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.

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.

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”

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.