The persistence of memory: boiled seafood and family

boiled seafood

I’m headed to visit extended family in my hometown in Louisiana this weekend, and I admit, with no shame, that one of my top priorities is sitting down to a table heaped with hot boiled crawfish and crabs, corn, potatoes, and sausage. My mouth waters for a year in advance between each trip south, especially as I peruse Facebook photos of the ongoing crawfish boils starting in the spring. It’s like looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, but this is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

I don’t remember the first time I tasted boiled seafood, but I know it was probably before I could walk or even talk. To that end, I can’t remember when I first would have truly enjoyed, or looked forward to sitting down to a seafood boil, an essential element to family gatherings back home. I only know how much I’ve craved it and relished it in the years since.

But there is one particular image that sticks in my head and won’t go away: I was a little girl, perhaps about seven or eight, and my parents and I had already moved from Louisiana, so we were in on a visit, probably at Christmas. We are at my grandparents’ house, in their avocado-colored kitchen and avocado dining room (The chairs, the buffet, the bar, the table, the cushions, the carpet, the cabinets, the countertops! All avocado.). My grandfather, Richard, obtained a few dozen crabs, and probably as many pounds of shrimp, and it was all laid out on newspapers. I recall my mother drinking a beer, and at that young age, it seemed surprising. “I like a beer with seafood,” she told me. I wouldn’t understand that until I was of drinking age myself years later.

This is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

There was no music and no commotion; I think it was only a handful of us eating. I remember PawPaw cracking crab claws in a way that produced the most amount of meat, and saving the good ones for me. I remember my tongue and lips burning, and the juice squirting onto my shirt and down my forearms. I hear the small talk at the table, my mom and MawMaw catching up, and PawPaw chiming in here and there, in between crabs. I already knew how to use a butter knife to crack crabs and clean out the meat, and that I dared not to waste any of it, or someone would call me out. I knew to pinch, twist, and pull the tail off the shrimp, and that it’s best dipped in cocktail sauce. I knew the potatoes were a great way to take a break from the spicy meat, but if you didn’t let them cool enough, they too, would burn your tongue.

That evening eating a favorite meal with my grandparents was uneventful, yet momentous. It was simple, yet delicious. And it was fleeting, yet ever-lasting in my mind. Perhaps that was the first time that I truly appreciated the deliciousness of boiled seafood – and the delight in a family tradition. While I have eaten crabs and crawfish and shrimp many times since, and will in the future, that early enduring memory provides nourishment to this day, to my belly, and to my soul.

Ode to my grandfather

My grandfather, Richard Roussel, Jr. died 19 years ago today. He would be turning 91 next month, if he were still alive. I was only 11 when he died of colon cancer, and my memories of him, the strong ones, are as faded now as old newspapers left in the sun. The headlines are still visible, but the stories are harder to read. 

Even though I won’t get a response, I wanted to write him a letter. So, here’s to you, PaPa. 

Dear PaPa,

I still vividly remember that morning, when I found out you were gone. I had only just returned from seeing you, for the last time, and as I sat in my fourth grade Language Arts class, writing about “What I Did This Weekend,” detailing my visit to Louisiana, I suddenly felt like something was wrong. That you weren’t okay. I went to the main office and called my dad, crying, saying I was worried. When I got home that day, sure enough, he told me to pack my bag again and we were headed to Lutcher once more. Mom was still with you, with the rest of the family. I packed an extra sweater, saying that the hospital was usually cold. And then Dad told me we weren’t going to the hospital – you were gone.

I always remember November 7 because it’s four days after Aunt Denny’s birthday and four days before mine. I remember how Richie held me on his lap and let me cry, and how mad I was that I wasn’t able to say goodbye to you. I remember being so happy that we had gone to Panama City one last time as a family the year before.

I wasn’t old enough to have known you as well as some of my other cousins. And since I moved away, our time together was even shorter. But I can’t tell you how happy I was to arrive home after school that day in Cincinnati and see you on the front porch with MaMa and Aunt Teeka and the others. And remember how I would go feed MawMaw Chicken’s sheep with you in the mornings, before we went to see her and Uncle Ernest at the nursing home? That was the best.

I still remember you throwing bowls of rice in the kettles whenever I see goldfish in a pond. I still think of you every time I make pralines, even though Aunt Kay is the one helping me to perfect them. After all, you made them the best. I still remember watching Matlock and eating grapes with you and MaMa, and how you loved your Milky Ways. I still remember that old rolltop desk, and how I hoped I would find something mysterious in it that would give m a clue as to who you were. I remember how when you were gone, MaMa and Gabby and I would talk to you every night, and go through some of your things, and remember your voice and your smell.

I don’t remember much anymore about you, but I remember all that. I wish that you could be here now, and we would crack pecans together and you could taste the gumbo I make with one of your spoons. I wish you could see how hard Mom has worked over the years, and how she, your baby girl, still misses her daddy. I wish that you were still there with your big grin and your hat, slapping someone on the back and calling them “Padnah.” I wish you could see what an amazing family you raised. The Roussels — through ups and downs, distance and change, and happiness and heartbreak —  are still strong, and full of life. You raised good people, you and MaMa. You were good people. I just hope that we’re making you proud.


Heirlooms: connecting the past to the present

As what’s old becomes new, and the nostalgic becomes hip, it seems like everyone is taking another look at cherished heirlooms and items passed down through the generations. Shows like American Pickers and American Restoration is today’s cooler version of Antiques Roadshow, and people are signing up to take calligraphy lessons and buy vintage typewriters just as more and more schools are taking cursive out of their curriculum.

Perhaps people aren’t rushing out in droves to antique stores, but sites like Etsy and Pinterest have given way to the shabby chic trend, and suddenly grandma’s old lace doilies and your great-uncle’s pocket watch are fair game for decorating your home, or your body.

The photos above are some “heirlooms” of our own: Mom has a wicker chest in my room filled with old tablecloths, carefully embroidered napkins, and fine lace handkerchiefs. Some belonged to her mother, and some belonged to her father’s mother, two women that I loved so much as a child, and left us before I had a chance to know them better. I handle these items with care, imagining my grandmother and great-grandmother’s hands caressing them, too, and wrapping them up so tenderly for the next woman in the family to enjoy. I immediately remember sitting in rocking chairs drinking Barq’s root beer with MawMaw Chicken, as we called my great-grandmother Denise Roussel, even though she had stopped raising chickens well before I came around. I think with longing of the days I would sit in the “blue” room at my MawMaw Vickie’s house, watching her and her sister sew quilt after quilt, or apply delicate beading to a wedding dress for one of my cousins. And later, when she showed me how to work her sewing machines, so that I could quilt, too, and make special crafts for my mom after a summer spent in Louisiana.

Just yesterday, I came across a website from a British photographer called The Heirloom Project, for which he takes pictures of people’s treasured items in his studio, and they share the story behind it. The pictures tell a story all by themselves, but when you read the words from the items’ owners, you get a sense of their emotions, who they are, and where they come from. Some descriptions are just a few sentences, some are longer, but all are authentic, simple, and raw.

When items from our parents and grandparents and other relatives are passed on to us, we may not often take the time to really see and absorb the stories behind it. Perhaps we are grieving, and it’s just a part of the ritual of cleaning out a home. Perhaps it was discovered years later in a pile of items to be tossed out or donated, and we have to do a little research. Or perhaps you had your eye on something since you were a child, not quite knowing the significance, but knowing that it stood for something you had yet to uncover.

Today, the former owner of my parents’ house came by to pick up a couple of pieces of mail, and we gave her a gift. Years ago, she had painted a scene on some tiles for the kitchen; a cute image of her and her husband, now passed, in front of a flower shop, in farmers’ outfits. When my parents redid the kitchen upon moving in, they saved the tiles as best as they could, and we pieced back together the broken ones with glue. Today, when we gave the tiles back to her, she cried — with memories, with happiness, with grief still there years later. But it made us emotional, too, to think that we could provide a little piece of history and love back to this woman who had spent so many years of joy here with the love of her life. Someday, she may pass those tiles on to her children, and them to her grandchildren. There’s a story behind it, and I was glad to be just a tiny piece of it.

What heirlooms do you have that tell a story?

Dreaming of the past and the future

"A connection between past and future"
Photo credit: gioiadeantoniis

The dreams keep coming. In them, people from my past filter through modern scenes – high school classmates, estranged family members, ex-boyfriends. Some meetings are awkward, some are familiar and comforting, some are wishful thinking. But almost every night for the last week, visions of my previous life have visited my dreams, making my days full of reflection and curiosity.

It’s not the first time this has happened, but why so much all at once? I suppose it’s fitting in this sabbatical I’ve been on for the last three months and counting. It fits right in with my only somewhat newly rekindled relationship with my grandparents that I hadn’t regularly spoken to or seen in more than 10 years. Or emails I’ve received from other relationships gone dry for various reasons throughout time. Or maybe because like they say, the past can be the key to your future?

For me, my past and the memories that go with it have always been a huge part of who I am. I review old diary entries, pull out photo albums again and again, and read letters and cards from loved ones that I first received years ago. A lot of what’s in my past, and who is in my past, have led to decisions I’ve made as an adult – some good, some bad. I’ve let my past run me over, and I’ve let my past remind me of what could be different in my present and my future. And like many others, I sometimes revisit my past when I shouldn’t, even though I know it will hurt me, again.

But more and more these days, I’m realizing that there’s a way to get closure with your past that doesn’t have to involve tears or fights or disappointment. And again, maybe because of this transition phase I’ve been in, I’ve given a lot more thought to who and what from my past I want to include in my life moving forward. Even if I decide that someone doesn’t necessarily need to play a role like they once did, I’ve found ways to acknowledge them and their impact on my life in a way that provides meaning to me, and makes me feel good about it, and I think and hope, for them.

But just because people appear in my dreams, doesn’t mean I’m compelled to reach out to them and reconnect. Sometimes, it just means I’m thinking about them and wish them well, or I am remembering happier times. And I know that as I continue to take the next steps in this journey I’m on, wherever I go, whatever I do, there will be even more people that are in my present life now that will end up in my past. That part I’m still a little worried about, because even now, it’s tough dealing with a loss of connection with friends I just left behind in DC a few months ago. But that’s what comes with moving and life changes of course. Perhaps they’ll be appearing in my dreams in the year to come.

So it begins…life in the country

The view from the back of the house
The view from the back of the house

I’ve been on the West Coast for exactly a week, and in my (parents’) new home in Paso Robles for less than 24 hours. A slight hiccup means my stuff still isn’t arriving until Monday, but when it all gets here and I start a new work routine, it’s going to start feeling a little less like vacation and more like reality.

corgi signBecause so far, it hasn’t quite hit me yet. A weekend in Napa to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of my friend followed by a couple of days in San Francisco with another dear friend who moved out here in 2011 has been a stellar introduction to my new life as a California girl. Imagine trying to answer people when they ask, “So, where are you from?” I used to have trouble explaining my Louisiana to Ohio connection, but now to throw DC in the mix, especially right at the transition, is another story. Because I did in fact end up making DC my home, and I felt more in tune to it than I ever did in Ohio, despite living in the latter for nearly three times as long.

First order of business upon arrival to the “farm” was greeting the Corgis of course. My boy McGee is the same as always, and it’s wonderful to be with him again. And Abbey, oh Abbey, she’s a just a little ball of fluff and cuteness that I can barely describe. To be with puppies again is so much fun! And exhausting, for sure. Leftovers for dinner and a glass of wine topped off the first night, and I went to bed with the windows open in my room, all decked out already with some personal touches from my parents.

New coop door!
New coop door!

Today started with a great long walk with Dad and the dogs in the neighborhood, and I got to see just how many great hill workouts I’ll get in. My runs won’t be boring around here. Life on a farm has its duties — I helped Dad build a door to the chicken coop, and later I’ll pick some tomatoes from the garden, and maybe we’ll go to a wine tasting nearby.

But what’s most important is what’s happening right now: the dogs are laying on the floor, I’m in a chair writing, and my parents are nearby doing their own work. Beautiful scenery is all around us, and I get to wear stretchy pants and drink Dad’s fresh coffee. Life’s pretty good in the country so far.

As I settle in to my new home and figure out this journey, I hope you’ll stay tuned. Readers of my blog know I’m not really a daily update type of blogger, but I did want to share this first one with you from California. And if you really can’t get your fill of the Corgis, you can start following, for lots of updates on… well, Corgis and wine.

A day at the new office
A day at the new office