My mom played Cajun music at home, especially her Uncle PeeWee’s album. Grandma Flo complained PeeWee couldn’t carry a tune in a bushelbasket, so how did he end up being the one with a band? We mostly played the tunes when Grandma wasn’t visiting. I learned Cajun dances, picked up a few curious Cajun phrases (not from Grandma, but from her husband, the only person allowed to tease her in Cajun), but I never went to Cajun country, even when the family visited Louisiana while I was in college.
When I was a kid, Grandma Flo used to say, “Only the dirty people speak French!” I grew up in a college town where folk who spoke French were the local aristocracy, so this baffled me. It did explain why my mom practiced flashcard French in the kitchen with my Dad, and why flashcard French was used to keep secrets from us kids. That’s when I decided to learn French.
I didn’t just learn French. I immersed myself, kept my diary in French, wrote sonnets, dreamed in French, even sometimes forgot how to say things in English. But it was the wrong French, which upset my grandmother as much as that I was learning French, despite her. She spit out rapidfire obscure phrases to show me how little French I knew. I later found out these were quotes from the Old Testament. Shortly before her death in the mid-80s, she forgave me — an unexpected package showed up one day with a fat black-bound book, La Bible.
For my daughter’s high school graduation, my mom, sister and I took her on a trip to New Orleans. We had the time of our lives — places, color, food. Mom glowed. I’ve never seen her happier, showing us her favorite places, teaching us how to pronounce pralines.
During the obligatory beignet breakfast at Café du Monde, my mom wasn’t making sense. She wouldn’t leave without beignets, but we skipped the third helping to get her in a cab and over to Tulane, where I spent the day in the hospital, holding her hand and stroking her arm, because she could neither speak nor understand what was said. Mini-stroke.
A few hours later, she seemed fine, and the vacation continued, but scans showed this probably wasn’t the first or last of the mini-strokes.
It was the last trip with my Mom. But my son graduates from high school next year.…
“The Pee Wee Special.” PeeWee Broussard. The Acadian Two Step. 1952.
“Eagan’s Jukebox.” Max Avery Lichtenstein. Far From Heaven. 2002.