Monday, March 5, 2007

Beloved - Part I

Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’,
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’
Romans 9:25

I mentioned previously that although I was born and reared in and around New Orleans, my parents were from southern Louisiana. As a child, I'd get in the car and my father would drive west on I-10, over the Bonnet Carre Spillway (pronounced "Bonnie Carrie," for those readers NOT from southern LA), over the Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge. We'd then either continue on 1-10, dipping southwest over the Atchafalaya Basin towards Lafayette, or we'd take a more direct route on HWY 190. We always knew we were getting closer to what my parents call "home" once signs for hot boudin, cracklin', and boiled shrimp and crawfish appeared alongside the road. We were going there to visit my paternal grandmother, out "in the country" near Lawtell. My father would comment on how recently gravel had been put down on the dirt roads we were on, and then we'd be there, out in the middle of nowhere, in farm country, with MaMa on the porch - it's not like you couldn't hear someone coming with all that gravel. MaMa, who grew the most beautiful red, pink, yellow, and white roses outside her house, would greet us and invite us to go straight to the kitchen, where the fried chicken, potato salad, Coke, and homemade chocolate cake and fig pies were. After MaMa's greetings to us, she'd start talking a mile a minute in French to my dad (now whether this is Creole French or Cajun French, I have no idea).

Then, my sister and I (and any cousins who happened to be around) would go out on this land where my dad moved with his family when he was 13. Before that, his family had been sharecroppers, his father coming from several generations of sharecroppers. Here they had bought land - 20 acres - and grown cotton, sweet potatoes, and corn. The corn was for the animals and themselves; the sweet potatoes and cotton were the cash crops. They had added okra too, and here when my father was 17, he'd picked 4000 pounds of okra a day with MaMa and PaPa (my grandfather), making 4 cents a pound.

But that was then, and now my father was a petrophysical engineer - the longest, most impossible to understand title I knew of at the age of 5 or 6. I knew that he knew how to find oil in the ground and that things like "getting in a helicopter," "offshore," "drilling," and "Gulf of Mexico" were connected to that. For all I knew, he'd be taken up in a helicopter somewhere southwest of the delta, part the water like Moses parting the sea, use an oil-detecting form of ESP, point his finger and make the proclamation: "There!" "Hallelujah!" his co-workers would say, and then they'd get out the huge suction vacuum to remove the oil from the ground. (I thought the drilling part was to make room for the suction vac). The prices at the Shell gas station fluctuated based on his success and failure at these activities. (But this is a digression and only shows how small of a world children live in.) As a result of my father's magic oil-finding mind, I'd never picked cotton or okra. Instead, I played with dried okra and a cotton branch in our house. "You wouldn't play with it if you'd had to pick it!" my father would say after rolling his eyes, and I'd rattle the okra more, because I hate being told what I would and wouldn't do.

On most of that land was now a cornfield that MaMa didn't own (and where we didn't want to play anyway - corn is really tall when you're only two feet yourself and so I thought cornfields were scary way before I saw Children of the Corn). We'd play war and blow dandelions all over the place and dodge huge bumblebees that loved those roses too. I used to imagine the well was one of those hogs my dad told us they used to have, and I'd pretend to ride it (for heaven's sake, AG). There were also cats around, oh so creatively named by the grandchildren "Grayie" and "Blackie." The smell was interesting there, sort of metallic with an overburned tinge to it. It would take years for me to finally mention it to my wiser older sister who gently informed me, "It's the burning oil from the LouAna plant in town. DUH! You're SO STUPID!"

We'd leave sometime after my dad had finished mowing the lawn. He'd drive us into the big city of Opelousas, where my mom was born and raised. Opelousas is the Yam Capital of the World, just in case you didn't know. My mom being "from the city" and my dad being "from the country" is an issue that's continually raised by my mom, although they both grew up poor. "I grew up in the city so we didn't do those things. That's your family out in the country that did that." My maternal grandmother lived in Opelousas.

Grandmother had the perfect maiden name, Marie Celeste Fournier, to go along with her petite frame. Grandmother also grew beautiful roses and did things like capture butterflies to show her grandchildren, save snow in a container in the freezer to show us when it snowed in Opelousas and not in New Orleans, and make us pray endless rosaries in bad weather. But she was stubborn and strong too - she'd had eight children, cleaned other people's homes for a living, and in middle age, way after a point where it could economically matter, went back to school to get her GED (none of my grandparents had more than an 8th grade education). It was always so much better to stay at Grandmother's (or with my cousins on my mom's side of the family) then go back out to the country and have to stay out there with MaMa.

Not only is MaMa not at her most fluent in English (although all my grandparents were bilingual), but no one knows what her real name is: if she's Estella or Stella. No one knows her date of birth either: January 30 or 31, or maybe the 29th. MaMa can remember the exact weather conditions of any even slightly significant day in her life. "That's what's important to you when you're a farmer!" my dad would explain. MaMa could wait for my dad to drive out a possum in her house, smack it again and again, and then weapon still in hand and with the possum's head as flat as a pancake, turn to my dad and ask, "Nee! You think it's playin' possum?" Smack smack smack. "Nee, you think it's dead yet? It could be playin' possum!"

[Clarification: Nee is not my father's real name. It's his nickname because he was a preemie, born small. That doesn't change the fact that a number of his relatives actually do think Nee is his name and wonder why they can't find him in the phonebook.]

But that's not why we didn't want to spend the night with MaMa out in the country. It's because of the stories she'd tell: "Ya know, if you see them lights floating outside, that's the old spirits coming by" and then tell us about how she'd been visited by the souls of people the night before their death, "He came to see me, and sure 'nuff next day I hear he'd died in his sleep."

And stories about her father, my great-grandfather: Rene Broussard. A man who was superhuman not because he'd fathered 23 children by my great-grandmother or because he was an entrepreneur who owned almost 300 acres AND his own country store where he'd sell products that he - or his many kids - produced. No, he was superhuman because he was impenetrable to knives and bullets and could make a man fall to the ground without placing his hand on him. According to MaMa, it was because he was under the protection of all sorts of archangels (he, and my paternal grandfather and their kin and family dabbled in what we'd now call "the dark arts," - peace Dad! - although all were in other ways strict Catholics). MaMa would talk about holes opening up in the earth, objects disappearing, and houses shaking because of supernatural forces, and then send us off to bed. At Grandmother's, at least we had the comfort of orange street lights outside the window so that we could see on the dresser an orange-haired plastic statue of Mary crushing the serpent; at MaMa's you were left in the darkness with the full weight of all these strange events in the past she had just talked about, listening to all manner of sounds you hear in the country.

[I haven't written about my grandfathers here because I never knew them. They had been around, both stayed married to my grandmothers up to their deaths, but they had both passed away before I was born.]

The first thing I knew about my paternal grandfather, MaMa's husband, was that he had blue eyes. Felicien/Felton (we're not quite sure of his name either) had blue eyes. I knew that was some mark of distinction, because this was a rare trait for a black man to have. We could even trace the blue eyes in his family. I think it's through this fact that I knew that we weren't white: whatever white was, white people had the monopoly on blue eyes, except for PaPa sneaking in there.

I didn't think being black was a big deal when I was a very young child. I was born into a comfortably middle-class home. I'd been to that temple of commercial Americana, Disneyworld, three times by the age of 18. I knew that being black wasn't really about skin color 'cause there were a whole range of complexions and colorings in my family - my cousins and I could have made our own Benetton ad. No, it's about history: the history of a treatment of a people because they had some measure of drops of Negro blood. Because that Negro blood taints the body, mind, and soul, and makes one less than a white person, inferior to the superior white race. Being black is to be caught up in a history of subjugation and oppression, hearing the refrain "you're less than I am" sung by a chorus of whites. "What I have can never be yours" sung so long you start to believe it, internalize it, think that because you have some ancestors from Africa, it's true.

2 comments:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"You wouldn't play with it if you'd had to pick it!" my father would say after rolling his eyes, and I'd rattle the okra more, because I hate being told what I would and wouldn't do.

I feel the same way about apricots. I used to cut them every summer for ten years, and now I can barely stand to look at one.

And I was born in Gilroy, the GARLIC capital of the world, in case you didn't know.

AG said...

Don't worry, pseudo-iamblichus, we won't hold your experience-driven dislike of apricots against you. They're overrated anyway.

I see that there's a Gilroy Garlic Festival; Opelousas has a Yambilee, and I see that it's also added the title Zydeco Capital of the World.

The closest I have come to combining manual labor and food products was shelling pecans. My mom would get pecans from relatives in Opelousas, and my sister and I would shell them. Yes, we were sitting in our air-conditioned house on the carpet in front of the tv while doing this, but shelling pecans can really start to hurt your fingers - the little pieces of shell become splinters that get into your nail bed and stick in your fingertips. (No, Dad, this does not compare to practically being scourged by okra plants.) At least we were spurred on and inspired to keep cracking and peeling by the heroism of The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, and Batman on the screen in front of us.