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.

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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.” Amidst the treasure trove of photographs, letters, report cards, newspaper clippings, wedding invitations and more, there was a photo album from her days at the teacher’s college at Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I slowly flipped through the pages, scanning for pictures of her with little success. She was clearly the one who shot the photos.

Normal School Classmates
Teachers’ college classmates at Southwestern Louisiana Institute, circa 1920

The photos were captioned, like the one above titled “On a Sunday with nothing to do.” Some captions included unfamiliar names, mostly the kind of nicknames young women everywhere give each other in any era.  Students came to SLII from all over the state. I wonder how much she saw these friends after they graduated. Through my college-aged eyes, the experience was just as familiar as the photos were new to me.

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A pennant or pillow for every school: SLII, LSU, Jefferson College and Lutcher High School

At first, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find her in the pictures. And yet, by looking at the photos she took, I learned so much about her: she had a large circle of girlfriends, she had a playful side, and she had a keen eye as a photographer with a talent for connecting with and relaxing her subjects.

The old box also contained a letter from her to her future husband, my grandfather J.C. Bergeron. It’s a quick note dated October 1923, asking him to please cover “the letters” with crepe paper, making every other letter the same color. It’s unclear to me what “the letters” were, and we will likely never solve that mystery. But the letter solved a different mystery for me. She signed it “Tine.”

I may have never met my grandmother Mary Ernestine Bush Bergeron, but now I feel like I know her well enough to christen her “Grandma Tine.”

What did you call your grandmother? What name have you chosen/would you choose for your grandchildren to call you? Is there a grandparent you wish you knew better?

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Mary Ernestine Bush learning to ride a bike with brother Alton Bush and unknown girl

 

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