Last night the family had a shrimp boil. It was the perfect night for such a soirée. The air was warm. The sun was a red billiard ball on the horizon. The sky was fingerpainted with gold.
Cousin Bentley was our tireless hostess. She shucked corn, washed potatoes, quartered onions, buttered the French bread, squeezed the lemons, stocked the ice chests, arranged the picnic tables, prepared the dessert platter, carried the heavy coolers, and refilled everyone’s drinks.
Then, her husband dropped the shrimp into the pot and got all the credit.
The evening came alive with voices of the past. There were cousins from the Carolinas, Alabama, and Florida, all gathered around a battered Coleman cooler, rehashing ancient history.
And as usual, I forgot to take pictures. My wife says I always forget to take photos during special occasions. I guess this is because I’m usually too busy running my mouth.
Which is what I was doing during the conversation with one elderly aunt. This particular aunt was sipping from a tall insulated aluminum cup. She is also a Deepwater Baptist who knows all four verses to “Almost Persuaded.”
I asked what was in her cup, she said it was water. But I looked closely and could see that it was indeed red wine.
“That’s not water,” I pointed out. “You’re drinking wine.”
“Well, hallelujah,” she exclaimed. “He’s done it again.”
Of course everyone has aged since the last time we’ve seen each other. This means people are always telling you how good you look. The irony here is that these people never told you how good you looked back when you actually looked good.
When it was time to eat, we dumped seafood from the stockpot with a grand flourish. The heap of fare steamed with the unforgettable aroma of eau du Old Bay seasoning. A smell that is the essence of childhood on the Gulf Coast.
A prayer was said before supper. The cousins bowed heads and grew silent. Cousin Jim was our impromptu chaplain for the evening. He uttered a Presbyterian-style blessing. And we prayed for everyone. The old and young. The newborn and infirm. For the people we like, and those who stink.
And we prayed for my mother-in-law who is currently lying in her sickbed, nearing the end of life. The hospice nurses say she is very close to her final hour, but for some reason, she keeps “hanging on.” This hanging-on stage is tough.
Everyone took a moment of silence. Someone sniffled. My wife squeezed my hand and covered her mouth. And my mind wandered backward in time. To a time when we were younger.
Not long after we married my wife and I threw a big crawfish boil and invited our friends and family. Someone had the genius idea of putting me in charge of cooking. Big mistake.
I was a major dork back then. I still am, but it was worse in those days. Which is why I still can’t look at my wedding pictures without cringing; I looked like I came to the ceremony directly from a NASCAR cup series.
Anyway, I wasn’t a total newbie when it came to cooking. I had worked in commercial kitchens. I knew my way around a cutting board and I had my black belt in handling seafood. But—and this is a big but—I had never facilitated a crawfish boil before. I had no earthly clue what I was doing.
Even so, guess what? It didn’t matter. Because I don’t remember ever having more fun than we did that evening. I manned the boiler, stirring with a big wooden oar, wearing a funny hat, cracking jokes. I drank from a bright red koozie which read “Alabama’s State Flower is the Satellite Dish.”
When it came time to add the seasoning to the boil, I simply used the Dietrich seasoning method—I dumped in about six pounds of Old Bay “hot” seasoning and half my beer.
When we emptied the stockpot onto tables lined with newsprint, I immediately realized that I had committed culinary manslaughter. The potatoes and corn were still raw. And I had used enough Old Bay seasoning to send six elderly aunts to the gastroenterologist with peptic ulcers.
But do you know what I remember most about that night? I remember the prayer beforehand.
It was much like last night’s prayer, only with different names. I remember praying for people we loved. For the ill, for the departing, and for those who mourned. I remember cousins sniffling at the mention of certain people. I remember holding hands. I remember the gentle sound of bay water. And I distinctly remember wondering what all the older folks were so nostalgic about.
Well, now I know.
I only wish someone would have told me then how fast life moves. Because maybe I would have remembered to take more pictures.