A week before Mardi Gras, I drove from New Orleans deep into the Acadian rice and crawfish fields of Louisiana with my friend Charley Allen, a Pelican State native. After interviewing musicians, a belly dancer and relatives of a long-dead 12-year-old girl under consideration for sainthood, I drove back east with Charley’s mother.
It wasn’t supposed to go like that but that’s the way of road trips. Always carry a pocketful of Plan Bs along with your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. More on Mama later.
In Baton Rouge, I watched an adult turtle crawl across a gas station parking lot. I have no idea what kind of turtle (26 types of testudines are native to Louisiana) only that it was in harm’s way. Two employees of the Bengal Chevron near the airport were having trouble nudging this errant cousin of the dinosaur into a long-handled dust pan.
They held the pan, I nudged the turtle with my shoe and it went. The younger of the men carried the pan to a swampy ditch on the shoulder of an eight-lane highway. As soon as he lowered it, the creature disappeared into a submerged drainage pipe. Watching it take to the water – if not home, at least safe from a Ford F-150 – was a wonder.
Waiting to fly back to the shores of the Patapsco, I sat in bright February sunshine to reflect on a week of strange, solemn and wonderful moments. The journey took me from the Crescent City alley where Faulkner wrote his first book – Soldier’s Pay – to the vast Cajun countryside.
Base camp was a construction worker’s pay-by-the-week hotel near the Vermilion River in Lafayette. At a place called T’Coons – patois for ‘Little Racoon’ where the menu is “Not just rice and gravy!” – we had breakfast with an old LSU friend of Charley’s named James Wallace.
Wallace is the grandson of “Creole Seasoning” legend Tony Chachere who died at age 89 in 1995. Chachere’s mix of spices is the Old Bay of Louisiana. As the iconic Baltimore seasoning is now found in kitchens across the country, so is the potion de Chachere.
Before playing a Dundalk Mardi Gras party last month, Cajun exile and accordion player Corey Arceneaux – now of Fairfax, Virginia – said food is what he missed most about Louisiana. Born in Carencro, Arceneaux will get a hankering for the tastes of home and “go over to the Dollar Store and pick up some Chachere’s.”
Said Wallace of his grand-père who perfected the secret blend of red pepper, black pepper, chili pepper and what-have-you, “He was just a guy who cooked out in the [Atchafalaya] basin when he went hunting and fishing. He’d mix up some stuff and then he wrote a cookbook.”
Sounds like the late great Frances Kitching of Smith Island fame to me.
After eggs, biscuits and gravy and coffee out of yellow mugs that said, “Mello Joy: The Original Cajun Coffee,” we bid Wallace adieu and headed west. With hundreds of geese overhead – one Flying V after another – we rolled through towns smaller than many Baltimore neighborhoods.
We passed Spanky’s Small Engine Repair, while listening to the Balfa Brothers sing La danse de Mardi Gras, the morning sun sparkling across rice fields flooded for crawfish season, earth green and brown across Mamou, Mowata (home of Mo’Crawfish) and Mermentau.
Egan, Estherwood and Eunice. Church Point, Castile and Crowley, the last the home of Bobbie Miller, a longtime friend of Charley’s mom back when their husbands played football at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, just before the Texas border.
We were looking for anyone who might know the friends and family of Charlene Richard, the 12-year-old Cajun Catholic who, it is said, cheerfully endured a painful death from acute lymphatic leukemia in 1959.
Charlene, those who knew her say, offered her suffering for the healing of others. From the time she passed, locals began attributing miracles to Charlene’s intercession. After more than half-a-century of devotions to a kid who loved basketball, stood up to bullies and danced to rock-and-roll in her socks, the Vatican took notice.
The cause for Charlene’s canonization gained momentum this past December when a “postulator” (sort of a Catholic detective of the supernatural) arrived from Rome to oversee her exhumation. That story was the reason for the trip.
Villagers, be they in an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story set in a Polish shtetl or the “Frog Capital of the World” (Rayne, Louisiana, about a half-dozen miles from Bobbie Miller’s front door), know everyone and just about everything. And that proved true in Crowley.
We nibbled on pralines made by Bobbie’s sister Carol as chicken and venison sausage (from a deer killed by Bobbie’s husband Ronnie, known as “Country”) simmered on the stove. In a moment, neighbor Priscilla (“T’Lou”) Gotreaux was in the kitchen making a call to Charlene’s brother John.
The next morning – Saturday, February 11 – Charley and I were in John Richard’s kitchen, sipping coffee with homemade cake from figs grown in the yard. John quietly held court, telling tales of his celebrated sister, “the most extraordinary ordinary person I ever knew.”
On the dining room table were relics from the exhumation – a lock of hair, a chip of a bone, and the remnants of the rosary in her hands when she was buried. John could not have been more gentle and generous, his wife Lorita as well. The path to canonization (Charlene has long been considered a saint in Acadia) is long and circuitous, but the Richards are patient in their faith.
“Mardi Gras today is not the Mardi Gras that it was,” said John, 78, a retired nurse two years older than Charlene. “When we were kids we celebrated Mardi Gras on horseback and the captain of the dance might give kids a chicken and some rice. The women would pluck the chicken and cook it with some sausage for gumbo.”
That afternoon we attended Mass with John and Loria at St. Edward Catholic Church and afterward visited Charlene’s grave next door. At least one person – many from around the world – arrives every day to kneel in prayer, as did Charley and I.
Though it was cold and rainy that night, Charley could not cotton being in Louisiana at carnival time without seeing a parade. I went back to the room to read about Charlene and he met up with old friends, coming back in a fright wig, about five pounds of beads and a pirate sword from the Krewe of Rio fete. But somehow, not the keys to the truck.
Did we offer a petition to Charlene? That seemed a silly request given what we’d experienced all weekend. Instead we went to the old parochial school standby: Saint Anthony of Padua (for whom the Frankford Avenue parish in Gardenville is named), the saint of all things lost and stolen.
Anthony [1195-1231] must have been at his own parade because we never found the keys. And that’s how I wound up going east on Interstate-10 with Charley’s mom, Rachel “Shelly” Friedman.
As only a good mom can, Shelly happily drove a spare set of keys from Belle Chasse south of New Orleans to Lafayette, gave her son a hug and a kiss, and then drove me to a hotel next to the gas station in Baton Rouge where the turtle was trying to cross the road.
On Shelly’s mother’s side, a great-grandmother arrived in Louisiana from Spain, which held the colony from 1762 to 1801. Her father’s ancestors – the Cubich family – were Croatians who settled there from Yugoslavia.
“Of course my mom made gumbo,” said Shelly. “But she also made tripe stew for my dad. It was disgusting.”
Rafael Alvarez is now in France, traveling south from Paris to Marseille. Upon his return, he will report on adventures there. Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com