My great-aunt Chloe presented this 27 page “memory” to my father in 1976. I now present it to you in recognition and in celebration of the life of:
Clotilde Pitre Mire 18 January 1906 – 4 February 1994
Things That I Remember
By Clotilde Pitre Mire
These pages of memories are dedicated to my new friend, Jack Wise, who planted the seed in my mind. Mr. Wise is an attorney in Thibodaux, Louisiana, who bought the Pitre Estate in 1973.
Clotilde Pitre Mire
“But the tender grace of a day that is dead, will never come back to me.”
The lines from Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break” have not held true for me. It is true that our old homestead is far from being the house that we lived in. To look at its broken pillars, run-down steps and a part of the front porch off the pillars, tall weeds grown almost to the back steps of what was once a beautiful yard and garden could make one sad and bitter, but when I go back there, I see beyond this physical picture and I remember the wonderful life that we lived there.
To live the way we did might have warped our minds but instead I feel a richer person as I think of the past only in terms of our close knit family, with love, compassion and a deep appreciation of better things to come.
THINGS THAT I REMEMBER
I was the fifth child born to Henry Pitre and Lea Ayo on January 18, 1906 in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, just about one mile from the Assumption Parish line. One of my earliest recollections is a lot of excitement when I was about three years old. One of our neighbors was killed by lightning while he was plowing in the field with a mule pulling the plow. We were always warned that a mule attracts lightning, so we were to keep away when the weather was bad, and we must never sit under a tree, as a tree attracts lightning also.
Everyone in the neighborhood from grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers and mothers, with the oldest child to the youngest always went to the “wake” as it was called, the body always in the parlor as there were no funeral homes. This particular incident is still vivid in my mind, as I remember being dressed in a white eyelet embroidered dress. Mama sat me on the dining room table, hoping that I would be quiet while she dressed some of the other children. Somehow, I found a pair of scissors and began cutting the embroidered designs in the skirt, and I remember Mama was screaming “CLO—TILDE, what are you doing”, and I told her that I was cutting some feathers in my dress. I’m sure that I must have been punished, but I don’t remember.
The oldest child in my family was Cyril, a boy born on December 22, 1895. Next was Agnes, whose birthday was March 26, 1897, Henry, born June 11, 1900, George, November 17, 1902, then I, who was “Clo”, except when I was reprimanded, it was “CLO-TILDE!! Which was often, I think. Next was Bridget, born June 2, 1909, and the baby girl, Elodie, on April 5, 1911, nicknamed Snooks, from a comic strip character.
We all lived in a four-bedroom house. Grandpa and Grandma Ayo, Mama’s father and mother lived with us. We called them Pepere and Memere Cootoone. Pepere was blind in one eye and we were told many times how he was under a pecan tree when a small branch fell and hit him in the eye. At that time, Pepere made a vegetable garden and helped with the yard work. During grinding season he would go “make grinding” away from home, sometime as far as Sugarland, Texas.
Pepere was a marvelous story teller. From my earliest recollection, he would sit in his chair as we children, and often the neighbor’s children would sit on the floor while he told us fascinating tales, all in French. Some we later learned were “Blue Beard”, in French called “La Barbe Bleu”. He told us about “Cinderella” and a thrilling tale about a boy who killed his brother and buried him in the Forest of Arden. A few years later a man was digging and found some bones. He used one of the bones to make a whistle. When he used the whistle, it told of this boy being killed by his brother and buried in the Forest of Arden. The guilty brother became conscience stricken and confessed to the crime. Pepere also sang the “Passion Song” which had 14 stanzas (in French). None of us ever had the voice he had, nor did we ever master the way he told us these beautiful and sometimes hair-raising tales.
During these early years that I can remember, we always had one or two uncles who would become unemployed and would come to live with us. How poor Mama could cook three meals a day for that many people, I’ll never know. She never complained although she cooked for about 13 people three times a day. For breakfast, she would cook pans of delicious corn bread and coffee milk which she fixed in a large pot. She put the milk first and when it would come to a boil, she would pour in a pot of coffee, then sweeten it with sugar. We would dunk our corn bread in a bowl of coffee milk. My brother George always wanted the four corners of the corn bread as these were more crispy than the rest of the corn bread. Let me say, that the milk used for breakfast was milked by dear Mama before we were even out of bed. Also, Mama brought each of us coffee while we were still in bed. She would sweeten the coffee in the pot, pour it into cups, put it on a tray and serve to each one in the family and any visitors who might be spending the night with us.
Our house was bought by Papa in 1899. The records show that we could not move into the house until the death of the owner. Mama told me that I was only two weeks old when we moved there so the prior owner lived in the house for 7 years after Papa had bought the land.
From what I remember, the house was originally four rooms, two large and two smaller rooms. The inner walls of these four rooms were made of “mud” as we called it. It was a mixture of mud, water and dried moss which made a sort of plaster and we would “whitewash” these walls. Whitewash was a mixture with lime, which when dried was white. Back of these four rooms was a very large rectangular room with a fireplace. This was used for the dining room. We had a long dining room table, lots of chairs, and a beautiful “sideboard”. The sideboard was like a large buffet, marble topped, with a large mirror, a small shelf on each side, and a drawer used for the better table-ware (Roger’s heavy silver plate). There were doors at the bottom, I don’t remember what was kept there. The sideboard was a huge piece of mahogany. Memere must have been a bottle collector, because the sideboard had many unusual bottles, milk glass pieces and glass containers which she brought in now and then. About twice a month, one of us girls had to wash all those things, rinse and dry until they shone and put back into place. How I hated when it was my “turn” to do this chore. We also had a “safe” where we kept the better dishes. The every day dishes were kept in a safe in the kitchen which was just back of the dining room.
The kitchen had a table, chairs, a shelf to keep buckets of drinking water which was drawn from one of two cisterns, one on each side of the dining room.
The kitchen included a large pantry where staples and groceries were kept. Papa would buy a 100 lb. sack of flour which was emptied into a barrel. Mama made all the bread and biscuits from this flour. Sometimes we would have “scracoons” for breakfast. These were made from fried bread dough, and we would eat these with syrup. Now and then, I get hungry for “scracoons” so I get dough from the bakery but they just don’t do like those Mama made. She would cut off a piece of dough, stretch it and then fry. Bubbles would form in the dough while frying making the “scracoon” light and crisp. The bakery dough will not stretch as much as the home made dough, therefore the “scracoons” that I make are much thicker and not nearly as light as Mama’s.
The bread was baked in an outdoor brick oven. A fire was built and when the wood was burned down to red pieces resembling coal, the bread was placed in the oven which was then closed. At intervals, Mama would check the loaves, turn them around, and by the time the fire was reduced to ashes, the bread was baked. Can you think of anything better than hot homemade bread with fresh butter?
In the pantry, also, was a 50 pound can of lard. Papa always bought in quantity. He would buy a barrel of fresh cane syrup. We children helped Mama to wash bottles. She would then pour the syrup from a tap on the barrel into the bottles. Sometimes the neighbors would come to help, just as Mama would help with their projects, and of course, all the children were there in the background, all ears, as the women shared small gossip or sometimes a scandal!
There were quilting parties. If Mama had a quilt to make, several friends would come. They made beautiful, small stitches and no one would leave until the quilt was finished. Mama would get up to make coffee or lemonade for the ladies and sometimes we children would play underneath the quilt which was on the quilting frames. Memere “sewed by hand” beautifully. Sometimes a man or a boy would have a suit which had a moth eaten hole. He would take the suit for Memere to darn. She did this so well that you could not tell where the hole had been. Memere was also asked to sew on wedding gowns, sometime making the whole trousseau by hand and no fee was ever thought of. It was considered an honor to be selected to sew on the bridal gown as that meant you really did a “fine stitch”.
Another neighborhood project which involved the men was the “boucherie” or hog killing. We children would wake up and hear a big fire crackling. A cold wind was blowing the smoke all around. “Boucheries” were made during the first real cold weather. One day it would be at our home, then at a neighbor’s until every house in the neighborhood had their fresh pork, smoked sausages, made cracklings (which I dearly loved), hogshead cheese, lard, boudins, the blood boudin and also the white kind. Mama would cook large pots of grits on boucherie day. She cooked cubed pork with plenty of hot coffee for breakfast for all the workers as well as for the family. As usual, the children were always background spectators, but we didn’t miss anything that was going on.
We had a crock in the pantry with salted pork from the boucherie.
Another project was making sauerkraut. Everyone would help to cut the cabbages very fine. This was put in a large crock and “salted down”. We had a special board to put on top of the crock. A heavy stone was used to press the board down.
After a few weeks when the kraut was made (soured) it was rinsed in cold water to remove the brine. This was put into jars and sealed. We always had a shelf in the pantry with jars of sauerkraut.
We had a lot of fruit trees in the back yard, fenced in, which we called the “orchard” – this included beautiful orange and grapefruit trees, several kinds of plums, a variety of figs, wild cherries (to be made into cherry bounce), pears, and peaches. Back of the orchard Papa and Pepere planted cauliflower and artichokes as well as all the vegetables we could use.
We children helped to dig potatoes, both Irish and yams, picked pecans and did such chores as were necessary. We had 24 pecan trees, two hickory nut trees and a black walnut tree. I dug so many potatoes that today I can’t look one straight in the “eye”. I also detested picking up pecans, there were so many – sacks full. Papa always did well with selling the pecans wholesale and the result added money to our scant nest egg.
As each of my brothers and sisters became old enough to go to school we attended the nearest public school. I don’t remember Cyril (called “Pete”) going to school as he was the oldest. He attended Thibodaux College which was a business college, I imagine. He was taught accounting and bookkeeping as well as English and regular courses. He boarded with one of my uncles in Thibodaux.
Agnes, whom we all call “Nan”, boarded in the first Labadieville Convent. There she learned how to embroider beautifully as well as doing Mexican work and battenberg or battenburg. The former was very intricate, having to pull or draw threads from the material before making different designs with knotting some of the threads together. The latter work had to be pinned on paper. Bias tape was basted on the paper for design of a collar or whatever you wanted to make. “Thorn” stitching was worked between the rows of the tape – it was beautiful work, sometimes done on baby bonnets and dresses.
My brother, Henry, also went to Thibodaux College while George was in high school in Labadieville. We younger ones went to Enterprise School which included grades from the primer to seventh. We had to walk to any school that we went to, as much as three miles each way in dirt roads, yet – so you can imagine how much mud we had to go through when it rained. Groceries were delivered by wagons drawn by horses. This made deep ruts into the highway as well as the large wagons hauling sugar cane to the sugar houses. The roads were graveled when I was in sixth grade.
From Memere, I think we learned the finer things in life, such as always putting our best foot forward, she said, “first impressions were usually lasting ones.” Memere taught us to sit properly, telling us to sit very erect.
Memere was a mid-wife, therefore she went into many wealthy homes and learned how to fix many delicious dishes. She learned and showed us how to make cream puffs, stuff a head of cabbage with oysters, make oyster pie and a dessert which none of us can remember how it was made. We called it “puttine en sac” or pudding in a sack. She would make a mixture with eggs, sugar, flour, red cherries and vanilla. She would pour the mixture into a spotless empty small flour sack. She would tie the sack and put to cook into a large pot of boiling water. When it was cooked she would remove and let it get cold. She then sliced and put in a large platter. Over this she would pour a hard sauce which was very delicious. I remember she would put some of the cherry juice into this sauce which made it a pink color. I have bought and gone through many cook books to find such a recipe. I even bought an old English cook book but all the pudding recipes from where this recipe may have been extracted have suet as an ingredient but Memere did not use suet, she did use butter, both in the pudding and in the sauce.
None of us inherited Mama’s patience. She went along with all her work, never complaining of being tired or having too much to do.
I remember in the winter time we had no heat in the bedrooms, and in spite of the heavy quilts, getting between the cold sheets must have been hard to do. It seemed as though we never could warm our feet. Now and then we’d hear George scream, “Henry, keep your cold feet off me” – and Bridget (Bee) or I would say, “your feet are too cold”. Dear Mama would come into our bed, get in the middle and let us curl our cold feet around her warm flannelette nightgown. Then she would silently go back to bed with Papa. Sometimes she would heat a sheet to wrap around our feet.
Papa added two large rooms to the house, one we used for the parlor and the other a bedroom. I mentioned not having any heat in the bedrooms but a front bedroom with the mud walls had a fireplace. This would heat the walls in the bedroom and the next bedroom. But the new side of the house had no heat.
The bricks from the back of the dining room fireplace heated the kitchen, as well as did the large black iron stove.
Some of my most treasured memories are the groups sitting around the dining room fireplace after all the dishes were cleaned and put away. The children would sit on the floor and listen to the grownups talk. This is why I know so many of our “way back” cousins. They would visit us and come by buggy. At night as we sat around the fireplace in the wintertime Mama would get some oranges and we would eat those and nibble on pecans. The cousins and also friends from the neighborhood would come to visit at night, which we called “veiller”, meaning to sit up with company at night. They would relate who was doing what or who was going where, who got married, who died, and such things. The children would sometimes ask questions, but mostly we just listened.
I remember the clock on the mantelpiece striking the half hour and then the hours. Light was furnished by coal oil lamps. Washing the soot from the lamp “chimneys” (which was the glass piece keeping the wind from putting out the flame) was another chore that I detested. We had to clean the lamps every morning and refill them with coal oil, so that they would be ready for night time.
We used one lamp on the dining room table to do our school homework. We also had a lamp called a head lamp which was put into a band of tin attached to the wall. There was a plate looking thing made of tin back of the lamp which was called a “reflector” – that is, the light radiated a wider scope than the other lamps. We all finished our school work from first grade through high school with oil lamps as there was no electricity in the country then.
I have not mentioned my Pitre grandparents as yet. Grandpa Pitre was Irish, he told us, although his name was Leander Dorado, both Spanish names. Presumably, he and two brothers came from overseas and settled in lower Lafourche Parish. There are many Pitres there now, and I wonder if they are descendants of Grandpa’s relatives. I don’t remember any Pitres visiting them. There were two houses on the land that Papa bought, so Grandpa and Grandma Pitre lived in one until they died. I was about eleven years old when Grandpa died and twelve or thirteen years old when Grandma died. Grandma Pitre was Odile Vicknair. I knew her sister Victorine, whom we called Tante Vic. I don’t remember any other sisters or brothers. When I was very small before I started school, Grandma and Grandpa Pitre lived across the bayou from us, which is now Hwy. 1. I can’t remember just when they moved in the house in the same “yard” where we lived. From Grandma Pitre I must have inherited the love of reading. Grandma bought many paper backs then, some called “dime novels” undoubtedly because they cost only one dime. I read one cloth bound book that Grandma let me have. It was called “A Fool and His Money” way back when I was in the third grade, and believe it or not, I still remember the plot! I used to borrow books from everybody but never owned any until I was married. Before then I read books from the school libraries. I loved literature, English and poetry more than any other subjects.
When we were small, and still believed in the “Rabbit”, on Easter Eve we would go out in the field each with a small flat granite pan. We would gather fresh clover and wild flowers to line the pans with. This was where the rabbits would lay their eggs. There were no Easter baskets then. We had a few bought sugar eggs. Mostly they were eggs that Mama dyed (as she told us later). She would use pieces of different colored materials to make the dye to color the eggs. Our pride and joy was one sugar egg with a little glass on the end through which we could see a flower scene – much as there are some today.
At Christmas time each child hung a stocking on the mantle piece. We had no Christmas tree, although I remember Papa being Santa Claus at school. There was a tree with the gifts hung on the tree – we all wanted a large stocking, so we’d borrow some from Memere or from Mama. Usually we got a small doll with the sawdust body and the china head, hands and shoes. We got one pack of fire crackers, one apple and one orange. The exciting part was feeling in the toe of the stocking where we’d find a shiny nickel.
On New Year’s day the children would get up early in the morning. Mama would wake us, dress us warmly, give us each an empty pillow slip. Then we would leave, sometimes in icy windy weather. We’d go from house to house and holler “Bon jour, Bonne annee,” (Happy New Year) much as the children now do “Trick or Treat” at Halloween time. The neighbors then opened the door and wished us a happy New Year and would give us fresh popcorn balls, tea cakes with icing, some pecans and now and then “bought” candy, such as peppermint sticks and gum drops. How happy we were when we’d return home, dump our pillow slip on the table, with all the goodies falling out.
I wonder how many people remember this tradition and wonder if the town and city children followed this custom. At that time our widest scope of travel in the country was to school and to church.
Memere, who was Philomene Trosclair, was married to Pepere, named Gustave Toussaint Ayo. I underline Tousaint because it means “All Saints”. Pepere was born on “All Saint’s Day”, November 1st.
We always thought that Memere had a green thumb. Anything she planted grew, whether it was a seed, a cutting or a plant with roots. She worked in the flower garden which in those days was a fenced-in area in front of the house.
Everywhere she went, she came back with a plant or cutting, some very unusual and rare plants for the part of the country we lived in. She had a variety of pot plants, like many types of ferns, begonias, and geraniums. These she kept on boards made like steps. Each shelf or board was loaded with her pot plants. She carefully watered and fertilized them. When cold weather was predicted, we all helped to carry the pots into the house where they stayed until warm weather arrived.
In the yard she had one of the first Camellia bushes in the neighborhood, in fact for years it was the only one. Under a mimosa tree she would plant things that grew in the shade. She had white and yellow narcissus, Jonquils, blue bells, silver bells, lovely violets, roses of all colors and varieties, chrysanthemums and a plant which was called a holly. It made a small bush, had oval thick green leaves. The holly berries hung in clusters on the limbs. I’ve never seen any plant resembling this since then anywhere. I remember her already in her 70’s still hoeing, spading and pulling grass until her hair would be wet with perspiration. Her glasses were so blurred that she’d have to stop a while to clean them and to dry her hair.
On each side of the front steps she had large hydrangeas. On one of the posts or columns on the porch was a beautiful confederate jasmine vine. When it was in bloom, it looked like thousands of freshly popped popcorn.
As we children did not have too many toys to play with, we invented a lot of things. We would go into the yard where there was grass that grew in clumps. We’d plop down and clear everything around one clump. We’d call this our doll’s hair. We would plait the grass which when finished, looked like braided hair. We’d tie a string at the end of the braid so it would not come apart. We would amuse ourselves for hours doing this. The next day we would run to see if our dolls were still combed.
Sometimes we would make stilts and walk around the yard on these. We also would take a short board, nail a piece of wood across one end. We would sit on the other end and put our feet on the crossed end to slide down the levee. The levees were higher then, this was before they were flattened to build on or to plant – they were there to ward off high water from flooding our homes. It was years later that Bayou Lafourche was dammed in Donaldsonville. Later, the dam was filled leaving Bayou Lafourche a still or dead water.
We also played “house” under the house which was on tall pillars. We would play dolls under the house and stayed there for hours until Mama would call, “supper is ready”.
When boats would navigate in Bayou Lafourche the showboats would come and dock where it would be easy for the people to walk on the skirt of the boat to get inside to see the show. One of the most thrilling sounds was to hear the calliope playing. We heard it from miles away and we’d all shout, “The Showboat is coming!” “The Showboat is coming!” The boat would remain at one place maybe for two or three nights and sometimes only one night, but it did not come every year.
Papa would tell Mama to dress us up and the whole family would go for the night show. We were wide eyed at the puppets, the magician and the dancing chorus girls, kicking their legs under their many ruffled skirts. Papa would buy us some popcorn and I guess we were some of the luckiest and happiest kids in the world.
Mama and Memere entertained more people from diverse backgrounds than anyone in the neighborhood. Memere always had money, being a mid-wife, so when special company would come for a visit she would get some money and tell us to run to the store to get vanilla wafers and a large can of peach halves. Mama would make a pot of coffee so all had a good time, especially us small children who would always get lagniappe at the store, plus some of the vanilla wafers when we got home. All the “company” that came home was always served coffee or lemonade.
The closest church we could go to was in Labadieville, St. Philomene’s Catholic Church. Being a large family we could not all fit into the buggy or the carriage, and we had only one horse, Tom, so we had to take turns to go at different hours.
I remember our more prosperous neighbor who had an only son, who had only to ask and his wish was granted. This young man owned a boat, run by a gasoline engine. There were seats all round the inside of the cabin, so on Friday afternoon he would take a boat load of passengers to Labadieville to attend “The Way of the Cross” service. Each passenger paid 10 cents for the whole round trip. When we went by buggy or carriage, we had to cross the bridge in Labadieville because the church was on the opposite side of the bayou from where we lived. We had to pay a nickel to cross going and a nickel on the way back.
During my third year in school, I decided that I wanted to go to the convent, so I had to walk three miles, then cross in a flat boat which had a chain on each end of it. The chains were a little longer than the width of the bayou. To go one way we pulled the chain into the boat until we reached the shore and coming back, we did the reverse. The boat was owned by an old man who had a general merchandise store. His grandson went to the convent so I would cross with him. We had to take our lunch to school. Mama didn’t always have something to put in our bucket. We would take our lunch in a small tin bucket with a cover or lid on it that fit very tightly; so if we had Vienna sausages and bread and a banana, everything smelled and tasted bananas. Later we would put our lunch in paper bags. Sometime we had bread with fresh cream and sugar on it and sometimes, Mama made a chocolate fudgy sauce to spread on the bread. Once I wanted butter to put on my bread but we didn’t have any at home, so Mama gave me one egg to buy some butter at the store which was owned by the old man with the flatboat. I can still see him now, peering over his glasses watching the scale until a pat of butter weighed the same as the value of the egg.
Can you conceive anything like that today? This poor man must be in heaven for being so patient. He never acted grouchy, and besides, he gave me lagniappe! With the exception of this one year of school at the convent which was in Assumption Parish we finished grade school at the small school closest to our house. To graduate, we should have gone to Thibodaux High School. We had no transportation to Thibodaux which was about 8 miles from home, so we chose to walk three miles to and three miles from Labadieville High School. All but my oldest brother and sister graduated from LabadievilleHigh School.
While Nan was in boarding school, she also learned how to play the piano very well. So, Memere bought a piano for her. I can’t remember the name of the maker of the piano, but, whoever would tune it said that it was one of the finest, the piano strings made of pure brass. Nan taught piano lessons to a few children in the neighborhood as well as to me and to Bee. When company would come we would each take our turn to play and I remember my singing as being much louder than the music. Today I cannot sing at all, my voice wavers, gets shrill or I have a frog in my throat, so I’m sure that when I sang then I must have been very “off key”.
We played and sang many songs written while World War I was in progress, such as “Smile, Smile, Smile”, “Till We Meet Again”, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Bring Back My Daddy to Me”. We also sang Stephen Foster’s immortal “Old Black Joe”, “Swanee River” and “My Old Kentucky Home”. Nan would play all of Strauss’ beautiful Viennese Waltzes.
The piano graced our living room. Nan would put her music sheets on a small round table which had a marble top. The piano stool was adjustable, screwed to high or low position. It had three legs with the bottom made like claws gripping a glass ball.
We had a hanging lamp, which hung from the center of the ceiling. This could also be adjusted by chains lowering or put up nearer the ceiling. This lamp was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It was made of porcelain with a lovely hand painted rose design. The lamp shade was very large and made of porcelain also, with the rose design. Around the edge of the shade were the most beautiful crystal prisms with a hard cut diamond design.
The furniture was Victorian, several pieces which Memere bought very cheaply from some of the rich homes she would go to. They were replacing this beautiful furniture with newer and more modern pieces.
I forgot to mention that the top of the piano was covered with a green velvet scarf with tassels all around. It was partly pushed aside when we opened the piano to play. There were beautiful large figurines on the piano, one of which we called “The Cherry Boy”. I think it was or seemed to me to be about 20 or 24 inches tall. The figure was painted with bright colors of that day. The boy had his head tilted back. He was holding a cherry in his hand and had his mouth partly opened as though he was about to eat the cherry from the stem.
We also had an etergere (shelves held together with four iron rods which were racked with empty spools of thread). These were then varnished in a dark shade. The etergere was to hold “what nots”. We had various small figurines, odd shaped glasses and small bottles, etc. These odds and ends or “what nots” had to be washed at intervals. We dusted the furniture with a feather duster. This was not a home-made duster, but one bought in town. It had a handle about a foot long, which was also stained with dark varnish. The feathers were uniform, about 8 inches long. They were dark, too, but I don’t know from what fowl or bird these came from. They were dark and soft and we would swish the duster back and forth to clean the furniture.
There was no ice or iceboxes when we were children. It was years later that we had an icebox and the ice-man would deliver ice every day. Mama would boil the milk for it to remain fresh and she put this into large crockery bowls. The cream of the milk would rise to the top and form a heavy crust which prevented the milk from getting sour. I remember snitching some of this delicious cream; I suppose my sisters and brothers did the same thing, but none of us admitted doing this when Mama asked who had touched the milk. When Papa would buy butter, it was sold by the pound from a heavy wooden tub. To keep the butter fresh, Mama would put it into a jar, screw the cover very firmly and tie a long heavy twine on the neck of the jar. She lowered it into a deep well which we had. The water in the well was always cold, so that was why the butter did not melt. Mama would draw up the twine, take whatever amount of butter she needed and then put the jar back into the water.
The ice-cream man would also come around every Sunday and sometimes on Saturday also. He rang a bell to let the people know that he was coming. Mama or Papa would give us each a nickel to get an ice cream cone. The ice cream was mostly vanilla, but sometimes strawberry soda was added so we asked for white or pink ice cream. The ice cream man would carefully measure one scoop of ice cream and put in delicious crisp, sweet, flaky cone. How good that first “lick” tasted! If Mama would buy ice cream for the whole family, she would take a big bowl and ask for as many scoops as was needed. Sometimes she would get 6 scoops for 25 cents, so she usually would buy 50 cents worth. The fish man came on Friday and a butcher would come about twice a week. We bought bananas and apples from the fruit man. These were men who made their livelihood delivering or selling in different sections of the country each day. Mama would buy one day and put in an order for the next trip to be sure she would have what she needed before the man would “sell” out all his products before reaching our house.
Sometimes a salesman would come about every other month. He carried a large flat suitcase, when opened showed us all kinds of bottles filled with vanilla and almond extract, many spices, cologne and shaving brushes. Another salesman would come with a large trunk with odd and different material which we called “piece goods” as it was not rolled on large bolts but cut into dress lengths. We children hung around wide-eyed while Mama and Memere would make their selections. The salesmen were called “drummers”. I vaguely remember a loom which Memere and Mama used to weave material. I can’t remember what kind of material was woven nor what it was used for.
I don’t suppose it’s necessary to say that we all spoke French. We did not learn the English language until each of us started school.
On my first day of school, the teacher went to each new student to ask the name of his or her father in order to record this. When the teacher got to me, she asked “What is your father’s name?” I didn’t answer. She repeated this and then asked, “What is the name of your Papa?” I still did not answer, then she asked in French, “Qu’est que le nom de votre papa?”, to which I immediately told her. I vividly remember the first English word that I could use. It was “grass” – so when I got home, I used it as often as I could, such as, “La grass est vert”, or “Allons s’asseoir sur la grass”.
The rich boy who owned the boat was also the first in the neighborhood to own a car. He would drive it in a large pasture and let each of us get in for a ride. How excited we were when he would crank the car until it started with a roaring noise! He would hurry into the car, sit at the wheel and drive us for a while. Then he’d take a new bunch of children for a ride. I’m glad he had all these things to enjoy, as he enlisted into the army in 1917 and was killed in France just two days before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. This was World War I.
The government told the families to send the Christmas gifts early to their men overseas, and I remember the mother of this boy coming to our house to show us what she was sending her son. She had 6 pairs of warm Khaki socks, some handkerchiefs, some gum and a few hard candies. The son never did receive his package and it was later returned to his parents.
When the father received the telegram advising of his son’s death, he just could not or did not know how to tell his wife, so he came home to ask Memere to go tell her. How hard it must have been for her to tell these sad words to the mother. The whole neighborhood mourned with the parents for a long time.
Papa was well educated. He read a lot and kept posted on current news and prepared for things to come. At his death in 1920, when only 52, he was president of the Lafourche Parish school board. A year or so before his death, he was doing chores on a hot summer day when a car drove up and two men came out. Papa wore a white shirt even when he worked, so he washed his hands in a bowl which was on a little wash stand with a towel rack on the back porch. He then went to meet the men who were the school superintendent of our parish and the other man was none other than the State Superintendent of Education. This was a proud moment for the children who as usual were close enough to hear the conversation. They wanted Papa to run for a State post but he declined as he said he would not have time to devote to this office should he be elected.
Mama, as most women at this time, did not go to school except about one year. When she was married at 15 years of age, she could not sign her name. As time went on, she learned to speak English, groping her way to find the right words. When she was in her sixties, she went to an adult education class which was conducted at night at L. T. High School. Five adults started with her but dropped out one by one until she was the only one who wanted to keep on going. She had to drop out as L. T. School was about 3 miles from home. She learned her ABC’s and to write them also, how to write numbers to 100, and could read a little.
Papa must have instilled into her the importance of an education, because when he died, George was at L.S.U., Henry was in Business College in Port Arthur, Texas, Cyril and Nan were married and the three youngest were in 9th, 7th, and 4th grades. She saw that we did not miss school and signed our report cards. I remember once, I wanted to stay out of school during grinding, in order to cut cane as most of our friends were doing but Mama would not let me do so. She explained to me that anyone could cut cane and that by going to school I could earn a living without having to work in the field. At that time, though I was envious of my friends who were earning their own money.
When I was about 10 or 11 (I think) years old, Papa was sick and had to go to New Orleans to see a heart specialist. He took me with him which gave me the chance to see how other people lived at that time. When we spoke of New Orleans, we would say “the City” such as “live in the City” or “take a trip to the City”. We had to cross the bayou on a ferry near home and then walk about 3 miles to a railroad station to board a train to New Orleans. What an exciting trip that was. While Papa went for his examination, I stayed with some cousins who were native of New Orleans. They lived on Toulouse St. which was in the heart of the Vieux Carre. We entered the house by way of an alley to the back of the house, going through a large paved patio. Part of the patio had a roof in which area was the kitchen stove, a table and chairs. The commode was also in an area on the patio. Such a fascinating experience for this little country girl! In the center of the patio was a moss laden tree surrounded by ferns and flowers. I seemed to be in a different world. The bedrooms were upstairs which aroused my curiosity as I had never been in a home that was other than a one story building.
My cousin took me shopping and my eyes almost popped when we visited a “dime” store. I had never seen so many toys and playthings before. There I bought a hand painted China toothpick holder for a dime. I still have this in my China closet. We went to a Werlien’s music store and I bought a sheet music of “Beautiful Ohio”. It was then and still is one of my favorites. We also visited the old St. Charles Hotel which was the most fashionable at that time – I think it is now demolished. The lobby of the hotel had large marble columns and marble fire places, also carved marble figures on pedestals and carving on and around the ceiling. I was speechless.
The train had to cross the Mississippi River on a ferry boat to get to and from New Orleans. My heart was in my mouth as I thought surely that the ferry would sink from the weight of the train and of course I did not know how to swim. I was very relieved when the ferry landed for both trips.
During my childhood, we did not have any bathroom facilities. We bathed in a large galvanized tub. In the winter time, we bathed by the kitchen stove and in summer we bathed in the pantry which was large enough for us to take the tub there. We bathed and washed our hair with Octogan soap.
The clothes were also washed with Octogan soap. We washed with a washboard in a tub of water. The clothes were soaped and rubbed on the washboard, and when all the dirt and stains were rubbed from the clothes, we then rinsed these into a tub with nice rain water. We wrung the clothes by hand and hung them on the clothes line to dry. When dried we would take into the house to fold and put away. The clothes always had such a clean fresh smell, especially on dry sunny days.
I always think that a child has never really lived unless he lived in the country.
We had a bay leaf tree, one of the few in the neighborhood. The leaves were picked and dried. When dried and crisp, these were crushed with a pestle and mortar. The mortar in our case was part of a tree trunk, about 4 ft. tall. One end was scooped out or carved in the shape of a deep bowl.
The bark was removed and whether from use and age or sand-papered, the wood was smooth and shiny.
Mama and Memere or a neighbor or one of the children would each have a pestle and pound the bay leaves. This made a rhythm, thump, thump, thump, as each alternately pounded. When the process was finished it was a fine green or gray-green powder which was called file. Today, file is still used to season gumbo. We called the mortar a “pile”.
We used some of the tree roots to make sassafras tea which tasted like root beer. The same process of thumping or pounding was used to make red pepper. When the red pepper pods were dried, they went through the same process as the file. The file and the red peppers were then put into bottles, some of which was distributed to neighbors and relatives.
During World War I when food was very scarce, we ground corn to make coarse grits and also corn meal.
We dried and shelled our own white beans and black eyed peas, all the neighborhood did the same thing.
All this must seem as though we had a hard life. If it was so, it left no scars. It was just a way of life for that particular time and that place.