Beggars, Sinners, and Barbeque

Jessica Ciccarelli - barbeque

Honeysuckles line the drive as you ramble down our old gravel road and pull into the front yard. Past the rose bushes and satsuma trees, the first thing you see is an oak stretching its great arms over the addition daddy built with his own two hands and a series of pickup trucks and beater cars melting in the driveway. In summer and spring, there’s so much green you can’t tell where one tree ends and the other begins. In fall, you’re overcome with oranges, browns, reds, and yellows, and in winter, the house turns ghostly. The bare, scraggly branches exacerbate the shredded plywood covering, and the whole damn place looks like it’s molting or maybe more accurately like a mutt suffering mange.

This is a southern home, and it’s only gotten increasingly so over time. Red, my brother’s goofy pit, sits tied to a stump on the right. On winter’s coldest days, a butchered sheep or hog hangs lifeless from the cedar on the house side. One hoof each strapped opposite a two-by-four slat dangling by chain from the tree. The deep freeze nestled in the left corner of the porch is filled with a selection of meats from the previous season’s labor. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. The dog changes and the cars vary, but life in my little corner of the south remains the same.

Make no mistake about it, we’re southern, but it turns out that’s difficult to define to any satisfaction. It’s as hard-nosed, varied, and complex as the people and land it’s meant to describe. It’s almost, as the old adage suggests, something you know when you see, touch, and feel it. Even then, you miss the nuances. With every new place and people, it changes – always similar, never the same.

To me, the part of Louisiana I grew up in is about as southern as it gets. It’s something in the landscape – in the flashing of pine to pine as you run barefoot cross pine mulched forest floors, letting your fingertips rub worn bark tree to tree to tree. It’s something in the way we look at the world – in the crunch-crackle-clink of worn tires riding down a dirt road, taking the long way home. Windows down, nowhere to go, just moving forward, loving the ride and the people on it with you. It’s in the way we value life – hard summer days spent planting, picking, and shucking and afternoons swimming in the creek, running through the woods, and grilling barbeque in the back yard. Licking honeysuckle stems and fighting briar patches endeavoring a drop of nectar and blackberries enough for pie or cobbler.

There’s just something different. You might look at where I grew up and agree: Now, that’s southern. You’d be wrong, not for the intended insult, but because you don’t get it. You see pickup trucks, mutty dogs, and a family in worn-out jeans with funny accents. You see poor and dumb and don’t know any better.

You’d miss the Cajun commandments on the front door that tell you this is a family who strives daily to be the best they can be and find humor in the hardest moments. The tattered plywood facing and building tools in the side shed tell you someone labored over these walls, setting each with their own two hands. With hard work and love, someone built a home. You wouldn’t understand that some people value simple, hardworking lives. They value doing good and morality over money. They know God loves you no matter what you have on. They already know life is about more than what’s in your bank account. You would see the poverty and the suffering and miss the most important part – the people.

In my little piece of the south, I found myself surrounded by a cast of equally complicated souls.

It’s not uncommon really. It’s the reason I hate poverty porn and slum tourism. It’s the reason over and over that I’ve found myself traveling to places also considered less (less developed, less stable, less wealthy) and captivated by so much more. It’s not the same, but I know how it feels to have someone look at your circumstance as something to be learned from or viewed at a safe distance, as if we were animals in a zoo. That’s how people have always looked at southern poverty, and it’s occurred in my life more times than I care to admit.

¡But! it’s not just true for me. In my little piece of the south, I found myself surrounded by a cast of equally complicated souls. There was a gaggle of neighbor boys down the road, trouble makers and a few delinquents. A sweet mother with two young girls and an autistic son. Another couple with marital problems and young children our age. Another friend who lost a child in a terrible fire and fought to keep food on the table. Yet another with young girls who came to eat or stay when money was short, or home was too violent. Several family friends with angry brothers and clueless parents.

To say the least, we were imperfect, all of us. We struggled and hurt. There were too many days recalling too many nights of violent words, pans and knives, embittered shouts and sorrowed screams. Little arms huddled in corners ¡waiting! for it all to stop. The adults all tried to distance us from the dysfunction, but children talk. They may not understand, but they always know. We all knew the shouting, anger, and discontent wasn’t good. We vaguely registered these things didn’t happen in other homes. But, ‘normal’ has a funny way of taking over. Like a dandelion in concrete, it permeates the environment until you can no longer define one without the other. Eventually, we’d be unable to see the dysfunction as anything but normal. Whether that’s good or bad, I guess really depends on how you feel about dandelions. As for me, it’s a mix.

More often than not, though, we got to be kids playing and goofing off – riding bikes, building forts in the woods, and conquering armies and evil kings. The oldest kept watch over the youngest while the adults cooked and chattered in the backyard. Mainly, we got to be free.

Despite our best attempts, certain things never changed. There was always someone drunk by the end of the night. One drunk, probably one high, and the rest got stuck gathering kids and cleaning up. I’d love to begrudge them their problems, the acting out and drunkenness, but there are only so many ways to cope with old trauma and difficult lives. When you live poor in the middle of nowhere and you scrounge by paycheck to paycheck, you cope the only way you know how. You don’t have counseling. This is it. You have good friends, good beer, and great ¡barbeque.!

What you wouldn’t know, if someone didn’t tell you, is my parents weren’t raised southern. They aren’t southern born. It grew on them over time. This one truth, seemingly insignificant to the rest of the world, set us apart. I didn’t know why at the time, but growing up I felt this otherness in my bones. It’s made me who I am today, and it was never more apparent than when it came to social and religious circles.

My parents were what good church folk would probably call derelicts and rabble-rousers, but only from behind cross-adorned closed doors. They had their church phase when I was younger, but quickly got tired of feeling judged and different. By the time I was in high school, they’d stopped altogether. My mom spent most of my childhood writing controversial op-eds in the local paper; my dad flagrantly disregarding every social and religious expectation he could find. Momma wrote congressmen and spoke out against anyone or anything she perceived unjust or unfair. She gave people at the local school more ‘talking tos’ than I can count. Daddy, who wasn’t much for discipline or correction, was the type that could barely give you a firm talking to, but then pummeled the first person to hurt or mistreated any of us.

Jessica Ciccarelli - barbeque

My parents were the kind who took in people that good church folk didn’t speak to. In fact, they often were the people good church folk didn’t speak to. There were exceptions, of course. You can always find decent people, specks of love and light in an otherwise judgmental world. Most of the time, though, to anyone of any local interest or importance my family was little more than beggars, sinners, and barbeque – or at least that’s how it felt – and the funny thing was we didn’t want to be anything else.

Obviously, I say this with a degree of sarcasm. A dry, rhetorical echo from the most harmful, cavernous notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ I took on in my youth. The remnants of a southern Christianity I’m not at all fond of; too often based not in love or divine understanding, but the hubris of believing you know how ‘God’ feels about anyone.

No, for better or worse, my family never fit those pretty little molds.

Get him going, and Daddy would spin into a tirade about communists and patriotism. I think to see how people would react. Momma split between egging him on and playing devil’s advocate. If you told him he needed to do this or that because of some bible verse, he’d break into a lecture about ten other verses and historical inaccuracies. You could never tell him to just do or believe anything. Momma either. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses would show up at the front door, and she’d invite them in for a coffee. It seems every time they’d walk out hours later completely unsure why they’d been right in the first place.

It could be a child’s bias, a natural romanticizing of harsher realities. But to me, these differences – their dark humor and rebellious attitude – made our home the perfect place for anyone who felt they didn’t quite fit, who wanted something or somewhere to feel normal.

We were a mishmash of outsiders, rebels, and lost souls. Hailing from other parts of Louisiana, other states and coasts, somehow our families all ended up there coping together. It wasn’t always easy, but we fought like hell to make it. Similar to anyone else in Dry Creek, we were honest, hardworking people merely trying to survive.

Still, it’d be dishonest to say we were in any way perfect. We were real people with real problems and limitations. All good, but we had our demons. That was the point. In fact, it was the membership for getting in.

We all had one thing in common: none of us belonged here, so all of us belonged.

We came from broken homes and messed up realities. Most had been abused or neglected for some part of their lives. They’d gone without. Some knew hunger and fought ceaselessly to ensure their children never felt the same. They all kept going and loving and trying. Every time they fell or screwed up they got up and tried again anyway. Sometimes with a beer or blunt in their hand, but they tried.

Even as the group moved and changed, these themes remained constant. We all had one thing in common: none of us belonged here, so all of us belonged. Our families hadn’t been here for generations. We didn’t have money or clout. We weren’t in charge of Sunday school or best friends with the deacon’s wife. We’d all attended church, sure, but to many of us going to church was a lot like going to the gym: you sort of wanted to look good first. That never happened, and in the absence we were our family. We were other, and we did it together.

Each person or family brought something unique and gave everything they could without hesitation.

The neighbor boys were nonjudgmental companions for my brother and sisters when bad became worse and my family’s mental health deteriorated – when suicidal thought became attempt after attempt and others couldn’t hold on.

The sweet mother down the road was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Where her parenting faltered, her kindness offered my sisters an ear and safe space to escape their troubles for a short time.

The couple with marital problems eventually separated, and the wife’s home became a solace and reprieve from my angry, bitter reality. Not one time as the health and consequently the house of my family declined did she hesitate or snub her nose at the damaged souls inside. It was then I learned you don’t know true commitment and compassion, until you’ve met a broken person who reaches out anyway.

Jessica Ciccarelli - barbeque

There’s not one person in our indefinite collection of lost souls I don’t love dearly and appreciate for the role they played in making our dark world a little better.

In the dearth of a clearly defined social group, we became our own. Southernness, which is so known for hospitality and aid, became not a religious decorum, machismo, or social regalia, but a promise to be there and do all you can. A promise of community, acceptance, and an insurance you and yours wouldn’t be left behind.

We came together on the premise of good food, but the truth was we wanted to belong. We wanted to walk through a front door that didn’t avoid eye contact or whisper back. We found it there with each other.

We gathered around three or four Saturday and Sunday afternoons, usually in my family’s backyard. It was a true southern get-together with a rooster crowing in the distance and hogs, rabbits, and sheep pinned on that side and this. Whoever cared to show up would wander over with their mess of kids and whatever meat or veggies they could spare. The men gathered around the grill, while the ladies chatted and gossiped inside. We’d spend all the daylight we had swimming in the back pool, traipsing through the woods, and prepping pork chops, boudin, potato mix, and fresh shucked corn to grill.

On special weekends, we’d pull together our cash and throw a crawfish boil. Those were my favorite days. No one fought on boil days. We’d spend all morning getting supplies and hosing down crawfish and all afternoon cooking the best boiled seafood you could find.

Right past our rickety back steps, the yard stretched out in all directions, then a layer of hogs, garden, and sheep, then forest. Beyond that, there were houses and churches where we weren’t the right kind of people. Places where ‘good Christians’ pretended not to struggle. Where the right way to be didn’t involve Creole heritage, darker skin, and diverse opinions. No, in the south of my youth where women are seen and rarely heard, where you follow the rules and drink in secret corners, we couldn’t possibly belong. But on this tiny pocket of land, where the rules were self-determined, the fucked were loved and accepted unconditionally, and broken was a ticket you punched at the door, we found a home.

When you’ve seen real struggle, you don’t leave someone to go it alone, not when you could have helped.

In that space, everyone wandered around with huge mugs of sweet tea and recounted the week’s problems and events. There we got to be normal. We were allowed to just be regular. There were drinking problems and money problems, drug problems and depression. But, in that one space it didn’t matter, it was understood, and for a fleeting moment, you could talk about life as though it was like anywhere else.

The south is a funny place. It can be hell, if you don’t quite fit, if you don’t believe the right things or come from the right background. The only way to make it is to create your own group with your own definition of southern and Christian and good. That’s exactly what we did.

In that crazy, fucked-up, magical space, my parents taught me to value broken people. Not only because we were, but because they are people too, and they care more, love more deeply, and are more loyal than anyone you’ll ever meet. The fact is: when you’ve seen real struggle, you don’t leave someone to go it alone, not when you could have helped. So, maybe we were beggars, sinners, and barbeque. We begged the world for a place to find friendship and compassion, and it gave us the most incredible group of true southern outcasts I’ve ever had the honor to know. We asked God for understanding, and he gave us people who understood we’re all sinners, we all struggle, and it’s okay to speak it out loud. And by god, could we barbeque.

My family taught me to cherish not fitting in, to consider it an honor if the elite and the better didn’t understand your way of life. (If I’m honest, that’s how you survive in a world that’s already deemed you ‘other’ or less.) I’m not saying I haven’t met some really nice church people, or there aren’t good people with money, but the people I’ll never forget are misfits. To me they’ll always be home.

Beyond our fence line, beyond the dusty gravel road, beyond the neighbors’ houses and highway checkered lines, the world’s teeming, working away. Mothers get children ready for school, fathers don kakis or work boots readying themselves for a day’s labor. Some thank God for a beautiful day and healthy kids, others grin and prepare for what’s to come. Before the rules and expectations, before your brain has time to fall into old patterns – who’s good enough, my daddy has a new truck, I have name brand jeans, we don’t talk to people like you – the pause before you register who you’re supposed to be, we’re all the same tired-eyed, hard-working, God-fearing people preparing for another work day. Then, you walk into the high school gym or business work room, and there’s always a misfit section. That was my section, and those were my people. I’d pass the jocks and popular kids, pass the good Christians and teachers’ kids, and take a seat among the one group where being different, where not having a place was the reason you belonged. The truth was I never wanted to be anywhere else.

Off my family’s patch of land, we were nobodies and fuck-ups, but on it, on it we had a home. On it broken got to be beautiful, and people with problems my south had always pretended didn’t exist got to be loved and regular and enough. In a place where good enough was a tier we’d never reach, that was everything. Life wasn’t always pretty. It didn’t always wear new clothes or smile or pretend everything was okay, but each and every time you walked in someone wrapped their arms around you and made the bad just a little more bearable. Thanks for that. For me, that’s southern.


All photos by the author.


The Learned Pig

Jessica Ciccarelli

Jessica Ciccarelli grew up in Dry Creek, Louisiana. She has a B.A. in Political Science from Berea College and an M.A. in Peace and Justice from the University of San Diego. Jessica’s work has been published in several institutional blogs, including writings such as Lessons I Learned: Stories from Kenya published on the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice website and Finding Art and Peace on Ohio State University’s Peace Collaborative Blog. Her most recent work Broken-down Fords and Angels is the culmination of her time as a fellow at The DO School.