Gumbo – a Memphis Story

Gumbo Essay Blog

I was holding a heavy pot of gumbo my grandfather’s lover/cook had made with care, following the instructions from a worn, Louisiana cookbook as my aunt (named Jill, who, to her own psychological demise, married a Jack) continued to berate me about how I was the travesty of my extended family. 

“Nobody likes you,” she concluded. “I thought you were different but you’re just like your mother. You have no manners and being raised as a Yankee didn’t help you a bit. Just look at you.” 

Although I never considered myself to be “just like” my mother, it was always fair game to insult my appearance. I wasn’t the heeled southern woman or even the Vineyard Vines coastal. I was the slovenly Brooklynite dressed in all black with a face permanently set in grim, Soviet-style doom more akin to an Edward Munch painting than a prosperous, family-friendly Rockwell. 

I nodded as my aunt continued to berate me, cursing my immortal soul as my body readied itself for complete physical and emotional collapse. With all my strength, I tried not to cry in front of her or her cuckolded husband, Cucked Jack, as I’ll call him, who stood bashfully in the corner, attempting to become one with his shadow. My grandfather looked on, trying to conceal his amusement but he wasn’t doing a great job with it. He was smiling brightly, his fists tucked in at his side as though he were rooting for a winner. 

I had already cried for a good while before returning to the house and resigned not to cry in front of my southern family. I wasn’t a child, after all, I was an adult. A slovenly, Edward Munch reminiscent, Soviet grimacing adult. “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, and I’m sorry,” I said, attempting to turn my eyes towards my grandfather who was beaming with the thrill of the drama unfolding before him, “that I ruined your evening.”

“Well!” My aunt said, picking up her Birkin bag. “I’ll be flying to my Mayfair flat and forgetting you ever existed tomorrow. Bye, daddy! See you when I’m back from London!” And with that, she left, Cucked Jack slinking after her, trying his very darnedest to melt into the ground beneath his feet. 

“Ha!” My grandfather said, slapping his hands together. “Well! What an evening! Listen, Q, take that pot of gumbo out to the guesthouse but come back in, you hear? I’ll be waiting up for you.”

I croaked out an oh-kay and made my shaky walk out to his guest house which was far larger and grander than the house I was raised in. I put down the gumbo and took a long, depressing look into the mirror. Cool? I hadn’t played it cool. Mascara had dried in a depressing stream down my face at least a half-hour ago. I let out a short laugh then decided to indulge myself and completely break down for a few moments before returning to the house, wiping any and all trace of makeup off of my blotchy face. 

A week previous, I had landed in Memphis intent on being left alone. My lover had just been interrogated by the FBI as I looked on. “We just arrested your brother upstairs,” they told him. “Why did you make this hotel reservation under an assumed name? Who’s Quincy?” My potential career that I hadn’t yet held in a power chokehold flashed before my eyes as I slowly raised my hand, my knees knocking together in my chair. The three officers let out a laugh and took my license to photograph. A laugh. Why did they laugh? Did I look that meek? I even had laughed with them. Why was I laughing? Where was that picture of my ID going?

I needed to rethink my life. I had just left the Bedstuy apartment I shared with two moody gallery girls and one shiftless, unassuming trust fund baby from Steamboat Springs along with at least four rats that sang their squeaky salutations each time I exited the building. I had decided that due to the events that had rapidly unfolded, it was rather good timing to spend quality time with my grandfather and learn the art of cooking from his lover/cook. 

“You treat this house like it’s your own, you hear?” My grandfather said. “We’ll just be here going about our day as always. You do the work you need to do out in the guest house or in here. You know Jill always comes over on Sundays,” he said, his voice ominously low. “We’ll be having our little cocktail time in the conservatory but don’t feel like you need to join.” Of course, I had felt the need to join. It would be rude not to. “And in regards to your sister…” he began. 

I was feeling sleepless and hopeless from an early flight and multiple days of stress dreams about the FBI. My rogue, estranged, mentally unwell sister was the last person I wanted to talk about. “Ah, yea,” I said with a sigh. 

“I’ve passed her off to Jill. Jill is in charge of teaching her emotional growth skills.” I let out a hearty laugh at the absurdity of that statement and he joined in will me, slapping his knee several times before reaching for a tissue to wipe away his tears. Then he left to take a nap and contemplate money and business matters.

I moved into the kitchen to keep his lover/cook, also known as Wanthani, company as she stirred a pot. “Rice soup,” she said, handing me a warm bowl. She pulled up a stool and sat with me as I began to eat. Wanthani never sat still. She was always sweeping, cooking, washing, adjusting, shouting, trimming, or gardening for ten hours straight. She’d also never sat so close to me before so I readied myself mentally for whatever scrabble game jumble of possible phrases she was about to throw at me.  She looked at me, our knees unnervingly touching. “Keep eating,” she instructed, so I did, face down and eyes fixed into my bowl. “Your sister…” she began and I groaned. “…is crazy.”

“Yes, she certainly is.”

“She get with Jonathan.”


“She seduce Jonathan. In the pool. In front of MT.”

“I’m going to vomit.”

“No, you eat rice. Good for you.”

“Okay,” I said, closing my heavy lids that bore the weight of a criminal investigation and my sister’s seduction of a high school senior. “She did what now?”

“She seduce Jonathan. Now Jonathan crazy. She come over. She say, ‘come swim with me Jonathan.’ He never have a girlfriend before. He never do… anything before.”

“Please, God.”

“No, not God. They go away together. They spend a weekend together. I say to MT, ‘this not right!’”

“Deliver me.”

“No, you eat.”


“And so he talk to her. She break up with him. But ever since, he not right in the head.” Wanthani adjusted her Gucci glasses, looking deep into my soul. Jonathan? Really? Her nephew who grew up in this kitchen, who was younger than me? That was a solid age gap but who’s to judge, I guess, I had dated an old alcoholic with money issues. 

“I don’t know what to say. This story is making me sick.”

Wanthani shook her head. “Your sister…” she began again. And I, once more, groaned. 

“Why does MT continue to pay for everything for her?”

“She take advantage of him. She never come for Thanksgiving. She only stop by for fifteen minutes to ask for something new. Only every couple of weeks or month.”

“He’s too nice to her. I’m sorry that happened with Jonathan that’s… really awful.”

“He never leave the house. I tell him leave but he say he depressed. He no longer make eye contact.” After a time of discussing my sister, I’d become so wholly exhausted that I had to excuse myself to the guest house. 

I came thirty minutes late to the Jack and Jill cocktail hour hosted by my grandfather after attempting to complete some things online and make a small salary from my strung together freelance work. I’d also received an email from the FBI, who I had given my email to willingly, asking for a call the following day. So, I needed a drink. 

“Oh, you’re here,” my aunt began as I walked in. Jill and I had always gotten along over the years. I hadn’t talked to her much as a child but when I’d visited a few years back she brought me aside and, for one reason or another, decided to confess her life story to me. “The family hates me for not inviting anyone to the wedding,” she said but I knew this already. Old news… she hadn’t even invited her brother/business partner to her son’s prim and proper English wedding, though he’d decided to show up anyway, bounding across the English countryside with hoots, hollers, and y’alls. My grandfather was the only family member to have been invited and, against his daughter’s rules, showed up with Wanthani on his arm, hopefully offending every Brit he came in contact with.

“That’s your business,” I said and I meant it. After all, who from the family genuinely wanted to fly from the south to the English countryside unless it aligned with their own travel schedule? My southern relatives were infamous egoist brats, which made them fast to offended, long to forgive, and quick to repeat the error that had them feeling slighted in the first place. Not a single one of them had attended my sister’s wedding, which a short flight to Virginia and not a single one of them had ever sought forgiveness. “Don’t worry about what anyone says, it’ll pass. As long as your son was happy. That’s all anyone really cares about.”
Jill looked relieved and in that moment I saw a flash of my mother in her. Jill had put up more walls than my mother but underneath, they were both equally insecure. Jill was known to be demanding, blunt, prone to sudden outbursts, carried high standards, and desperately needed to be showered with her father’s approval. Nothing I wasn’t used to. “You know,” she whispered, “I had always wanted to move to Vermont.”

Vermont?” I said. Not out of disgust, exactly, just genuine confusion. Not Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or Bar Harbor, Maine? Not Rhode Island, where she’d attended Brown, or Westport, Connecticut? 

“Yes, Vermont. Jack and I always dreamed of it but…” and the but had carried with her through her entire life. Staying in Memphis meant cashing in on the family business and having cocktail hours with her father every Sunday.

Jill and I had had many lovely conversations in the years since that confessional. She was judgmental, which I find hilarious but brushed off quickly. Overall, Jill was true to herself, which was rare for a southern woman. And, in those brief moments where her eyes flashed with doubt, I saw that she carried, like my mother, a great deal of pain. I had long accepted who Jill was but that didn’t mean the south accepted her. Memphians always had a word or two or gentle eye roll when it came to Jill. More important than the opinion of the city was the fact that, unlike my mother, Jill had never accepted herself.

Walking into this cocktail hour, I could feel a palpable shift in the dynamic of the room. Southerners are wildly accommodating when you are a stranger and wholly judgmental as soon as they know you past your name and occupation if it does not suit them and their needs. Southern women will accept a man who is undigestible so long as he is wealthy and reject women on unsound grounds. She could be a former Miss Texas, Stanford graduate, and they will whisper, “she’s probably a hippy wouldn’t you say? Those Californians love their freedom of sex…” or, “Miss Texas? Pageantry… she must come from trash, poor thing.” All those “bless her hearts” come with an endowment of pity. Where the blessings stop, the bitterness starts.

The conservatory, where Jack and Jill’s cocktail hour was in effect, was pulsing with undiagnosed anger and disdain as soon as I walked in the room. The conversation ran a strange gamut during that cocktail hour. “You can’t rely on your grandfather’s money forever,” was tossed to me by Jill, as they seemed to have reached a consensus that I was strong handing my grandfather into passing me checks instead of visiting him out of admiration and guilt that I lived so far away. “How often do you see your niece though?” Was pummeled into my ear by Jill’s son-in-law, who squinted his beady little inbred eyes suspiciously then added, “do all of the members in your family just hate each other?”

Being a shimmering child of Stockholm Syndrome gifted to me by my eldest, estranged sister who had, for a time, attempted to raise me during my mother’s blue period, I often believe an abuser before I believe my own logical thoughts. I had grown up surrounded by wealthy, world traveling, intelligent relatives who all ran their own businesses. I had respected them, therefore,  I respected their opinion. It was only logical to conclude, given my shoddy dating history, taking part in an FBI and, now, a family interrogation, that there must be something wrong with me.

When you hear that a relative is mentally ill and not on medication, one might choose to store that information safely in the forefront of one’s brain. Instead, it seemed that my relatives were adamant about believing things my sister had said that showed no basis in reality. An unnerving familial trend was unfolding before my eyes. My estranged sister had convinced a group of seemingly intelligent people and they had believed it because they were southern, because they wanted to see the worst in womankind. Only my grandfather seemed to be intelligent but, in being so intelligent, he kept his mouth shut on inter-family affairs. 

The next morning, my grandfather began breakfast with, “Don’t come to the cocktail hour next Sunday.”

“Why?” I asked. Had I done something wrong? My mental state was fragile and was readying itself for a glorious tailspin, my self-confidence completely eroded by authority figures, Brooklyn rats, and my high school ex who was, it seemed, playing mind games, and could fall under the umbrella of Brooklyn Rat. “I’m happy to come.”

“They aren’t your kin.” He said strongly. My aunt, cousin, and her kids were most certainly, under all definitions my kin. “They aren’t your family, not immediate. They don’t matter.” A strange response from a man who coveted family. He was the type who could compartmentalize any news, be upset for a spell, ruminate over needed worries, and move on with his life, taking death, family misfortune, and family drama in stride. He encouraged all around him to live the same, so why the sudden change? “Don’t come next Sunday if you don’t want to.”

So it was on that following Sunday that I took his advice and had decided not to come. I spent the latter part of the afternoon away. When Wanthani, my father’s lover/cook, told me my sister would be coming to this cocktail party and that, perhaps it was best I didn’t come, her brown eyes opened wide as she slowly stirred the roux, I decided that she was right, that it was best that I didn’t make an appearance. Feeling wholly awkward just staying in the guest house, I decided instead to go work in a cafe on my freelance project instead. But just as I pulled out of the drive, Wanthani rang me. I picked up but, instead of my grandfather’s lover/cook, it was my grandfather’s daughter, a hysterical Jill on the other line. Jill was screaming and at first, inaudible. My grandfather could have died from all I knew but instead, she was saying how much she hated me, how much my grandfather hated me, how I was awful for driving away just because my sister was there. How my mother had messed us all up, how we were all awful, sad, terrible people. And then, as fast as she’d rung, and as slowly as I tried to explain, she’d hung up, and her husband, Cucked Jack, began his follow up texts with a “How dare you, you have disrespected your family…” and so on. I offered my apologies, attempted to call, told him I could come over and apologize the following day if needed but my text was only answered with, “what you’ve done is so unspeakably wrong. There are no apologies that can justify your actions this evening.”

My father cackled on the other line. “Hilarious!” He shouted as I sobbed on the side of the road. “That’s… that’s funny stuff. Well, honey, now you know the real Jill!”

I hadn’t expected her to be at my grandfather’s house when I returned. All cars had left the drive but, clever as the witchy woman was, she’d parked around back. The door was left slightly ajar and as I entered the house to apologize to my grandfather, assuming that what I’d done was somehow sinful, I was bombarded by my seventy-year-old aunt, surprisingly quick and agile on her feet, as I attempted to clean up the gumbo in the kitchen. 

The next morning I dreaded leaving my bed. What good could come from a morning after making a fool out of myself? I had, I am ashamed to admit it, broke down and cried in front of my ninety-year-old grandfather as he poured me a drink that same evening. For the first time in twenty years, he turned his little kid’s voice towards me. “You didn’t do a thing wrong,” he said sweetly as if I were nine years old. “I don’t blame you one bit.” He stayed up and, as every good souther would, demanded I eat something to soothe my spirit.

I slinked out of bed that morning and tried to pretty myself. Wanthani was in the middle of admonishing my grandfather when I walked in. My grandfather offered me a coffee before retreating to shower and put on his daily suit.

“Jill always makes everything about herself,” Wanthani said angrily. “Horrible. I told MT, you always let her get away with everything!” I tried to feign a smile. No matter how much anyone could say I did nothing wrong, Jill and I had a ruined companionship, something I suddenly had in troves between my sister, childhood friends, and an abrupt end to a lover with the FBI intrusion. I felt shame and displaced anger towards my sister which is perhaps what Jill had felt as well.

Jill was in London for the following Sunday. I left Memphis and haven’t seen her in the two years since. Cucked Jack, who had once watched all my Instagram stories, had unfollowed me, marking a Millennial’s official end to a promising friendship. 

My dad says my aunt’s crazy but I find her outburst to say something quite different. Everybody’s got their own version of normal. The trouble comes when you start believing in it. Jill lives in a city, in a body, in a sex that the deep south only respects if you smile, laugh, and adhere to their code. Insults are woven with blessings and children carry the curse of their familial line, no matter how hard they strive to step beyond family gossip.  

I could say of my aunt, “bless her poor little heart.” But instead, I’d rather say, I hope to see you one day in Vermont.