The Devastation of Smallpox

Marie Philomene Barbay
Marie Philomène Barbay (1872-1957) circa 1886

In September 1883, smallpox came to the bayou town of Plaquemine, Louisiana when my great-grandmother Marie Philomène Barbay (1872-1957) was 10 years old. It infected her family, claiming the lives of her mother Marie Aurélie Hotard and her two baby sisters. She and her brothers survived the disease: younger brother Preston was left with scars on his face, while she and brother Roland were left unscarred. Her father Émile somehow escaped the disease, only to die less than three years later.

Thirteen-year-old Philomène was taken in by her aunt and uncle in Grosse Tete. There she found love, acceptance and eventually a husband, her first cousin G. J. A. Bush Jr. But that was years after this tintype portrait of her in a mourning dress was taken. Her face is unscarred, but her eyes show the devastation.

About Photo+Story: Inspired by a competition at the RootsTech 2018 genealogy conference, the series distills family stories to a single photo plus 150 words or less.

Out of the Piney Woods

Piney Woods Cattle
Hadley Alonzo Dyer (1875-1935) center, with young daughters Susie Dyer Lafleur (1901-2002) and Bertha Dyer Fontenot (1898-1982)

When my great-grandfather Hadley Alonzo Dyer was just 10 years old, he and his brother Machen, aged 12, would “hitch up their teams and haul loads to and from Lecompte, often camping in the woods by them-selves.” So wrote a reporter for the Alexandria Town Talk in May 1885. He made that twelve mile trip from the piney woods along Spring Creek to the plantations on Bayou Boeuf many times over the years: driving cattle from the hill country, delivering meat to the lumber companies and more.

In five decades, he moved his family from Loyd to Forest Hill, up to Boyce on the Red River, then back to Forest Hill again, finally settling on a dairy farm near Oakdale. All dutifully reported by the Alexandria Town Talk. My grandmother was always vague about where exactly she was from. Now I know why.

About Photo+Story: Inspired by a competition at the RootsTech 2018 genealogy conference, the series distills family stories to a single photo plus 150 words or less.

Mythbusters: Lafleur Family Origins

Almost every family has an oral history, the stories of ancestors to use as a starting point for genealogical research. With a little digging, you’ll find some stories turn out to be true, many have a grain of truth that’s been distorted over time, and some are complete fabrications. Proving or disproving family stories is one of my favorite parts of researching my family history. I think of it as Mythbusters, Family Edition.

Adraste and Elodie Marthe Lafleur
Adraste Lafleur (1874-1951) and Elodie Marthe Lafleur (1880-1965), circa 1910

My father’s paternal grandparents Adraste Lafleur (1874-1951) and Elodie Marthe Lafleur (1880-1965) were both born with the surname Lafleur, and grew up in the same locale in Louisiana. So close that in the 1880 census, their families were recorded only two pages apart in the 7th Ward of St. Landry Parish.

Many decades ago, when my mother asked my father’s relatives for names and birth dates for the family tree in our Bible, they were quick to point out that Adraste (Pépère) and Elodie Marthe (Mémère) were not cousins, and that Pépère’s Lafleur ancestors had come to Louisiana by way of Canada, while Mémère’s Lafleur ancestors had come directly from France. The family tree in Momma’s Bible records just one more generation back, with a father of Ulysse Lafleur for Pépère and Benjamin Lafleur for Mémère. Is this “Canadian French vs French” distinction accurate? Or were they actually related and if so, how closely? Continue reading “Mythbusters: Lafleur Family Origins”

Momma Married Well

Dyer and Joyce as Young Couple
A young couple in love: Alonzo Dyer Lafleur (1930-) and Joyce Rita Bergeron (1930-) circa 1953

My parents met on a blind date arranged by mutual friends. She was working as a medical technologist at the Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge. He was finishing his master’s degree in chemistry at LSU. Daddy would come courting on Sunday afternoons, frequently sharing the couch with another suitor named Talmadge who always drove over in his truck with his cousin Ewell.

When Momma chose Daddy, she didn’t know that Talmadge’s family would strike oil on their family farm located smack dab on top of the Tuscaloosa Trend, nor that Talmadge would become a wealthy businessman, owning Hilton hotels in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. When I found out as a teenager, I teased Momma about how she could have married rich. But between my gratitude for having Daddy as a dedicated father to us and loving husband to her, and the stories I heard of Talmadge’s family drama, I’d say she  definitely married well.

About Photo+Story: Inspired by a competition at the RootsTech 2018 genealogy conference, the series distills family stories to a single photo plus 150 words or less.

Life of the Party

Amelie “Emily” Lafleur Fontenot (1900-1985) in her Baton Rouge home, Christmas 1973

Aunt Emily loved a party. With a “heavy on the bourbon, light on the Coca Cola” drink in hand and a full repertoire of bawdy jokes in mind, she kept us all entertained. That is, until her jokes got too risqué and our parents sent us children out of the living room.

In her later years, as her memory began to fade and her eyes grew weak, she would read her jokes off index cards with reading glasses, pulled out from her purse with her signature dramatic flair. Continue reading “Life of the Party”

The Grandmother With No Name

In a few short months, my sister Patty will become a grandmother. She’s as prepared as she is excited: she’s ready to fly to Atlanta to help my niece the first-time mother, she has cribs waiting in both her home and her beach house, and most importantly, she has her grandmother name picked out: GiGi. What it stands for is an inside family joke, but I think the name suits her well.

I can’t see Patty or any of my sisters choosing to be called Grandma, like we called my father’s mother Grandma Sue. And we have no name for my mother’s mother who died when my mother was eight years old, long before she became a grandmother.  Her name was Mary Ernestine Bush Bergeron. Would we have called her Grandma Ernestine or Grandma Bergeron, like we called our grandfather? Or use Maw Maw or Mémère in the French Louisiana way? Since we never knew her, my sisters and I usually just speak of her as Momma’s mother.

My grandmother Mary Ernestine Bush (1900-1938)

The scant bits I knew about her came from my mother: she was from down the bayou in Grosse Tete; she had green eyes and was taller than my mother (5’4″); she was a schoolteacher just like my grandfather; and that she died of pneumonia at age 38, leaving my mother and her three brothers at 10, 8, 4 and 2 years old.

My mother kept a framed photo of her as a young woman on the wall. I’d study her with her bob haircut (short like mine) and imitate her in the mirror, tipping my head the same way. I’d ask, “Momma, do you think I look like her?” “Yes, I can see it,” she said. I suspect she would have said the same thing to any of my sisters.

One day when I was in my late teens, I found an old cardboard box in the attic labeled “Grosse Tete pictures.” Continue reading “The Grandmother With No Name”

Cajun Egg Pocking

Egg Pocking

It wouldn’t be Easter in Cajun country without egg pocking. The rules are simple: gently tap the pointy ends, the first to crack loses, and the winner takes all. Our grandfather didn’t play for keeps, sparing us the tears of an empty basket. But if he lost he’d tease, “Wait, was that a guinea egg?”

Only when we were older did our father explain that back in the day men gathered at the Ville Platte ice house on Easter Eve to drink, boast and bet over egg pocking, and that an accusation of slipping a tough-shelled guinea egg could set off a fight.

My entry to the RootsTech 2018 Photo+Story Competition for the HERITAGE category.

A Truck Full of Cousins

Truck Full of Cousins
After Sunday dinner when the weather was fine, our grandfather would load us cousins into his truck and drive us to his camp by Lake Chicot. There, we’d throw hickory nuts, scare each other with cries of “Snake!” and shriek and jump for no good reason at all.

I’m sure my grandmother sighed with relief when the truck pulled away. No more kids running back and forth through the kitchen’s swinging doors, no more chicken fighting in the living room. To this day, none of the cousins has fessed up to breaking the glass top of her coffee table. I swear it wasn’t me.

My entry to the RootsTech 2018 Photo+Story Competition for the FAMILY category.

A French-American in Paris

Prof in Lyons

“Dear Buddy, the book is a jewel. … Have you the negative of myself taken with the pigeons in Lyons?” The old man sat in my grandmother’s living room, with the letter in hand and his book on the coffee table, 70 years after the Great War and six years after my grandfather had died. We all knew the photo; it hung on the wall behind him. But the book and its author were news to us.

His grandson prodded, “Tell them the part about sneaking into Paris” And so we learned of my grandfather’s secret adventures in France.

My entry to the RootsTech 2018Photo+Story Competition for the CONNECT category.

The Lafleur Girls

Lafleur Girls

“Susan, Carol, Lucy, Patty…” my daddy would call out to me, sputtering until he grasped my name, “Janet.” To grow up as the fifth daughter was to watch four paths unfold and consider which sister’s I might follow. An independent streak with a scientific trajectory landed me in Silicon Valley, far from home and family in Louisiana.

And yet, when I’m back home and meet an old family friend at a party or at the grocery and get the expected, “You must be one of the Lafleur girls,” I’m proud to say, “Yes, I am.”

My entry to the RootsTech 2018 Photo+Story Competition for the BELONG category.