I was born in Augusta, GA, just a couple months before my dad completed med school. He and my mom (she had a hell of a tough time moving from New Orleans to “Disgusta”), lived in the servants quarters of a beautiful, old mansion; the kind your mind conjures if you hear someone utter “old-school, monied Georgia home.” They loved living in that home, loved and came to know the family who built the beauty, and in fact started musing about their very own dreamhouse while there as the family’s younger son was an accomplished architect. I’ve always enjoyed thinking about their hopes and dreams as a newlywed couple. They had no money but they still, together, envisioned the sort of place they hoped they might someday be able to build.
When I wasn’t even six months old, we moved to Mobile, a city just as southern as was Augusta. Dad was to start his residency there, and Mom and Dad found a tiny house in Springhill, a lovely neighborhood near the university. My sister, Elia, was born in Mobile, and though my memories are vague – the sort I don’t totally trust because they could just as easily be others’ stories told to me repeatedly over the years as they could my very own recollections- I have some sense of life there. I had a good friend named Kimby, Mom and I did lots of puzzles, Hurricane Frederic wasted Mobile, I have a faint scar on my right ankle that I swear came from a jagged piece of aluminum on a fence in our yard, I went to a Montessori school and my teacher was Ms. Fink.
A few years later, it was on to -and for my mom, back to- Lake Charles, a medium-sized town in Southwest Louisiana where she’d been born and raised. Mom never planned to return to Lake Charles, but Dad was busy with a full practice, and she had the two of us little ones; the thought of having her parents nearby was compelling to say the least. I can certainly understand.
And so Lake Charles became our home and is to this day, the place Mom, Elia and I call our hometown: grade school, high school, first jobs, first boyfriends; we were all married here; this is where we return when we’re “going home.”
During their first years back here, Mom and Dad brought their dreamhouse ideas to fruition in blueprint form. Al, the architect from Augusta, drew up the plans, and slowly, as they could afford to, they made their way to the reality. First they bought a plot of land on Contraband Bayou. Do y’all know what a bayou is? For those who don’t, it’s a small waterway that often branches off from a larger body, like a lake or river. It’s more substantial than a creek or stream but definitely not on par with a real river. I like the way Wikipedia describes bayou, so if you’re so inclined, you can read more via this link. Bayous run throughout the Gulf Coast region and in my opinion, they plus marshes are what makes Louisiana coast-land so hauntingly beautiful and unique.
If you head East on I-10 from Lake Charles to New Orleans, you’ll drive over the Atchafalaya Swamp Freeway which is, perhaps, my favorite thing in Louisiana. Basically, the freeway is a many-mile (15? 20?) bridge that seems to hover just above the swamp. Cypress stumps and knees spot the water like it’s got a serious case of measles, egrets swoop down for a quick meal of fish, sometimes tiny boats of fisherman have set up camp, rods at the ready. And still you drive, mile after mile. If you’re lucky, you’ll do this in the evening with a full moon hanging heavy in the sky, as if it’s stuffed with catfish and bread pudding, happy and full.
For years, we tended our plot on the bayou, and one day Mom and Dad were able to put in a boat slip and wharf. We lived just one street over and would come visit our bare land with the beautiful, sturdy wharf keeping bayou wakes at bay. My parents nailed each board to the foundation themselves.
When we came to ski, Mom would beam with pride over the speedboat she’d always wanted, and we, our familial team, would pack it up: skis, vests, water, sunscreen, gas money, sunglasses, an oar just in case. She and Dad would take us to the Lake or to English Bayou, a glassy-smooth waterway that was often the cat’s meow for good skiing.
Mom would slalom with the purest joy, then Dad would don his single ski and jump the wake back and forth like a fish. One day he came so close to the wooden barriers surrounding a support column of a bridge that we all gasped in terror. Mom had made these hilarious, laminated signs that she stored under the boat seat cushions: one said, “Alligator in your wake;” another something like “Check your nose- boogar.” I can’t remember but even though we always knew they’d emerge, we still laughed. And laughed hard.
Elia was so tiny when she was young that we had to tie her skis together because they weighed as much as she did and her little legs couldn’t hold them in parallel until she was up. She was a champ though and soon slaloming with the best of them. I was always the nerdy holdout, scared of speed, nervous about whatever. I never could slalom but I had a good time on two skis; I still do.
When I was a junior in high school, Mom and Dad’s dream came true. The foundation of the house was laid, and for the next year, we watched it rise, just as it had two-dimensionally on Al’s beautiful plans. It was finished just weeks before my senior prom, and Mom and Dad made dinner on the back porches for 16 or so of us here that night. All the women were clad in floor-length white satin gowns, the guys in tuxes. And I sat on that very porch tonight, 19 years later, sipping a glass of wine and looking out over Contraband Bayou for the umpteenth time.
I wish I’d appreciated it all differently, more, when I was younger. That’s the crappiest part of youth: what you do and should appreciate are too often worlds apart. Yet something stuck, and much of growing up here is what I draw on now, when I look to my core and seek to find and honor my truest self. I am so happy that my boys are in some ways, growing up here too. That they have both DC and South Louisiana to reference as they mature and shape themselves. They’re sound asleep right now, and I’m heading in that direction too. Good night all.
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