When my mother-in-law, Ms. Larda, gets the emergency call from Aunt Chlorine in New Jersey, the first thing she packs is the red beans. Then the crab boil. Then the Tony Chachere’s. She don’t want to starve up there.
Not that anybody should take it personal, she says to me, but them people can’t cook. By them people, she means the immediate world outside of New Orleans.
Eating their food is as much fun as filling up the car with gas, she says to me. It gets the job done but you don’t get no satisfaction. Nobody who hasn’t been born in, lived in, visited or at least eaten in New Orleans knows what God meant food to taste like, she says.
I tell her there’s no accounting for taste but she just gives me a look and puts a bag of Loretta’s praline cookies in her suitcase.
I got to explain.
Aunt Chlorine lives in Trenton, New Jersey (home of Lysol) and she’s a meticulous housekeeper. That extends outside to her meticulous flowerbeds. So when she sees a stray cat, who ate God-knows-what for his dinner – probably rats – squatting to do his business in her violets, which she personally planted in top-of-the-line fertilizer from the Wal-Mart, she runs outside and yells at him to scat. And when he don’t, she gives him a kick; misses; goes down splat and cracks her ankle. While she’s clutching her ankle and saying unladylike things, the cat finishes up, calmly buries the evidence in her fancy fertilizer and ambles off. Well. It’s lucky she didn’t have a stroke to go with the cracked ankle. But she crab-walks inside on her hands and one foot and calls 9-1-1 and Ms. Larda.
This is because Chlorine’s husband, Uncle Nerd, is at a convention for science-fiction nuts in California and she knows he won’t want to rush back. So she decides this is her chance to have a nice visit with Ms. Larda and get waited on hand and foot at the same time.
Well, Ms. Larda got no choice, even though, she believes deep in her bosom, that Nerd should’ve insisted on coming home and taking care of his own wife. Ms. Larda is terrified of flying and she don’t usually set foot on a plane without starting her Novena to St. Jude for a Safe Trip nine days before she has to leave.
So she makes a flying Novena. Now, it ain’t called a flying Novena because it has to do with airplanes. It is a flying Novena because you do it in nine hours instead of nine days. It ain’t easy, because you got to say 10 Hail Marys and a bunch of other prayers every hour on the hour. In between, you only got time to drip a quick cup of coffee and run to the bathroom and then it’s time to say the prayers again. Still, it’s never been known to fail.
But when I drop her off at the airport, I can tell she’s still scared to death. I tell her to get a couple Bloody Marys at the bar but she says she can’t do that – she might be needed to help the pilot.
Besides worrying about the plane plunging out the sky because of pilot error, she’s also got to worry about terrorists. So she got to look all around at whoever else is getting on this plane to see if they look suspicious or if they’re carrying anything odd that might conceal a machine gun or maybe have a bomb under their hat. This makes her so jittery that the airline people, who’re taught that terrorists are usually nervous, flag her as suspicious and go through her purse and take away her vial of holy water from Medjugorje that she was planning to sprinkle around her seat.
But finally she gets aboard and to distract herself, pays $5 for a snack box of the kind of airline food that we all used to sneer at when they gave it to us for free. It turns out to be as bad as it always was but she’s too thrifty to throw it out, so she dumps it into this little plastic bag that she finds in the pouch of the seatback in front of her and sticks it in her purse.
After she gets to Chlorine’s and unpacks her suitcase, she throws the airplane bag of leftovers in the fridge.
And she spends a week cooking and cleaning and gossiping with Chlorine and swears to her that she read in the Dan Gill gardening column that cat leavings are actually good for violets. (This is a lie but she don’t want Chlorine to break her other ankle when the cat comes back.)
Finally, Nerd is on his way home and Ms. Larda packs up to leave. Chlorine asks her one last favor – to leave a little surprise in the fridge for Nerd, in case he’s hungry when he walks in. So Ms. Larda’s setting a bowl of bread pudding in there, when her cab honks outside and she drops it. She cleans it up quick, dumps it in the garbage, yells good-bye to Chlorine in the bedroom and beats it out of there.
Well, Nerd shows up an hour later. He had a turbulent ride from California and he’d been forced to use the airplane bag for the purpose it was intended. Chlorine tells him to look in the fridge for a surprise from Larda. He does, and he finds another airplane bag, just as appetizing as he the one he just gave to the stewardess.
Afterwards, Chlorine phones Larda and says she don’t understand it but Nerd didn’t like his surprise at all.
Larda thinks a minute; then she realizes and starts to smirk. “There’s no accounting for taste,” she says.
Ain’t that the truth.