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.

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.

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.

Once Upon a Shotgun

I like driving or bicycling through Abita Springs, the town where I live. I like to imagine living in old places, either now or in the past. Somehow, my life would be happier, more carefree, more chic if I lived in such a house as in the picture above.

It’s a shotgun house. Theoretically one could shoot a shotgun inside the front door and the shot would exit the back door without hitting anyone. Narrow houses like this were common in these parts. I think in the days before air conditioning, a house like this allowed for breezes to blow in and out more readily.

When Abita Springs was in its heyday in the early 1900s, houses such as these may have served an individual family or may have had a room for guests. The little town was known as a place for healthy living and relaxation. Some houses would have rented rooms for guests escaping a New Orleans summer. Or, I have heard, some homes were turned into small hospitals, housing yellow fever and tuberculosis patients, mainly from the city, seeking a rest cure in the country.

Although it’s not the house in the picture, there’s a house in town that was specifically set aside for tuberculosis patients. Nowadays, a baker owns the building, where Miss Jan turns out specialty cakes for weddings, birthdays, and the like. She says, without much fanfare, that the former rest home has a ghost.

Miss Jan doesn’t like to give undue attention to the ghost. She prefers to go about her business, without minding the spirit world. Occasionally she has knocks on the door in predawn hours as she preps cakes and breads for the day’s work. Or, a shove on the shoulder by an unseen hand has been known to occur. But, on the whole, the spirit doesn’t bother her much. The priest, who pastors next door, has prayed over the house, and he seems to have produced a calming effect upon the sprite.

Tuberculosis, also known as consumption, was a cruel disease. It still is in mostly undeveloped countries. Sufferers, until the advent of modern antibiotics, almost always died a slow and painful death as their lungs filled with liquid and blood. It almost always featured a wet cough and then, eventually bloody coughs, that resulted in respiratory failure.

I suppose our ghost in Abita Springs died from tuberculosis. I can imagine a ghost would want to visit the living once in a while. Perhaps, the spirit knocks on the door seeking solace for a lost life.

So, that’s where my mind went today as I looked at shotgun houses in the historic district of Abita Springs. Life in the early 1900s wasn’t all lemonade and lightness in the sweet bye and bye. There was death, too, often in an old shotgun house.

It’s Juneteenth and All is Well

I never knew about the day called Juneteenth when I was growing up. As far as I knew it was June 19. It happens to be my sister’s birthday, but that’s not of national import. I am happy for African Americans who may be celebrating their day of independence today.

For me, this year, Juneteenth means it’s the end of May. Confused? Let me explain. Until this weekend, we have had a most unusual month in Louisiana. The weather has been mild, not oppressively hot and muggy like it usually is in June. It’s been like May, warm in the day, not humid, and cool each evening

Everything in nature has responded in turn to this remarkable stretch of nice weather. In my yard, the rose bushes are full of happy buds, not drooping in indolence and shame due to heat exhaustion. The hydrangeas are blooming merrily, full of white blossoms reaching Amazonian heights. My blueberry tree was overloaded with fruit this year, much to the delight of the birds who consumed much of the harvest. I hear the din of frogs and insects in the twilight of midsummer eve as they rejoice in May days. It’s grand.

I don’t have a vegetable garden, but folks with gardens are enjoying a great harvest. In Louisiana, we don’t have a harvest in late June. Plants (and some people) usually just give up and die about this time of year in the sweltering heat. Not okra. Okra thrives in the summer heat. But, no, it’s not just okra growing in home gardens in late June. There’s still tomatoes and peppers and zucchini and corn being harvested in back yards in Louisiana.

According to the weather guy on TV, this glorious balmy month of May will end sometime on June 20 or 21. That’s this weekend. So Juneteenth is being celebrated in my house as the last day before the awful blast of Louisiana summer begins. I’m happy to celebrate the day because the days and nights of lingering May has been appreciated.

I popped a huge bowl of popcorn. I plan on watching Madam Secretary on Netflix. Why not have a Netflix binge with popcorn? That’s how I plan on commemorating the end of May. Happy Juneteenth, y’all.

News From Abita Springs

I am tired of bad news broadcasting daily into my home. What about something different? In my little town, there’s news of armadillos, coyotes, pot-bellied pigs and more.

Animals have been out and about. In the daytime, coyotes have been spotted in town, creeping out of the woods. Hide your cats, dogs, and chickens! It’s not safe. Baby armadillos about the size of pickle jars were seen scuttling across the St. Tammany Trace this past week.

A local resident reports the presence of pot-belled pigs in her yard. Who do they belong to? When will the owners retrieve the errant pigs? Will an interloper snatch them up for a Friday night barbecue? If there are updates to this developing story, I will let you know.

The children’s park and the splash pad remain closed as they have for the stay at home orders in the spring. The park will remain closed because of needed repairs. The splash pad is going to re-open most likely in July.

The Abita Springs Trailhead Museum and the Abita Springs Farmer’s Market have re-opened for Sunday visitors. One can buy fruit, veggies, farm-raised eggs and prepared foods from 11-3 each Sunday. Next door to the Museum and Farmer’s Market, the Abita Brew Pub is open with fifty percent capacity per state guidelines. The outdoor seating is quite nice under the large shady oak trees. On Sundays, there’s also live music in the pub’s outdoor space.

undefinedThe Abita Mystery House and UCM (You See ‘Um) Museum remains closed. It’s time to write another post about this eccentric site full of treasures and charms that continues to grow its displays of odd collectibles. I’ll wait until it’s open for new pictures. Until then, content yourself with the photo of the lady alligator who greets guests in the main room of the UCM house. If you can’t wait for my post, and you have access to local public television, WYES of New Orleans, will air a segment on the Abita Mystery house tonight at 7:30 and 11:30.

That’s all the news of the week in Abita Springs. Coyotes and armadillos, markets and museums, all are part and parcel of the news. I hope you enjoyed a small town news respite from the national news of the day.

Stormy Weather

A storm is brewing in the Gulf. Right now, Cristobal is meandering over land near the Yucatan. It won’t stay there forever. It is forecast to make its way toward the Louisiana coast on Sunday. It’s not likely to be a strong storm. At its worst, forecasters agree it could be a nominal hurricane.

Considering the fragility of our coastline, though, it may be just one more weapon that will be like a battering ram on our area. The boot in the picture above represents what used to be the coast of Louisiana. I couldn’t find a good image on the internet to show what it looks like today, but much of coast of southeastern Louisiana is gone. The land that I grew up on is increasingly being eroded and falling away. Open waters lap at our doorsteps, in some cases, quite literally, as people are forced to move to higher ground.

That’s one reason that I live where I live today. I didn’t see the sense of buying another house in New Orleans, after coming back here after nearly a decade in Honduras. New Orleans is surrounded more and more by open waters rather than protective wetlands, or near my hometown on the bayou where land is lost everyday. At least where I live now, a bit north and east of New Orleans, I don’t have to worry about small storms such as what is being projected for this weekend.

There are other storms. Some of the storms brewing are not tropical at all. There are political and racial storms that are raging now in our country. What do we do with the information we have about racial injustice and protests? Do we, as white Americans, just put up a social media comment in defense of justice and go along our way as if nothing has happened?

I’m guilty of doing that. I just posted a few things about injustice. I felt better. But what if I were really committed to understanding what’s happening in our country? I think I need to seek voices from the black community. I need to listen. There are battering rams of injustice and inequities hitting our nation right now. If not addressed, they will weaken our democracy.

Whenever we have storms in the Gulf, our motto is be prepared. We do what we can to protect our homes, and we ride out the storm as best we can. (Evacuation is still the best choice for large storms). I need a game plan, too, to prepare to understand my black brothers and sisters.

I plan to watch Just Mercy, a film about racial injustice in the penal system. You can rent Just Mercy for free in June through a variety of digital movie services in the US, including Apple TVFandangoNowGoogle PlayAmazon Prime VideoRedbox, the PlayStation Store, VuduMicrosoft, and YouTube. Join me in watching the movie.

I am also part of a book club that will be reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. I want this moment in history to count for something. I was only 6 years old in 1969 when the public schools in our school district were integrated. I was too young to have a voice, but I now see what a seminal moment that was for our town. I don’t want to be in denial this time, like my parents were in the 1960s.

In my morning devotions today, from Pray as You Go, the text was from Jesus’ words about the two greatest commandments. The first is to love God. The second is to love our neighbor. If we don’t grapple with social and racial inequities in our nation, I fear more storms are going to hit us. It’s time we met the storms with foresight and prudence.

An Elegy to a Disappearing Bayou

mosquite supper clubThere’s nothing quite like the comfort of a beautiful book, especially when one needs a respite from the world’s events. Who couldn’t use an escape right now from the world around us? We’re in a worldwide pandemic. Americans are in the grip of unrest and riots as racial tensions rise.

In the midst of trying times, I found the perfect antidote in the book, Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou, by Melissa Martin. The author is a native of Chauvin, Louisiana, along Bayou Petit Caillou, a community just a bayou away from my birthplace, Bourg, on Bayou Terrebonne. Like me, she grew up in a Cajun community.

Melissa Martin has a degree in English from Loyola University of New Orleans. Her cooking education was in Michelin rated restaurants in California. She melded her two talents of writing and cooking to produce an enchanting volume about Cajun cooking and culture. The rich photography adds another layer of beauty to this book.

The author and I are both from the southernmost part of Louisiana, a different place altogether from the South as defined as being below the Mason Dixon Line. Here’s her words to which I can personally witness: To me, everything above Baton Rouge was the north. I grew up with leftover gumbo in the fridge and an oil rig drilling just outside my window. I didn’t know it was special to eat cold crabs for breakfast and be surrounded by water and bayous, ibis and pelicans, receding land and dying cypress trees. 

Here’s more examples of her beautiful writing. From the chapter on crabs: Crabs are the crabssummer sun held together by shell and seawater. To introduce the section on gumbo, she writes: Gumbo is the tie that binds in South Louisiana. It symbolizes family, a shared table, local ingredients, patience, and the subtleties of culture and tradition.

The book is an elegy to a disappearing bayou and culture. As she cites in her introduction, Louisiana loses a football’s field’s worth of land every hundred minutes-that’s sixteen miles of lost barrier islands, swamps, and ground each year. I know what it’s like personally to see the land loss in my lifetime. It’s incredibly sad to watch my hometown, my region, my way of life become one step closer each day to extinction as the water swallows up our communities.

This book will one day, maybe very soon, serve as a history book to what was lost in a few generations in Louisiana. If you want to know more about Melissa Martin or the Mosquito Supper Club, her restaurant, I added a few links below. However, the best way to appreciate this volume is to buy it.

Link for her restaurant: Mosquito Supper Club

Link to an article detailing information about Melissa Martin and her legacy: Bayou Benediction: A Taste of Chef Melissa Martin’s Mosquito Supper Club. 

Link to Amazon: Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou by Melissa Martin

 

 

 

The Green Bus

 

green bus
Picture stolen from Phys.org.

When I was a girl, a grocery bus passed in front of our house every Saturday. My memories are somewhat hazy, since the bus stopped its route in the early 70s or late 60s. I would have been maybe five or six when the bus quit coming down Bayou Blue. On Saturday, I remember waiting on the side of the road with my sisters, looking for the green school bus.

My childhood memory was that the bus was outfitted with wooden shelves filled with rows of candy from top to bottom. I remember Sugar Babies, Sweet Tarts, Now and Laters, Lemon Heads, and Hot Tamales. Making a choice of only one candy was a perplexing choice each week.

When I talked to my older sister about the green bus, she gently remonstrated me about the bus’ contents. According to her, and later confirmed by my mother, it was a bus filled with groceries and hardware items, too. Need a potato? Check the produce bins in the front of the bus. Want a step ladder? They were hung on the ceiling, parallel to the floor. Scrub brush? Near the back. Can of soup or bag of sugar? Middle aisles.

Every Saturday, Mr. Boudreaux drove from Thibodaux, Louisiana, down a rural route along Bayou Blue. He sold his wares to housewives and children who waited by the road. I suppose he had other routes on different days. I remember that our day was Saturday. In my mind, Saturday had to be the best day for a green bus full of candy to stop in front of my house.

In those days, home delivery wasn’t a novel concept. The milk came in bottles from a milkman in his truck. Fresh fruit came from Mr. Ledet’s customized pick-up truck. Of course, frozen confections were available from the ice cream truck, sounding its way down the road.

Today, Walmart allows for orders to be made at home, online, and then picked up in the parking lot. Instacart goes a step further, and online orders are delivered to your door. These ideas are not quite new. They are just new twists on an old theme. The green bus of my childhood lives on in new ways all over the place.

Hog’s Head Cheese and Other Cajun Delicacies

I came across an article from Atlas Obscura: Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations that says that hog’s head cheese is becoming rare in South Louisiana. Hog’s head cheese is made from, well, the head of a hog, usually as well as other offal of a pig. There’s no actual cheese. Hog innards are boiled and chilled with vinegar in a jelly roll pan. The fat from the hog’s extras gives the concoction a gelatinous binding.

Hogshead_Nolafoodgoddess
Photo Courtesy of Altas Obscura

I have never tasted it, although my mother is partial to keeping a small loaf wrapped in butcher’s paper in the refrigerator. She eats it sliced with Saltine crackers. It’s part of my heritage that I’d just as soon forget. Hog’s head cheese made with offal (the word sounds like awful!) is not even remotely appetizing to see or imagine eating.

I grew up in bayou country where Cajun culture reigns supreme. Another product that is nearing its demise in these parts are pickled pigs lips. That’s not a joke. The lips of pigs are pickled and preserved in a red, viscous liquid resembling mercurochrome. It was a common barroom treat, or so I’ve heard. Never ate it, either. I can’t do pigs lips or feet, pickled or not.

Yet, I have eaten other foods not eaten by most Americans. I enjoyed fried frog legs as a child. My daddy sometimes went frog hunting along the bayous at night. He’d come home with a burlap sack of bullfrogs and whack off the legs. Then, my mama fried them up the following day after soaking them in buttermilk. There’s nothing quite like eating frog legs that just a day before were appendages to bellowing amphibians.

Sometimes after church, we would head towards Morgan City, Louisiana, and stop at Chester’s, a vintage diner near Morgan City. My family ate mounds of fried frog legs, fried chicken, and fried onion rings at Chester’s. And yes, frog legs do taste like chicken. Chester’s is a just a memory now, and frog legs are hard to find these days.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve eaten and loved turtle soup. Not too many people in my family like it, although my grandpa supposedly liked soup from the snapping turtles he caught in the bayou. It’s a specialty of the house in gourmet restaurants in New Orleans such as Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s. The best turtle soup usually involves a bit of sherry to the dish. Delicious!

crawfish, corn and corona
My late father enjoying corn, crawfish and a Corona.

Then, of course, there’s crawfish. I can’t recall the first time I ate them. We grew up eating them: boiled, stewed, or in an etouffe. Good Friday in our part of the country is often celebrated with crawfish, boiled, and spread on an outside table. Friends and families are invited to eat crawfish, as well as the potatoes, corn and sausage that are added to the boiling pot.

I’m glad crawfish is still enjoyed here and now in other parts of the country, too. Personally, I don’t mind at all that hogs head cheese, fried frog legs, turtle soup, and pickled pigs lips are scarcer and scarcer in these parts. Some things are better left in the past.

Incidental note: Alligator has never been a cultural food in bayou country. It’s served now in many restaurants in these parts, but I never, ever heard of anyone eating gator when I was growing up. There are beasts. I refuse to eat them, even though they would be happy to eat me.