Crab Kitchen

Bayou Chico crabs smelled like earthy mud but somehow edible like a vegetable. They were amber and brown with a body about the size of my daddy’s hand  with beady shiny black BB eyes sitting atop their body. They seemed lopsided to me with one large claw on the left and an atrophied one on the right. At 5 years old, I learned from my older brothers how to pick up a crab by the back so that the claws could not pinch me.  They told me to pick it up like it was a sandwich, with my fingers on top and my thumb on the bottom, the top of the shell was hard and brittle but underneath it was soft. I had seen empty crab shells with no body home and was able to crack pieces off at the edges but the middle was thicker. There were hard points about the edges to stick you, but in the very back, they taught me to put my thumb on the bottom and lay my four fingers on top of the hard shell. Then I could pick up the crab and its claws couldn’t get me. However, they said it would wiggle so I had to hold it tight or I would drop it.

One bright spring morning about the time I was learning to pick up crabs, my brothers decided to catch crabs for mom to cook. It had to be a month with the letter ‘R’ in it for the crabs and oysters to be safe to eat, so it must have been about April. But now I know those crabs were too polluted to eat anyway. They caught one crab and brought it into the kitchen, and put it in mom’s best Nortika china bowl from the dish drainer, then placed a Nortika china plate on top. I knew something was wrong but I was just too young for it to register. Most of this story I actually do remember but it has been told so many times in my family, I truly can not remember what I remember and what I have been told. However, the crab was in mom’s Nortika china bowl and I knew someone was going to get into trouble. Mom loved her shiny kitchen and that crab was stinky and muddy. After they stashed the crab, they went back down to the water in search of more crabs.

Our house on Bayou Chico had tall pine trees in the yard and at the back edge of the yard were ten marble steps installed by my dad that cascaded down the hill to the water’s edge. The “crab kitchen” was large but cozy with knotty pine paneling and cabinets. The floor was black and white checkerboard tile with a large chrome and gray Formica table with eight chairs where we ate most of our meals. To go outside down to the water you had to go through a small den on the back of the house that had a black and white TV and a couch. The knotty pine paneling extended from the kitchen into this alcove. The wall into this alcove had two large pass through window cutouts on either side of the door that my brothers would perch in to watch TV while mom puttered around the kitchen. On the back wall off that alcove were wall-to-wall chalice windows with a chalice windowed door that led outside to the back porch.  Chalice windows have five-inch panes that overlap like roofing tiles when closed but when open, catch the breeze off the water to great effect.

This particular crab catching morning, mom had those windows opened to dry her freshly mopped floor. It smelled of ammonia still and the early morning light shone across the tiled floor to make a pattern from those chalisled windows onto that checkerboard tile like a basket weave. Mom had gone to the washing machine in the garage and to the side of the house to hang clothes on the line so she missed the crime of the crab being placed into her china bowl.

The dainty tinkle- tinkle sound the crab legs made on the china bowl was so delicate that it barely caught mom’s attention. She dismissed it. However, I knew what was making the sound. She would get a puzzled look on her face and return to cooking or cleaning. Mom’s kitchen usually smelled of onions and green peppers sautéing. Many of her favorite recipes started that way.

As she started to put the dishes up out of the dish drainer, she finally picked up that china bowl and was so surprised by the crab when she removed the plate that she flung the whole thing and screamed. Of course, it shattered and the crab was on its back flailing those claws and legs with its soft side exposed. I remember her shriek so loud that I must have started screaming too. She got the broom and was flailing the bejesus out of that crab running to the back door screaming, “Who the hell put a crab in my china bowl? Shiiiiit! Joe, Greg, John, Gary get in here right now!” she yelled out the back chaliced door down to the water. Then she sat down on the floor and started laughing so hard it scared me. All this time I was screaming and crying and I guess I started laughing too so that when the bravest of my brothers came in, they started laughing at the broken china bowl, the comical upside down flailing grab and mom on the floor with a broom in hand disheveled. I think their laughing at her was what got them in the most trouble.



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Mental Illness Runs in My Family But Gave Me Wings to Fly

Mental Illness Runs in My Family but Gave Me Wings to Fly

Mom didn’t like the TV channel and said, “This is my house and I’ll watch what I damn well please”. She walked across the living room to change the black and white TV back to the news. The TV had aluminum foil rabbit ears and as she adjusted back to its location to tune in Walter Cronkite, in one elegant move, Joe Alan, mom’s first born 18 year old son flew off the couch, across the room and crushed her hand and the aluminum foil in his. He was 6 foot and a star running athlete in high school; she was 5 foot 6 and had a nurse’s soft round body. As he crushed her left hand, his right hook connected with her eye and her face disappeared under flowing blood.

We had just settled into our new home on Limoges Way. My single parent mom had qualified for an FHA loan with government payment help. It was twice as much house as she could afford and brand new, but she needed the space for the four of us. It was the summer of 1968 between my 5th and 6th grade and I would start a new school at Brentwood Middle School in the fall. The phone was not connected yet and the building lots on either side of us had lumber, piles of bricks and stick houses that were still under construction. We had no immediate neighbors yet.

Mom cried for help but my brother Greg and I fled. I was in the back yard trembling in the fetal position leaning against the sun-warmed brick. I had my fingers in my ears, crying softly. Mom walked down the now darkened block to the closest neighbor for the first time. I heard Joe change the channel from Walter Cronkite.

Joe was taken away that summer evening when the police arrived and I didn’t see him again until Thanksgiving in Defuniak Springs. Joe was committed to Chattahoochee State Hospital diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Mom had 40 internal stitches in and above her eye. I was sent away to my Grandma’s in Defuniak Springs the next week while mom sorted things out and healed. My grandma was blind from glaucoma. She knew Braille and had a Braille bible. At first I was fascinated but became bored with the small town and inactivity. The park was so antiquated; it still had “For Whites Only” inscribed in the concrete drinking fountain. The best thing about grandmas was the sleeping porch upstairs. She and my grandpa were unable to climb the stairs and I spent many hours up there looking through old Life magazines and daydreaming. I guess I was angry and confused at having to leave my new home when I had just made new friends.

There was a spittoon in every room at grandmas which I thought gross. They could barely take care of themselves much less a preteen and I did not feel welcomed. I called my mother and begged to come home. She called my uncle Gil in Lake Charles, Louisiana and I went to stay with him. He was much more interesting. He had dated Aunt Margie for 8 years – meeting her in exciting places like Mexico City and Paris over the years and they’d finally gotten married. They had been married about 6 months when I arrived on the greyhound bus. Aunt Margie’s first assignment was to have my hair styled and buy me new clothes. Afterward, we went to the country club where we played bingo and I won a bottle of Sherry. It was much more interesting than at grandmas. Their apartment building had a pool and Aunt Margie taught me etiquette such as how to set a table properly and stick my finger out while holding a cup of tea. My uncle Gil was an alcoholic but he was so much fun. He called me “The Great Vivian”. By the time summer was over, I didn’t want to go back home. Unfortunately, when I left, Aunt Margie left also. There marriage failed and they went back to meeting in exotic places. Even though they divorced, I saw Aunt Margie again many years later at my Uncle Gil’s funeral in Lake Charles.

It was our family tradition to spend Thanksgiving Day in Defuniak Springs at Grandma’s. That Thanksgiving, my mother’s sisters and brothers took over a small hotel in Defuniak. My brother Joe was out of Chattahoochee on a good behavior pass. He and I had to share a room. At first I was afraid of him, but I saw how docile and sweet he was from the medication. I felt sorry for him- he was not the Joe I remembered. That night, I dreamt of the beautiful green grounds in Chattahoochee at the Florida State Hospital and I dreamt of an Indian that was there with him but it was an American Indian not the image of his doctor from India. It was a peaceful dream and I felt melancholy when I awoke but I also felt like I had had a vision. He would be okay. Life would be okay.

The next day for Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, my Aunt Erna gave me a Christmas present of pierced earrings. My Aunt June had flown in from California, which she hardly ever did. My Uncle Gil gave me a real oil painting of a daisy to put on the wall above my daisy patterned bed spread. Even my Aunt Enda was there and brought gifts. My Uncle David gave me a bible. I met my cousin Bibb and Sandy Roney. Bibb and Sandy took me under their wing. Looking back, I felt the love of family holding me aloft as I was getting my own wings.


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