There is a scene from my childhood that replays in my head often. It’s not of me crossing the goal line and scoring a winning touchdown in a championship football game or knocking a walk-off home run out of the park to win a Little League championship game or even rescuing a drowning puppy from a fast-flowing creek. None of that ever happened in my childhood. The scene that replays in my head fairly often is my mother, brother and me in our church parking lot with the hood of our car open, dripping gasoline into the carburetor in an effort to get her car to crank.
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That process was a little embarrassing to me. Other families were walking to their cars, hopping in, turning the key and driving home from church. During the time we had that car and it was having that problem, it was a little more complicated for us. One of us would have to open the hood, unscrew the air filter lid, remove it and drip a little gas down into the carburetor while my mom turned over the ignition.
In a way, it’s a scene that defined my childhood. I don’t look back at it in a negative way. Not at all. It’s just how it was.
I grew up with a single mom. My dad died when I was 6 years old and my brother was 10 years old. Our mother never remarried and raised my brother and me on an art teacher’s salary. She did an excellent job. And trust me, it was not an easy undertaking, as my teen years were certainly no cakewalk.
If someone were to go back in time to study my family unit and our life, that five-minute scene in the church parking lot would be an excellent microcosm and definitive look into our family.
I think that scene in the church parking lot is such a strong memory because — in one capsulized moment — it showed who we were and what we were about. It showed my mother, headstrong and resilient, not necessarily having the best of things, but never bemoaning the fact that the car wasn’t the finest. It showed her determination to be a good parent as she was going to get her boys to church whenever the doors were open — Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and for whatever Saturday morning activity was scheduled.
A time-traveling onlooker to that scene would also see my older brother with the hood up getting the car started. He was always more handy with those type things. Still is. In many ways, he took on the role of an older brother and a father with me. I would have been in the backseat bouncing all over the place and talking incessantly, and probably ducking my head a little in embarrassment when a girl from my class walked by with her family.
The car was a 1972 yellow Plymouth Sport Fury, two-door with cloth seats that always smelled like our cocker spaniel Buffy. I know this because I was usually in the backseat with the dog. My mother and brother always sat up front.
Recently, I’ve been spending some time looking back into my youth. Again, I had an excellent childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s childhood. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in the Hillendale neighborhood of Hattiesburg was a wonderful experience that holds nothing but the absolute fondest of memories for me.
We were a Plymouth family and a cocker spaniel family. People in my neighborhood stayed true to their dog breed as much as they stayed true to their automobiles. We had cockers. The Hemeter family next door always had Scottish terriers. The Foote family across the street had Labrador retrievers. Behind them were the Normans who always had poodles, as did the Roberts. The Lennon family next door to them just had a lot of cats.
Dog breeds and cars were our neighborhood denominations. People also made similar decisions with shopping. There were two independently owned departments stores — Waldoff’s and Fine Brothers. People took sides with their clothing and jewelry as well.
I have told my kids that the choices they make in life are going to define them. And one slight bad decision can lead them down a road of trouble. I made a lot of bad decisions in my youth. I have tried to make up for those as an adult.
There are many things that define a person. Sometimes it’s the decisions that we make. Sometimes those decisions are made for you. It’s life. Things happen, you adapt and you do your best to move forward.
Life is filled with problems. A successful life is one where problems are well-handled. I was blessed to have been raised by a tough, headstrong and resilient mother, and to have had a brother who was always protective and caring. Both taught me how to handle problems. That, too, defines me.
Seafood cheese sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
1 pound small shrimp, roughly chopped
1/4 cup yellow onion, small dice
2 tbsp green bell pepper, small dice
2 tsp fresh garlic, minced
2 tsp Creole seasoning
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp hot sauce
3/4 cup half and half
1/2 pound Velveeta
1 pound cream cheese, softened
1/2 pound cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 pound lump crab meat
2 tsp lemon juice
1 large bag (1 pound bag) of your favorite tortilla chips, a large chip is best
Heat the oil in a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Cook the shrimp, onion, peppers, garlic, Creole seasoning and salt for 7-8 minutes. Add the hot sauce and half and half and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and add the Velveeta and cream cheese. Stir until the cheese has melted and remove from the heat. Add in the shredded cheddar and mix until the cheese is melted. Fold in the crab and lemon juice.
Fried seafood topping
1/2-pound small shrimp
1/2-pound crawfish tails
1 cup sliced jalapeños
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups corn flour
2 tbsp Creole seasoning
Oil for frying
• Preheat oven to 225
• Heat oil to 340 degrees in a large cast iron skillet. Beat together the buttermilk and egg. Combine corn flour, salt and Creole seasoning. Dip shrimp, crawfish and jalapeños into buttermilk mixture and dredge corn flour mix. Shake off excess corn flour. Fry 1/3-1/2 of the mixture for 5-6 minutes, until golden. Remove using a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined baking sheet, place the cooked items in oven. Repeat the process until everything is fried.
• To assemble, place about 1/3 of the chips on a large serving platter, ladle 1/3 of the cheese sauce over the chips. Repeat this process until sauce is completely used. Top the nachos with the fried mixture and serve immediately.