Connecticut Yankee on the Bayou

Among the events that occurred while the blog rested was the series of events for this year’s One Book/One Middletown event. I was supposed to give a one-time workshop, but no one turned out since it was a bitter cold night.  The book was The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, which I read some time ago and may review later. Because it was set in the bayou I had planned to read about my first trip to my father’s hometown and environs. Here is what I wrote:

I attended a reunion of my paternal grandmother’s family, or so I thought until I figured out that I’m probably not related to them at all.

October 21, 2000 [Saturday]

Driving by miles of cane, a bayou (which one?) along I-10. Poor black people fishing off the sides. Flat, flat and open, without trees, flat in so many ways that Connecticut isn’t.

I flew into N.O., got lost, and drove to Lafayette and then back into New Iberia through city streets. It looks like New Jersey only with a lot of closed commercial establishments. Staying at a Holiday Inn that started life as a motel. Big parking lot, single story building. Lot filled with trucks. Hotel filled with wildcatters from all over including Australia by the sounds of their accents.

October 22 [Sunday]

Picked up food for the reunion: chips and dip, a coconut meringue pie, got turned around looking for Route 90. It’s supposed to be a main highway, but the surface, like most roads around here, makes it sound like the car has four flat tires.

Once under way, it was a straight shot to Welsh. [Current addition: the town has a population of about 3,000.] I even found the fireman’s hall without a problem – one could hear the Cajun Cowboys out in the street. But they could jam, too. On the way out there was one radio station doing Cajun fund-raising. The rest are religion, or the second religion, football.

The people were warm and welcoming, and they loved the maple syrup I brought as a raffle prize. When Larry Vincent arrived, he gave a big hug and said, “I’m glad to finally meet you, girl.” He brought pages and pages from Father Donald Hebert’s Southwest Louisiana Records. He also introduced me to his brother, Bufford. Mind you, these were people I’d have been terrified of if I encountered them under other circumstances.

One revelation: These folks identify more with Texas than the Deep South. Except for the French-inflected accent, they are cowboys. The men wear ten-gallon hats, and everyone dances the two-step.

And then we ate and ate and ate. The centerpiece was brisket, but I “made do” with salmon-broccoli casserole, salad, beans and rice, mac and cheese, green beans, corn, coffee, and a small piece of blueberry buckle.

[Added later. I told Larry that I hoped people didn’t mind having black relatives – didn’t put it quite that way, but he understood. He practically slapped me on the back and said, “We’re glad to have you; otherwise we’d all be swinging from trees by our tails we’d be so inbred.” What was I supposed to say? “You’re welcome”?]

The ride back was a lot quicker since both lanes of the bumpy highway were open.

October 23 [Monday]

I went in search of my relatives. My grandparents are buried in St. Peter’s, the original Catholic church in New Iberia with no record of where their graves are, but my grandfather’s death records are at the “black” church. St. Edward’s has a school that was founded by Saint Katherine Drexel, who abandoned her wealthy Episcopalian family in Philadelpha and became a Roman Catholic nun. My dad met her when she visited. Even though he was a tiny child, it made an impression on him. And in a small world syndrome, the current mother superior was born in Waterbury, Connectiut, and her borther lives in Middletown.

After lunch – a challenge to avoid meat products – I found the house where my dad grew up. 523 Providence Street, New Iberia, has been maintained. It’s got a brick façade, the tin roof now covered with shingles. But a little kid could still crawl under the porch from the side.

Other houses on the block are boarded up, trash scattered about, junk-yard dog along the side. When I showed Daddy the picture he said, “That’s not the house.” Either the numbers have changed, which is entirely possible, or the renovations were so extensive that it’s basically not the same house.

In search of information about my grandparents, I went twice in one day to St. Edward, which is housed in a tidy looking building a couple of blocks away from the house. The first time the office was closed so I went back. The second visit epitomized my stay in the bayou. The door to the office was open, but the receptionist was tied up with a phone call and a mailing list. She finally took my information – rewrote it all herself and went for the index file. It only went back to 1958. She found record books of burials, but they only went to the 1930s. In the meantime she fielded some calls while I spoke to the (handsome) twenty-eight year old priest who was from India. When the older receptionist – the boss – returned, she immediately found a tiny black record book.

Grandfather Walter Petry
Grandfather Walter Petry

And there he was! But he was buried at St. Peter’s R.C. Church. That church is huge and formal. The woman at the desk didn’t seem real happy to see me, but she located the entry and made me a copy. I asked about finding the graves. She checked her records. The only Petry was my Aunt Nolia, and there was no indication of the location of that grave. She exuded an aura of triumph. “Of course that would be up to the owner of the plot.” I was sad, angry, outraged, wondered, Grandma Adelaide, did anyone love you?

[Note added later: I guess Grandfather Walter was able to be buried in the “white” cemetery because Grandmother was buried there before the Catholics built a separate church for black folk.]

After all that frustration, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner and spent an awful lot of time looking for the Little River Inn. The address in the book is wrong. It’s across the Teche in a shopping center and was virtually empty except for a table of doctors and insurance executives who were blaming lawyers for their woes.

The food was traditional. I had crawfish fixed six ways – fried, “salad” (a few pieces on the side of a traditional salad), bisque, étoufée, stuffed in a bell pepper, pie, and something with cheese. It was all pretty gloppy.

The best part of the meal was meeting a couple from Texas.

To be continued …


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