Our three oldest boys were given to us in three stair-stepped years, like Irish triplets. When they were all under the age of five, and we loaded up the minivan for a road trip, it was like preparing to travel as a circus, complete with small dwelling places, swings, and pumping machinery. We were a spectacle. At gas stations, I carried one kid like a football, wore another one on my back, and kept track of the third by placing my pinky in his little hand. Across the south—Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana—people blessed my heart, said things like, “Oh Lord, Mama. Three boys are a handful!” And they were right, but because we had close family across state borders, it was worth the insanity.
Back then, we still had Black Bayou. Seth’s mom’s side of the family still had that back wall of windows at Grandmom and Grandad’s place, and we could watch the sun rise and set over the water from the long table. According to the time of day, we sat together with either coffee or gin watching anhingas and egrets. The picture windows showed a tree canopy that had been crafted over decades, spread tall and wide. The hostas arched out in artful layers against feathery grasses. We were married so young that my memories of us there are full of energy, even with all the kids. Seth was more handsome and I more beautiful than either of us realized, and we were still handling life with two grabby-happy hands, gobbling up what we could—food, wine, design, charm, a sense of place, welcome, each other. We did what it took to be among the family in that particular place because there were miracles among us there, transformations that changed our family trajectory, and still some in the works. We didn’t want to miss a thing.
If we were together as a family at all, we were celebrating. I wasn’t used to it at first, because I did not come from a celebrational people as much as I did a survivalist people. But Grandad began supper prayers by leading us in the Doxology, and we sang it in harmony and looked in each other’s eyes, squeezing hands, before he bellowed, “Bless this food to thy use and us to thy service, and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others.” (Grandad’s big southern drawl rendered “thy” as “dy,” and some family members still say it that way, forever and ever amen.) Then everyone laughed and filled plates and drank wine and poked fun at each other’s politics and seemed to call all of it holy. I wasn’t used to it. It made me uncomfortable, all this celebrating and feasting and irreverent joking, even though I loved it. My upbringing— particularly as it related to things of faith—was straight- faced, reasoned, and focused on rightness. The prayers before meals were no less holy. They were just quieter and truly grateful for the food. Feast was never a word we used.
At that table, the men were the ones who’d hunted for the meat we ate (something familiar to me), but in Louisiana, the men were also the ones who cooked it. It was not so much upscale as it was so delicious that you’d sell a kidney to have the chance to eat it. Here are some of the meals I recall: crawfish over angel hair pasta; duck gumbo; red beans and rice; steamed shrimp; smothered quail. With all of it, there was plenty of wine, plenty of gin, and decades of laughter.
Grandmom and Grandad’s Louisiana table will always be my favorite table, carved walnut and long enough for their four kids to bring their kids who also brought theirs. It was the living table of a great-grandmother, and she set it with southern precision, in decadent layers of greenery and understated class. We transitioned into true adulthood as we listened to stories around that table. There was always a primary topic to discuss, everyone had their say if they could fit into the conversation, and every disagreement—and there was plenty of disagreement—was good-natured because we were family.
Going to visit my people was very different. We’re a lot more country than Seth’s family, who is a bit more country club. We centered life on the table in Alabama too, but I grew up more in a skillet cornbread kind of way, down long dirt roads around people who filled their cellars with preserved food instead of bottles of wine. My people are from hills and barn raisings and bottle-fed calves, and I have a great deal of pride in that. This accounts for my toughness, my humor, my closeness to the natural world, my ability to cut somebody who’s up to no good, and my ability to survive on cheese and saltine crackers with a little dab of hot sauce. Seth’s people are from boggy waters, Spanish moss, clinking glasses, and a right place to put a fork. Both had their share of secrets and shadows. Neither was better or worse than the other. They were just different (except in the realm of hot sauce), and when I became Seth’s wife, I was fascinated by the spectrum of what it meant to be who we are as Seth and Amber Haines.
I took to his people easily, and they took to me. I had never been called a princess before Grandad, and though I tended to hate talk like that (because I want to be taken seriously, not fluffily), I believed him when he said it to me. I was loved, and I was a granddaughter there. And maybe even on some mornings with a cup of coffee looking out at the quiet waters, just for a soft little minute, I was a princess, albeit a smart princess in pants. That sense of place his grandparents created taught me good things about myself that I hadn’t known before. They were true of me without going to Louisiana, but going there helped me see them and live them out.
Grandmom was already sick when I met Seth, but her decline was slow enough that we still had time to learn from her. Once she was gone, we still gathered and tried to set the table in her way, but it wasn’t the same. Grandad still sang to great-grandbabies, rocking them in his chair, but the deep grief of losing his lover set in thick. When we lost him and the house sold, nothing could have prepared me for the realization that some tables are only for a season.