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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”