The land where my mom grew up is green and flat and wild. Cypress trees rise up out of the water like sentinels, their heads covered in thick braids of wiry moss and their knees folded into sturdy chests. Bridges cross the marshy landscape. Brown cattails line the edge of the old asphalt. Long roads are surrounded by nothing but rice patties and the occasional tin water tower, with the names of towns hand-painted in red or white block letters. Nothing here feels new on first glance. The life, the world, is old. Still.
My mother Vera was a shy girl, with large brown eyes and jet-black hair. She was the only daughter of Josephine and a product of her father Ivy’s second marriage. Her mother and father had been an unlikely match. She was a happy go lucky prankster, plump and short. He looked like the man in the American Gothic painting, only with more severe expression and less hair.
I wonder about their courtship, something my mother knows little about. She tells me they met at a local fais do do. Met isn’t the right word as they would have known each other from living in such a small town. This was the first time they got to talking. I can’t picture Paw Paw dancing—either the real Paw Paw I remember or the imagined one I’ve come to know in stories from my mom and her siblings. But he must have been interested enough in Josephine to want to please her, placing his large hand on the small of her back and leading her in a two-step around the room. In some ways, their marriage was one of convenience. My grandfather Ivy was Rosa’s brother. My grandmother Josephine was Senua’s sister. And Rosa and Senua were married. My grandparents forging a union must have made sense on certain levels.
Ivy Woods is remembered by nieces and nephews as a kind and gentle man, who balanced them on his bony knees or snuck them little knick-knacks from his general store. He is remembered differently by his children. They recall a hard man—someone who did not enjoy life and thus sought to destroy that enjoyment in those around him, those closest to him. While his wife Josephine would wake her children up by firing the garden hose through the window into their rooms, cackling as they were soaked, Ivy would order piles of dirt delivered and have his kids break up the larger hard pieces with shovels, just to produce a chore.
They were Cajun, and in that time, that meant poor. Maw Maw had grown up in Vermillion Parish as one of thirteen children in a household with no steady income. Her mother ran the home and her father was a moonshiner—that is, when he wasn’t too drunk on the stuff to even think of selling it. She spent her childhood raising her siblings, sweeping the dirt floors as clean as possible, and beating clothes on rocks at the creek near the house. She stopped going to school after first grade, before she had the chance to learn to read or write. I don’t mean to make this sound desperate, even though in many ways it was. I’m sure her parents were concerned with keeping food on the table for their children, but so was everyone else. When I ask older family about that time, they are hesitant to talk about it, just as their parents were hesitant to tell them. Life was hard, and that was reality.
But there was also joy. If you are born into a family of thirteen and you and your siblings have that many children yourself, you can build your own community pretty quickly. That is what had happened amongst Cajuns in Louisiana. Much like what happens often in public housing developments now, people then looked out for one another and created a strong community out of mutual necessity. In the time before refrigerators were invented, all you had was an icebox, with room for the large chunk that would be delivered daily. The extended family would gather at one family’s house for a boucherie, literally “the butchery.” At some point before the cooking and eating but after some visiting time for the adults and playtime for the kids, they slaughtered one of the host family’s animals, most often a pig. Then they split the meat up amongst the families—legs for one family, rump for another, the innards for another. The head was used to make hogshead cheese. No bit went to waste. And because they had divided it, the meat didn’t have time to go bad before they ate it all. Some central Cajun recipes came out of boucheries—boudin, fricassee, cracklins. The boucheries also gave the families the opportunity to visit and catch up on each others’ lives. You could talk while you were cooking.
Josephine wasn’t a pretty woman. Her eyes didn’t cross and her face didn’t lack for some kind of symmetry. She wasn’t ugly or misshapen, but she also wasn’t someone you were likely to take notice of, to take a second glance at when you passed her by on Main Street.
She was, however, a sturdy woman, which in Cajun country counted for more. She had strong arms made stronger by stirring gumbo in cast iron pots and lifting feed sacks filled to the brim. She had hips made for bearing children and then for holding them steady after they’d grown a bit but were still hanging, tightly, on.
She was the kind of woman who knew how to take care of her husband and children. Her love of cooking and her ability to make food stretch kept them more than well fed and nights spent over her black Singer sewing machine with hand-taken measurements and old cotton feed sacks for material kept them clothed.
She had her own charm, but overall, she wasn’t much different than all Cajun women. She loved her kids with a fierceness; she was strong in mind and body; and when the work was done, she knew how to sing loudly no matter what the sound, how to dance a furious two-step at the town fais do do. She was my Maw Maw.
Rick Bragg said that he wrote the memoir Ava’s Man to “build [him]self a grandfather.” I guess in some ways, I started researching Cajuns and asking questions of family members to build myself a grandmother. While Bragg never met his grandfather, a man who died before he was born, I met and spent time with my Maw Maw. But the time was on weekend trips or special occasions and stopped when I was eleven—when she had developed Alzheimer’s and didn’t recognize my mother, her own daughter, much less me. By that time, she was a dwindling, tiny woman, and she smelled of bleach and urine and death. She was nothing like the Maw Maw I remembered from before. Part of my ongoing fascination with memory has to do with how she lost hers so suddenly, how she rapidly became someone different. In some ways, she was a non-person—someone functioning in the day-to-day without a sense of her past, present or future.
I am obsessed with memory and why we oftentimes remember seemingly meaningless events but forget the important things. Why is it, for example, that I remember the feeling of riding around in my first pair of roller-skates but cannot remember a single conversation with my Maw Maw? It feels, in some way, like a violation. Why don’t we get to choose what we remember and what gets lost?
And of course, this disappointment is accompanied by inevitable fear. No cure for the disease and signs point to it being, at least somewhat, genetic. My mom does Sudoku, and I’m secretly grateful. I carry a small notebook everywhere and record the moments that are most important to me so that I remember them later. I obsessively take photographs of the people and places around me. I create stacks of articles to read, of bills to save in case they are needed later, of letters and other correspondence from friends. Eventually, some of these papers are categorized into filing bins. Rarely, they are recycled or thrown away. I have a problem letting go. I have a strong desire to run my fingers over these reminders of people I have known, places I have been. There is something that feels important about having memories reinforced by touch, smell, sight.
All of my early memories of Maw Maw are sensory. Maybe that’s because they are all the memories of a child, when you are so much more in tune to what you can smell, hold or caress with your small fingers. Then, you know clearly when you like the way something tastes or when you hate it, and you correspond with the appropriate facial expression and response. All I know is that when I close my eyes and imagine her, its not certain occasions or experiences that come to mind, it’s the clean scent of homemade detergent and starch that lingered on her blue cotton dress when she hugged me. It’s the way her kitchen always smelled like onions mixed with a pungent oily and spicy kind of smell that I now know was the roux for her gumbo. She comes to me in the senses like this.
Josephine’s mere presence demanded respect. She had this way of commanding the kitchen, like the admiral of a ship. All her spices stood in line like soldiers, and even though there was a constant rotation of pots on the stove, there was never a mess. I remember the way her deep throaty laughter ricocheted off the brown and gold speckled formica countertops. She hugged like she was trying to squeeze all the love out of me and back into me at the same time. She was.
She didn’t need self-help books to know how to raise her children. Everything, it seems, was immediate with her. Idea to recipe to meal. Idea to self-made pattern to dress. Idea to herb garden to poultice. She just knew in her body how to do things. What she didn’t know was how to write. And for a very long time, she didn’t know the English language. Because she stopped school at six, Josephine couldn’t even know how to sign her own name, something she was always ashamed of. That was one reason she was so emphatic about her children doing well in school, even though she didn’t approve of them abandoning French. They would speak French at home. Period.
When we would go visit her in the nursing home, I remember the look on my Mom’s face when she would have to tell her mother who she was. Mom veiled her hurt with a thin smile, but I could tell she was faking it. The truth is that no matter what the reality of the situation is, no one deserves to not be seen by her own mother.
Most of what I know about my mother’s life growing up has been pieced together in the past five years, and it has been collected, culled together like colored glass bottles or rare stamps, only because I asked. A boisterous woman with a sense of humor, liked by everyone she meets, my mom will talk all day about the people she works with or the new recipes she just tried out. She will advise you on politics or where the best place for produce is nearby. What you won’t get is a lot of talk about herself. You could sit and talk with her for hours and not know that French was her first language. You could know her for years, and she may never tell you about how hard it was to be the daughter of a man who disliked, even hated, life and any kind of l’amusement.
Likewise, I didn’t know what her personality was as a child or if she got along with her siblings. I knew that her short white hair used to be long and jet-black. I knew she wore cat-eye glasses and played basketball. But these are the features of sketches, not of portraits. I had an outline of her upbringing, but the details, the color, the texture were all missing.
The lack of knowledge about where my mother came from created a divide of understanding. My teenage years were spent distancing myself from her as much as possible, pursuing my own interests with no regard for her place in my life. Although I know this to be a common fate for mothers and daughters, our relationship was layered with the expectations she had from her relationship with her own mother. “I would never talk to my mother like that,” she would often tell me. “My mom and I used to spend time together, real time, without fighting.”
Then something shifted. It wasn’t that as I matured, she became more forthcoming, but I increasingly became more curious. I wanted to know about what life was like growing up in a small, Cajun town, the daughter of an unhappy man and an inextinguishable woman. And after hearing stories of family traditions, many of which came out of the necessity of community for survival, I longed to know more about Cajun history. The stories I read led me home.
Southwest Louisiana is more than a place you have to drive through on the way from New Orleans to Houston. It is more than alligators and accordions and the Atchafalaya Basin, although all of those are here. There is history here. It is the history of a people who made the land submit. They did so because they had to in order to survive. The Cajuns are a hearty, hard-working people, and although hospitable to a fault, they don’t have time for bullshit. There is work to be done. There are children to raise. This is the stock my mother comes from.
The Cajuns descend from the Acadians who lived in Nova Scotia, formerly l’Acadie, in the 1600s and 1700s. Having journeyed from France, many Acadians were formerly peasants, but they prospered in the fertile Central Valley—producing plentiful crops, raising all kinds of livestock and evolving a culture of their own based on the new terrain and new, harsher seasons. By the time the British and French governments began fighting over who owned l’Acadie, the Acadians no longer identified as French but had no desire to be citizens of Britain either.
The British were initially promised the land by the French in the early 1700s. Initially, British officers tolerated the Acadians. Acadians didn’t want anything from them. But as the decades passed and the Catholic Acadians, bent on staying neutral, repeatedly refused to sign oaths swearing their allegiance to Britain and the Church of England, the British began to view them as a nuisance and a potential threat. In 1748, they implemented a plan. They confiscated the Acadian’s boats. Then their weapons. The men and boys were asked to come to a church for a meeting and upon arrival, were told by British officers that they would be expelled from the land. Families were separated and put on boats with unknown destinations. The British burned houses to the ground so the Acadians would not be tempted to return. In the act, known as Le Grand Derangement, Acadians scattered throughout what is now the Northern United States. Some were returned to France, dropped at their ports like an abandoned infant on a doorstep. Others ended up in the Caribbean. Still others in the British colonies that were yet to become the United States. Eventually, a handful of families made their way to Louisiana, which they believed, wrongly, to be a French colony. Fortunately, the Spanish who had taken over the land were trying to find people to settle Southwestern Louisiana.
The land was marshy and unruly, seemingly impossible for farm use and difficult to build on because of its mucky consistency. Paralleling their ancestors’ story, this generation of Acadians not only settled the land but figured out ways to understand its tempers and to make it reap prosperous crops. Cousins told cousins to come join them in la Louisiane. As their language developed, their name was shortened, and these Acadians who settled in Louisiana came to be known as Cajuns.
Being a part of a culture that is so deeply rooted in community and its own way of life has its benefits. You know everyone and you know you can count on each other. Your traditions, music and cuisine have foundation in the evolution of your culture and family lines. There is an internal wealth to this kind of experience. But it also comes with a degree of isolation, which leads to lack of understanding from others. The ways of life and hard work that make you proud can quickly be reduced by people with different priorities, people living in different places. Jealous of, threatened by, or just unwilling to take the time to understand a different people, more cosmopolitan types wrote Cajuns off as bumpkins, as ignorant, uneducated backwoods folk. And this compounded by the residue of being kicked off their original land, of losing something so important to them. How do you reconcile the fierce pride you have in your culture and traditions with the opposing feeling that you aren’t good enough?
One of my favorite photos of my mother and I was taken in the camera’s landscape setting. I’m not sure why this was the setting chosen since it is a close up of our faces. We were in Hawaii, and I think my dad must have accidentally left the setting on after taking a long shot of the pearly sand and aquamarine water. You don’t often see portraits in landscape. My mother’s white hair is accented with a purple and white orchid that rests behind her left ear. Her face is lit up, as if she has just finished laughing. My face is content, but you can tell there is something serious behind it. On the left hand side of the photo stands the blurry backdrop of a building alighted by the sun and some plastic flower garland below.
The photo is now taped along with postcards and posters to my hot water heater, in an attempt to beautify this obstruction in my tiny kitchen. I like this image of my mother and me because of its intimacy. Our faces are alike but not the same—eyes squinting, large mouths smiling, her teeth showing and mine hidden. I have tried to pinpoint many times why I like this photo so much. Is it because I know that for me to smile during such a trying year means something? Is it because I can see the features that show we are family and the ones that make us individuals? Is it because the person looking at the photo can see what surrounds us and simultaneously know that it is only our faces, in focus, that matter?
My mom took a painting class when she was pregnant with me. She had never had any formal training, but she had always been gifted at art. She was the one who everyone commissioned to make birthday cards or write calligraphy. She had painted some on her own. When she painted a landscape in class, the instructor had plenty of criticism. He didn’t believe in natural talent. He told her she was doing everything wrong. She went home crying and didn’t return to class. She has rarely picked up a paintbrush since that time. I wonder what happens to us if the images in our heads can’t be made tangible. What of all the landscapes and vistas she has yet to paint? Are they vivid in her mind? Do they fade out to make room for new ones?
The first recorded use of the word landscape was in Denmark in 1598. The word was taken from a painters’ term in the 16th century. Dutch artists had been focused on creating large paintings where the focus wasn’t the features of a person but the land itself.“Landschap,” a Dutch word, originally meant a region or tract of land, but artists had borrowed it and taken it to mean “a picture depicting scenery on land.” There is a thirty-four year gap between when landscape is used in English to describe a painting and when it is used to describe a real life view. Thus, the word has existed longer as a description of an impression of the real than as a description of the real itself.
The way this word evolved is interesting because ultimately it is our impressions of the real that last. It is our remembered childhood home, blurry with certain furniture and certain wallpaper standing out, that allows us to recall the feeling of being there. It is the pink roses, even though they may have been yellow or red or white, that I can visualize atop my Maw Maw’s casket at her funeral. And in my head, Southwest Louisiana fields are always high with sugarcane with white egrets flying overhead. We may have photographs of the real landscapes of our lives, but the ones we carry around with us everywhere are the landscapes we create in our mind.