Kittie Howard

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kittie Receives an Invitation

I closely examined the black and white photograph in the Baton Rouge newspaper. Four women in white hats and gloves, each with a white purse hooked over the left wrist, stood behind a cloth-covered table.

A rose-filled vase centered the table. Positioned to the side was a large tray with a teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl. My grandmother had a similar arrangement, what she called 'a tea service', in the dining room. But my two-and-a half-year-old sister and I weren't allowed to touch the treasured wedding gift.

I sat mesmerized, staring at the pretty picture. The photograph's black and white contrasts wove a dreamy spell, an enchantment that ached to touch a pretty moment that was. The ladies wore fashionable shirt-waist dresses with full skirts and wide belts. A string of pearls at the neck and pearl earrings accessorized dresses with small, dainty prints.

The women had dark brown hair that hung spray-net smooth beneath elegant hats, then rolled into a semi-collar of perfect curls that framed glowing faces with dark eyes and arched eyebrows. The 1950s society-page mavens smiled white smiles through rouged lips. I knew they wore bright red lipstick. Like my mother wore. Even if my mother lived in the country, not far from Baton Rouge, but a world removed from the society page.

But women who lived in the country still looked at glossy magazines and dreamed, smoothed on the Ponds Cold Cream, and checked the mirror for that Ivory Soap complexion. Not exactly vanity. But 'pretty is as pretty does' prevailed.

And so did gossip. In a male-dominated era that chafed but didn't rile women, if a woman didn't look good, something had to be wrong. So, my mother, a transplanted New Orleans city girl, dressed to please herself, but with an eye to what others thought. Along the bayou, gossip reigned, as much a crop as sugarcane and cotton.

Mama knew rumors couldn't fly about a poor mental state, a catch-all for not liking boudain (blood pudding), Wilbur's Beauty Parlor or the bruised bananas at Mr. Luke's grocery store. So my mother baked banana bread, enjoyed pickled pigs' feet, avoided Wilbur's but announced (rather than said) she voted for Wilbur's cousin in the last parish (county) election.

Which he won. Not specifically because my mother voted for Baby Joe. But locals appreciated that my mother thought like an insider and understood that no one else knew what to do with Baby Joe either. At 46 years old, Baby Joe, son of Big Joe and Skinny Rose, hadn't done much except grow a few rows of garlic. So, turning Baby Joe into a politician became an investment. Folks knew he wasn't clever enough to steal big money, not like the real politicians.

As such, my mother relaxed into enjoying pretty: Feeling pretty, looking pretty, thinking pretty, admiring anything pretty. In the mornings, I'd watch her apply red lipstick, pinch her cheeks rosy red, fluff her blond hair, and smile happily back at the mirror. She was 26 years old.

Mama looked especially pretty on Fridays, when Daddy returned home from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. (And when Sarah and I couldn't go into their bedroom.) Ma and Pa watched Sarah, Dan, and me while my parents visited with their friends. Or friends came to our house.

My parents joked that strangers who got lost on the state road that fronted our farm probably thought nothing much happened in the country.

Quite the opposite. Louisianians loved to throw parties. Or cook up big meals in honor of a favorite Catholic saint. And if a week or two passed where a saint didn't appear on St. Mary's Holy Roman Catholic Church calendar, well, word spread that one of the farms was having a crawfish (crayfish) boil, just before sunset. With music blaring. And dancing on the porch. Or just sitting around on the stoop. It really didn't matter, just so folks got together and lived life. And this life wasn't always good. But being together cushioned what had gone wrong or hadn't made sense.

This morning, though, I wasn't thinking about crawfish (crayfish), just lipstick and getting dressed up. I narrowed my blue eyes to read the newspaper print beneath the photograph but couldn't. At four-and-a-half-years-old, I was all grown up, knew the alphabet backwards and forwards, even recognized words in my story books, but I couldn't read, not like the adults.

This frustrated me. I wanted to know what happened in the newspaper that smudged my hands with black ink. I wanted to know why four women wore hats and gloves and stood behind a table with a big teapot.

When Little Mary, Jo-Jo or Melodie visited, and we played with my tea set, we sat on the floor, with our dolls, and drank lemonade. We wore shorts, not dresses. According to the picture in the newspaper, we didn't dress right. And, come to think of it, how come only adults drank tea? I'd have to ask Mama. She knew everything.

I waited while Mama changed Dan's diaper. He was six months old now and a good baby. At least, that's what everyone said, even Mama. Compared to kittens, though, who rolled onto their backs and pawed at my string, I didn't see how Dan did much of anything, good or bad. I mean, what fun was a baby brother who did what babies do: Poop, eat, laugh, sleep, cry, poop?

Still, I worried why Mama put a salve on those things boys get between their legs, you know, what the bull in the pasture has. I'd heard Mama and Daddy say the salve protected the family jewels. But what I saw looked like half a Vienna sausage and two jacks balls, not pretty stones that sparkled in the sun.

When I told Mama what I thought, her eyes flashed, and I knew I'd made a mistake. I'd said something about something only adults talked about.

So, no, she didn't have time to mess with an afternoon tea. I'd have to ask Ma.

Which I prepared to do. While Mama dripped her second cup of Community Roast coffee and thumbed through the Ladies Home Journal, I tip-toed out of the kitchen, and around through the living room, careful not to draw my sister's attention, carefully closed the screen door (for a change), and flew across the pasture to my grandmother's house.

Only to come to a screeching halt. Ma and Mrs. Slim drank coffee and visited on the porch while Mr. Slim sat across from them, reading a magazine, paying no nevermind to the two women who spoke in French.

I didn't have to understand French to know Mrs. Slim had been to Wilbur's Beauty Salon for a new perm.

I could smell the solution that had fried her short brown hair into tight curls that hugged her scalp. I thought she looked like a surprised hornet's nest, what with her eyebrows arched so high and her thin lips puckered into a red wheel. But I didn't say anything, not after getting Mama mad at me, not if I wanted an afternoon tea (now that I knew what I wanted).

Besides, I had to be nice to Mrs. Slim. She was Little Mary's grandmother, one of the three friends I wanted to invite. Mrs. Slim possessed a fiery temper. When Mr. Slim had been younger and slim, like his nickname, he'd gotten caught cattin' around with a woman while Mrs. Slim thought he was helping this woman's husband.

To show Mr. Slim he wasn't going to mess around anymore, Mrs. Slim had driven his Ford to the center of their large front yard, hauled out his shotgun, shot up the Ford so it wouldn't run anymore, planted a pink rose bush in front of the car and placed statues of the Virgin Mary on either side. Mrs. Slim bragged the rose bush had grown into a flowery testament to marriage's sacred vows. (Daddy said Mrs. Slim trimmed the bush back once in awhile so the bullet holes showed, just in case.)

So, when Mr. Slim started to laugh at my idea for an afternoon tea and Mrs. Slim shot him a warning look that snapped his mouth shut, I knew Ma would like the idea. Mrs. Slim, whom Ma called Bernice, triumphed as Ma's major source of gossip along the bayou.

Within minutes, Ma and Mrs. Slim had gotten into planning my tea and told me to run along. That evening, when Mama learned she and Daddy would host the crayfish boil that followed my afternoon tea, Mama reacted with how tired she was, what with three kids to raise while her husband attended law school during the week. And, just in case anyone thought otherwise, she hid her ladies magazines under the mattress and behind the dresser.

The ploy worked. While Ma planned the tea at her house, Mrs. Slim and her cadre of Wilbur devotees decided who would do what and when at our house. And Mama perked up when she learned we'd keep the leftovers. Mama didn't like to cook. Nothing pretty about wringing a chicken's neck and plucking the feathers.

A week before my Saturday afternoon tea, Mama handed me an envelope with my name printed on the outside. Mama read where Ma had written on a note card I had been 'cordially invited to Afternoon Lemonade.'

When my eyes popped and my heart sank, Mama thought I didn't understand 'cordially' and went on to explain. However, I didn't care about cordially, only lemonade. Not more lemonade! No one dressed up for Afternoon Lemonade. No one had a 'lemonade service' in the dining room. Even I knew that.

I protested (cried, wailed, pouted, tried to make myself throw up, the usual get-my-way stuff) to no avail. Kids didn't drink tea. End of discussion. I didn't perk up until Daddy informed me that I'd actually gotten what I'd wanted, doing what the ladies did in the photograph, and whether we drank tea or lemonade didn't matter.

So, the following Saturday morning, Mama washed and set my shoulder-length hair with Bobbie pins, in small curls that would dry really tight. When the clock finally ticked the time to dress for Afternoon Tea, Mama surprised me with a grown-up shirt-waist dress. Since Mama could sew without following a pattern, she had copied what the ladies had worn, only pint-sized for me.

Mama hair-sprayed my flounce of tight curls into a stiff collar, positioned her white hat on top, snapped white beads around my neck, placed her white purse on my arm, and proudly pronounced me ready for Afternoon Lemonade. At the news, I looked into the mirror and beamed.

But, just as we stepped outside, onto the porch, and Mama handed me my white church gloves, I ran back inside. Mama had forgotten the red lipstick!

She frowned a bit when I returned, but quickly smiled again. Together we walked across the pasture, like twins, with Mama in her matching shirt-waist dress, white hat, gloves, and purse, to Ma's front door (for Mama said we were guests).

And when Ma opened the door, she also wore a shirt-waist dress and white hat. As did Melodie, Jo-Jo, and Little Mary. And their mothers. And Mrs. Slim.

In the center of the living stood a round table (that I didn't know Ma had). On the table were a vase of pink roses and Ma's tea service.

While the ladies sat elsewhere, on the living room sofa or in chairs, Melodie, Jo-Jo, Little Mary, and I sat at the round table and enjoyed an Afternoon Lemonade that included small sandwiches without crusts and little cookies.

After Ma took a photograph of the four of us. We stood behind the cloth-covered table: Steel magnolias-in-training with bright, lipstick-smeared smiles.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Piggy Lou (Louisiana Stories)

(Note: I'm late posting. And reading your beautiful blogs. Hang in there! My husband got sick with a bug that infects the sinuses and hung out in this multi-purpose room so as not to infect me...he's a good guy!...but is now back to normal, yea! Then, I decided to prepare this room for spring, reverse clothes in closets and so on. That accomplished (ahhhh!), the sun's shining, birds are chirping, and life's good.)

Today's story . . .

The end of World War II brought economic, military, and political change to much of the world. Within the United States, hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned to a grateful nation, but also to change. The need to move troops within the country had increased internal rail lines and expanded roadways. This constant movement of troops had also exposed 'good ole country boys' to the bright lights of the cities and a different way of life.

War's end meant thousands of soldiers with rural roots descended upon America's cities, all looking for a job and a more affluent life. Jobs became scarce. The G.I. Bill, a massive government spending program, provided immediate opportunity for war veterans to attend university and re-enter the work force with updated, more realistic skills change demanded.

The United States also faced the problem of how to dispose of excess war materials within the country: Jeeps, tents, Quonset huts, and the like. Public auctions and shifting materials to peacetime usage decreased stockpiles and allowed factories and the auto giants to return to normal production. (To maintain security interests, the United States requires three auto companies: Two for conversion to mechanized production during war and a third to produce vehicles for the private sector.)

To accommodate increased university attendance the G.I. Bill afforded, Quonset huts functioned as student housing, especially for married students. Universities partitioned the metal, dark green, tubular modulars into half, with a family occupying either end.

When my father returned home from the war, he returned home to a family. I had been born while he fought on Iwo Jima. My mother quickly became pregnant with my sister, Sarah.

Although my father possessed an undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University prior to enlisting in the Army, at War's end he didn't think his degree provided an edge in a congested job market. He decided to attend Law School at LSU.

And, so, we lived in a Quonset hut, one among many in the on-campus, married students' housing (across from the field where the university golf teams now practice).

Of course, I didn't know any of this. I was a child. A very happy child with red hair and freckles who loved to laugh and giggle and explore everything around me. And, on this day, I was even happier. It was my third birthday. I was a big girl now, all grown up and ready for the world, even if this world comprised a sidewalk that fronted the rows of Quonset huts:

The sleek wagon's watermelon-red paint glistened brand-new in the July sun.

And I squealed with delight.

Nervous hands soon tugged at the Radio Flyer's handle. When the wagon's black wheels glided forward, I felt the power of freedom and turned to run. I ran down a sidewalk that went forever, at least to New Orleans, maybe to Mississippi. I ran for a million miles, my laughter and giggles a flautist accompaniment to the sidewalk's thump! thump! thump! cracked percussion.

My frilly pink party dress clung to my pale skin. The white ruffles wilted. My straw summer hat, with its pink bow and fluttery tails, floated on a breeze. Only the straps on my white Mary Jane's kept me on the sidewalk, prevented me from pulling my red wagon into the blue sky and hooking a ride on the hat that swirled toward a golden sun.

Ten years later -- no, twenty years later -- I returned to my birthday party, red wagon in tow, a wide smile on my freckled face, a victorious Helen of Troy before I knew either of the warrior queen or life's battles, only that my heart exploded from joy, the sheer joy of living beyond what a three-year-old knew.

At my wide smile, my parents hugged me, and everyone clapped, my parents' friends and their kids, all neighbors who had come to my third birthday party. And they sang Happy Birthday. And we ate cake with pink frosting and a scoop of home-made ice cream on the side. And after playing with my friends, I fell asleep on a blanket under a nearby oak tree.

However, the next day I didn't see Peggy Lou. My best friend in the whole wide world, who lived with her parents on the other side of our Quonset hut, hadn't attended my birthday party.

Two days later, when Peggy Sue still hadn't come out to play, I grew sad and worried Peggy Lou had disappeared. And because friends my age lived deeper in the housing complex I didn't have anyone except Sarah to play with. So, I pulled Sarah up and down the sidewalk. This was fun. Maybe. Not really.

I thought Peggy Lou would want to take Bootsy for a ride in the wagon. Bootsy was a big doll with long brown hair Peggy Lou had received for her third birthday. She'd had a huge birthday party before summer began, with balloons and games and prizes and a pile of other gifts. But Mama said I'd received lots of presents when I was an only child and this was fair. And Mama was right. Sarah was fun. Except when she tried to eat my picture books.

So, while Mama sat on the stoop, I played with Sarah and the wagon. And a long time passed, maybe five years, before Peggy Lou came outside. One afternoon, after playing with Sarah, and while Mama, Sarah, and I sat on the stoop, Peggy Lou appeared.

Without saying a word, and focused as only a three-year-old can be, Peggy Lou walked up to my red wagon, now parked near the sidewalk, and began kicking it. Before Mama could re-situate Sarah, Peggy Lou had kicked the wagon over, yanked on its handle and run off.

My little red wagon never rolled again. No one could realign the handle and the wheels.

A month later, after we'd moved to my grandparents' farm, my red wagon remained parked on our front porch, drooped on its side. But that's where I wanted my wagon. And Sarah and I would put dolls our grandmother had given us into the wagon and imagine the wheels rolled.

But, still, I didn't know about cows and pastures. I didn't understand my new world where everything appeared so open and far away. I didn't understand that this move to the farm had been planned, that my grandparents had had our house built for us. I didn't understand that my parents transitioned into the next phase of their lives and that my father commuted between LSU and the farm until he graduated the following spring. So, not understanding meant I didn't know what to do.

Until, that is, someone gave me a baby pig. A chocolate-brown baby pig that squealed like a thousand kittens. All at once.

Except in a picture book, I'd never seen a pig before and couldn't believe my good fortune. Of course, I didn't know my mother was furious about this unsolicited gift or that my grandmother had thrown a fit. "A PIG!", Ma had screeched and with a case of the vapors had lain in bed for two days (Mama told me years later).

But no one could take my pig from me, except at night. My little friend slept in the barn.

Every morning my mother and I walked to the barn to get my pig. The three of us then walked to my grandmother's where Ma waited with breakfast scraps. With my pig behind me, I learned to navigate that wide expanse between our houses that soon appeared smaller and smaller, still a pasture, but not as bad as I had thought.

When my father returned to the farm the next weekend from LSU and saw my new friend, he got a twinkle in his blue eyes and asked, "What are you going to name your pig?"

Without a moment's hesitation, I answered, "Piggy Lou."

And Piggy Lou and I had fun. For a little while. Until the day came when I realized I could leave the front porch and my little red wagon without Piggy Lou.

I also got lucky. For Piggy Lou was growing fast, too fast for my little legs to keep up with. Just in time I learned other sidewalks existed in life where I could run forever, at my own speed.

Miss Kitty, the former slave who lived up the road, said she'd raise Piggy Lou. When Miss Kitty saw the pretty pink ribbon I'd tied around Piggy Lou's neck, she chuckled and patted me on the head. After a slice of cake and a glass of lemonade, Pa drove home.

And my grandmother gave me a kite.

And I ran and laughed and giggled, happy to be with my new best friend in the world, myself.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Goodness of the Hippo and the Tortoise

Note:  Pings are silent signals submarines use to notify each other they are nearby.  The Internet uses the same technology for blogs.  A ping tells Followers you are nearby, ie, have posted.  Your post shows up on the Follower's blogroll.  Pings also tell others in wider Blogville that you exist.  This helps other bloggers find you.  If you click on one of your interests, you will find profiles of others who have the same interest.  Without pings, your profile slips further and further, into the 10,000 or so who may have the same interest.  You can sign up for pings at:  It's free.  Every time you post or have increased blog activity, you should ping.  So, bookmark the site.)

I think a donation wins out over a gift card.  I am very happy with this! However, I'm not sure if you want my donation to go to an Animal Shelter or a Soup Kitchen shelter that serves the unemployed and/or homeless.  I take your comments seriously and will be most happy to donate to either.  I'm staying tuned because I want my little Spring Celebration to spread sunshine!
Your comments (and e-mail requests) also stir the Louisiana stories.  And there's a whole mess of stories!  (A mess is Southern for that amount which satisfies a designated number of people.  How many ears of corn to shuck?  Until there's a mess to feed four hungry people.) 

Several Louisiana stories percolate now.  How one particular story bubbles to the top, I honestly don't know.  Except that your comments give me a sensing of what you'd like to hear:  Hard scrapple, whimsical, amusing or a bit of fun.

Because life can get quite serious. Teresa Evangeline ( and I enjoyed an e-mail exchange that focused on how excessive negativity overwhelmed the spirit. At least, our Soul Sister spirits. Many people thrive on negativity, can't get enough of what's wrong, pounce on the slightest mishap with undisguised glee. 

I make every effort to avoid these people.  Even if I'd agree with what they'd say.  I just can't take all that negative energy.  Life's too short, the sun's too bright, to get bogged down in mumbo-jumbo.

Good and bad exist as polar opposites, life's yin and yang, if you will.  Can't have one without the other.  So, this morning, while reading this weekend's Parade magazine, a comment from David Gergen, the Harvard professor and CNN political analyst, caught my attention:  "As my favorite preacher, Peter Gomes, says about how one should handle adversity in life, 'Get used to it, get over it, and get on with it.'"

And, unfortunately, when it comes to earthquakes, the world's definitely getting 'used to it'.  The horrific quakes in Haiti and Chile were heart-wrenching.  The ensuing slew of smaller quakes and aftershocks, from Illinois to Japan to Hawaii and back to Chile and Haiti, elicited shivers of fear.  Nothing prevents an earthquake.  Nothing stops an earthquake.  Nothing stops a tsunami, its first cousin.

But nothing also stops the human spirit, even when an earthquake rains death and misery.  The entire world witnessed how the Haitians, who already possessed few material goods, coped with even less, many with nothing.  But a previously ignored people never lost faith in God, themselves, and in humanity's goodness.  And, though a more affluent country, the Chileans also suffered terribly, but maintained their indominable faith and perservered.  Both countries accepted what had happened and got on with it.  Survival.

But millions of people around the world contributed to this survival, either through financial donations, personalized relief efforts or both.  This generosity sparked hope that goodness trumped negativity.  Survival.

Like others with practical experience, a nurse with 20 years experience also contributed to this goodness.  I'd like to thank and applaud Enigma4Ever, a Follower, at for all that this warm, giving person contributed during these disasters.  Her blog remains a shining example of how a knowledgable person can spring into action for the common good. 

Enigma posted emergency telephone numbers, tirelessly coordinated detailed information, and consistently pointed volunteers in the right direction on not one blog, but a series of blogs (also on Twitter) that kept people informed in a calm, professional manner.

I hope Enigma's gotten rest.  But I doubt it.  This is one dynamite gal whose passion for life goes beyond self.  Thank you, Enigma! 

And I need to recognize and apologize to Sandi at and Cheryl K at for not including their names on my Spring Celebration list for the Over the Top award.  I didn't realize the paper with their names (and a smaller paper I still can't find) had been scattered by a spring breeze.  Sandi's on crutches at the moment but is positive about tossing the sticks soon.  Cheryl and her hub are housesitting -- which includes minding four young kids -- but, like Sandi, accomplishes all with grace. Please accept what I hope is a happy award.  And please pass it on to five people.  I'm sick of Cotton Mather's shadow.  It's time to spread some smiles. 

For those of you outside the United States, Cotton Mather was a Puritanical leader/preacher during the early 1600s who thought being normal was sinful.  However, not long ago scholars found correspondence that said Cotton Mather enjoyed a glass of wine and liked to laugh (horrors!)

Now, about the photo at the bottom, photographer unknown (as far as I can tell).

After the tsunami hit parts of Asia some years ago, a smaller tsunami hit Kenya.  This baby hippo washed ashore near Mombassa, Kenya.  Volunteers placed the hippo in an animal shelter, where the baby bonded with the 100-year-old tortise.  The unlikely pair established a nurturing relationship that amazed everyone.  For these two aren't known for being pals within the animal kingdom. 

And, as the hippo grew older and bigger he still remained near the tortoise, very caring and respectful, when the hippo could easily have squashed the tortoise.  (Eventually, though, the hippo had to move on in life and do what hippos do.)

But people can do the same.  Get along.  Work together.  Be pals.

If only we'd get on with it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Grandpa Takes a Trip (Louisiana Stories)

Some comments before today's story: I am delighted you enjoyed the Seven Remarkable People series and thank you for your generous comments and encouragement to publish the series. As I commented, I lack a clear path as to how to achieve this. But others have stepped forward with advice and help that may prove fruitful. And I've begun to research possible avenues. We'll see how this shakes out. I didn't start this blog with the intent of publishing. Whatever evolves will be one of life's smiley faces!

I want to thank my original Followers for sticking with me. You've allowed me to veer off course and wish Elvis a Happy Birthday, get out of the hot Louisiana sun, and otherwise indulge my blogging streaks.

And I want to extend a warm welcome to the new Followers and hope you find the Louisiana stories interesting. Today's story will continue with the aftermath of my great-great grandfather Stilly's unfortunate demise back in 1859. (I've provided enough info that you don't need the earlier blog.) But, wait, don't ho-hum click off. The story's got an unexpected twist.

And a big Thank You to the kind blogger at Adventures of the Cautionary Tale (see Followers, red hat in photo) for my Barnes & Nobel prize. The last time I won a prize was in first grade when the teacher pulled my name for the classroom Christmas tree. I was excited then and am excited now. Adventures of the Cautionary Tale is a beautiful blog, and I urge you to click on over. The blogger's daughter, Maddy, had a small accident but is now doing well. This makes me happy.

I also want to thank our godson's wife, Kathy, for figuring out how to install the counter widget you see to the right. My husband and I also enjoyed the delicious meal godson Rob prepared the other night. (Yep, the dude cooks!)

Now, about today's story. Since my family tree goes so far back in American history, I can't tell their stories without involving a sense of history. But I work to keep this history at a minimum. And I try very hard to keep historical events balanced and without narrative emotion. (Besides, you already know that I'm a loyal American with deep Louisiana roots.)

As such, today's story weaves through history. But I hope it is more a story of survival. I've received several e-mail requests for a Depression-era story. But I went with this story first. As bad as the economy is -- and like everyone else, my husband and I have made adjustments -- there can be worse, not exactly good news, but, in terms of survival, hard work, creativity, and a positive outlook can win the day!

Today's story . . .


No one in the family ever forgave Stilly for getting himself killed at that poker tournament deep in Louisiana's bayous. All Stilly had to do was stay alive one more day, win the next night's poker pot, and nobody in the family would ever have to lift a finger again. But, no. Not Stilly. He'd trusted too much and gone to sleep under that old oak tree without thinkin'. And somebody had shot him dead.

Of course, family members hadn't thought to caution Stilly about the evils of gamblin'. When a man's work brought in gold coins that bought land and kept the family in high style, lectures didn't seem quite right. According to my grandmother, everyone prayed for Stilly's soul. (But, according to my father, most prayed Stilly would keep up the winning streak.)

Because back in 1859, my great-great grandfather's gambling skills had made him a legend in Louisiana's treacherous bayous. However, back on firmer land, in Tangiphoa Parish, north of New Orleans, when word came of Stilly's death, relatives called Stilly's dying 'inconsiderate'.

The understated emotion bespoke about as close as a Southerner could get to disowning a relative without insulting the spirit. Stilly just shouldn't have strayed from Southeast Louisiana's more conservative morality and gotten involved with wanton Cajuns who didn't give a damn.

And knowing that Stilly had come close to winning what would turn out to be 75 miles of oil-rich marshes and bayous made his demise especially rude. The fact that Stilly's body had been thrown to alligators in the bayou hadn't raised an eyebrow. Gamblin' was a sin. Everybody knew that (except Cajuns and Protestants in Mississippi who cut the cards when the preacher wasn't lookin'.)

Nevermind. The deed was done. The aftermath would just have to be dealt with. There was no gettin' around the fact that Stilly's murder in 1859, at that poker tournament in the bayous, had thrown the family into economic turmoil.

But, to his credit and in spite of his gambling ways, Stilly had been a God-fearing man who had married a woman of strong character and good virtue. Lucy accepted her widowed fate with a Bible in one hand and a hoe in the other. She focused on saving the homestead and raising two adolescent sons who didn't gamble, drink, use tobacco or whore around.

But, above all, her sons had to fear God. Lucy worried Stilly's gamblin' blood would lure her adolescent boys off into the alligator-infested wilds that had gotten her husband killed. Without muscled arms to help work the farm, Lucy couldn't survive in a male-dominated, rural society. She'd have to move in with a relative and hope for a charitable lifestyle.

So, during a time when devout Christians viewed vanity as the devil's mastiff, Lucy adhered to old-fashioned sensibilities and accepted the reality of what needed to be done. Lucy believed hard work kept the mind from thinking about what might have been. And reading the Bible every night soothed the soul.

But hard work and prayer accomplished only so much. Fortunately, Stilly had had the good sense not to take all his money to the poker tournament. (For the murderer had also robbed Stilly's pockets, heavy with gold from the first night's win.) But gold coins left with Lucy enabled her to pay the yearly property taxes on the homestead and other properties Stilly had accumulated. Lucy and her sons substantially enlarged the house garden and bought several milk cows.

Profit from the sale of milk and produce in the nearby town of Ponchatoula both clothed and educated her sons. The money also enabled a cushion for the next cycle of taxes. The family lived frugally but retained its successful status.

However, demanding work took its toll. Three years after Stilly's death, Lucy no longer appeared a fair-complexioned young woman with dancing blue eyes and long chestnut hair beneath a sun bonnet. She now fulfilled the role of family matriarch, a mature woman with weathered skin and shrewd eyes who didn't shirk hard work and family responsibilities. Relatives sometimes helped.
But in an era when self absorbed into family, the conscientious mother earned respect for not leaning on others. Lucy was a determined Christian woman who believed in family, hard work, frugality, and prayer.

Of course, Lucy had suitors. Women routinely died in childbirth and left widowers with children to raise. But a married woman often lacked the decision-making freedom that came with Lucy's widowed status. The properties Lucy had protected could disappear to drink or worse in a new marriage that turned sour. Stilly's sons required a legacy in order to succeed in a South that valued land ownership. So, Lucy kept to her charted course. And the family prospered.

Until the drums of civil war reached Louisiana. On January 26, 1861, Louisiana seceded from the United States. Barely three months later, on April 12, 1861, canons at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, fired the opening volleys of what would become the Civil War or War Between the States. The Confederate States of America (CSA) formed. On April 25, 1862, Federal or Union troops captured the port city of New Orleans.

Even though Louisiana had one of the largest populations of freed slaves, significant numbers of whites didn't support slavery. So Louisiana got pulled into the Civil War's diametrically opposed directions in a manner that footnoted history. In order to appease anti-slavery supporters, for the duration of the Civil War, until General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces on April 9, 1865, Louisiana had two governors: One for designated Confederate areas; the other for designated Union areas. (This moral divide within Louisiana's multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and deeply religious population would contribute to Louisiana's emerging image as a 'foreign country', an image that lingers.)

Although both of Lucy's sons survived the Civil War, one fighting for the North, the other for the South, the proud matriarch, a Union supporter, lost her land and possessions either to taxes or the Carpetbaggers who followed in the War's wake. Wars cost money. Both sides had raised taxes to support the War's effort. But the South's 50% tax increase accomplished more than bullets and stripped average, non-slave-owning Southerners of their land.

By 1865, the Civil War had brought the South to its knees. Like a funeral dirge, doom permeated the land. The South's attempt at nationalism had failed miserably. Too idealistic to comprehend what war involved, everyone now faced the hard reality of what war had brought. A muted sun hung in a low sky over trees burned into eerie shadows and soil blackened with soot. Disillusioned soldiers, many on wooden crutches, barefoot, skin turned blackish-purple from frostbite, returned to a home that existed only in hell. Battle-hardened men with thousand-yard stares looked but didn't see, heard but didn't hear, felt but didn't feel and committed suicide. Women cried and pounded their fists, angry at their men for going, angrier at their God for not coming. And children with gaunt faces and hollow eyes and bloated stomaches sucked dirty thumbs and hid in corners.

Without a sense of place, tattered families roamed the desolate countryside in a desperate search of food, devouring anything with nutrients, even raw potatoes gleaned from a field. Raging inflation had spiraled basic commodities beyond reach. Few possessed the $100.00 needed for a barrel of flour. Gold, silver, and bronze coins used as pre-war currency had almost disappeared from commerce. Paper money issued by the CSA proved useless.

A barter system emerged: Work for food, perhaps a place to live. A one-room shanty with a dirt floor sheltered a once proud family. Union supporters hadn't fared much better, if any. The guns of war hadn't cared about who lived where. So, with the land scorched and ravaged and with little opportunity to provide for families, bitterness grew, especially when Washington, D.C. forbade Southerners to bury war dead with Christian headstones. Even Louisiana's Union supporters railed at the edict. Though officials eventually rescinded the order, the damage had been done. The North had won the war but lost the peace.

Stilly's family never returned to the cohesive unit that had existed prior to the War. Lucy eventually found work in a mercantile store. She lived out her days in a room rented from a family that also struggled. Her sons married and lived wherever work existed, usually as day laborers. That is, when they found work.

Reconstruction followed the Civil War, the period from 1865 to 1877, when Washington, D.C. dictated how the South restructured itself. Federal officials governed the South with an iron fist, with coveted work going to an old-boy network that controlled every aspect of daily life. Carpetbaggers or opportunists descended upon the region. Corruption grew. Mayhem prevailed.

However, Stilly's descendants avoided the sharecropper system that developed after the Civil War. (The sharecropper system, where workers lived on a farm and worked off living in a shack, would pull both blacks and whites into an economic slavery that wouldn't end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

Corrupt Federal officials and Carpetbaggers now owned many of the surrounding farms and plantations. These noveau riche Northerners didn't hire Southerners. Not for money. But these new landowners eagerly accepted sharecroppers. An inability to work off inflated rent for miserable shacks ensured a generational system of practically free labor.

In a time when having nothing meant exactly that, my forebears remained God-fearing people. They didn't steal, turn to prostitution or beg. Family stories abound of how forebears lived in tents or lean-to's and scraped together a meagre existence. Angry armies had destroyed crops, fruit trees, and forests. Available sources of meat, like deer, had fled or been devoured by hungry soldiers. Rotting corpses polluted streams. Most of my ancestors suffered from rickets and malnutrition. The very young and the elderly and lame died. Children ate mud pies. But my forebears survived. And, in the South, this meant the family name survived with honor.

For there was no shame in being poor. Only admiration for honest values and hard work.

And, since hard times eventually fade into what was and the resilient human soul recovers, my scattered family put down roots in Southeast Louisiana and began to prosper. Until the Panic of 1873 and the Long Depression that lasted until 1879. Once again, everyone lost everything. Economic survival meant living on the edge. Just existing. The lack of money in circulation forced a return to the barter system. But the winds of change had re-defined basic survival.

The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1869, the expanded railway system, and the impact of the Industrial Revolution demanded a more educated worker. But just as new jobs emerged, the Industrial Revolution also erased jobs. The efficiency of Eli Whitney's cotton gin reduced the availability of work, even allowed landowners to shrink the sharecropper system. At the height of the Long Depression, thousands of uneducated, unskilled workers and their families lived in unspeakable poverty in Louisiana (and throughout the United States).

Fortunately, Stilly and Lucy had instilled the importance of education in their sons. This legacy enabled their heirs to find decent work in a rapidly changing world. But, still, without a major sum of cash to buy a respectable piece of property, the family faced a limited future.

Until 1912.

Stilly's grandson, my grandfather, got married on Friday. On Saturday, he left for the Panama Canal.

For a full year, like thousands of others who saw opportunity, Pa worked to build the 53-mile canal that connected the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean.

He ate the food provided, slept on a bunk bed in a rough barrack, and saved every pay check. Pa worked dawn to dusk beneath a scorching sun, endured the thick humidity, and avoided malaria.

At the end of the year, my grandfather returned to South Louisiana with enough money to pay cash for 600 acres of good, solid land.

His wife, my grandmother, who had remained with her family in Gonzales, Louisiana, quickly got pregnant but suffered a miscarriage. But, according to Ma, there wasn't time for tears. Work needed to be done.

Pa had retained enough cash to build a house on land that first required clearing. But he had to do most of the work himself to remain within budget.

He lived in a tent on the property. Once a month, he rode his horse the 30 miles to Gonzales to see his wife.

And Ma got pregnant again.

A year later the small family moved into their spacious, three-bedroom home with its wrap-around porch.

My grandfather carried his true love over the threshold. Into the parlor, the wedding gift my grandmother had so wanted.

And my father grew into manhood on the farm, graduated from Louisiana State University, served in WWII, met my mother, became an attorney, and here I am, on the liberal side of Stilly's war-torn family.

And once a year, for the past three years, I went over to West Virginia, pulled out the $100.00 bill I'd pinched together and played the slots.

Last year I hit a $2500.00 jackpot and headed home. Don't plan on returning.

Gotta know when to fold 'em.