Kittie Howard

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Betty Grable's Over Here, Over There (Louisiana Stories)

(Notes:  South Louisianians are passionate about family, food, football, politics, and religion.  As one would expect, these passions sometimes collide, the kernel within today's story.  For those of you super sensitive about religion, I hope you'll stick with the story as equilibrium returns.  I used the term 'preacher' throughout as that was the proper form of address during this period.  It later evolved into 'minister' and 'preacher' being interchangeable.  I never named the preacher because I don't remember a name.  Kids during that era always referred to a religious leader by proper title, a sign of respect parents enforced.

To the post's right is a photo of Betty Grable, the famous World War II pinup.

But, before today's story, in the previous post I had a typo.  Marie Rust's beautiful nature blog can be found here.  My apologies, Marie!

And, now, today's story.)

* * * * *

Life on a farm sneaks up on you. 

That's what Mama, a city girl from New Orleans, always said. 

Actually, Mama sounded wise beyond her twenty-five years.  Uninvited guests arrived at our South Louisiana farm in half an hour.  In the early 1950s, friends and family visited without formal invitations all the time.  But people met once who announced a visitation and had a specific agenda, that threatened.

The problem began two weeks ago, the first part of October, when a handwritten card arrived in the mail.  The Baptist preacher and his wife announced they'd arrive for morning coffee at a specific time, 10:30, on a specific day, today.  Circumstances around the unsolicited visit escalated into all hell breaking loose yesterday. Tensions now smoldered into this morning's wait for the guests and the formal, living room social.  To pass the time, Daddy sorted through papers on the back porch. Sarah, my three-year-old sister, and Dan, my year-old brother, napped in the middle bedroom off a long hall that led to the porch.

I watched Mama pace.

Her brown pumps tapped on the hardwood floor when she crossed the living room.  Mama wore a dark yellow shirtwaist dress accented with a cluster of canary-yellow flowers appliqued on the pointed collar and a fabric-covered brown belt ringed with the dainty flowers.  A strand of pearls at the open neck and matching earrings accessorized the ensemble.

Long-legged and slim, with a narrow waist, Mama walked model tall.  She had big blue eyes and full lips in an oblong face.  Thick blond hair, tamed into loose curls, brushed her swan-like neck and framed a fair complexion with naturally rosy cheeks.   Mama looked pretty, like a movie star.  But she didn't look happy.

Mama surveyed the living room with a practiced eye:  Coffee cups, saucers, and serving essentials positioned on great-grandma Peterson's marble-topped coffee table; cross-stitched pillows, a collage of nature's pastels, fluffed to attention on the  forest green sofa; cherry wood side chairs with damask cushions angled for shared conversation.   Creamy rich draperies, loosely tied back at the four long windows, permitted autumn breezes to circulate.  Though muggy outside, the room felt cool.

Pleased with her artistry, my mother leaned against the door frame and lit a cigarette.  She exhaled, eyes to the high ceiling, then looked at me, as if a five-year-old kid understood how a farcical situation had turned into a value's statement.  Not knowing what to say, I stood muted in front of the linen chest. Sarah said I looked like a freckled-face alligator with bangs when I got bug-eyed and my mouth fell open.

But, really, I didn't understand what happened yesterday, why that fat woman at Mr. Luke's grocery yelled at Mama for wearing shorts.  Nor did I understand what had happened two weeks ago, why the Baptist preacher and his wife had invited themselves to our house or why their card had thanked Mama for joining the Baptist Church, when she hadn't.  Even worse, the card had said the preacher and his wife looked forward to ministering to Mama's needs.  At this insult, Mama, a private person, had exploded.  She had torn the card into a thousand pieces and showered the living room with confetti.  Just as Ma walked in.

My father's mother lived in The Big House across the pasture from our house.  She had a history of manipulating circumstances to pressure my Lutheran mother into converting to Catholicism.  When Ma learned about the preacher's visit (from Mrs. Picard, a cousin who lived near Mrs. Guillroy, the postman's neighbor), Ma decided to pay Mama a visit.

What followed turned into legend along the twenty-five mile strip of country road that fronted an old bayou.  When Ma told Mama that Baptists wouldn't pester her if she were a Catholic, Mama, who normally brushed aside Ma's proselytizing, retorted with pent-up fury.  She told Ma to mind her own business, stormed out of the living room, and slammed the door. 

No one had ever told Ma to mind her own business, an eyebrow-raising event Ma ignored when she complained to eager listeners what had occurred.  Many along the bayou chuckled.  And, though Catholics themselves, friends whispered Ma went too far, always trying to push her beliefs on Mama.  For, generally speaking, Louisianians preferred to live and let live. 

Besides, Ma had created a bit of trouble among the Catholics along the bayou.  She wanted to worship in a proper church.  A traditional Catholic Church didn't exist in our area.  About every two months a priest came from Baton Rouge to say Mass in a private home, a well-attended event, especially the picnic afterwards.  Ma and a few others had regularly petitioned the Baton Rouge diocese to build a church.  Attempts always failed. 

The overwhelming majority of parishioners liked the system the way it was.  Folks wanted to relax after the Mass with a cold beer, Jack Daniel's or cherry bounce, a potent homemade brew.  These picnics were too much fun to relinquish.  That's what Mama and Daddy said, for they sometimes attended the picnic.

Anyway, after two weeks of Mama and Daddy fuming over the preacher's visit and Ma and Mama not speaking, reality approached.  Mama had to prepare for the next day's social.  But a minor mishap turned the preparation into a disaster:  Mama dropped the ceramic coffee canister on the floor.  Splinters of red glass and dark brown Community Roast coffee splattered the kitchen floor like measles on a hound dog.

Not willing to ask Ma for coffee and unable to contact Daddy in Baton Rouge, Mama made a decision that reverberated:  She herded Sarah, Dan, and me into her old Ford and drove to Mr. Luke's grocery. Too harried to change into a shirtwaist dress, how respectable women appeared in public, Mama left the house in shorts.  Specifically, in white shorts not really short and a green and white polka dot blouse.

My mother bought the coffee but returned home in tears.  Ma waited in a rocker on our front porch.  She accused Mama of wearing shorts to the grocery to show off her Bettle Grable-like legs.  With tears falling, Mama hustled us inside and slammed the front door shut.  Ma rushed to Miss Mary's house, her opposite neighbor, for solace.

By the time Daddy returned from Baton Rouge and stopped at Mr. Luke's grocery for gas, word had spread.  The men congratulated Daddy for marrying Betty Grable's cousin.  The women ignored him, except for Cousin Antoinette, a distant relation.  When Daddy approached the cash register to pay for the gas, Cousin Antoinette burst into tears.  Cousin Antoinette had worked at the cash register when Mama had entered the store wearing shorts.

Cousin Antoinette wanted Daddy, now an attorney and no longer a student at Louisiana State University, to press charges against the Baptist preacher's wife for her criminal behavior.

Shocked at seeing Mama in shorts, the matronly woman had run from the store shrieking about Mama's lack of morality and how Cajuns lived in sin.  However, Cousin Antoinette wasn't  upset Mama had worn shorts.  Nor did she care that Mama resembled Betty Grable, the serviceman's favorite World War II pinup.

The preacher's wife had left the store without paying for a bunch of bananas.

Cousin Antoinette thought the woman should serve two years in the state penitentiary at Angola for shoplifting.  Morals had deteriorated too much, she complained to Daddy, after a long sip of cherry bounce to calm frazzled nerves.

When Daddy arrived home, he told Mama he wanted to drive half-way to Baton Rouge, to the Baptist Church, and cancel the next day's social.  But my mother had cried herself out and regained control. She had decided to take the high road and serve morning coffee to the Baptist preacher and his wife.

So, when my mother saw an unfamiliar car turn into our long driveway and the dreaded event now upon us, she rushed to get Daddy.  I heard them lock the inside door to the back porch, so Sarah couldn't wander if she awakened.

Even though I'd been told to remain in the kitchen when the guests arrived (I wore a smock, Mary Jane shoes and socks; guests liked to meet the oldest child, who then disappeared), I unhooked a tie-back, slipped behind a drapery panel at the far end of the living room, and wrapped the fabric around me. From my cocoon, I could peek out at the seating arrangement.  I giggled at the excitement that awaited.

Mama and Daddy rounded the corner from the hall into the living room just as the preacher stepped heavily onto the porch.  Daddy buttoned the coat to his blue suit before opening the door. My parents greeted their guest with bright smiles and warm words of welcome.  However, the bespeckled preacher with slicked-back, thinning grey hair ignored Daddy's proffered hand, hooked his black hat on the coat rack, and walked to the center of the living room, his wife in tow.  Ignoring the insult, Daddy ushered the reticent couple to the sofa.  After an awkward exchange of morning pleasantries laced with  silence, Mama excused herself to make drip coffee in the kitchen.

The preacher, about fifty years old, wore a black suit, starched white shirt and grey bow tie.  His wife, also about fifty years old, wore a plain black shirtwaist dress, a black hat, and sensible black shoes. Sitting stiffly on the sofa, they looked like two old people in a funeral parlor, afraid to talk for fear God would hear them.

Daddy, though, talked about the weather, anything bland to fill the silence.  Mama returned with the silver coffee server and a plate of sugar cookies.  The Baptist preacher and his wife accepted a cup of coffee and a cookie with formal politeness.  Cups and saucers tinkled too-loud in the silence that followed.  Wrapped like a mummy in the drapery panel, I felt hot and sticky.

But just when I thought to slide to the floor and crawl into the dining room, Sarah ran around the corner, from the hall into the living room, laughing and giggling.  She held Daddy's Betty Grable calendar in her pudgy hands.  The keepsake had fallen from the wall behind the hall door when Mama and Daddy hurried to lock it and rush into the living room to greet the preacher and his wife.

At the sight of Sarah holding Daddy's Betty Grable calendar, the movie star poised with her back to the camera, wearing a one-piece swimsuit, the preacher's wife shrieked.  The preacher bolted to his feet. Cups and saucers shattered.  Mama, in the side chair nearest the door, lunged to protect Sarah from hot coffee that splattered.  While Daddy rushed to wrap his arms around Sarah and Mama, the preacher and his wife left in a huff.

When Sarah stopped crying, she ran to join me in the dining room.  Before I led my sister into the kitchen for milk and cookies, Mama retrieved the notebook-sized Betty Grable calendar from beneath the over-turned side chair.

Years later I learned that my mother had given her husband this calendar before he shipped out to Iwo Jima during World War II.  Because Daddy bragged Betty Grable reminded him of Mama, she wanted him to carry that reminder.

While on Iwo Jima and during a period of strict censorship, Daddy had recorded the dates of letters written and received, war-time events (from bloody combat to the fear of waiting to war's end), names and addresses of guys in his military unit, and the names and dates of those who had died.


A week after the calamitous social, Mama deliberately wore her white shorts and polka dotted blouse to Mr. Luke's grocery.  Folks chuckled but got the point.

Approximately five months later, the Baptist preacher and his wife rotated to an out-of-state church. Whether the transfer resulted from members of his congregation complaining about  the preacher's over-zealous techniques or he was positioned for a routine transfer, no one knew.

However, the new preacher and his wife brought joy to everyone, embracing not only their congregants with warm, caring hearts but also non-Baptists within the wider community.  They even attended one of the picnics after a Catholic Mass.  Yes, they drank sweet tea, that Southern favorite.  But so did many of the regular attendees.  Live and let live.

Ma and Mama never really patched up their differences.  But, hey, what did you expect?  Dis ain't no fairytale (a common expression along the bayou.  Sometimes what you experienced is bigger than what you thought.)

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