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.


Love of food runs in the family

The other day I came across this photo uploaded to the Facebook page for my hometown in Louisiana, but one of my mom’s cousins. As the note says, it’s from the LSU Cooperative Extension, and pictures my grandfather with his brothers and fellow farmers, selling their bounty in 1950. I immediately asked my mom if we had a copy somewhere in a box that I could frame.

I have bits and pieces of the stories of my grandfather and his family as young farmers. I’ve tasted his cooking (and miss it dearly), and have heard my mom and her brothers and sisters tell tales of many early mornings in the fields to pick peppers, onions, corn, and other fruit and vegetables. It makes me wish that when I was younger and first started writing stories, that I had written it all down then, and that I had interviewed my grandfather about it before he got sick and passed away from cancer in 1994 when I was 11.

Today, much of my cooking is a tribute to him and the joy he got out of it. He cooked for festivals and fairs, weddings and fundraisers, birthday parties and work events. I love discovering more tidbits year after year and putting together a more complete picture of this beloved man and talented cook. I just wish I had been able to spend more time with him to hear it from his mouth.

Do you have any fun relics related to cooking like this that give you a peek at your family’s past?

(Thanks to Laddie for posting this photo!)