I stood outside the seafood restaurant with my two sons waiting for my father to arrive. The day was blistering hot – the kind of heat that only summer days in the Southern Gulf states can bring. As the sun beat down upon my head and shoulders, I felt like I was breathing into a hot, wet towel. You could almost drink the air. I stood at the door and noticed the fishing paraphenalia that was strewn about on benches and in front of the restaurant, the kind of kitschy decor that seems common to seafood places. Except I had never noticed it here before. This was my hometown, childhood seafood restaurant, and I had never thought of it as kitschy at all. But, then again, I had never spent much time waiting outside the front door. Usually, we were all together and we just walked right in.
I saw my Dad's car driving up and I lost him as he parked on the side of the building. I waited for him to come around the corner of the seafood shop, past the nets and crab traps, and the old anchor that I was just looking at that I had never noticed before. Instead, he stuck his head out of the front glass door and called out for us to come on in. I didn't know how he got in the restaurant without coming our way, and when I went in, I noticed that he came in a side door. Confused, I asked, "Is that door new, or was it there before?" "It's been there," he said. "Let's get something to eat!" I've been coming to this restaurant since I was a kid and I've never noticed that door. I came looking for the familiar and hadn't found it yet.
I hadn't seen my Dad in about four months, and even then, I only saw him for a little while. I live a state over and I don't get home as often as I'd like. He is getting older and I know that I need to make it home more often, but, you know, life is so busy. That's my excuse. I hate that word, "busy." How "busy" are we really? We spend a lot of time supporting the lifestyle of our choosing, even if we are having to work really hard just to make ends meet. Most of our busyness is about choices, but we act like we are victims of this state of turmoil that takes us over and makes us do all the things that we don't want to do. We aren't as much "busy" as we are consumed with living the life that at some point we decided was the life that we wanted to live but have now forgotten why. That life, for me, didn't leave me much time to travel home and see my Dad. Today, I was trying to change that, at least a little.
I had driven in from Montgomery, where I live, the night before to pick up my boys who had been staying the week with some friends in New Orleans. I stayed the night with them and got to hang out in the city for a while. I love New Orleans, everything about it, really. I love the timelessness and the character and the music and food. Most of all, I love the memories and the sense that something old and important had happened there and that by walking and driving the pot-holed streets, I could step back in time and reconnect with my past, my family, and some of the things that people I loved thought were important. I'm strange that way. Nothing is independent in my mind. Everything is immersed in a sea of context, connection, and intertangled webs of meaning and memory. New Orleans is that for me, and the spanish moss, humidity, jazz, and seafood all mix together to form one big gumbo of memories and possibilities. It is the home I knew only as a child and through visits and family and stories from those I admired, but the mystery city hangs out in the corners of my soul like mildew working its way up the walls of a house.
I met my Dad at the seafood restaurant in Picayune, the town where I had grown up. We moved out of New Orleans when I was little to this country town about 40 miles to the northeast, just across the Mississippi state line. He had family there and it seemed a good place to grow up. Looking back, it was, although all I wanted to do was get out of there as soon as I could. That is the story of most who grow up in small towns in the South, or anywhere in America, it seems. We want to get out and get gone as quickly as we can. Then, we get our wish and start to make lives for ourselves in other parts of the country away from family, friends, and the home that we left behind. We start to raise our own kids and we remember things that were and we grieve a little because our own kids won't have the experiences that we had that shaped us – experiences that we can't imagine having grown up without. In a very small way, I had driven up to Picayune with my two sons to see my Dad and their Grandfather, but also to have one of those experiences.
We stepped into the seafood restaurant and I walked up to the familiar counter. The menu that used to be a chalkboard hanging over the counter was gone. I was disoriented a bit. First the forgotten side door threw me, then the chalkboard menu was missing. My grasping for the familiar was growing complicated. The greeting with my Father was quick and after figuring out what to order, we sat down. I looked around the restaurant to see if I saw anyone that I knew. I left Picayune 18 years ago, but it was still basically a small town, and every once in a while, I'd see someone I knew. One time on a visit a few years before, I saw my 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Stough, in the very same seafood restaurant. I was really excited to see her, and while she remembered me, she was retired and didn't seem too interested in sharing old memories with old student. She probably thought about how I wasn't that great of a student, if she even thought about me at all. But, today, there was no Mrs. Stough, or anyone else that looked familiar, for that matter.
I made small talk with my Dad and tried to fill him in a bit on what had been happening in the lives of his grandsons since he had last seen them. There was soccer and the finishing of school and a week spent with friends and a recent birthday. Then, I heard "Number 71," and I checked my ticket and was glad that our order was up. I brought back the crawfish to the table and set them down. It was only a couple of pounds because I wanted to go slow and see how the boys liked them. They were interested, but cautious at first. Crawfish are interesting creatures. The mudbug is prevalent along rivers and swamps. You catch them and throw them into boiling water that is seasoned with crab boil and often has corn and potatoes thrown in. Usually the corn and potatoes suck up the seasoning and become so spicy that they are hard to eat without tears coming to your eyes. I wasn't much for the corn and potatoes. I loved the crawfish, though.
When I was a boy, we could mark the seasons by the different types of seafood that would be in. You could only eat raw oysters in months that had an "R" in them. Shrimp would come in during the summer. Crawfish would be in from March to June, usually. So, we'd wait throughout the year to get the different kinds of seafood that we liked. For me, crawfish was my favorite. I remember eating the strange creatures with my Papaw and Uncle Fred and my cousins and my father. Sometimes, we'd get boxes with 50 lbs. of crawfish in them and sit at the table at my grandparen'ts and eat crawfish until we couldn't move. It was in their company that I was initiated into sucking heads and pinching tails. The older men were quick to tell me when I was doing it wrong, and under their tutelage, I became an expert in the proper way to eat a crawfish. As time went on, though, I developed my own style of running the little finger into the crawfish head to remove the yellow fat and eat it off my finger. I liked that better, even if they would sometimes shake their heads in disappointment that I was doing it wrong. Eating a crawfish is serious business, though, and you can't concern yourself too much with how the next person is doing it, so the disappointment would soon pass and give way to the sublime enjoyment of pinching and peeling off another crawfish tail.
In time, I ended up moving away from home and I would often miss crawfish season altogether. It was now early June and I was in danger of missing yet another season. I made the 300 mile drive from Montgomery to pick up my boys, but also to reconnect with my Dad and with a memory. Really, I wanted my boys to have the memory too. And, I wanted the generations to come around the table with the little red mudbugs being torn apart by eager hands ready to feast.
My boys hadn't had crawfish since my Mom brought some up last season. As it always is with kids, you never know how they are going to react to strange things. If it isn't macaroni & cheese or chicken fingers, it might not work out. But, like me, they have this innate desire to please their father when it comes to culinary traditions. I remember sitting at the tender age of eleven at a stool in Felix's Oyster Bar in the French Quarter with my Father and Papaw as they slid me a raw oyster nestled tightly into the half-shell. The man behind the bar with the gloves and the knife had just opened a dozen for us and it was time for me to be brought in to one of the traditions of seafood eating on the Gulf Coast. Part of me had dreaded this day because they looked disgusting – slimy, and milky, and gray. But, the larger part of me longed for this day, knowing that when it came I would be more like them – more like my Dad and Papaw and, as a boy, few things were more important. So, I stabbed at the oyster with the little fork they gave you and threw it into my mouth. I don't remember very much except I got it down and I survived. Then, I ate another and another and another. My Dad and Papaw smiled, laughed, patted me on the back, and were proud of me. In a small way, I was in.
On this day, with my Dad sitting next to me, I started peeling crawfish for my sons, Peyton and Kieran, 9 and 8 years old. Peyton, always ready to latch on to whatever I give him, grabbed at the first crawfish with eyes wide. Kieran, more particular, took a little longer to warm up to the idea, but when he did, he went after them with the fire compatible with his red hair. I retaught them how to pinch tails and suck heads and scoop the yellow fat out with their little fingers. Peyton worked hard at it while Kieran kept snatching crawfish to give to his Poppy to peel for him. I was happy. The crawfish were doing their work, linking generations and time and place together and were helping to create more memories in an old seafood restaurant from my past. The familiar rushed in.
While eating all we had and then getting more, we talked and laughed and enjoyed being together. My Dad told stories of how he and his father, my Papaw, used to go crabbing off the Seabrook Bridge on Lake Ponchatrain in a small aluminum boat and how they would bring back dozens of big Number One crabs caught in crab traps with chicken necks used for bait. They'd bring them back to the house that we lived in in the Gentily neighborhood in New Orleans not far from the lake, and they would boil them in a big beer keg that had been converted to a seafood boiler. I remember those crab boils in the back yard and how family and friends would come over and we'd sit on lawn chairs and I'd run around thinking that this is how life was and it was always going to be this way.
Finally, the generational meal came to a close. My Dad was hurting, his back having gone out on him decades before leading to surgeries and disability and a lifetime of pain. Those fishing and crabbing trips on Lake Ponchatrain ended when we moved to Mississippi not long before his back gave out on him, and the seafood that we would eat would come from places like this seafood restaurant we sat in instead of the Lake. Still, the memories were good and we got to make another one together, three generations of Cross men sitting around the table pinching crawfish tails and laughing and telling stories.
Looking back, I think that many of my memories of New Orleans, Lake Ponchatrain, family, and things like watching Saints games and eating crawfish are so strong because they came from the time before my Dad was disabled and succumbed to a great deal of pain. We were intact then. Things were more the way that they were supposed to be. Families were together and were sitting around a table, eating and laughing and teaching the kids how to pinch and peel crawfish tails. There was something about it that spoke to another place where things are the way that they are supposed to be. I long for that Place and the memories of the past often push me toward it.