Winebibber or Teetotaler?

I came across this photo while scanning family pictures for my mother. She’s planning to move to a smaller place in a retirement center. I agreed to scan or store some of her photo boxes and albums in order to help minimize her belongings.

I recall the circumstances surrounding this photograph. I was maybe 11 years old. My sisters and I were confined to the kitchen while my parents were entertaining in the dining room. We each were allowed a glass of wine. Unbeknownst to me, my sisters were adding more wine to my one allowed glass every time I put the glass down to attend to a pile of mounting dishes. I got a bit tipsy, or as the saying goes now, I was lit. I never finished the glass as I recall as my sisters finally let me in on the gag before I got fully intoxicated.

I have never been a winebibber, or one who drinks to excess. Not in my childhood, nor teen years, nor adult years. Nor have I gone long periods with being a teetotaler. I did abstain during a brief time of fervent fundamentalism, but that was just a phase. I think a major reason that I avoided the extremes is because of the healthy attitude toward drink that was displayed by my parents. They didn’t drink to excess. Mostly, a drink or two was enjoyed at social occasions. It wasn’t a daily habit.

That’s my attitude towards alcohol today. I rarely drink, partaking maybe once or twice a month. I have had the same four pack of single-serve wines in the refrigerator for a couple of months. The same goes for the Abita Springs Strawberry Ale sitting next to the carton of milk. I haven’t felt the need to assuage any feelings of stress during the pandemic with copious or even moderate levels of alcohol. It’s just not part of my psyche, I guess.

I can look back with a grateful heart that I had parents who were rational in their attitude towards drink. We were permitted to drink at celebrations as youngsters. No one overindulged. It was often just a celebratory drink now and then in our house.

The time pictured in the above image is one of the few times in my life when I have been guilty of overindulgence. Of course, it wasn’t my fault. I was being challenged to finish off a glass of wine that I didn’t know was, essentially, bottomless. Only when the gag reached a point where it could have been excessive was the gag revealed. I hope to stay the course the rest of my life as neither a winebibber or a teetotaler.

They Will Know We Are Christians

This weekend I attended church via Facebook Live. Our church will start in person services next week. One of the songs played was a folk song created in the 1960s by Father Peter Sholtes. The song is called, “They Will Know We are Christians By Our Love.”

While humming this tune this morning, I reflected on that song and what it means. What does the word, Christian, conjure up in people’s minds today, especially in the United States? Does it mean I am a Republican? Or does it mean I am pro-life? Does it mean that I oppose gay marriage?

None of these sentiments express love. They are cultural issues, not necessarily spiritual ones. I am a Christian because I love God and I love others. That’s it. No other requirements.

The ideal to love is all I need. I can mess up because love covers a multitude of sins. I fall short so often of what I think a Christ follower should be. But to be labeled as a Christian by Jesus I have to love, not fret about my shortcomings.

I can love Democrats and Republicans, because love isn’t about political parties. I can love someone who supports abortion because, again, it’s about love, not the hot-button topic of the day.

I can love gays.

Jesus didn’t ask me to choose sides. He doesn’t require that I support Donald Trump. Or support Joe Biden. It’s not about that.

It’s about love.

Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Shake Off That Snake

This morning I woke up very early. It was nearly dawn, right before six. The sky was grey. And then, while drinking my second cup of coffee, it became apparent that the sun was breaking through. For the first time in days, we had a clear morning. We’ve had daily, nearly constant rain for five days as the outer bands from Hurricane Hanna plagued us.

I knew what I needed to do. I needed to jump on my bike and get in an early morning ride. It would be the first morning in days I could get outside for exercise.

I didn’t want to do it. I was sorely tempted to fritter another hour reading the news online. Or, maybe even catch a few more winks. Then I watched a short video clip online from Christine Caine, an evangelist.

She had a plastic snake on her wrist. She threw it off behind her, just as the Apostle Paul did in the book of Acts. He was shipwrecked on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean when a viper attached himself to Paul’s arm. The Bible says that Paul shook off the snake, and he didn’t suffer any ill effects from the poisonous viper.

Paul then went on to the governor’s house, prayed for the governor’s sick father, who was then healed. While on the island of Malta, Paul healed many who were sick. There was revival in Malta. All because Paul shook off that snake.

So I got up and threw off the snake of lethargy. I threw off cynicism. The pounds aren’t melting off as fast as I want but it’s not time to throw in the towel. Not quite yet.

I biked about 40 minutes for 6 miles. Not a record. Not the best I’ve done. But it was enough to get my body moving and sweating. Because I live in Louisiana, and it was nearly 100% humidity this morning, I was soaking with sweat when I stepped off the bike. It was worth it.

I have a long way to go to get back to a normal weight again. But I’m not giving up, yet. I will throw off a snake or two if I have to, but I will keep reaching for the goal.

By the way, I hate snakes. I don’t know if I would have done the same as Paul. I probably would have jumped around, screaming, and shaking a bit too. I probably would have listened to the natives in the book of Acts who thought the snake bite was divine punishment. I am not St. Paul who did many miracles in Jesus’ name. But I can get out of bed and cycle off a few pounds.

Stories of my Ancestors

I had some fun in the past few months as I researched my family’s roots. I began by asking myself a few questions that I detailed in another post, Tracing My Roots. Fortunately, I have answered the questions about my family’s past satisfactorily.

I can substantiate that my family did, indeed, own slaves. I discovered a bill of sale on Ancestry.com for a 12 year old boy named Theo who was bought by my ancestor, Jacques Matherne, in 1783. Before Jacques, census records show that Jacques’ grandfather, Johanne, owned five slaves in the early 1700s, shortly after arriving in Louisiana from Germany.

I couldn’t find records of any other ancestor owning slaves. However, slave ownership was quite common in the South. About 1/3 of white families owned slaves in the pre-Civil War days. On average, a slaveowner owned 3-5 slaves. So it’s quite possible that others in the family tree had slaves, too. I just don’t see a record of any others owning slaves.

Did my family participate in the Civil War? Yes, I found a record that my great-great grandfather, Joseph T. Martin, was drafted in 1862, then captured by Union forces the same year near Thibodaux, Louisiana. According to what I have found, he was released on his own recognizance and returned home shortly thereafter. He never traveled more than 30 miles from home during the Civil War.

Again, there probably were others in my family who took up arms for the Confederacy. Starting in 1862, there was a draft, so most families had a family member who served the Confederacy. However, most records only list surnames and a capital letter. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to ascertain if the A. Matherne that I found on a Lafourche Regimental Roll was my ancestor, Anatole Matherne. Could be but who’s to say that were other men named Matherne with an A for a first name in the region.

I uncovered other interesting stories, too. Ursin Napolean Matherne was a philanderer, and in the spirit of his middle name, made many conquests. My great-grandfather fathered at least 16 children, from 3 different women. Those are the children that one can verify. Where there more? Probably, considering he had a marked propensity for leaving his wife and children for periods of time, with little or no explanation for his whereabouts upon his return. I have relatives I know little or nothing about up and down the bayous of Louisiana.

One of the women that I am descended from was Clinda Picou Matherne, my great-grandmother, married to the above-mentioned Ursin Matherne. She was renowned in her community as a traiteur, a Cajun term for a faith healer. She prayed for the sick, laying hands on the ill, then she offered a remedy, usually a homeopathic cure. Payments were traditionally received, though not required for her services. She lived to an old age, just a few months shy of 100 years old. To the end of her days, she was known for praying and offering cures for the sick.

There were other details, too such as when and how my ancestors came to America. I detailed a bit about the long journeys of the Cajuns, who left France for Canada, were forcibly evicted from that land, and eventually made their way to Louisiana. My family was part of that journey, too.

I made a Shutterfly book of pictures and stories about my ancestors. I plan on gifting copies of the book to my nieces and nephews. I didn’t write down all the stories I have heard or read about my ancestors. However, I hope the stories that I managed to wrote down will be handed down for more generations to discover.

Christmas in July

The following article was submitted to Guideposts Magazine. This is the edited version that will appear in a special December 2020 issue. The original was published earlier in December 2019 as Christmas Eve in Jail. This is a true story.

I stood in front of a metal detector at the parish jail. A guard patted me down and handed me a visitor’s badge. This wasn’t where I wanted to be on Christmas Eve.

Tina, my church jail ministry partner, had called earlier to say she couldn’t make it to the women’s Bible study at the prison like she’d promised. But the group was expecting someone. I pictured them sitting around a metal table in the communal cell, waiting to be uplifted by Tina’s lesson. She always led the meetings; she knew what to say. What did I have to offer these women spending Christmas in this lonely, dismal place? 

The guard took my purse and waved me through the metal detector. Another guard accompanied me to the women’s wing with my Bible.

A door buzzed and I heard a clamor of voices before I walked into the cell. Roughly 30 women in orange jumpsuits and jail-issued sandals stood with expectant looks.

“You’re here!” one of them shouted. A few began pulling sheets off their bunks and wrapping them around themselves like tunics or cloaks. A semicircle of chairs seemed to be arranged for some kind of performance. 

“Everyone in the audience, sit down!” shouted an imposing inmate of Native American heritage. The woman strode toward me and introduced herself as Jenny.

“We don’t want a Bible study today,” she announced. “We’re putting on a play. All we need is a real audience and here you are.”

With that, Jenny stepped back and opened a Bible. The women in sheets took their places. When they were ready, Jenny read: “Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Two of the inmates walked to the middle of the semicircle, and I realized they were Mary and Joseph. This was a Nativity play. Jenny read from the gospel while the women played their parts, stopping at various points to sing.

The baby Jesus was a pillow, carried lovingly by Mary and placed on a chair—the manger. The shepherds came in led by angels. The three wise men followed with their gifts of ramen noodles and toiletries.

Jenny moved everyone through their roles with jailhouse bluntness: “Get in there!” “Pay attention!” “Next!”

I joined in singing “Silent Night.” The women had surprisingly lovely voices. After the song, Jenny ordered everyone to kneel before the baby Jesus. The actors kneeled.

“You too!” Jenny shouted to the audience. “Now!” One by one the inmates kneeled. I knelt too.

The room was silent.

I did not know these women particularly well, but in my visits with Tina I’d gotten a general idea why most of them had ended up in jail. Domestic disputes. Drugs. Bad checks. Prostitution, maybe to support an addiction. Crimes of poverty, with jail time inevitable because no one could afford bail.

Tonight, all of that seemed to vanish. These women were full of joy and purpose. Jenny read from the prophet Isaiah:

For unto us a child is born,

Unto us a son is given;

And the government will be upon his shoulder.

And his name will be called

Wonderful, counselor, mighty God,

Everlasting father, prince of peace.

A moment more of transportive silence. Then Jenny barked, “Okay, play’s over!”

I applauded, genuinely moved, and the group rushed toward me from the makeshift stage. “Did you like it?” “Was our singing in tune?” “Could you imagine the real story?” 

I was surrounded. No one expressed bitterness over missing Christmas at home, or worry about kids and elderly parents left behind. No one sounded lonely or depressed or fearful. The women needed no more from me than my appreciation for their effort. In the story of Jesus’ birth, they had clearly found the love and forgiveness they yearned for. Tonight, all that mattered were God’s forgiveness and promise of new life, as real as that pillow placed lovingly on a chair.

When the visit was over, we all wished each other a merry Christmas and the door buzzed. I was escorted back to the exit and handed my purse.

Night had fallen and I walked to my car under the glare of security lights. I remembered how apprehensive I’d felt going in. It occurred to me that the first Christmas was probably a lot like this. Two poor refugees with nowhere to call home, sleeping in a stable. The baby Jesus, born as a nobody with a mission to rescue the lost. This wasn’t where I’d wanted to be on Christmas Eve—until I saw that Jesus himself was inside, bearing the priceless gift of God’s loving grace. I was honored to have witnessed it.

Adventures with Shaggy

Shaggy and me around 1968.

For a four year old, there’s not much that can compare with the excitement of sitting atop a horse. In the picture above, I am posed with my older sister’s horse, Shaggy. A year or two later, I got my own horse. I can’t find a picture handy of my horse, Trixie.

Growing up in the country afforded lots of opportunity to enjoy animals. We had a menagerie of animals: cats, dogs, a bird, and two horses. I enjoyed all of them, but for me, riding a horse was an extra special event.

Even though I had a horse of my own, Trixie, I didn’t ride her very much. Trixie was a temperamental pony. She was the right size for a little girl, but she was obstinate. She had a fondness for biting her riders, too.

My memories of horses lay more with Shaggy, my sister’s horse. When I was younger, as in the picture, I was ridiculously happy to be led around the pasture as my dad held the rope to the horse. Later, I learned to take the reins on my own as I rode Shaggy at my grandfather’s place near our house. We didn’t have a fenced pasture to hold the horses, so they were housed at my grandfather’s farm. One time, I fell off the horse as Shaggy began to gallop too fast for me. I still recall the shock of being flat on my back as I looked up at a horse’s belly and hooves above me. Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt.

I remember when Shaggy spared my sister from harm. She was riding him in our yard, and she carelessly led the horse straight into the clothesline. My sister’s hair got tangled in the line. Shaggy reacted calmly, stopping patiently until my parents dislodged her head and hair. That’s when I learned that horses can be wise and gentle.

Somehow, I don’t remember the downside of having horses. My grandfather and my uncles brushed them, fed them, and housed them. My father supervised our adventures. All I did was ride when the opportunity was afforded to me.

I loved Roy Rogers and Dale Evans as a child. I think I was singing Happy Trails for this picture.

Despite the lack of care I gave to our horses, I did have other chores. Every summer, I shelled peas, snapped beans, and shucked corn.

Masking Up

It’s official. Louisiana’s governor has ordered the wearing of masks in all public places. Once again, the curve is on the rise in Louisiana. Our curve is not as dramatic as Arizona, Texas or Florida, but we’re close behind those other sunbelt states. In addition, bars are closed again. And gatherings are limited to 50 people or less.

Omelette at the Abita Springs Cafe urges citizens to wear a mask.

At the onset of the stay at home orders in March, I was okay with it. I am not an extrovert. I am comfortable with my own company. I had plenty to keep me occupied at home.

But now? I don’t want to go back to the early draconian measures. And I would be happy to be able to go out more in public gatherings for music, for fun, or even just to congregate at church. Even schools in Louisiana are pushing back start dates to better prepare for what may lie ahead for them.

For me, wearing a mask is just a minor inconvenience. I can take it off at home. I don’t have to work outside with a mask. The biggest drawback is that my glasses tend to fog up when wearing a mask. Otherwise, it’s no big deal to wear a mask to the grocery story, pharmacy or other spots around town.

Personally, I don’t understand the anger some people are expressing towards wearing a mask in public. Somehow they feel it’s an infringement on their rights to wear a mask. Really? Wearing a seatbelt in the car, having to carry a driver’s license all the time, and being scanned at airports for departure are all okay.

But a mask? That’s a violation of some sort of personal rights. I don’t get it. Take Omelette’s advice: wear a mask.

And wash your hands, too, please.

Statue of Choctaw Indian, washing her hands in spring water of Abita Springs, reputed by natives as being healing waters.

Just Mercy

A few days ago, a friend sent me an email with this quote from the book, Just Mercy.

Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion . . . we’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from our sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too.

My church has a women’s night meditation group on Wednesday night. We read a portion of scripture aloud three times. Then, we pause to reflect on its meaning in our lives. Then we repeat the reading three times again with fresh questions as we note the verses or thoughts that come up from the reading. This past week, we read the story of the woman at the well from the book of John. As you may recall, Jesus met a woman at a well in Samaria, and he asked her to serve him water from the well. She’s surprised at his request. Men didn’t talk to women, at least in public, and even more so, a woman he didn’t know. Finally, she’s suspect because she’s a Samaritan woman, belonging to a group of people who the Jews at the time were at odds with.

But Jesus talks to her, revealing who she is, and also offering her a chance of hope and redemption as he reveals himself as the living water. As the group at my church read the passage, I found myself drawn to this woman. I felt as if I were her, underserving and frankly surprised that Jesus would speak to me. I don’t deserve it. My prayer life is a quick thing each morning lately, with my thoughts scattered in a thousand directions rather than on the one thing I need – God.

Lately, I have been leaning into mercy. I watched Just Mercy, the movie. I wept for the injustice and final righting of wrongs for the wrongfully convicted Walter McMillian. Then, I read the book of the same title written by Bryan Stevenson. Unless you have a heart of stone, the book and the movie will move you. It moved me towards compassion and mercy.

It’s not that I am such a great Christian, either. I was moved because I need mercy. I need compassion. I need forgiveness. Everyday, I need it. I have joined Noom* to help me with reaching my goals for losing weight. It doesn’t require special foods or buying their stuff. I’ve lost about 10 pounds in the past 2 weeks. But I have so far to go. I am fat. I need to stop unhealthy eating patterns. Eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is way too easy for me. I need to walk, bike, or do something in my free time beside sit in front of a screen, either online or the television.

When I look at myself, I see someone who needs mercy. Mercy because of my lack of self-care, mercy for my lack of spiritual devotion, and mercy for all the other things I struggle with everyday. I am reminded of a story by Ann Lamott. She tells of visiting a friend in her kitchen, chatting as her young son played nearby. Suddenly, he whelped out a cry. She looked down and saw that his head was stuck between the legs of a chair. He cried out, “Help me. I need help with me. ”

That’s my cry today. Lord, help me. I need help with me.

*Noom is an app on your phone that helps you track your weight, monitor what you eat, and connect with like-minded people in your same situation.

Porch Life

Instead of writing on the blog this past week, I have been posting on Facebook. Everyday I posted a picture of a house with a porch from the town of Abita Springs, Louisiana. From comments on the posts, I have learned that my friends on Facebook share my regard for porches. Some have commented on memories they had on porches from their childhood. They wrote of spending time with their grandparents on the front porch. One recalls her grandmother sewing a quilt on the front porch. Another wrote of chatting in Cajun French on the front porch. Some lamented the lack of a porch at their grandparents’ residence.

My grandfather, Yvest, raised vegetables and melons to sell in the French Market in New Orleans. Almost every day, he took a break in the middle of the day from farm work. He would take a rest on his front porch. In fact, he was very punctual with his naps. resting at noon so regularly that he earned a nickname by the neighbors. He was called Noon. It must have been a great porch to inspire a ritual at noon everyday.

I only knew him when he was incapacitated by a stroke. Grandpa Noon in those days spent most of the day, not just noon time, on the porch in his wheelchair. Because he was there most of the day, that porch was the center of family life for my grandparents. They snapped beans, shelled peas, visited with family and friends, and of course, napped on the porch. As noted in another blog post, he taught me little snippets of Cajun French on that porch.

Today, porches are generally ornamental. Life in the South is lived inside, in the air conditioned space, in front of the television or online. However, I still love the look of a good porch. Below I am posting a few porches that I featured on Facebook. Enjoy.

In Praise of Porches

Not my grandparent’s house. I do like the porch, though.

Today, I allowed myself to think about porches. I thought about one porch in particular, a place where I spent many hours in my childhood. My grandparent’s porch. The above picture is not that house. That house from my childhood was torn down last year.

My grandparents’ front porch was an inviting place. The house didn’t have air-conditioning. Much of the year, the most temperate space was the porch, where breezes came off the bayou, and curled around the branches of the two ancient oaks on the side of the small house.

Every so often, my mother took the white Buick into town. I stayed behind as a preschooler with my grandparents who lived a short distance away from our house. Grandma was usually busy in the kitchen or the back porch, so I had to make the best of the situation by being entertained by my grandfather on the front porch. When I knew him in the 60s and early 70s, he kept to the front porch most days. He had suffered a stroke years before I was born. It left him unable to take but a few halting steps.

Grandpa liked to play little games with me. You know those little games, where one has to turn over your hand rapidly to avoid a slap from a partner. He could play endless variations of this game with me in the heat of the afternoon. The time would pass, but I tired of the games that I rarely won.

Then, grandpa, sensing my impatience, passed to his favorite activity with me which was to teach me short phrases of Cajun French. I would listen and repeat until I had the words memorized. Then, grandpa invariably insisted that I share my new knowledge with grandma. I usually preferred to walk around the house to the back of the house, finding her there on the back porch or in the kitchen.

I would say, “Grandma, *&%&#@!”

Immediately, Grandma’s head would snap around to me.

“What did you say?”, she would say urgently.

“Well, Grandma, *&&^%$$!”

“Who taught you to say such a thing?” she would tersely ask.

“Grandpa…” I would say timidly.

“Oh, no! Grandpa would NEVER say that and don’t say those words again.” she would say firmly.

Rebuked, I headed out of the back door and walked to the front of the house where grandpa sat, chuckling under his breath. This happened time after time. I never seemed to remember that grandpa’s “lessons” were definitely not appreciated by grandma or, for that matter, any other adult in my childhood.

Later on in my life, I put the Cajun aphorisms I learned from grandpa to good use. These words were good to know in junior high. I had a few unsuspecting teachers who weren’t schooled in Cajun French. With a smile on my lips, I would answer an unsuspecting teacher with “kiss my a** ” in Cajun French. When asked what it meant, I would sweetly reply that it meant “yes, ma’am” or “no, sir.”

As an adolescent, I was glad for my early porch time lessons. Grandpa had died by that time, so I couldn’t thank him properly. However, I smile a bit now when I remember his off-color lessons, as I stood by him on the front porch, as I patiently memorized Cajun French. I am grateful for the times I had with him on the front porch as well as the times with grandma on the back porch as she reacted to my words. This is just one reason why I like porches.