It’s 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in early May, and the air inside the New Orleans airport smells like fried shrimp, mildew, and a hint of the Gulf. It’s a comforting smell, at least to me, and every time I fly down here from California, the first thing I do after stepping off the plane into the terminal is inhale deeply.
If I were here by myself, I’d be on the road by now, easing into the Crescent City or flying down Highway 90 towards New Iberia, where my friends live. But this trip is different: I’m on a mission. I’m meeting my mother, my dad, and my sister, Jennifer, whom I just started talking to after a two-year estrangement. I’m taking them on a drive along the Boudin Trail.
We have a lot to heal on this trip.
Jennifer’s flight from Connecticut is scheduled to arrive 20 minutes after mine. We’ve agreed to meet in baggage claim. The carousel has just lurched to life and suitcases are sliding down the black conveyor belt when I spot Jennifer at the top of the escalator. For years we both wore short Afros. People assumed we were twins. Three years ago, Jen decided to grow pencil-thin dreadlocks, and now they cascade across her shoulders. I can’t help but stare. Even in jeans and a V-neck T-shirt, she looks downright regal.
It’s odd to think of my mom and my sister being here in this place I’ve laid claim to. Louisiana is mine and I’m not eager to share it. I cringe at the thought of having to show them around the city, taking them to the restaurants and shops I frequent, the out-of-the-way spots most tourists know nothing about. I’m being selfish, I know. If my Louisiana friends had been this closed-hearted with me, I’d still be a tourist, wandering down Bourbon Street with a fishbowl filled with green alcohol hanging from a cord around my neck.
My dad is the person I should really thank for introducing me to Louisiana. He was born and raised in Elton, a tiny town 190 miles to the west. And even though he hated almost everything about his life down here — hated the humidity and the grass growing up between cracks in the sidewalks; hated how every man in his family was pastor of a storefront church; hated Louisiana so much that he left the night of his high school graduation, set out for California and never looked back — he returned every spring to take his mother on a road trip. Grand Isle, Holly Beach, Natchitoches. Any place they could get to and back from in four days — which was all the time he could stand before he started remembering why he left in the first place. When I was in college, he invited me to tag along, and even after my grandmother died, I kept coming back.
Unlike my dad, I loved the heat and the crumbling buildings overtaken by kudzu. I loved the endless hours my aunts, uncles, and cousins spent in church. I loved Louisiana’s earthiness, her accents and her twisting bayous. I loved it all.
So while I wait for my bags, I give myself a little pep talk — Come on, Baszile, lighten up. This will be fun. By the time Jennifer steps off the escalator, I’m feeling generous.
“Hey, Wench,” I say and hug my little sister.
“Hey, Wench,” Jen says, hugging me back.
This is our standard hello, the way we’ve greeted each other since we were teenagers. But we haven’t used the greeting at all lately, and I can tell Jen is as nervous and relieved as I am to say the words. We used to be close. Used to call each other every day, sometimes two or three times a day, and then suddenly, two years ago, we stopped speaking. At the time, I was struggling to write my novel, going to grad school, and raising kids. Jennifer was divorcing her husband, writing a memoir, and leaving her university job. I don’t remember the details of the argument, only that one day, neither of us picked up the phone. Days stretched into weeks. Weeks stretched into months. We didn’t speak when her book was published or when my oldest daughter delivered her middle school graduation speech. We didn’t speak when my dad’s cancer came back a second time.
It was only after my dad landed in the hospital with failing kidneys that we finally reconciled. It would be a shame if you two reconciled over your father’s deathbed. That’s what my husband told Jen when he called to intervene. She called me a couple days later to say she was coming to San Francisco for a conference. She asked if we could meet. I drove to her hotel near the airport and saw her through the plate glass windows in the lobby. Before I could park, she was outside, standing beside my car.
An hour later, my mother arrives dressed in pleated pastel slacks and white patent loafers, a black quilted carry-on slung over her shoulder. She greets us with her signature beauty contestant wave and flashes a toothy smile.
“Here they are,” she says, standing on her toes to kiss us. “My two girls.” She runs her hands through Jennifer’s dreads, fingering the tiny cowrie shell dangling from one of them.
“Where’s dad?” I ask.
Jennifer massages her temples. Her tone is somber. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“Got him right here,” Mom says, and pats her carry-on conspiratorially.
A trip along the Boudin Trail was my idea. Three years ago, a friend sent me an article listing all the boudin — the mix of seasoned pork, beef, or crawfish and rice all stuffed into a sausage casing — in South Louisiana. The article linked to a website showing every grocery store, restaurant, gas station, and roadside stand along the 200-mile strip between New Orleans and Lake Charles. If you planned right and had the stomach for it, the article said, you could hit every establishment in a single weekend, three days tops. The moment I finished the article, I called my dad.
“How’d you like to take a trip along the Boudin Trail?” I asked.
My dad was into slow food and “nose-to-tail eating” decades before the lifestyle became fashionable and trendy. “Black folks practically invented slow food,” he liked to say. As a kid growing up in South Louisiana, he hunted raccoons, possums, and squirrels in the woods behind his house, then brought them home to his mother, who cooked them in stews. Sometimes, he shot an animal just to see how it tasted. Once, he shot and ate a crow.
“Let’s do it,” he said. “I’d like to get home one last time anyway.” He’d just been diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma for the second time.
Instead, he spent most of the next two and a half years cycling through hospitals and rehab centers, growing frailer every month. Until the cancer, he’d never spent a night in a hospital, never broken a bone. By then end, he couldn’t walk from the family room to the kitchen, couldn’t hold a fork.
Now it’s just the three of us: my mother, Jen, and me. Mom transferred some of Dad’s ashes from the urn she has at home into a small wooden container no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. That container is now safely zipped in a plastic Ziploc sandwich bag. We’re going to sprinkle his ashes along the Boudin Trail.
We’ve just tossed our suitcases in the trunk when Jennifer notices my food bags — two empty oversize insulated totes with heavy-duty zippers and straps wide as seatbelts.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she says.
“What?” I sound defensive. “Someone has to do it.”
Dad always brought his food bags on our road trips so he could stock up. He bought boudin but also crawfish and the andouille sausage he used in his gumbo. We’d stop in a handful of towns on our way back to my grandmother’s house, and by the time he purchased what he needed, we could barely zip the bags, each of which — between the food and the ice packs — weighed nearly 50 pounds. Dad treated his food bags like they were his children. He requested hotel rooms closest to the ice machine, monitored the bags’ internal temperature to make sure the contents stayed cold, and carried them on the plane rather than checking them as luggage.
Jennifer looks at me skeptically. “Do you even know how to cook gumbo?”
“That’s not the point.” I fold the food bags and tuck them in among the suitcases.
We’re hurtling down I-10 when we spot Don’s Specialty Meats, our first stop along the trail. Don’s used to have a single location off Highway 49 in Carencro. Recently, they built a huge operation in Scott, just off the interstate frontage road. The building looks more like a casino with its enormous neon red sign and sprawling parking lot. We pull between two monster trucks.
Mom takes the Ziploc bag out of her carry-on.
How do you sprinkle someone’s ashes in a store without alarming the proprietors or the customers? The question hasn’t occurred to us until just now. We step inside Don’s and feel the rush of air-conditioned air against our skin. The place is packed. There’s a long line of people at the counter ordering boudin to go; another dozen shoppers plunder the deep freezers and banks of refrigerators along the wall. I see no way to do this without someone noticing. And suddenly, all I can think of are the sanitation laws we’re surely breaking. I’m about to chicken out when Mom comes up behind me gripping a plastic spoon.
“I got this from the girl at the counter.” She grins.
Jennifer posts herself near the front counter and keeps watch while Mom and I wander to the back corner. Mom opens the Ziploc, lifts the lid off the wooden box, and scoops out a quarter teaspoon of what looks like tiny bits of gravel and grit. She bends low and sprinkles the cremains of my father under the last refrigerator, back far enough that no one will notice. They look pale and gray, almost like silt, against the dirty white floor tiles.
I’ve never seen Dad’s ashes before. I think back on all the years I heard Mom scold Dad for being overweight; how he loved to walk barefoot through the garden we planted behind my house because the feel of his feet in the soil reminded him of his Louisiana childhood — and my mind can’t compute. I can’t reconcile those memories with the spoonful of dust.
Mom dips the white spoon into the bag again, then looks at me. “I think we should say something.”
Her suggestion catches me flat-footed. Until now, the tone of our trip has been easy and lighthearted. We’ve cracked off-color jokes and reminisced about the time Dad glided right off the treadmill and broke his arm. We shake our heads in wonder at the time he took 12 Aleve tablets in one sitting. It’s gallows humor, we know, but it’s our way of coping. Why are we getting serious now? I wonder. Besides, Jennifer’s the better public speaker. Three years my junior, she has always possessed a seriousness, an intensity that makes most people assume she’s older. She delivered the eulogy at Dad’s memorial that had everyone in tears.
“Well, Dad,” I say, fumbling for words. “I guess this is it.”
But it isn’t it.
As I stand there listening to the refrigerators hum, I think about how, before he got sick, people often mistook him for Muhammad Ali. It was easy to do. He had the presence and personality to match. If he were here now, he’d be sauntering down the aisles, his arms loaded with frozen packages of smoked boudin and andouille sausage, never bothering to disabuse staring onlookers of their belief that he might be the real prizefighter. Now, standing under the fluorescent lights in the bustling store, I thank Dad aloud for letting me tag along on all those road trips. I tell him about my book. I tell him that Mom’s going to be okay and that Jennifer and I are talking again.
When I finish, Mom grabs my hand and squeezes.
We give Jennifer the signal — two thumbs up — and the three of us walk back to the car.
Two more stops and we’ve established a rhythm. The Best Stop Supermarket. Billy’s Boudin & Cracklins. My mother keeps the plastic spoon. We have our goodbyes down to five minutes. We pass through St. Martinville and scatter cremains in the parking lot of Joyce’s Supermarket. Rabideaux’s in Iowa doesn’t sell boudin, so it’s not officially on the trail, but we swing by anyway because Dad swore they made the best andouille in South Louisiana. It’s a tiny shop with a counter and a single display case. In a place this small we’d get busted for sure, so we mix ashes into the soil of a potted palm near the door.
The Walmart Supercenter in Jennings is our last stop before we call it quits for the night. The place is larger than three football fields, and it takes us a while to find the outdoor/sportsman section, which is where the insulated food bags are sold. As far as Dad was concerned, you couldn’t have too many, so we pick out one we think he would have liked and place it on the bottom shelf. And since we’re less concerned with sanitation, we scoop out a heaping spoonful of cremains and sprinkle them liberally underneath. The cleaning crew will mop this aisle by this time tomorrow. At least we’ve paid our respects.
The next morning we drive to Elton, Dad’s hometown. When Dad was a kid, he planted an oak sapling in his front yard. The house he grew up in has long since been razed, but the sapling is now a massive oak tree — four stories tall with roots so thick they’ve buckled the sidewalk.
Here is a scene: Two sisters stand at the base of an enormous oak — a tree their dad planted 65 years earlier. They are surrounded by 25 people — aunts and uncles and cousins; their Great-Aunt Dell, who just turned 93; and a few of their father’s childhood friends. Their cousin Antoinette steps forward and sings the first verse of “At the Cross” — their dad’s favorite hymn. Her voice is crisp and clear. A siren’s voice that rises into the oak tree’s highest branches. And when the rest of the crowd joins in the singing, the sound carries down the street and out to the road. The group sings two more hymns, both a cappella, the way black folks in the South used to sing when the girls’ dad was a boy. The moment has an old-timey feel.
When the singing stops, the sisters hold hands. They watch their Uncle Sonny dig a hole between the tree roots. Their mother places the little wooden box inside, and then their Uncle Charles fills the hole with concrete and places a small marble headstone over the spot.
It’s done. Their dad is home.
It’s a long drive back to New Orleans. Jennifer and I are speaking again, a gift of my father’s illness — but no one has much to say. We pass all the boudin joints we visited along the way, but this time, we don’t stop.
I don’t realize how different this trip has been from what I expected, how sacred it's been, till I get to the airport and see them again: my food bags.
They are empty.
This essay first appeared in Better than Fiction 2: True adventures from 30 great fiction writers.
Natalie Baszile is the author of the debut novel Queen Sugar, which is being adapted for TV by writer-director Ava DuVernay and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey for OWN, Winfrey’s cable network. Queen Sugar was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle's Best Books of 2014 and nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Natalie has an M.A. in Afro-American studies from UCLA and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. Her nonfiction work has appeared in The Rumpus, Mission at Tenth, The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 9, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She lives in San Francisco.
Natalie Baszile is the author of the debut novel, Queen Sugar, which is being adapted for TV by writer/director, Ava DuVernay and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey for OWN, Winfrey’s cable network. Queen Sugar was named one of the San Francisco Chronicles’ Best Books of 2014, and nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Natalie has a M.A. in Afro-American Studies from UCLA, and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Rumpus.net, Mission at Tenth, The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 9, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She lives in San Francisco.
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