Granma’s kitchen was the place of gathering. The kitchen was way smaller than the living room, but all the aunties and uncles and cousins just felt compelled to drift their way to the room filled with Granma’s delicious food. My cousins and I, the little ones, always ran in and out of the house while playing tag. Aunt Paula and the aunties talking about seeing Lil’ Susie down the street with a baby in her hands, and last thing they remembered was Susie being the baby. Uncle Carlos and the uncles yelling at the television screen because the Saints had lost yet another game. It was always pure chaos, but when Granma said that the food was ready, that gumbo calmed the storm. Her gumbo healed broken hearts, filled stomachs, and soothed souls. She was the Haitian Voodoo Queen of Cooking. It was like tasting a piece of paradise, and we continued to scoop the stew into our mouths to stay in that heaven.
Mississippi is home to many like myself, my family, and gumbo. As a child I grew up in Mississippi and Florida, but mostly Georgia, so I was ecstatic any time I heard my mother say that we were visiting my grandparents in Mississippi. Every time we visited, my Granma always prepared some type of seafood along with her famous gumbo. Back in my own home, my momma didn’t allow too much seafood because “It stanks up the house.”
Granma started her days early at 6 am to get dressed and ready for mass. A little Jesus always put her in good spirits, and she also played a large administrative role in the Church. After starting her days right with the Lord, she headed to the seafood market to collect all the ingredients needed for the stew. She stayed in the kitchen for hours preparing this meal for her loved ones. After arriving to Granma’s house, I immediately hugged my Granma and Paw Paw, then darted to the kitchen where the spicy okra aroma was bleeding from. Grabbing a chair from the table with my 9-year-old strength, I placed it next to the stove where the huge brass bowl of gumbo sat next to the pot of steaming white rice. As I stood on the chair and hovered my head above the pot, I gazed at the brown goopy mess where several shrimp and basil leaves swam. The shrimp was almost the most important part of the soup because it was full of protein. One could just eat shrimp and have a full stomach. As a die-hard shrimp and crab lover, I fished out as many shrimp and crab claws as I could while my older brother stood behind me scowling. Then I got a second bowl for my white rice. Most people just put the rice and gumbo together in one bowl, but I’m different. As I sat at the table ready to devour the heart-warming meal, I gathered a spoon half-filled with rice and slowly dipped it in the gumbo to get some soup with a shrimp on top. This first taste always had to be perfection. And it was.
One thing I truly miss is when my Uncle Tony, one of Paw Paw’s younger brothers, ate with us at Granma’s table, took me places around Gautier and Pascagoula, and told me about my Paw Paw and other great-aunts and uncles. Tony was a kind soul. You could look into his dark chocolate eyes and feel the warmth and genuineness of his presence and conversations. Those characteristics seem to be prevalent in the Bariales family. He told me that even though my Paw Paw is now a respectable man, when he was a “youngster,” as he called him, my Paw Paw was quite the clown and troublemaker. My Paw Paw till this day is a goober and plays in Mass with his grandchildren like he did with his siblings while the Priest blesses the bread and wine. He told me about the times Granny, my great-grandmother, would constantly fuss and whip him and Paul (Paw Paw) with a switch for not being back home on time from the Progressive Club on a Wednesday night.
Oh, Granny was a spicy old lady apparently, but she was a respectable person and an intelligent woman as well. Even though she was a strict, mean woman, Tony, Paul, and my mother loved her dearly. My mom always spoke so highly of this woman and loved her so much she decided to name her first daughter after her. Alice Evelyn Bariales traveled around the world as us Bariales love to do. While doing so, she completed community service as a missionary by building homes and teaching children. My mother was lucky enough to tag along with Alice since my mom was her favorite (well, that’s what my mom tells me at least). Alice was also financially literate. Boy, she did not like people playing with her money, and she knew how to save efficiently (hence the traveling). My mom told me Alice was well read and an intellectual in many other areas as well. As Alice told to Paw Paw, Paw Paw to Momma, and Momma to me, “There’s no such thing as a dumb Bariales.” This tough mother emphasized the importance of education in all areas, whether it’s money, streets, or books. To be educated and well-rounded became my protein. If I have strength throughout my life, I have learned nothing can take me down. From that and the other lesson from Paul of not taking life too seriously, I’ve gained two important ingredients to my gumbo.
Unfortunately, Alice died the year I was born, and Uncle Tony died when I was in the 3rd grade. The death of Uncle Tony made me realize how vital it is to have a connection to family and heritage. Even though I was told stories about the older people in my family by others, the impact of a person is always greater when you spend time with him or her instead of receiving second-hand information. It felt like I purchased some gumbo from a Georgia restaurant trying to mimic the Gulf, and the seafood of the gumbo was being replaced by chicken. It didn’t taste like Granma’s authentic dish. Tony could only tell me so much before his death. I hope I didn’t take his time on Earth for granted. Just because a dish uses some substitutes, it doesn’t mean it won’t be a good meal. I began interviewing even more family members and journaling in order to gather my ingredients. I begged my Paw Paw to tell me any and everything he could about his family.
One day when my family visited my grandparents yet again, my Paw Paw called me to his room. Paw Paw typically never called me to his room. Many thoughts ran through my mind on my way to him like “Is he going to fuss at me about eating all the crab claws, again?” and “I hope he don’t thank I hit his truck with the basketball. Ava be the main one outside throwing items any and everywhere for no reason. She deserves a whoopin’ and talking to.” But as I slowly walked into the room, he was standing next to the bed with a few items spread across the comforter.
He said, “I have something for ya” as he reached for one of the items. It was a sheet of paper with strange black scribbles and lines on it. In the middle was a large picture with a tall pale man dressed in slacks and suspenders standing next to a darker woman in a long gown sitting in a rocking chair. Their straight faces gave off a look of pride. “This is Ma and Pa. The picture was taken in their backyard by the small garden. I remembered you said you wanted to know as much as possible about our family, and I thought you might want to take a look at this,” he smiled. I ran up to him and hugged him. I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before, but I should have been asking for images and other documents all along!
“Thank you, Paw Paw,” I said. I released him from my hug and took a picture of the image to keep a copy. This was the start of creating videos and taking pictures of my own. I thought, if I have many documents like this, my great-grandchildren will also be able to have a glimpse of what my life was like and see any documentation or notes I’ve found and taken of those before me. From the picture of Granny and Pappi I could see how they were respectable people. Their faces just unapologetically said it.