Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In The Summer of My Youth

Since this month is proving to be the sweatiest July ever, what better way to escape the heat than reading a story set during post-WWII summer in hot, sticky Louisiana? My thoughts exactly! Which is why I'm very happy to introduce this week's story, The Summer of My Youth by Lyn LeJeune. This story is actually the preface to Lyn's short story collection, cleverly titled, Each In Its Ordered Place, which chronicles the lives of the Sonnier family within their small Cajun town.

Lyn LeJeune is 100% Cajun and grew up on a rice farm in Louisiana. She has been the recipient of the Paris Writers’ Institute Scholarship and a Summer Literary Seminars Fellowship in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was a finalist in the William Faulkner Novel-In-Progress prize. Her work has been published in various literary journals. Enjoy!

In The Summers of My Youth
By Lyn LeJeune

It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end.
DARL
As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
                               
 In the summers of my youth, my father woke my entire family up at exactly 4 a.m. every Saturday morning. We packed our lunch, usually pop rouge (red pop) and baloney sandwiches, piled into our old black Buick and headed to the bayous about 20 miles south of Abbeville, Louisiana. We loaded up the boat my father had built with his own hands and sped southward down the Vermilion River, into Vermilion Bay, and then hooked east to Cote Blanche Bay. There we fished for drum and red snapper and seined for shrimp.

The water was cool in the morning and only the surface warmed by lunchtime; if you plunged your hand in the water or dove in from the front of the boat, as we usually did, the water was frigid and clean and clear. Even now, when I close my eyes, I see the movement of baby shrimp, crab, sand sharks, the simple trilling of life. On the distant shore, flights of egrets and gulls and pelicans took wing, descending in search of the silver fish that nourished them, banking and circling the newly installed oil rigs. I will always remember this pure celebration of life. No child could have asked for finer days.  

When my children were young, we traveled from New England to south Louisiana so that my father could take us all to Cote Blanche Bay for a day of fishing. He was hesitant, but, as many mothers do, I wanted my children to experience those same days of joy that I had. Mothers are often na├»ve in their children’s interests. The water was dirty and fouled. Glycerin slicks and sludge and garbage floated around the boat as we
released the winch and my son walked with the boat into the water, only to make a quick retreat at what he imagined was an alligator nudging his leg. It was a rusted Shell oil can.

The land along the bayou was dotted with abandoned rigs; solitary black pumps emitted noise and the aroma of crooked civilization. Where once there had existed the loud cry of the nutria, the honk of the alligator, the call of the peregrine falcon, now there was the monotonous swish of lift pumps left to draw off oil and gas from the heart of the marshlands. What I remember most from that day is the look on my daughter’s face; it was as though I had told her a fairytale that took place in a landscape much like purgatory.

The following day, we drove from Abbeville towards New Orleans, crossing over the once pristine and life-filled Atchafalaya Basin, which had already become known as “Cancer Alley.” I felt that we had reached Dante’s seventh circle of hell.

That the levees surrounding New Orleans broke, that the bayou communities were swept away by Katrina and Rita, should have surprised no one. Stentorian alarms had been sounded for years. During the past few weeks, we’ve heard from every politician and bureaucrat on every level of government stating that one of the causes was the erosion of the wetlands and by doggit (one really said that) something must be done.

Those who have expressed surprise or play-acted their own personal incredulity are either bad liars or have long ago turned their backs on their responsibilities, giving over to the corrupting force of money and position. Even a child can see what they have refused to see and hear, what we as a people have refused to see and hear.

Is it too late to save the coast of Louisiana? I can’t answer that. But I will say this; that if we, the public, the voters, the citizens, do not hold those in power, those who hold the purse strings, those who call the shots accountable, feet tot the fire not only will we lose the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, we will lose the very life that sustains our species and this country, the wetlands.

It is not that we do not know what should be done; it is that we have lost our will to succeed at greater purposes. I fear that Katrina and Rita will become not an impetus to change but an excuse: Times are bad all over, money is tight, there are fewer and fewer jobs, war takes the resources. The federal deficit is so deep it should be called the crimson tide. Poor and not so poor and even rich countries used to come begging to us,
now we go begging and borrowing from what was once considered the “Third World” — China and South Korea and South America. When the politicians and grossly rich private sector starts thinking that the people – you know us — may not vote for them next election cycle or not buy their products, they start bandying about and using that word: you know, the one we teach out children – responsibility. Only they’ve become a little more sophisticated and all we hear now is about accountability.

Yes, someone must be held accountable for what long ago happened and is still happening to the coast of Louisiana. And someone must be made accountable for making it better. Americans know who must be held accountable, whose feet should be held to the fire until they are on fire. We don’t need a civics lesson at this late date. If we do not act, speak up, write, vote, participate, then it will be our feet, and the feet of our children, that will be on fire. And there may come a day when there will be nothing left to douse the flames. And all manner of things may not be well.

*

I began writing the story of the Sonnier family and Abbeville, Louisiana, the town where I was born, three years ago. These characters did not come to me as enlightened dreams; they came from the pure rationing of my own experience, my own shaded memories, my own inadequate and often unrequited dreams. As a writer, I am fascinated by the places in which people choose and do not choose to live their lives, especially when those people are my characters and they demand the exposure of their truths. Yet it is place that I cannot create wholly from sackcloth, whether it be gunny or white flour.

Place defines a people, a culture, and composes the threads of the fabric that is America. The vibrant thread that I bring to you, the reader, is Cajun country, that area commonly referred to as Acadiana.

I have traveled the world, walked the streets of strange and wonderful cities, but the smells, the night air, the touch of raindrops, are always and will forever be compared to my Louisiana. I am a child of the place in which I lived during the formative years of my life. I have carried in my mind, in my swift chopping hands, recipes for country dishes that, when served to friends unfamiliar with them, solicit something we all need:

Admiration. These stories are true to the people, the place, and the food, and things culturally defined become that which brings both redemption and solace. I have finally set down some of my recipes on paper, rendered like the fat from a new killed chicken, the gleaning for the gumbo, the base for the cornbread, the stuff that makes for good storytelling.

During our lifetime, the place my stories illuminate has been diminished greatly by both human hands and the unpitying winds of change. Louisiana is now defined by the following assignations: an apartheid of solace; environmental alienation; the exorcism of the grotesque; the anarchy of the family tree; and disorder. It will never again be as you read it.

5 comments:

  1. Lyn, This is beautiful, powerful and thought provoking. So many emotions are running through me right now - mostly sadness. I worry everyday about the world my daughter will inherit. It's so easy to bury your head in the sand and pretend that everything is/will be ok.

    Has your short story collection been published yet? I'd like to read more about the Sonnier family.

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  2. Lyn, thanks for this. While as a child I was always on the move from one Army base to another, I've called Orleans Parish home for most of my adult life. What's happening in the Gulf is even more disturbing to me than what happened during Katrina. My job helps me to be somewhat politically active, but I fear it is not enough, because too many people just don't care.

    I hope stories like yours will help to promote awareness. Thanks again!

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  3. Thank you for this. I love reading about New Orleans, the way it used to be, with its magical nature and incredible culture. As so many people do, I feel both incredibly angry and heartbroken at what has happened to the Gulf and to New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina and now the oil spill. The writing in THE SUMMER OF MY YOUTH is beautiful and powerful!

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  4. I think it's interesting where people choose to live their lives too. I like to think about why.

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  5. Not enough people use the verb 'to seine.'

    I grew up in Beaumont, TX, but I was born in 1981, so by the time I was old enough to set out to see the state next door, I don't know that anything was pristine.

    I still love New Orleans; that's easy. But I never had a chance to see the landscape you grew up with, at least not until things change.

    I do have to say, though, the wildlife of Louisiana has to me been the most polite of any land I've visited. Texas, Georgia, Brazil, even Wisconsin, the mosquitoes feast on me. But I have not once been bitten by a skeeter in Louisiana.

    I must not be spicy enough for their tastes.

    Great piece, Lyn. It makes me want to travel.

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