Sunday, September 25, 2005

It's another beautiful Sunday morning -- and how guilty I feel for being able to say that at all ...

at a time when so many are returning home to chaos through streets strewn with fallen trees to homes that may not even exist anymore. So sad ... .

The devastation of the Gulf States seems biblical in scope and surely is calling up cries of inescapable doom for all of mankind. Don't dare turn on the church channels. Despite a deep humanism, I can still be shaken by the ranters that scream of hell and damnation.

For reasons that are unclear at this point, woke this morning thinking of Aunt Vivian (Allen-Jernigan), mother's younger sister. Both are now gone. How different they were. Mother with her quiet envy of Vivian's hedonism. Vivian the pied piper. The prankster. One who could deflate any prig who had the audacity to try to derail her natural zest for life. She was so like her devilish father, Papa George, whom mother never quite forgave for being a neglectful parent. And, of course, he was that. I often think that I enjoyed the friendship and parental love with him that she was denied as a child.

Her own mother was only 14 when she was born. Julia LaRose was her name, though she was referred to by Mom as "Minette." Julia's father was Jack LaRose. She was dead by the time mother reached her 7th month. Mom was raised by Mammá while George tootled off and married Vivian's mother, Desireé Hernandez, soon thereafter and fathered four more kids. He never returned for Mom until some years later when Desireé also died. It was only then that Vivian and Mom lived in the same house -- but it was Vivian who was "... allowed to stay up a little longer than the others to secretly bring Mammá's little pipe and tobacco to her from behind the loose brick by the fireplace at the end of a long day in the fields...", at least according to Vivian's oft told story. Their rivalry must have been keen since childhood.

All of them shared that little cabin in a place called "Welcome Post Office" beside the levee in St. James. There was the widow, Leontine Breaux Allen, her own many children; her son, Louie and wife, Mariá, plus their large brood -- now plus Papa George's five offspring. Poor Mom surely got lost in the pack. Together the family farmed the land and raised the crops for market and fed themselves somehow. Mammá's pension as a widow of a veteran of the Louisiana Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War amounted to $49/month, according to the papers retrieved from the government.

I so loved hearing the stories of St. James and childhood in that little cabin where so many of the next generation achieved so much in such a short time. Great Aunt Alice who became a teacher by means I never have managed to figure out, created the first school for black children in St. James -- and later became its principal. Uncle George Allen became president of Southern University over time -- and a close friend of Thurgood Marshall. Cousin Gertrude (daughter of Great Uncle Sam) was a teacher in New Orleans as was her sister, another Vivian. Great Aunt Emily married Great Uncle Raleigh Coker, a physician and lived in New Orleans where she "fostered" many of the younger members of the family through their college years and beyond as they moved away from St. James out into the city, to attend Xavier.

All shared the humble beginnings of planting and bringing in the sugar cane, the vegetables and fruit that sustained them all, and the love of a very special Mammá, the matriarch former slave Leontine Breaux Allen, who was not the least bit daunted by her times but outdistanced them by far.

Photo: Transplanted Creoles; my mother's eldest brother Herman Allen; then Jones, the handsome beau of Aunt Vivian's at the time and whose last name I never knew, then someone I can't place, followed by Billie Gaudet, sister to Herman's wife, Marie Gaudet Allen, don't know Elsie's last name, but that's my wonderful sassy Aunt Vivian on Elsie's left followed by Frank Churchill. Aunt Vivian's practice of writing all over her photographs used to drive me wild -- but I've learned to appreciate the hint of her "presence" when I look at the scrawls. Picture taken in 1926 in Oakland, California.

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