Sunday, April 17, 2011

 "Gate posts" -- my commencement address has arrived; clear and true ... .

Yesterday I woke to clarity and self-confidence.  Not sure what brought this euphoric state about, or even if one can rely upon its staying power --  but the words have lined up as if by magic.  I know their meaning, and that there is little need to try to organize them further.  Over the days to come -- between now and the day of commencement -- they will continue to sort themselves out and deepen.  They are relevant to this graduating class, I believe.  The title; "Thumb prints, gate posts, and bookends," is the key that opened the door into the connections not only to my past, but to the arts. As suspected, they were there all the time ... sitting behind my eyes waiting for me to settle down and listen to myself, maybe ... .

Funny; I hesitate to say much more about this lest this fragile wisp of security will disappear and the awful uncertainty of the past weeks will return.  And if I write them here ...  I'm not at all sure ... .

Maybe it suffices to say that those "gate posts" are key to one of the family stories about my great-grandmother, Mammå, a precious memory from childhood -- one of the many stories told by Papa George as we tied the beans to their poles and dug up the carrots and gathered the melons in that little kitchen garden after my parents and we 3 children arrived in Oakland from the New Orleans floods of 1927.

My impression of what romance meant was formed very early in childhood.  It was the Civil War story of Leontine sitting high in the branches of a pecan tree watching the Union soldiers marching past on that dusty road from Donaldsonville.  She must have been very young, perhaps 16 or 17, and from her photographs, quite pretty.  I knew that she was barely 5 feet tall, so the exciting tale of the soldier, Corporal George Allen of the Louisiana Colored Troops, stepping out of the line long enough to coax her down from her perch then re-joining the march carrying her on his shoulders for a few miles was not hard to believe.  He would later become her husband and father of their dozen or so children.  This would be the standard for love stories that Hollywood would have to meet in order to gain my little girl approval.  And it was true.

That the child, Betty, heard such lovely stories far earlier in life than those of the unspeakable brutality of slavery or the great Civil War that brought it to an end means that I had little awareness of my great-grandmother as being enslaved; nor do I recall making the personal connection until studying American history as an adolescent.  But the intellectual connections rarely mean as much as the emotional imprinting, and there is little memory of making those linkages.  If the elders of the family spoke of such times, they must have done so in creole, a patois of French that dominated speech in our homes during those years, and placed such conversations out of reach of the children.  Perhaps it was just too painful.  They could hardly have not been scarred by such memories, but I can't recall feeling a personal relationship to that tragic history until I was a young mother, when I, too, held it at arms length from my own children ... until the Sixties.

I do remember the dark stories told by Papa George when we were working together in the garden and he was talking to himself and letting me listen; which happened on occasion with some grownups.  Those stories usually involved the Ku Klux Klan and his younger brother, Uncle Albert, suddenly leaving under the cover of darkness for parts unknown -- never to return (the family later learned that he'd escaped to Kansas City); and the many bloated black bodies that floated up in the river from time to time -- bound wrists to ankles -- and the lynchings ... but the listening was terribly hard, and the nightmares ... .

I only remember Mammå as the family matriarch; celebrated by the elders as the aunts and uncles made up the delegation who would make the annual trip back to St. James Parish each year for her birthday.  Southern Pacific railroad family passes enabled this important family ritual to continue for decades since most uncles were Red Caps or Porters during the Great Depression. Wonderful stories about their childhood in that little cabin across from the levee of the Mississippi -- where my grandfather, and my mother and her siblings and so many others were raised -- fueled most grownup conversations and colored my childhood memories, and surely provided the foundation for how I relate to "the World."

Let me live with my gate posts a little longer before sharing... .

Photo: Leontine Breaux (Braud) Allen in midlife.
Bottom:  Uncle Herman Allen and his wife, Marie Gaudet Allen

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