The Sabbatical: Bayou Blues

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  My family's roots are submerged in the bayous of Louisiana. If you think Louisiana is the armpit of the country, then the bayous are the pit hairs.

My grandparents Chalmette home. Photo courtesy Hurricane Katrina

My grandparents Chalmette home. Photo courtesy Hurricane Katrina

   My grandparents raised eight kids on little more than what could be hooked, dragged, dredged, gigged or netted out of Bayou Des Allemands. My grandfather was a barber; my grandmother ran an ice cream parlor. Between my grandfather not charging the Depression-devastated inhabitants for their haircuts and my grandmother frightening the children who came in her shop at the wrong time for ice cream, my grandparents eventually lit out for greener pastures: the reclaimed malarial swamp known as Chalmette, where I grew up.

   The move did not break the ties that bound my grandparents to the bayous, and there were many trips back to the "country," my family doing the chauffeuring. I dreaded these trips. The old folks were congenial, but the younger ones my age were just strange. They were always staring at my feet, not because of my city-bought Keds, but because I had shoes. Once, I was curious about a line in the water. I pulled it up and saw what I thought was a large green snake coming up with it. I dropped it and ran back to the house, the blood completely drained from my face and me bug-eyed with fear. The shoeless geniuses got a good laugh at their citified second cousin being so terrified of an eel.

   Back home in the "civilized" confines of the unpaved, flooded streets and open drainage ditches of Chalmette, my grandmother would immediately get on the phone to the rest of the family about her trip back home. She informed them in great detail as to who was dead, who was dying and who'd be better off dead.

   One summer I was designated to keep my grandmother company until my grandfather got home from work. I don't know what sin I had committed to be punished so severely. Maybe it was that C in Religion back in the 4th grade.

   I was given two instructions before going over to my grandmother's: lose at cards and don't flush the toilet. I suppose now that my grandparents were paying for water, instead of, I don't know, hauling it up from the bayou, my grandmother watched every drop as if the faucets and flusher were connected directly to her purse. The water company spent more money on postage to send the bill, then they collected from it.

   As far as electricity, it was as if my grandparents had never heard of Thomas Edison. Their children gave them a color TV, so my grandmother could better watch her "stories." But she thought color used more electricity, so I had to sit through The Secret Storm and The Guiding Light in fuzzy black and white. They also bought her an air conditioner, but when she saw that it had to be plugged into the wall, she opted for the 90 degree, 90% humidity of a New Orleans summer, as screen doors and windows offered free "cooling." I would be dying of thirst, but I dare not ask for a glass of water.

   One day I could take no more. There's a strategy in Canasta called "sneaking out," designed to catch your opponent off guard and leave her with a fistful of negative points. On this day, I "snuck out" on my grandmother and won the game. To avoid the hail of cards coming at me, I ran into the bathroom, peed, then flushed the toilet and ran home.

   I was never invited back.