Saturday, July 23, 2011

Louisiana, Part I: The Way It Was

I recently spent six days in Louisiana in my father’s home town of Abbeville. According to Wikipedia ‘Abbeville is a small city in and the parish seat of Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, United States, 150 miles (241 km) west of New Orleans. The population was 12,267 at the 2010 census. Abbeville is in the heart of "Cajun Country", and is home to many restaurants that specialize in the authentic tastes of the region.

Abbeville is the principal city of the Abbeville Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Vermilion Parish. It is also part of the larger Lafayette–Acadiana Combined Statistical Area.’

Abbeville for me is a piece of home, something remembered as unchanging, wild and fecund and so beautiful it makes my heart ache.

From left, back row, My mother Ann Sorbet, Aunt Geneva, John Sorbet Jr with baby James, Grandmother Sorbet, Grandfather Sorbet, Aunt Joyce, Mary Sorbet
From left, second row,  cousin Roy, cousin Scott, cousin Rose Marie, cousin Nancy, myself, Elizabeth Sorbet, Uncle Agee, Uncle Harold
From left, thrid row, cousin Jeanne, Joe Sorbet, Robert Sorbet
The old house, 1964

When I was a child we would spend a few days in Abbeville every time we made a move from one of my father’s posting to the next. My parent’s traveled at night, Ostensibly because the traffic was less, in reality because the 6 or 7 or 8 kids in the car slept for the most part, alleviating the need for potty stops and refereeing of arguments which consisted of  ‘He’s BREATHING again’  “She won’t get her elbow outta my face” ‘He has his foot on my book!’ ‘Why did she get a coke when we stopped last time?’ ‘That dog peed on my stuff!! I can’t wear clothes that smell like dog pee!!’ ‘STOP HUMMING’  ‘She’s eating the last apple and I wanted it!’ ‘Get off my pillow!’ ‘Make him STOP BREATHING’. 

While I am sure that my folks often were tempted to make us all stop breathing we would tumble out alive and in one piece and the end of a crushed shell road into my grandparent’s yard and be slapped in the senses with the lovely aromas of ozone and chickens, rotting vegetation and charred rice, fig preserves and baking cinnamon rolls.

If we came early enough my grandmother would still be in her soft faded robe and nightdress, her long graying hair in a thick braid down her back. She had lovely hands, coarse and worn and strong and gentle that made me feel like she could do anything. She had raised fourteen children (that alone merits ridiculous honors) and each had turned out strong and proud and successful in their own right. Others might remember her differently but to me she was always soft spoken and tough as nails. She was the epitomic matriarch and I would have done anything she asked of me.

My grandfather would be sitting in his chair near the fire, waiting basically with arms extended for us to run and hug him or shake his hand. He too was an icon in my mind. A man who knew work, who knew family was all important. I never saw him dressed in anything but overalls. In the cool months he wore long johns under, in the hot months he wore a short sleeve button up shirt under them. He was brown as a walnut with a thick graying curly, unruly bush of hair (which I have inherited sad to say). His Stetson hung on the chair back, his hands rested on his knees, his low gravelly Cajun accented voice swirled around my head mixing with the scent of the rolls and the smell of the ozone and my grandmother’s thick braid  weaving a fabric of wonder and love.
Each of these visits had certain adventures that could be counted on.

We always drove down to Pecan Island for a trip through the swamps while my Uncle Agee pulled his crawfish traps. ‘Gaters would swim right up and under the little pirogue he towed behind his putt-putt motored boat, turtles would swim up and be snagged handily and tossed in the boat with us. The turtles were destined for restaurants in New Orleans, the crawfish for sale all over the state and country, the ‘gaters were cursed as varmints. Once endangered, they now numbered in the tens of thousands and roamed freely literally eating my uncle’s profits and sunning themselves in his front yard.  My Aunt Geneva would often meet us afterwards with iced cokes, their little curvaceous glass bottles sweating rivers in the heat and humidity cutting clear trails through the frosted glass, a rare and wonderful treat for us, almost as exotic as the ‘gaters and swamps.

After Pecan Island we would carry coolers of crawfish back to my grandmother’s house and boil them up in the yard, excitedly waiting for visits from the cousins who were near by. My Uncle Harold and Aunt Joyce had settled near Abbeville so we saw them each and every time. Their children were close in age to the second four in my family and we liked them. They were a bit wild, a bit exotic and we raced around telling them our secrets and listening to theirs.

We always made a visit to their house on our trips as well. They lived on a river and if we were lucky a boat would sound it’s horn while we were there prompting the bridge man, or my uncle or one of my cousins to race out to the bridge to open it, allowing the boat to pass. The old bridge was wooden and had a crank which swung the bridge sideways instead of opening it up like a modern bridge would. Sometimes a car racing across the bridge with too much speed went airborne, hitting the wooden roadbed with enough force to settle it a bit too deep into the mud for further travel. What with the actual road now being 8 or more inches higher on either side than the middle of the bridge, the car would sit, stranded while a tow truck was called and my father and uncles muttered ‘damn fools’. On several occasions my cousin Scott had gotten his hands on a packet of Picayune cigarettes and we would smoke the terrible, acrid things, tuning green and talking about our visions of the future.

My godparents lived a short drive away and we always made a visit to their house a priority. My godfather, Ray Allen, was my father’s first cousin and he was usually working when we visited during the day. He too was an overall or coverall man. He too had the lovely accent, the quick laugh, the enchanting voice, the angelic smile. He loved his daughters and he loved his wife, my Godmother Earline, and he loved his work. My godmother always had a gift for me. She knitted, crotched and sewed. Whatever she made for her daughter’s she made for me. I can not tell you how special that woman made me feel, quick with a hug, with a joke, with a story, with a touch.  I was part of her family. She called me her little blond, her Cher, her Chat. 

Her brother-in-law (another cousin… there are many) would often be there if we came at lunch or in the evening. Everyone called him Bubba and I never questioned the fact, never even considered it might be nickname or an endearment.

These visits were never long enough for me. My father had many, many brothers and sisters and we never got to see even a quarter of them on any given visit. When we sat around the table after supper at my grandparent’s house I saw pictures and heard stories of their exploits, their successes and their failures. I looked at pictures of my many Aunts, Uncles and cousins, most unknown to me or vaguely remembered from a vacation years before. So many were blond! They rode horses (something I always wanted to do), swam in oceans (something I am still terrified to do), they got scholarships and joined the military and got pregnant out of wedlock, they were cooks and scientists and engineers and teachers. All of the aunts and uncles were called by both their first and middle names. For years I thought there must be twenty children in the family and they were all geniuses and beautiful and wildly successful at anything they tried to do. 

Time and age have put these stories into perspective but I still love imagining these hordes of gorgeous brilliant people carrying my name and making the world just that much more exciting to live in.