Kittie Howard

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sittin' on the Stoop Down on the Louisiana Farm

During my father's second year at LSU's Law School, his parents built a small house for us on their farm, across 'the pasture' from their house. Their house now became known in the farming area as The Big House. This raised pedestal of public opinion pleased my grandmother. The Big House was new, her dream come true, and indeed big.

However, the move from from LSU's Quonset huts, where married students then lived, to this small house, more a cottage with a front porch, proved a challenge for my mother. In Baton Rouge she'd had friends her age, could relate to others with young children, and otherwise felt part of a community. Now she lived on what she considered an isolated farm, without a support network her age, with a mother-in-law as the nearest neighbor. Without television and with spotty radio reception she had a long week to fill. My father commuted to the farm on weekends.

My grandmother and my mother didn't get along. My mother was a New Orleans city gal who missed riding the St. Charles street car to her job at a boutique fur store on Canal Street. She also missed managing her own finances, and, in reality, managing her own life. Mother was an Independent Woman ahead of her time, the product of a strong German heritage. Her great-grandparents had migrated to Louisiana from Mississippi, after the Civil War, when Carpetbaggers forced them off their land. And New Orleans being New Orleans, a world unto itself, my mother knew little about the Cajun and French cultures and had absolutely no desire to enlarge that knowledge.

Cajun aficionados commonly agree that the 'Cajun Triangle' stretches from Beaumont, Texas, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. This triangle is called the Three B's. Situated somewhat north of Baton Rouge, our farm was technically out of the Cajun triangle, but that meant little. Most in our rural area spoke or understood Cajun French to some degree, carried a Cajun or French surname, and otherwise lived within the Cajun or French culture.

My grandmother relished the role as the modern, petite matriarch of a family that had come to Louisiana in 1679. Her first language was French, Parisian French. Although she understood and spoke Cajun French, only a dire situation forced her to speak the patois. (Since she was a long-time area resident, her linguistic quirk provided a bravo spark others admired.) She also spoke fluent English. Born in 1898, Ma was the first woman of her generation to graduate from high school in the parish and was the recipient of many other firsts not common among women then.

So, two very independent women from two very different cultures locked horns.

Men being men, it took a bit for my father to realize that two opposing forces prepared for War, right under his nose. When reality finally dawned, he spoke individually to the opposing forces, thought his wisdom had worked, and returned to LSU to earn a degree to earn a living.

On weekends, my parents, my sister, and I enjoyed farm fresh eggs, fried, but a bit runny, and smothered with grits for breakfast. Once my father left for Baton Rouge, these eggs stopped. (My grandmother would place the basket of eggs on our porch just prior to her son's arrival. Unlike us, she had a telephone, a party-line, and friends would alert her when my father had driven past their houses.)

During the week, my mother cooked grits, the original grits that required time to even look like grits. She'd make a pot of grits that lasted the week. (My mother didn't like to cook and didn't particularly want to expand the subject.)

Ma seized upon her adversary's weakness. Soon, the aroma of French toast, fried dough that swelled with pockets that begged for jam, and homemade pancakes wafted across 'the pasture'.

My sister and I would slip out of the house and race across 'the pasture', on the path between the houses, that we fast created, and entered a country kitchen filled with warm aromas that couldn't be resisted. (My mouth waters now at the memory.)

Knowing what his wife was up to, my grandfather entered the fray. Pa released a small herd of his 600 cattle into the fenced-off frontage we called 'the pasture'. The excuse was that the grass needed trimming. But the goal was to nullify his wife's advantage. It failed. My sister and I learned that if we walked among the cows as if they didn't scare us, they wouldn't bother us. And they didn't. Our escapades continued.

However, my grandfather proved the cleverer of the lot. When my father returned home and saw cows grazing out of their proper pastures, he exploded. He knew cows could turn and butt us. My grandfather shrugged and pulled him aside.

The next evening, Saturday, as if by magic, neighbors appeared, at our house and at The Big House. Many brought pies and cookies and other yummy desserts.

How it happened, I don't know, but everyone ended up at my grandmother's, sitting outside, on the stoop or in chairs or spread out on the lawn, talking and laughing and enjoying the desserts. When my father announced, with great pride, that my mother was expecting their third child, applause and good cheer followed. My mother blushed, very pleased at the attention, if not exactly pleased at another pregnancy.

And, so, the ritual of gathering every Saturday evening on the stoop began. My mother and grandmother never really warmed up to each other. But they did declare a truce. The war ended, to everyone's relief. Everyone along the bayou (it wasn't but was so-called) relaxed.

When my mother made friends among those her age, my grandmother didn't interfere.

For reasons known to the telephone company, a phone couldn't be installed in our house, but my mother's friends would call my grandmother who would, in turn, come get my mother.

Since my mother didn't like gathering eggs, my grandmother taught me how (as long as she accompanied me), and, once again, like magic, we had fresh eggs all the time.

And we kids (for neighbors brought their kids) loved it when everyone gathered on the stoop. We'd run and chase each other or play hide and seek until we were tuckered out. We'd straggle in from 'the pasture' (cows now gone) for a glass of homemade lemonade and cookies, then snuggle into our parents or lean against them and hug their knees. We knew not to listen and not interrupt when the elders talked.

And the elders would talk into the evening, sharing stories, giving each other advice, bolstering each other up, all without argument or coarseness, often with laughter and good humor. As such, this continued for some years, even after we left the farm and moved into town. For my family often returned on weekends, as did the neighbors. Or, we'd sit outside, just my grandparents and us. And talk into the night. Even as a grown, married woman, when I returned to Louisiana, my grandmother and I would sit on the stoop and talk the hours away. My grandfather had long passed, but his wisdom remained and influence remained.

I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Louisiana State University and am proud of it. But so much of what helped me in Life I learned on the stoop.

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