad, fishing early in the morning for the big bream. My Louisiana is a place of flavors and seasonings, a place of coffee and heat, of mosquitoes at sunset and screen doors. It’s a place of hard work, intense play and loyalty beyond life. It’s a place of belly laughs and counting on your neighbor.

And I’m glad it’s mine.

I love stories where I not only get to know the people, but the places they live. I especially love it when I get a sense of the person from what they choose to tell about the place they’re from. So if you would, I’d love it if you chose the place that means the most to you, and tell me a little about it — maybe something that only the locals would understand.

p/s…. winner of the challenges contest in a completely random dawing (I asked the waitress to pick a name out of my empty crawfish tray) is Miri… so Miri, email me at toni [dot] causey [at] gmail [dot] com so we can arrange for your gift certificate.

p/s… I’ll be having another contest at the end of Feb, which will include a Shuck Me, Suck Me, Eat Me Raw t-shirt as well as a gift certificate.

15 thoughts on “sense of place

  1. Catherine

    I live in a community that alternates between charming me and driving me nuts. It’s up in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.

    Scattered amongst the hills and within the township are probably about 5000 people. I’m not quite sure how we all know each others business, but somehow someone always knows something about someone. The surroundings of this town are green and lush pastures, with the odd smattering of virgin rainforest too stubborn to be felled. We’re on a plateau that overlooks the some low hills and then the ocean to the east and to the south a valley with volcanic plugs as mountains, to the west and north are bush and more farmland. It’s usually pretty green because it rains a lot. Or if the rain lets up the mist moves in. The sun does come out though… just sometimes it takes its time.

    This place seems to attract a fairly large number of creative people, and perhaps not coincidently some really eccentric people too. I keep stumbling across people who live here that have earned international reputations in whatever their field is. We have three bookstores and three pubs, which seems fair. Oh and three cafes with good coffee. One of the cafes is a co-operative club, next to the co-op organic food store. At the club a couple of month’s back I watched a sweet man very intensely playing something that looked like two woks joined together. Other nights there is more likely jazz or blues, or something with no name.

    For the most part everyone seems to get on. Although a couple of years ago we had protests in the streets, with people chanting, and drumming or walking behind patchwork banners when a large supermarket chain wanted to build in town. Some people were concerned about the platypus colony that was in the creek near the building site… some didn’t like the idea of a large business impacting on the local shopkeepers. At one stage one man got arrested dressed in a platypus suit when he tried to stop some bulldozers and had his costume confiscated as evidence. The supermarket still got built but most of the town still boycotts it.

    So where I live a lot of people care and don’t mind showing it.

    Reply
  2. Lori G. Armstrong

    WOW, stunning imagery, Toni. Great post 🙂

    Growing up, I spent time on my grandparent’s farm in eastern South Dakota. I had tons of cousins to get into trouble with — I especially liked taking care of the babies. We’d sneak into the cornfield and play hide and seek despite grandpa telling us not to (we stayed out of the pasture with the bulls, however, we weren’t dumb, just curious). We’d play in and around the old farm machinery, make corncob pipes, hollyhock dolls, catch little frogs, shoot gophers, race down the gravel road to the one-room schoolhouse our parents attended, climb trees, build forts in the shelterbelt. Then we’d wash up and come in for supper and we kids — yes, even the boys — had to do the dishes. After that, my grandma — who never had a lick of training — would play the piano and we’d all sing along. Eventually, we kids would all head back outside as the adult males played cards and drank beer, our mothers would tend to the little kids or just sit inside and visit. The glory of that midnight sky astounded me. By then the humidity had cooled, we’d lay in the skunkweed, near the burning barrel and stare up at the stars. If you’ve never seen the stars in a place where there’s no light pollution…there’s nothing like it in the world.

    Although my grandparents are gone now, we still make the pilgrimage to the farm once a year. My kids look forward to it as much as I did. It’s a connection I hope I never lose.

    Reply
  3. J.D. Rhoades

    That was gorgeous, Toni.

    And re: Adam Sandler: I was at the beach one time with some friends and the weather was awful, so were were stuck inside, just us and the booze. A buddy of mine is a big Adam Sandler fan, so when he suggested we put on the DVD of “Happy Gilmore”, I agreed just to be polite. After watching it, I was thinking, Hey, that was a few laughs, maybe Sandler isn’t as bad as I thought.” Then we watched “Water Boy” and I thought, “No. He’s actually worse.” God, that movie sucked ass.

    Reply
  4. toni

    JT, thank you – and great link!

    Catherine, you post as long as a comment as you want – that was wonderful to read. It sounds like a truly wonderful place to live.

    And Lori, wow – here we are, on opposite ends of a country, and growing up in much the same way. Beautifully evocative, thank you!

    Reply
  5. Pammy D

    Hey Toni:

    After that description, I wish I had grown up in Louisiana, Cajun style. Damn you can write, girl!

    Instead – I grew up in the cold outer suburbs of Chicago. The food was bland. (Jello and iceberg lettuce both huge staples. The meat screamed to be let out of the oven for minutes before it finally aquiesed to being cremated-status. And yes, LIVER was on the dinner menu once a week. No getting up from the table before you eat that liver, missy.)

    I had no fun siblings – my only brother was six years older and properly disdainful of his younger sister.

    For fun there was the Lutheran church. And Lutheran Sunday School. And Lutheran Catechism class. Then there was Lutheran Grade School and Junior High. Then Lutheran choir. And Lutheran music lessons, including piano.

    But when I turned five big whole years old, I heard this song that gave me hope. Sustained me for years. Went something like this…

    “When you’re aloneAnd life is making you lonely,You can always go downtownWhen you’re got worries,All the noise and the hurrySeems to help, I know, downtown”

    Oh my god. WHERE was the beacon of solace? I started bouncing on the bad couch, the old couch in the family room, every time this song came on the radio.

    “Don’t hang aroundAnd let your problems surround youThere are movie shows downtown”

    MOVIE SHOWS? We hardly ever got to go to movie shows. Like maybe one a year at the old Tivoli Theatre.

    “Maybe you knowSome little places to go toWhere they never close downtown”

    NEVER CLOSE? How could this be? Everything except the Lutheran church closed early. My couch bouncing became more exuberant and now included arm flailing. (LIttle did I know it at the time but I was gearing up for ‘Aerobics’ in the ‘eighties.)

    “The light are much brighter thereYou can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares so goDowntown where all the lights are bright,Downtown, waitng for you tonightDowntown, you’re gonna be alright now(Downtown, downtown)”

    Okay. Here comes the clincher.

    “And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you,Someone who is just like and needs a gentle hand toGuide them along”

    I was sold. I would find this “Downtown”. I would move there and live in this magical place. And eventually I did. It was called Chicago.

    “Downtown” sung by Petulah Clark, written by Tony Hatch won the Grammy for ‘Best Rock and Roll Recording’ in 1965. In 2003 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

    Thanks for the post, Toni.

    Pammy D

    Reply
  6. Becky

    Toni, I just had to comment on this post. I love it! Growing up in Lake Charles with relatives in both Jennings and Mermentau, I know exactly what you are talking about. By the time I came around there were at least 18 grandchildren that preceded me and my grandmother was not in the best of health. I miss her and I miss home. I’ve been living in Colorado for 3 years now and it in no way compares to Louisiana. Sure there are mountains and snow (no self respecting Louisianian would do anything other than play in the stuff!) but it’s missing the deep-seated culture that is so prevalent in South Louisiana. It’s definitely something that I strive to hang onto as much as possible out here and I share it willingly, though mostly in the form of food!

    Reply
  7. toni

    Thanks Louise. And you posted something longer than I’d have managed on a phone, even an iphone.

    Pammy, girl, you crack me up. (The scary thing is, I can actually hear you singing that.) 😉

    Becky, thanks! One of our sons is also in CO and he does his best to share the culture and the food as well. So glad you visited and enjoyed the description.

    Reply
  8. Robin M

    Hi Toni,

    I stumbled across this post by accident, and I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed reading it so much. I grew up in Baton Rouge too, and I used to visit my grandparents in Thibodaux when I was little. The driving route was different (LA 1), and my grandparents aren’t Cajun, but the general feeling of South Louisiana nostalgia your piece invoked felt very familiar! The Sunshine Bridge was our scary bridge, and instead of rice silos I remember paper mills and a huge refinery for landmarks … I could go on. Thank you for sharing your memories.

    Reply
  9. Miri

    That was really gorgeous. Seriously. I’ve never thought much about Cajun country, but that was a great post.

    And: yay.

    I grew up (well, still am) in the melting pot of melting pots, a town smack in the center of Georgia whose big attraction is an air force base and being a measley two hours away from the Atlanta airport. Ten miles down the street in any direction you’re in the Deep South, with deep-fried accents and everything else (seriously. Twinkies. Who deep fries TWINKIES?), but here, we have people from New York (Mom), Florida (Dad), New Jersey (best friend), Texas (other best friend), every other state, people who’ve lived overseas, people who’re only here for a year or two before being shipped somewhere else.

    Living in this kind of changeable environment (even if we’re rooted here, no one else is), you develop a real sense that everything is temporary. If you don’t like someone, there’s a decent chance they’ll be gone in a year.

    (The chances seemed better that your best friend would move, but hey, it’s all in perspective.)

    Sometimes I feel like my town, with its huge conglomeration of cultures, ceases to have any culture of its own. And there’s only one bookstore. But it’s a nice bookstore, especially on Saturday afternoons, when the Yu-Gi-Oh kids and the other otaku all lurk in the back, surprisingly polite for a bunch of dorks.

    That got long.

    Reply
  10. Zoe Sharp

    Toni – superb. Louisiana is one of the few states I’ve never visited in the US but after reading that, I want to.

    I’m happy to say I’ve never watched an Adam Sandler film in its entirety. I seem to remember seeing him in something dire with Harvey Keitel, who really ought to know better, where Sandler played the son of the devil. Little Nicky, I think it was called. I’m glad to say I never bothered seeing it through to the end.

    But that can’t be as bad as Steve Martin’s remake of the Pink Panther. I nearly walked out of that one – and I was on a plane at the time.

    Reply

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