Lettres d’amour: Raconte

Learning about South Louisiana culture through storytelling in the car, kitchen and camp

Stories have always been part of the fabric of my life growing up in South Louisiana. It’s how my family passed time. No matter what any of us were supposed to be doing — driving from Houma to Gatlinburg, Tennessee for family vacation, cooking a big meal for Sunday dinner, doing chores at the camp or finishing homework so we could run outside to play — there was always a story flowing to keep us in place.

Five or six times a year, my folks would get together in a neighbor’s garage with all the other old people from our street for a crab boil/homegrown-fais-do-do. And, man, the stories would fly. Many of my favorite childhood memories are of neighbors riffing on all the times they’d made honte in the past. 

My mom must’ve told the one about my aunt busting into the kitchen during a hurricane screaming “Alphonse is dead!” 100 times. Mom said everyone was running around crying and pulling on their hair over poor old Alphonse before somebody thought to ask my aunt who Alphonse was. She was as confused as everyone else: “Alphonse? I don’t know. But our phones is dead!” Then my aunt had to tell the one about how Mom only fessed up to kicking a Swedish meatball under the china cabinet during a Christmas party because they found that meatball 20 years later all dried up under the cabinet when the men were moving furniture.

For true, these stories have lived long, vivid lives in my memory. But what has really stayed with me is what occurred around the storytelling. Almost everything I’ve learned about South Louisiana culture I’ve learned while listening to these stories. No one ever had to teach me how to boil or peel crabs, because I learned firsthand watching my father while those stories unfolded. I never had to watch a cooking show to find out how to make rice and gravy or a good roux or Dripolator coffee, because all that was happening in the kitchen while my mother dished old time family dirt. I never had to turn to books to learn about Cajun assimilation, because while my parrain was sorting shrimp in the boat he told me stories about being dragged to the English school when he was a kid and punished for using his French.

When people ask me how I became a poet growing up in Terrebonne Parish, I always tell them I have an obligation to the people and the place where I was raised, an obligation to tell its story, to honor it by archiving moments that define what it means to be a South Louisianan. Every poem I’ve written comes from that urge to pay tribute to the rhythms of those garage dances and all the magic stories they left in my heart.

About the author: Jack B. Bedell is currently serving as Poet Laureate, State of Louisiana, 2017-2019. He is the author of nine collections of poetry including his most recent, “No Brother, This Storm” (Mercer University Press, 2018).