John and I couldn’t wait, as usual, so we celebrated Earth Day yesterday. We went for a lovely five mile hike on a recently renovated portion of Red Trail. This section is called the Berm Trail because it is built on a levee, or berm. We were pleasantly surprised by how lovely this Berm Trail is. Shade was plentiful, and the terrain was varied. We didn’t expect that. It was also fun to look across the ditch and catch glimpses of the road we usually walk to get to the canal we cross when we want to hike in the more jungle-like portion of Grant Flatwoods Preserve. The Berm Trail has it’s own jungle sections.
“To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles.” -Mary Davis
It was a surprisingly cool and windy day for our area of Central Florida in late April. The sunny and dry morning allowed us to cover the planned distance without stopping for a snack break, or to cool off with water.
Once we crossed the canal on the new foot bridge (the former bridge sagged in the middle and was sometimes under water, in the rainy season… ) we set up our new tripod and experimented with some still shots and video.
We had originally toyed with the idea of staying on the White Trail, which goes on to a housing development in Grant-Valkaria. It is mostly exposed and very sunny, however… and we knew the day would soon heat up, so we changed our minds and went down into the “Old Florida Jungle” part of Red Trail instead. That seemingly prehistoric setting never fails to thrill us. It is an isolated world full of wild orchids, mosses, lichens, tall palm trees, short palmetto bushes, ancient oak trees, and small spring fed ponds, stained by leaves rich in tannic acid. Wild hogs root through the sand under the oak trees, hoping for acorns and grub worms… and huge herons, hawks and owls fly low through the trees when startled. The heron’s wild cry makes us imagine the pterodactyls of the Jurassic Period.
Today will feel very anticlimactic by comparison. We will probably stay home. I might go outside and weed a garden bed. Our seasonal neighbors have been preparing to leave for the long hot summer months, and I am mildly inspired by their industry.
All this week they have been weeding flower beds, trimming trees and shrubs, pressure washing their houses, and dragging lawn ornaments and furniture indoors for storage. Anything that can become air borne in a wind storm is best moved indoors. Their metal storm shutters will soon be closed and bolted. Canvas covers will be draped snuggly over golf carts and fun cars… mostly P.T. Cruisers and BMW convertibles, depending on income levels and the need to impress. People owning Bentleys will have them loaded onto flatbed trucks and shipped north.
In years past a blessed silence would descend on the development, once four-fifths of our population of humans departed. This year new subdivisions are going in all around our borders. Thousands of acres of wild habitat has been “cleared” for housing tracts that will be known by the names of what was destroyed… names like Clear Springs, Blue Lakes, Sighing Pines, Palmetto Palms… Coyote Run, Deer Landing, Heron Bay. The sound of power tools, earth moving equipment, and hammering will keep the armadillos and coyotes away. The birds have already flown.
This year, we too will flee the steamy, bug infested, hurricane prone summer. It won’t be bearable for us to stay anymore. We would too sorely miss the peace and quiet… bereft of the sudden daytime visits from wild things with paws, claws, pads, and wings. The noise and dust and death bringing destruction/construction going on over our back fence right now is really why we finally bought Eppy, the Escape Pod. More on that later.
It has been a little over two weeks (hard to believe, but I just double checked the calendar…) since John and I purchased an adorable reconditioned motorhome, which he has named Eppy.” Eppy is short for E.P. or Escape Pod. We now have an added incentive for staying alive and well… paying for Eppy will take us at least another 15 years.
We actually made the decision to add ”Eppy” (or one just like it…) to our lives while traveling back to Florida from California, in January of this year. We were in our Prius and were using only backroads. We had just spent two glorious months hiking the hills (and the Pacific seashore) of the ”South Bay” area of Santa Clara County, south of the San Francisco Bay. Our ”anything but direct” route back across the country to our home in Central Atlantic Coastal Florida was plotted on mostly two lane highways. We were careful to avoid big cities and interstates whenever possible. In making this decision, we had to push back against our fears of not finding restroom stops, gasoline, healthy food, and cat friendly motel rooms… in that order.
“Cat friendly” might seem like an unnecessary designation since “pet friendly” would seem to cover the issue. It does not. We used at least fifteen motel rooms for the crossing, chosen primarily because they would accept the presence of our insane elderly Himalayan… “Ellie Mae Crazy Cat.” Many hotels that claim to be “pet friendly” actually mean “dog friendly…” and they will not accept cats. On previous road trips we have been turned away too many times from our ”reserved” “pet friendly” room, as soon as they discovered our pet is feline. We have learned to call and ask first.
The one stop where we forgot to call ahead to on this trip was a La Quinta in northern Florida. La Quintas are usually a safe bet for being “cat friendly.” Weary from a seven hour drive in stormy weather, I stared in dismay at the hand printed sign on the check in counter… ”No Cats!”
So of course, when the somewhat surly woman behind the counter asked me, “Do you gots any pets with you?” I smiled my best smile and said, “Oh yeah! We have a Chihuahua!” Thus Ellie Mae Crazy Cat became the quietest, best behaved Chihuahua that motel room would ever host. And she did not lift a hind leg to the furnishings.
Our backroads crossing was an inspiring journey. It was actually a very hope-filled and empowering series of discoveries, really. We found that small towns with kind, caring, and intelligent people still make up much of the United States. Our encounters with such people along the way reminded and reassured us that these qualities are still prevalent among a population of everyday Americans.
Contrary to what the daily news would have us believe, we really aren’t a country filled to bursting with violent, angry, raving idiots, who thrive on hatred. And it turned out restrooms, gasoline, food, and “cat friendly” motel rooms were readily available along those back roads. And there was art! And an amazing number of family owned RV parks in natural settings, as opposed to fenced in, halogen lit concrete and gravel holding pens for harried tourists. We realized we were ready to commit to our long researched plan to get another RV. Eppy is the end result of that realization. We have also committed to getting out and camping in her at least once a month. The upcoming hurricane season (June 30th through November 30th) is predicted to be an especially intense one. We may be fleeing in her, north by northwest, in the coming months. Life is an adventure, and nothing holds. (L.L.N.) Live Life Now!
Ellie Mae’s first adventure in Eppy the Escape Pod (Our “new to us” 2018 Thor Majestic 19G RV…) was a major learning curve, for all of us. It began when she was captured during her afternoon nap and stuffed into her much hated cat carrier. After submitting to this initial indignity, she resolved to make the most of whatever came next. She secretly hoped it would not be another vet visit.
I seat belted her carrier into the third seat of the camper in such a way that she could see me in the driver’s seat. I was hoping to inspire confidence. Since capturing her is always the last thing John and I do before a trip, we were ready to roll. With heightened awareness we trundled out of the driveway and onto the street, taking a “short cut” to Highway 60 that involved a few lightly traveled backroads.
Highway 60 is a great road for RVs because most of it is four lane, and though tractor trailer trucks are plentiful, when the road does drop back to two lanes, there are a couple of passing lanes for slower traffic. We use them.
Once we were safely parked in our camping space at Lake Kissimmee State Park, and all of our outside chores (hook-ups for power and water) were done, we released Ellie Mae from her carrier. She began to explore her new “home away from home.” Satisfied there were no dogs, she retreated to her hiding place under John’s bed. We expected this, so all of her things were already stashed under there. Stationing herself in the farthest corner, she was surrounded by her new Yeow catnip fish… (BTW, I recommend this Yeow brand of catnip toys to all my fellow cat servants…) her new cat bed (actually a dog bed, but don’t tell her…) and her new litter box. She busied herself rubbing her scent on all of these new things. She would spend much of her time over the next couple of days rubbing her face against her new belongings, claiming them as her own.
It was an unusally cool afternoon for a Florida Spring day, so we opened all the windows and roof vents, and made use of the screen door… thus allowing a fresh breeze to sweep through the camper. With the exception of a brief and exciting thunder storm, we were able to leave everything open throughout the night. Ellie Mae was intrigued by night sounds and night sights happening just outside the screen door. She spent much of the evening watching and listening to things we mere humans could not see, nor hear. All in all, she adjusted fast to this latest lifestyle challenge… RV camping… and we do marvel at her ability, as a “senior cat” to absorb new experiences. We hope this stimulus is good for her. We have certainly broadened her horizons in our time together. No doubt.
My grandma Regina was a small woman of immense personal power. She was both mean and magical. The people who where frightened by her only remember the mean. I want to tell you a little something about the magical.
Over the course of her short life span, my grandma was a healer, a self taught medicine woman, and an herbalist, long before these things were trendy. Had she not been born in the deep south to an extremely “old world” Roman Catholic family, she may have been thought of as a witch. Her mumbled words, chanted as she “laid hands on” a client (hands said to have generated a mysterious healing heat…) were believed to be prayers spoken in Cajun French.
I know nothing of her life first hand, because she died at the age of 56, on July 29th, 1954, when I was only 7 months old. My cousin Mikie… (This is Mikie from the Cat and Mikie stories with which I’ve regaled generations of students…) had not yet been born. There were many stories told to me about Regina, as I was growing up. I’m going to try to give you an idea of what she was like by repeating these stories. Most of the stories came from my own mother, Regina’s oldest daughter, LeDonia.
Mama told me her mother was born on a plantation… and delivered by an elderly midwife named Calpurnia, who was a former slave. The year was 1898, thirty-three years after the End of the Civil War, and the census records that Mikie found indicate the birth happened somewhere in Jefferson Parish. Mikie has told me that births occurring in rural locations “back in the day” were usually recorded as actually happening in a hospital in the nearest city. So, I’m thinking “…or maybe even just somewhere in the parish.”
We know that Regina’s father was John H. Stout and her mother was Valerine (Valerie) Terrebonne. On a romantic note, Mama claimed that John Stout was once a British sailor, (Mikie adds “of German-Prussian descent”) who might have jumped ship to marry the beautiful Valerine. This ship jumping bit is probably more fiction than fact, but it does make a good story. I have seen a formal portrait of John and Valerine, and they were very attractive people.
This is most of what I know of my Cajun roots, and most of the credit for my knowing this goes to Mikie, who has done a wonderful job of researching our common ancestors. He learned that John and Valerine, lived for a time on the Cheniere Caminada (…a tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico about 55 miles south west of New Orleans, by boat. The island is thought of as the far southern tip of Jefferson Parish…) They endured and survived the hurricane of 1893 (The Great October Storm) which killed over 700 of their neighbors, and over 2,000 people in all. It gives Mikie and I chills to think about this, since our grandmother Regina was born five years later.
Baby Regina eventually grew to womanhood and married my grandfather, Adam Gomez. Because of Mikie’s research, we also know a little bit about our Hispanic roots, in what has become the United States. We stem from a young couple, Angel and Lazaria Gomez, Adam’s ancestors, who came over as Spanish emigrants in the 1700’s, from the Canary Islands. Angel and Lazaria were brave young Isleños, possessing a pioneering spirit. I like to think that Mikie and I, as the youngest and probably the most adventurous in our generation, have inherited that spirit.
On an historical note, the Isleños were sent by the Spanish government to establish Spain’s claim to the area, and to guard it from British take over. Isleños were given small land grants to establish homesteads… mostly farms.
Sadly, our family’s genealogy is sketchy at best, because we waited too long to become curious about our past. We have had to piece it together by a combination of research and incidental stories told by family members. Most of our elders had passed away by the time we became interested in knowing. If you are young, reading this, and you have living elders, please ask them about your family now. Don’t wait, like we did… do it now!
Getting back to Regina… everything we know about her is from her time as a wife, mother, and grandmother. The first stories are set in and around South Front Street in New Orleans, beginning in the 1920’s. When I imagine daily life in that neighborhood, I can almost smell the rusty metallic air that swept over it from the Mississippi River. Sounds would have included the screech of railcar wheels on the metal tracks, the clanging of the cars as they banged together, and ship whistles and horns from river boat traffic. On the street itself, I imagine the cries of vendors selling their wares from goat drawn carts. I have seen a picture of my mother driving such a goat cart. She looked to be about five years old, and was dressed in a white cotton shift, her hair cut very short. She was noticeably smaller than the goat harnessed to the cart. She and her brother Lawrence were selling “catfish.” In fact, my “Uncle Cat” was so named because of his great success at selling river fish.
My mama started telling me her memories of her mother, of course, as they related to her own childhood. As the oldest girl in a large family, LeDonia was given chores to do at a very early age. She remembered being made to scrub the wooden floors of their house with water and a worn down brick. Soap was a luxury but old bricks could be found for free in New Orleans in the early 1920’s. Grandma Regina taught my mama a basic frugality.
Another early memory Donia shared was of helping to pick turnips in the fields somewhere outside the city. Mama said they were told by the bossman that they would be allowed some turnips to take home after the harvest, but she was so hungry she stole some of them just for herself, hidden in her dress pockets. Once back home, she tried to eat them raw, just to stop the hunger pains. Some of the turnips had gone “mushy” because they had been in the sun too long… and they gave her terrible stomach pains. Regina caught her hiding behind the house, groaning in pain and vomiting. Donia remembered Regina spanking her for stealing, instead of comforting her. This taught her that no matter how hungry she was, stealing food would never be an option. Grandma taught my mama a basic honesty.
Regina and Adam would eventually raise ten children to adulthood. There would be three girls and seven boys. My mother was followed by Vera and Shirley. The boys were Lawrence, Leo, James, Lionel, John, Pete and Melvin. Their’s was a hardscrabble existence and yet… they were able to shelter, feed and clothe all those children, while saving money to eventually buy property on the west bank of the Mississippi River, in an unincorporated area sold by the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad. The property (at least four 25’ X 75’ lots) was located near the west bank foot of the Huey P. Long Bridge, on what would be called 7th Street, once the area became known as Bridge City.
Adam, a first rate carpenter, built a large Louisiana-style “shot-gun-house,” with additional rooms and porches, and an attached carpentry shop. A “shot gun” house was built long, one room after another with the doors open and aligned, and it was said that one could shoot a shot gun through the front door and out the back without hitting anything. The ceilings were high, and “transom windows” (windows placed above each door to let hot air flow out of the rooms in the hot southern summers…) were common. That house on 7th Street would shelter two more generations of the Gomez family before it fell into ruin in the 1980’s.
During the years the family lived on South Front Street in New Orleans, according to census reports that Mikie has studied, Adam worked for Dixie Machine on Tchoupitoulas Street. We don’t know exactly what his job was, but we know he was a skilled laborer. Tchoupitoulas is a word from a Native American tribe (now extinct) called côte des Chapitoulas, and it means “those who live by the river.” Tchoupitoulas Street is in fact the closest “through street” along the river… but South Front Street is much closer.
There were two other stories about Regina that I believe took place on South Front Street. This next story illustrates her healing side, and maybe a little bit of her mean side. It definitely shows her mettle.
The Great Depression in the United States took place between 1929 and 1939. Regina would have been in her 30’s for most of that decade. My mama turned 11 in October 1929 when the Depression began, so my Uncle Cat was probably 12 or 13. They would already have had younger brothers and sisters. Regina somehow found ways to feed them all, and yet she also set up a daily free breakfast for homeless men who rode the rails into and out of the nearby railroad yard. I am sure there were line drawings of a cat, the universal hobo symbol for a kindly woman who has food… on the fences leading to her door.
Hobos, as they were called, knew to come to her back doors (multi-paned French Doors, according to mama…) just after day break, but never before. (Never… ever… before!) Breakfast was simply fresh French bread, home churned butter with sugar mixed into it, and “café au lait” with a lot of sugar added. (The coffee would have had ground up dried chicory root added, a fairly cheap way to extend the grounds so as to make more coffee.) Regina would also doctor any injuries these men had sustained. She kept needles and thread at ready, and an assortment of disinfectants and herbal salves that she made herself.
One predawn morning, Regina heard the sound of someone rattling her back doors. She grabbed a butcher knife, and standing at the closed doors, she shouted “Come back after dawn!”
The man punched a glass panel out of the door instead and reached inside for the door handle. Regina calmly began sawing through the flesh of his wrist with her butcher knife. He screamed and yanked his hand back. Regina is said to have repeated, “I said, come back after dawn!”
Mama said that the man actually did return, once the sun was well up, and Regina cleaned his wound, disinfected it, stitched it up, bandaged it with old cotton scraps, and yes, she fed him his breakfast.
This next story also speaks to her power as a healer. The family had a mongrel dog named Brownie. Grandma Regina was especially fond of her. One day the kids found Brownie near the railroad tracks with her stomach torn open. Mama said it was like she was almost torn in half. My Uncle Cat scooped her up and ran back home with her. Grandma had him place Brownie on the kitchen table. The young dog was nearly dead, her intestines exposed, but Regina set about to stem the bleeding, then to clean the wound and the abdominal cavity with turpentine. She stitched Brownie up and prayed over her. Over the next few weeks Regina fed and cared for Brownie until the dog was completely healed. Mama said Brownie eventually died of old age, many years later.
I can well imagine this kind of healing, because when I was a child, and was sick or injured, my mama would take me to a Cajun healer in Bridge City, named Mr. Préjean (pronounced PRAY-zhahn.) I broke my ankle when I was in the fourth grade… and Mr. Préjean poured a smelly ointment over it, then gently massaged the ankle, and began praying (to me, an indecipherable Cajun French prayer.) I remember his hands becoming very hot. He didn’t set the bone, but he made the pain stop. The ankle healed, with no loss in range of motion, but I can still feel the jagged edged break of the bone that snapped.
In 1954 when Regina was on her death bed, she asked my mama to bring me to her. I of course was only about six or seven months old, so I don’t remember this… but mama said that grandma was thrilled to hold me… and that she let me pull all of the tissue out of a tissue box she had on the bed. I suspect had she not died so young (56 seems very young now that I am 68) she would have spoiled me rotten. She may have taught me many skills too… maybe passed on some of her magic. When I think about that, I feel a poignancy… it is a soft sense of loss.
The unfertilized egg that eventually became each of us who has lived on this planet first came into being when our mothers were embryos. Today is my late mother’s birthday, so the egg that became me began approximately 103 years ago, give or take 9 months.
I have started this blog in October of 2021… and so I am currently 67 years old. It is very good to be old. When I was young I was obsessed with becoming something. My obsession remained stable but what I aimed at becoming had a tendency to change, mostly depending on the path of least resistance. As a teenager (my macabre period… Goth before Goth existed…) I thought I might like to be a grave keeper/grounds keeper in one of the many above ground graveyards throughout the great city of New Orleans. It suited my love of being outdoors, seemed to fill a practical need, and I thought it might keep me grounded (no pun intended) so that I wouldn’t fall into the folly of thinking life was eternal.
As a young adult I cheered up a little. I decided I wanted to become a nurse, so I could study biology, and in particular… human health, anatomy and physiology. A wiser elder thought I should become a doctor instead, but this was far too large a goal for me to imagine. My 1950’s Louisiana Catholic childhood inhibited what I could then envision. I didn’t know of any female doctors. I enrolled in a Licensed Practical Nurse training program and threw myself into the project with my usual zeal. I almost made it to goal. In the final month of training my head nurse educator altered a patient’s chart, and I witnessed her doing it. This is a legal “no-no.” She knew I had seen her. The following morning her assistant was given the job of dismissing me from the class. It was claimed I had failed the final pharmacology exam. I knew I had actually aced it. When I asked to see the exam and my grades I was told they were unavailable. My path was suddenly blocked. I chose another one.
My next goal was to graduate from a college, any college. The path was full of switchbacks but eventually, I had reached my goal, acquiring an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree, a Master’s Degree, and finally ending when I became ABD (all but dissertation) on a Doctorate. Along the way I become a teacher, then a preacher, and then back again to being a teacher.
It was a few months after retirement when I realized suddenly, with great relief, that I had finally finished becoming and was now done with the obsession. So, here I am, in a state of mere being, no longer becoming. I am become. I just am. My focus has shifted to walking. I now understand that what I really want to do with my life, whatever is left of it, is to keep walking. The burden of my I.Q. (…people in my range are supposed to become an amazing something or other…) is no longer a burden. I mostly think about walking now. I seek out and enjoy the camaraderie of other people all over the planet who understand that walking is amazing. Walking is vital to my happiness and my sanity. I just want to keep walking.
I am from lower Louisiana, and I grew up in the sole of the boot, just southwest and across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The place was called Bridge City, though it wasn’t a city at all. We had no mayor, sheriff, or city limits. What we did have was the ”foot” of the Huey P. Long (Okay Allen) Bridge, and fifteen white shell roads. Early in the 1950’s these roads were like bleached ribs in the bright southern sunshine, curved slightly to the sternum of the Old Spanish Trail. They were attached to the backbone of the Old River Road, which laid snug against the base of the levee.
The houses in Bridge City did not spring into being ”full grown” from floor plans. They struggled up over the years, from one room shacks wrapped in tar paper. They were perched high on cement blocks, to avoid the gentle ebb and flow of below sea level flooding. As children were born, new rooms were grudgingly added. Because I was the fourth and last “live birth” in my family, our house stopped at five rooms. As I grew and acquired ”hand me down” clothes and shoes from older girl cousins, so our house got weather-board siding, white paint, and eventually, a slate roof.
My brothers and I arrived at least a decade apart. The oldest was seventeen in the winter of 1953, when I was born. My ”middle brother” was fifteen, and my youngest brother was ten. They were always coming and going in the background of my life. Eventually, they kept going. I was twelve when the last one moved out, yet I had somehow always been an ”only child.” As the youngest of the lot, and the only girl, I was ”daddy’s little princess.” I was allowed freedoms my brothers never dreamed of. A favorite saying of my daddy’s was ”What the baby wants, the baby gets.” It was good, being the baby.