Mom dumps two pounds of tiger shrimp into the sink.
“Not done yet.” She grins. I roll my eyes. Her house is heavy with the smells of my Gran’s Louisiana kitchen. A second pot of coffee, black as bayou water, drips in my grandpa’s tiny tin pot, jambalaya simmers on the stove, and now we’re making gumbo.
I have a family of my own now, thirty miles away. That’s fifty bumper to bumper minutes in L.A. any time, but I’m coming more often now, trying to make it up to her, leaving my three kids with a baby-sitter, once to help clean closets, once to go through old photographs, this time to get Gran’s recipes down on paper.
I start peeling shrimp while Mom pulls out the iron skillet and pours oil along the bottom. She laughs.
“What?” I ask, glad she’s happy.
“Your Gran always had pots going in the kitchen, then she’d scratch her head, go out on the screen porch, and yell, ‘Ah, John, run to the grocery and get me some okra. I wanna make us some gumbo for lunch.’ Like the etouffee and jambalaya on the stove weren’t enough.” She shakes her head and scoops flour into the heated oil, stirring it with a wooden spoon. “All that food and she’s gotta make us some gumbo for lunch.”
My mother’s voice has changed to that slow-quick clip of “Sout’ Lusiana.” Time melts back to Dupont Street where we’d spent every summer before I left home for college. I can see my Gran sitting at her kitchen table, shelling peas, snapping beans, grating coconut. Her coconut cake appeared in every parish charity cookbook for years, but since I never liked coconut, she’d always make a small cake without it just for me.
My mother doesn’t have anyone to send to the store these days, my father long gone off with a woman he’d met at church. Thinking about that now makes me angry, not for me, but for Mom. I’m all she has left, me and her grandkids, my husband too, but we’re letting her down, living on the other side of L.A.
At least she’s got Stan and Kathy next door. He changes light bulbs, plunges toilets, seeds her lawn every October. Except for tennis, his boat, and his wife, he’s infinitely more available to my mother than me. And I am grateful.
“You finished peeling yet?”
I’m not, so she swirls the flour around and says, “You keep an eye on that roux.”
She works fast on the shrimp with a small knife to uncover the sand vein. Sweat glistens between her eyebrows. She almost looks young, blue eyes shiny, cheeks flushed. The doctors gave her a ten percent chance when they found out what forty years of smoking had done to her lungs. But she fooled them. She’s still here.
The flour bubbles. When it turns dusky amber, I throw in the chopped onions. Mom adds the shrimp. The aroma coils into memory. I breathe it in. It’s heady stuff. I totter over to her desk in the corner, where I dig out a piece of paper and a sharp pencil.
“What’ve you got there?” she asks.
“Remember, I want your recipes and Gran’s. I don’t want to forget—”
Bright eyes meet mine. The unspoken doesn’t bother her as much as it does me. She places her hand on the back of my neck. “You’ll remember.”
I put my arms around her. The warm hardness of radiated muscle in her back shocks me. She’s been through it all, radiation, chemo, and where have I been?
She pulls away and smiles. “How ‘bout a quick game of gin rummy before lunch?”
We put the shrimp, okra, water, and spices on low, play cards, and talk about summers at Gran’s. What it felt like to come into icy air-conditioning after the dripping sweat of outdoors to find the icebox filled with orange Nehi and Coca Cola, to hear the shuffle of cards in the afternoon, each year something different, Liverpool Rummy, canasta, hearts, even Pokeno. I can’t remember how to play any of them anymore.
We eat lunch. The French bread I brought from the market is the only disappointment. When I mention this, my mother says, “Nothing like the bread we used to smell from Theriot’s bakery every morning.”
“I loved that, but I always worried about the aroma passing over the cemetery before it got to me.”
Mom smiled. “And I always thought the people buried there must’ve died happy because they knew they’d smell that bread for eternity.”
I look up, but she’s busy rearranging the cards in her hand.
At two o’clock, I kiss her good-bye, and she slips me a fifty-dollar bill. I hand it back and take plastic containers of gumbo and jambalaya instead. She watches me from her front porch until I drive safely around the corner.
The family mausoleum in my mama’s hometown has been on Main Street for over a hundred years, both my grandma and grandpa are here, along with aunts, uncles, cousins, each one of them remembered in etched stone. And, of course, because this is delta country, no one’s underground.
The early morning sun glints in the east above black oaks. I reach out and run fingers along the smooth, cool granite. Caress the newly carved letters of my mother’s name, then close my eyes and let the sweet aroma of French bread baking curl around me.
Gay Degani grew up spending summers at her grandmother’s house in Louisiana and cooking Cajun in her mother’s kitchen in California. She has received nominations and honors for her work, including Pushcart consideration, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. She’s published a full-length collection, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place.
Gumbo first appeared at jmww in 2010 and is included in Gay Degani’s collection, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Books, 2015).