Je suis Acadienne
Josephine, 1906-1997: Part I
b. Morse, Louisiana
Josephine, my Maw Maw, was a traiteur, a healer. People in town would come to her with tomato red bodies scorched by the sun, from working too hard in the fields or from riding horses back and forth from town to town. They knew to come to her, if they didn’t know her intimately already, the same way folks knew everything in the country back then. They heard it from a Joseph at the bar, Edwin down at the station, their wife’s best friend. So they stumbled in through the screen door that kept the mosquitoes out in Louisiana summers.
She would look at them, appraising the damage, and have them sit in a chair. Sometimes she would take them in a separate room and have them lay down. Nobody ever knew what she did exactly, but she used to tell her daughter, my mother, that she just laid hands on them and talked with God. “I don’t do anything,” she told her. “I just say some prayers.” When they left, relief had already begun to show on their faces.
She never took credit for her healing, nor did she accept money or even gifts. If you did that it might negatively affect the person or make the healing ritual illegitimate.
The unwell person did not necessarily have to be present to be healed. “It worked better that way,” she always said. But if he or she wasn’t there, she could still go and intercede with God. She just had to know the person’s full name and the place that needed healing.
b. Gueydan, Louisiana
She might have been a druggist had she gone to college. She loved chemistry, mixing ingredients together and coming up with something completely different. In the end, she wound up doing her mixing in the kitchen for her family, butter and eggs instead of chemicals, cupcakes instead of capsules.
She had more opportunity than her mother, who wasn’t allowed to go school because her daddy didn’t believe in educating girls. Why let girls go to school if they were just going to grow up and raise a family? Waste of an education. When she entered high school, her mother was irritated that Delucey was required to take Home Economics. “You already learned that at home. Do what you have to do, but learn skills. Take typing,” her mother told her.
After school, she worked in an office as a secretary and lived at home. She didn’t marry until she was twenty-three, which was practically an old maid for her community. She had applied to be a nun, as she had always been dedicated to her Catholic faith, but she didn’t pass the physical exam because of her propensity to get extremely ill around her time of the month. “Well, I guess God has other plans for you,” Mother Superior said when she told her the news.
Growing up in the Depression, there were no luxuries at home. But there weren’t luxuries at most neighbors’ homes either so she didn’t know to feel poor. People bartered with goods in the absence of dollar bills. Her father, a rice farmer, traveled to Crowley and exchanged sacks of rice for bottles of syrup for his kids. The children dipped spoons in the viscous brown substance and drizzled it across rice for dessert. Rice with brown gravy for dinner. Rice with cane sugar for dessert. But at least they had something sweet.
Her daddy’s farm was not far from Gueydan and Gueydan had a movie theater where she could see films for ten cents. Scenes with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers swaggering across the screen would be prefaced by footage from the World War II, so moviegoers could see what was happening abroad. Her brother later served in the war, but he never talked about it when he got back. He gave his sister a pendant and when she looked at it closely, she could see that the edges were charred black.
Her husband-to-be was a marine who had been a classmate from school. Long after graduation, he would come by to help her father with work and stay to drink lemonade with her. “Isn’t it strange how Martin always seems to find time to come see us when he’s home?” her mother said one night. The young man and woman started writing letters in the times between his visits, and on one of his trips home, they became engaged. Because he was only taking leave for a week, she had to plan everything herself—buying her gown, arranging the mass, pulling her long red hair up and fastening it with a veil. The whole town showed up to help celebrate, making sandwiches and barbequing and dancing at the reception on her parent’s farm. The festivities reminded her of her childhood, when there had been kitchen parties at her parents’ house. Her mother, a compulsive cleaner, had the kids scrubbing the whole house down before company came over, and her brother R. J. helped their father move the furniture out of the living room. Someone brought a guitar or a fiddle and the family members and neighbors that came danced for hours, shuffling their shoes against the rough wood floors.
She followed her husband to California when he was stationed there. On her first trip to the grocery store, she looked for rice. All she could find at first was a little one-pound bag. Then she saw a larger bag on the bottom shelf and moved her cart towards it before she overheard two women’s conversation.
“Who on earth would buy something like that?” one woman asked the other, pointing to the large bag of rice.
“I have no idea, I’m sure,” the other replied, and they both laughed mightily, the sound echoing off the linoleum.
Delucey got the rest of the groceries, returning for the rice when the women were gone.
b. Baie de Sainte Marie, Nova Scotia
When Denise sees a landscape she wants to paint, she pulls over to the side of the road. Sometimes she takes a photograph but other times, she just pulls her easel and colors out of the trunk and paints right there. She isn’t exact in the rendering. It’s about capturing the essence of the scene, the realness of the familiar. The traditions in colors. The language in art. Denise gets mad that she can’t go to the local fast food chain Tim Horton’s and order in French.
“What was that?”
“ I should be able to order in my language,” she says. “And that’s just up the road.”
She puts the brush to the canvas and captures the moment when the clothes on the line are caught by the wind or when the Acadian flag is stilled for a minute. She grew up here, in Sainte Marie de la Baie. Officials call it Clare on the signs, but she insists that is not the land’s name. Her stance, her stare is defined by her pride and her skepticism at others’ interpreting for her the place she knows so intimately. She tries to the preserve the culture in paint but watercolors don’t last forever. Paint can’t do it all.
“Some people take it for granted,” she said. “The traditions they grew up with and the language that is dying out. With each new generation, there’s more and more English mixed in. I don’t know why some people don’t care. I wish I could tell them to wake up.”
When my parents and I came into her studio and talked about being from Louisiana and coming here to visit and to search for our roots, she told us about her connection to the land. She cried as she told us of the Oudi family. The Oudi family was the only family that wasn’t separated when the Acadians were deported, sent off on boats by British colonizers. But their boat sank and everyone aboard died. “When I say ‘Oudi,’ people say, ‘That’s not an Acadian name.’ I tell them it was.”
The large oil painting she created in memoriam to the Oudis is halved by a long wire. The canvas is covered in blues and purples and it hangs in a gallery in Halifax. Denise works in mixed media sometimes, in metal and wood and whatever else she can find to start to make material out of the abstract, to make sense of the past, to make meaning out of a feeling. The piece is called “The Invisible Wire.”
Once, over a decade ago, when Denise was driving on the 101 to Halifax, she looked over and saw her ten-year-old daughter writing something on a notepad in English.
“Why don’t you write that in French?” she asked her daughter.
“Mom, why are you always getting on me?” her daughter asked in return.
They had just reached Grand Pré. Lush green hills stretched out before them, open spaces broken up by herds of trees that lined the side of the road. Denise pulled the car over.
“You see this land?” she asked her daughter. “This was our land. This used to be full of chickens and cows and kids running around.”
On the way back home, Denise remembered, her daughter corrected her twice for speaking in English instead of French.
“She got it. She understood.”
Recounting the story in her art studio, Denise folded her arms vertically across her chest and considered her words. “People say, it has been two hundred fifty years. ‘Get over it.’ I think in this part of the province we are so connected because every time we drive to Halifax, we drive through Annapolis Valley and have to see that beautiful land.”
b. Gueydan, Louisiana
The name Vera has Slavic and Latin origins. In Russian, it means faith. In Latin, it is associated with the word “verus,” meaning true. My mother Vera Mae Woods O’Neill was born in 1940. She followed her elder brother Lawrence Paul, L.P., and was to be her mother Josephine’s only girl. Vera was a curious but quiet child. She played the role of a good daughter, doing what she was told and never asking questions. She was smart and from a young age, she would sit and think about the things she experienced and about the ideas that had been passed to her by adults around her.
As the only girl in a household that ascribed to traditional gender roles, she often was encouraged to believe she was less equal than her brothers. Growing up, Vera would go to visit family every weekend with her parents and siblings. Upon entrance into their aunt’s, their Tantie’s, house, the boys were immediately invited to go out and play. My mom and her female cousins were to prepare the coffee, which was done cup-by-cup using a rudimentary press and hot water to brew the steaming, thick liquid. When they had set the teacups with the cream and sugar and served it to the adults on a tray, they were then invited to play themselves. Usually, they stayed inside, dressing up dolls or playing pickup sticks, while the boys ran around the fields. When she was older, Vera had to wait for her brother Donald, four years her junior, to learn to drive before she could get behind the wheel of her father’s Ford pick-up.
Still, there was a boldness about her even as a child. She might not have questioned things on the surface, but she certainly did it on her own. She also found ways to do the things she loved.
When my mom was fifteen, she broke her nose while playing on her high school basketball team. She was tall and slim and that is what earned her her nickname.
“Yet another goal from Tall Drink of Water,” the announcer would roar.
The story goes that one day during a game, the ball rammed straight into her face, crimson blood gushing everywhere, covering her satin basketball uniform and the slick gym floor.
Her father had advised her against joining the team. He didn’t think girls should be playing sports, and he didn’t permit any of his children to play because he thought it would take away from work at home. Work they could be doing for him.
“Fine, play then, but don’t come crying to me if you get hurt,” he told her.
She didn’t come crying. She knew he would make her quit the team if she did. She held Kleenex in her nose until the bleeding stopped and dealt with the pain and embarrassment of living with a purple and black broken nose until it turned a normal color again.
She was in her late thirties on a date with my father when all of a sudden blood started spurting from her nose. “Jesus, are you okay?” he shrieked. He had to rush her to the hospital where they diagnosed her with a deviated septum, stopped the bleeding and performed reconstructive surgery.
But the most shocking move my mother made was when she decided to leave her home and town to join the convent. There was a very clear pre-made path for women in this small Louisiana town. You grew up. Maybe you graduated high school. But at least by the time you were twenty or so, you married and you started having children. You certainly did not marry Jesus and move away to a place where they didn’t let you visit home. That’s what she did though.
Having been close to religious sisters all her young life, she had realized that they were more educated, more cultured, more interested in art and literature and philosophy than many of her married women relatives. She had sat with them over coffee and listened to them talk about the plays they had gone to and far off places where they had lived. Vera’s faith had always been important to her, having gotten her through hard experiences that she could only face alone. But it was her sense of adventure and her desire for knowledge that made her join the order. She would not be like her peers and get married right away, bearing children in quick succession and having all of her available brain power focused on keeping a lovely and tidy home.
Her parents had expected grandchildren from her, but they allowed her to do as she wanted. So, in 1948, after she graduated high school she packed a small suitcase and moved to Covington to begin her life as a Eucharistic Missionary of St. Dominic. She was now Sister Lorraine.
b. New Orleans, LA
Sometimes I think about what it would look like if Josephine taught me to cook. She wouldn’t be as hesitant to let me help as she was with my mother because I am her granddaughter, her little one. Also, she has more time now that her children are grown. She would hand me the whisk and direct me to a bowl of eggs, starting me with something simple.
Wearing an apron over her housedress, her body is plump and shows through the folds. Her fluffy hair has turned white and looks like cotton. She sings to herself as she pinches salt into a large pot on the stove. That’s about as far as I can get on my own. Truth is, I have no idea what cooking with her would be like.
I wonder sometimes about how she would feel about the way I turned out. Disappointed doesn’t capture it exactly. But I do think she would want to sit me down and make up for lost time. Show me how to cut corn for maquechoux. How to sew a dress with no pattern. How to sew period. I like to think she would just sigh. She would sigh and say, “Sha, it’s not your fault. These days…” She would blame my ignorance on the changing world, on growing up in the city and not the country and for not having her Maw Maw around to teach her such things. I like to think we could sit together and talk. Maybe we could even make a trade. I could share with her my love of literature, could teach her how to read and write the stories she already loved to tell. She could teach me how to live, how to be a good woman and mother. We could both tell each other who we are.