This edition of 13th Ward Rambler is an adaptation of a piece I’ve posted at First Draft the last few years. I decided to publish it here because we’re just getting to know one another. I plan to write for the Bayou Brief as long as Lamar will have me. I believe in this project more than I believe in Santa Claus. Sorry, Mr. Bingle. Enough with this introduction, on to the main course, which will be alternately savory and sweet like any good Thanksgiving meal.
The holidays are hard for me. I like Thanksgiving’s gluttonous aspects but it’s still hard for me. It’s when I think of my mother who died in 2001. My mother was the sort of person who took in strays for the holidays. We’d have up to 20 people around the table; some of whom were friends of friends of friends. Mom believed that everyone should have a home cooked meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of our guests for Christmas dinner were, in fact, Jewish. No Chinese food for her Jewish friends.
Mom spent Thanksgiving week cooking in our home on the San Francisco Peninsula. She was a perfectionist when it came to entertaining: no holiday buffets for Edna Benson Athas. We had to gather around the table, and it had to have a starched white tablecloth. There were no paper plates or people eating whilst milling about: fine china, silver, and crystal were mandatory. She was informal the rest of the year, but holidays were state occasions when, as my father was wont to say, we put on the dog.
When I got old enough, one of my jobs was to set the table. I made sure that Mom had final approval, she wanted everything just so. I recall feeling triumphant one Thanksgiving: I’d set the table perfectly on the first try. There were usually changes but not that year. I was inordinately proud of myself, but she admonished me not to get too cocky. It was the Midwestern Norwegian Lutheran in her coming out. She left the bragging to my dad. It’s what Greeks do, y’all. Not me, of course, other Greeks….
I also helped make a fresh cranberry/orange sauce from the recipe on the back of the Ocean Spray bag. We had a venerable hand-cranked grinder that had to be attached to the kitchen table. We spread newspaper around because it was messy. There was a bucket at my feet to catch the bitter red cranberry drippings. Mom was not sentimental about her kitchen gadgets: she bought a food processor the first time she saw one. I was away from home and past the cranberry grinding, table setting phase of my life by then.
My favorite part of the traditional turkey dinner was the stuffing. I looked forward to it every year. It was loaded with herbs as well as pine nuts and chestnuts. We didn’t exactly roast them on an open fire, but I helped shell the bastards. They were uncooperative, downright surly. When I was very young, I was convinced they were alive, but my no-nonsense mother disabused me of that notion. She informed me that I’d seen the Wizard of Oz one too many times. As usual, she was right.
Unfortunately, there was often conflict at the dinner table during the holidays. I’m the youngest of three by thirteen years. My sisters were off living life and I was raised more like an only child. I admit to liking it that way. My oldest sister thrives on drama and conflict. There was always one big row per holiday, which drove my poor mother crazy. She was always the woman in the middle. When she died, so did our nuclear family for reasons too complex to go into. The good news is that holidays are more tranquil, but I miss the glue of my family.
Thanksgivings in Louisiana had a familiar feel when I moved here. It’s all about the food, y’all. I married into an old Louisiana family and learned some new traditions. What’s not to love about oyster dressing? I still missed my mom’s stuffing. It was a part of me.
My first wife, Dee, was a petite, feisty, beautiful, and brilliant spitfire. She took the idea of being a redhead seriously and had a temper to match my own. Her mother Louise took me in as one of her own but made it clear that when we moved to Baton Rouge, we’d have to tie the knot. That’s right, her mother proposed. Unfortunately, the paternal side of Dee’s family tree was a witches brew of genetic maladies and she died of cancer during what should have been her final year at LSU Law School.
She died a week before Thanksgiving, so the holidays were rough sledding for me until I met and fell in love with the tall, feisty, beautiful, and brilliant woman known to you as Dr. A. The good news is that Dr. A and Louise instantly hit it off and she was admitted to the Louisiana family post-haste. It was Dr. A who started calling our Louisiana family the outlaws and the nickname stuck.
We spent many holidays with the outlaws in Red Stick over the years and are about to do so again. Louise has left the comfortable house that she shared with her late second husband Eddie to whom I pay tribute every Memorial Day at First Draft. She’s 98 now and lives at St. James Place, which is a somewhat posh retirement community. We’ll be eating in the dining room but it’s still homey; we’ve gotten to know many of the residents over the last decade. I’m lucky that Dr. A and mother-in-law #1 get on so well. Louise is also a howling liberal (to use her own phrase) so there will be no Trump-driven conflict.
Thanksgiving 2019 in Baton Rouge, however, will be tinged with sadness.
My mother-in-law’s close friend former Congresswoman Cathy Long died last Saturday at the age of 94. The two families bonded when they were neighbors in Alexandria, Louisiana in the Sixties. So much so that Cathy’s son George lived with Louise for a year so he could graduate from high school in Louisiana after his father Gillis returned to Congress.
I got to know and love Cathy when Dee and I lived in Washington. We stayed with the Longs while the ink on the lease of our Foggy Bottom apartment dried. Her husband, the late Louisiana Congressman Gillis Long, was intimidating on first meeting. I was, however, interested in the family business: politics. I spent hours talking to Mr. Long about everything under the political sun including his unsuccessful runs for Governor in 1963 and 1971 and how he survived as a liberal congressman in central Louisiana: Constituent service was the answer.
Cathy often said that Mr. Long liked me because I was one of the few young people who wasn’t afraid of him. I *was* intimidated by his piercing gaze and brilliant mind but did a good job of hiding it. He was always Mr. Long, not Gillis, to me, even now some 34 years after his death. I’ll write more about Mr. Long another time. He’s not as well-remembered as his second cousins Huey and Earl or third cousin Russell but he deserves to be according to this biased observer.
Cathy ran for, and won, her husband’s seat in Congress after his death but served only one term. It’s a pity; she was even more liberal than Mr. Long. She was also a major character with a distinctive birdlike voice that I can almost hear as I write this.
Cathy was a pistol: the worst driver I’ve ever backseat driven with, but she loved helping people. To this day, I have a Congressional trunk she gave me that we use as a coffee table. Dr. A used to joke that Gillis Long’s remains were inside. I’m not the only one with a dark sense of humor in the family.
Catherine Small Long was a kind, caring, and compassionate woman who will be missed by everyone whose life she touched. My condolences to her children, George and Janis, and the rest of her family.
Here’s a picture of Gillis and Cathy Long around the time I met them:
I sat down to write a nostalgic food-centric column and ended up explaining my tangled family tree as well as various Louisiana tributaries. So, it goes. I never hide the fact that I was a widower at a young age, but I only tell people when asked how I came to the Gret Stet of Louisiana from California by way of Washington D.C. It’s a long and painful story but I’m fortunate to have married well twice.
I still miss my mother. She could dance on my last nerve, but I miss our long conversations and teasing her about her crazy dog Brutus. I learned how to listen from her and how to schmooze from my father.
Mothers are powerful. They have the ability to make you revert to childhood. I know that many of your mothers get on your nerves. It’s what they do. Shrug it off and remember that they won’t always be with you.
Around the holidays is when I miss my mom and Dr. A misses her charming, beautiful, and eccentric mother, Eileen. Mother-in-law #2, however, was not a good cook and expected us to consume the radishes she’d lovingly cut. I hate radishes but her company was the best.
The last word goes to Fairport Convention with the gorgeous Richard Thompson song that gave this column its title:
Here’s another one from the songwriter. It’s a day for gluttony, after all: