Parades and carnival remind me of my Louisiana childhood, but in truth, I had two childhoods. My first was in a small town, on a street where my grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, and 20+ cousins lived. Our house as always full of people visiting, talking, eating. We evacuated for hurricanes, which is fun when you’re a little kid. When I started school, I ran for the bus from our front porch because we listened to songs on the radio until the very last second. I once burst my eardrum jumping off the front porch. A tragedy happened that I did not remember for many years. My little brother and I played in the cool dirt beneath my grandma’s raised house. It was a frenetic, busy, everybody-knows-your business way to live.
My second childhood began when I was in second grade and my father and a professional carpenter built a house “up the bayou” and out of the flood zone. It was sugar cane and cow country, vastly different from a tight-knit family neighborhood. Our new house was surrounded by sugar cane fields on two sides, a bayou in the front, and cattle pasture in the back. Our closest neighbor was my father’s grandfather. When we moved, my great-grandfather Luke was 88. I was 8. He was old but he didn’t act old. He planted a huge garden, maintained a small citrus grove, had an old blacksmith shop that terrified me, and once–in his 90s–shot an armadillo under his porch. His back yard was dominated by a massive live oak that was struck in half by lightning during a hurricane.
My parents worked, so my siblings and I were on our own after school and all summer. We played together, settled our own disputes, rode our bikes on tractor paths, and spent long, lazy afternoons reading and watching TV. It was the total opposite of living in a family neighborhood. My two very different childhoods prepared me for life as a storyteller, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Back to Grandpa Luke. I went off to college, and while I was gone, Grandpa Luke passed away. He was 100 years old. He was raised speaking French, spoke English as an adult, but reverted back to French when he was elderly. Though I had many memories of him from when I was young, I didn’t know a lot about him. I’m ashamed to say that, as a young adult, investigating my family’s past didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.
I moved away from Louisiana when I was almost thirty. I have never returned, other than for visits, and in stories. As I got older and my relatives began to die off, the storyteller in me began to realize that, with each lost relative, part of our family history was disappearing. There was no real family historian, so I decided to take on that role. I was late in starting, but I was determined to recover and preserve what I could. I started with the oldest relative I had known–Grandpa Luke. I interviewed my father and gathered as much information–backstory for you writer types–as I could. Now my father is gone. If I had not done that interview, what he told me about Grandpa Luke might be lost for good.
Why the walk back to the past today? Every year, I do a project during Lent called 40 Days of [something]. I’ve done 40 days of book reviews, 40 days of worksheets, 40 days of writing questions, 40 days of submissions. This year, I’m not going to do a 40 Days project, but I will do a short version. Return tomorrow and you’ll find out what my 40 day project will address. If you haven’t already guessed, the hints are right in front of you.
Also, if you are interested, PBS’ American Portrait is a new initiative that celebrates PBS’ 50th anniversary by preserving and sharing stories from everyday Americans. Why don’t you add one of yours?