Even with the perspective of having lived approximately 20 years in the New Orleans area, my recent road trip from Boston to Birmingham, Alabama brought a mixture of both unexpected and forgotten memories. My youngest daughter and her husband were moving and I pitched in to help, since the process is never easy - especially when two dogs, two cars and a ten week old infant are added to the mix.
My role was that of back seat nanny: entertaining, feeding, soothing and praying that the inevitable diaper explosions would mercifully synchronize with periodic roadside stops. (Note that the between-the-legs infant carseat straps do redirect diaper deposits.) As we traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line, it was surprising how far north the viney stranglehold of kudzu had progressed, enveloping trees, shrubs and even groundcover.
We shunned the ever-present cabinets of donuts at gas stops, preferring to hold out for an actual Krispy Kreme store, where the masses of round dough ride the rollers into a curtain of warm glaze. Breakfast had to be at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, where the pancakes are laden with fruit, syrup and whipped cream. I've been away from the south for long enough to pass on the biscuits and pale, gluey sawmill gravy. If you don't know what Cracker Barrel is, it's a large, wooden building that is usually filled with old white people. The cashiers must be on commission there, because each one reminded me that the bags of candy were on sale, and at two bags for $3, I'd save nine cents on each bag. They waxed poetic on the beauty of the featured counter item: a battery-operated lightning bug in a mason jar that would beat the band on anyone's patio table.
We returned to yet another CB restaurant for dinner in an effort to avoid as much fast food as possible. I ordered a salad entree in a laughable attempt to hold down the calorie count, asking for ranch dressing on the side. When the waitress brought a small bowl of orange goop, I asked naively if their ranch was that hue. She had a momentary deer-in-the-headlights look before apologizing profusely, explaining in a thick drawl "Oh, I'm so sorry! I thought you wanted FRANCH dressing." There was no longer any doubt about where we were.
Every building was air-conditioned to a degree that the baby needed a blanket to prevent outcries of discomfort at the temperature transition. The frequency with which we passed churches multiplied rapidly. There were 50 foot tall lighted crosses outside of some warehouse-size places of worship. Men stood at intersections beside their parked vans, surrounded by homemade signs, warning passersby - via handheld microphones - to repent, as Judgment Day was coming soon.
The humidity slowly enveloped us like airborne kudzu as we located the green and white Krispy Kreme store. Our skin goosefleshed at the blast of cold air as we entered. We gripped our coffee cups as we bit into a piece of heaven and felt the glaze crackle like a fine veneer that enrobed the still-warm donuts. Outside, a family group sat at a small table and perused the menu while their infant - clothed only in a disposable diaper - sat placidly on the concrete sidewalk, picking up foreign objects and placing them in his mouth. My daughter recoiled slightly at the scene, instinctively clutching her daughter protectively. I smiled inwardly, understanding both the non-chalance of the seasoned parents and the alarm of the brand new ones.
Once we arrived in Birmingham and unloaded the cars, our footsteps echoed in the mostly empty house they'd rented. The dogs were delighted to have a fenced back yard as we walked around, checking out the patio and marveling at the raucous evening chorus of the cicadas and other insects. My son-in-law counted nearly twenty mosquito bites on his legs by the time we reteated to the cool interior. The inflatable beds they'd brought were certainly better than sleeping on the wooden floor, but I couldn't put my finger on why I felt so cold at night. The next morning, I realized that the air vents were placed at the base of the walls in every room. I still haven't figured out why.....I mean, heat RISES, and cold air FALLS, right?
Near the end of my stay, I babysat while the young couple enjoyed dinner at a recommended restaurant. They marveled at the nearby garage that offered free parking (unheard of in Boston), and the half-price bottles of wine because it was Sunday. My daughter forgot one of the cardinal rules of dining out: never order a regional specialty when you aren't in that particular region. In the excitement of an evening's freedom, she ordered a caprese salad and got tomato slices topped with grated Kraft mozzarella cheese.
We clung to each other and cried when it was time for me to return home, but I had to smile as I glanced over her shoulder to see an El Camino stop at the curb and drop off a man in seersucker pants. You gotta love it.