I Remember Maman
My first memory as a young child of my grandmother, Florina Grenier Melchior, is of her getting ready for the short walk to daily mass at 6:00 AM. She was quiet, but not somber, as she prepared her mind and heart to receive our Lord in Holy Communion.
She and my grandfather had come to live with us out of necessity. Now it seems providential.
My grandmother left her birthplace, Quebec City, in the province of Quebec, Canada, when she was fifteen years old to attend a Catholic boarding school in St. Louis, Mo. (During that time, her family moved to Joliet, Canada, which is called the “City of Churches”—referring to the fact that there was a church on every corner.)
A boarding school in those days was called a “finishing school.” This was to indicate that by the time a young girl left, her education was considered to have ended.
The students had regular classes which included English, Latin and French. French was required because for many years French was the international language. Latin was taught as preparation for daily mass. And in a school of that kind, everyone was expected to learn proper English.
Music was also a part of the curriculum. The students could learn the instrument of their choice but most chose the piano. Art was also taught and my grandmother produced several interesting drawings. She also painted a large portrait of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is striking in its emotional depth. It hangs in my living room today.
A certain time every day was spent learning to embroider and crochet. Both of these things were de rigeur for a young woman.
Upon graduation, my grandmother was sent to live with her uncle, Father Fabian LaForest, who was pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in the village of Carencro, LA. She became the church organist. She later married a young planter, George J. Melchior, and began life on his cotton farm near Carencro.
A Life of Service
One would think that someone of my grandmother’s background and education would have been aloof and detached from the things around her. Nothing could be farther from the truth. She helped establish the sodality for young people, which encouraged devotion to the Blessed Mother. She gave a communion breakfast each year for the graduating seniors at the local public high school.
During the typhoid epidemic, when many lives were lost, my grandmother visited every house on the farm to instruct the tenants how to stay healthy. She taught them to boil everything—dishes, clothes, sheets. The floors and walls were scrubbed with lye soap. As a result, no one on the farm became sick or died.
Later, things were not easy for my grandmother. She lost her first child, Yvonne, in infancy. She and my grandfather lost crops three years to the boll weevil. The bank which my grandfather helped establish failed. But the most devastating challenge to my grandmother’s faith came when their home burned and they lost everything.
All of these things occurred before my grandmother entered my young life. Looking back, it is remarkable that she never mentioned any of it. The Faith was the bedrock of her life. It was the foundation upon which she responded to the events of her life. It was the reason she was never bitter about any of it.
Kittens and Fairy Tales
Time with my grandmother was always entertaining. I spent hours on the arm of her chair listening to Hans Christian Andersen stories and other European fairy tales. She never tired of repeating the stories over and over again.
Once, when I found a baby kitten outside, she let me bring it into her room. She made a ball and tied it to a string of yarn, so the kitten could play with it and try to catch it.
Many nights I felt asleep listening to her read aloud to my grandfather. She read the works of American journalist Westbrook Pegler, the William F. Buckley of the day, along with other popular commentators.
She herself was a writer. She submitted poetry and essays to the local paper using a pen name, Kewena, which is a Native American tribe in the Michigan area. Her articles were reflections of local culture and provided a glimpse of life in the area.
A Living Memory
I hope I can be forgiven for taking these many years to recognize the heroic life to which my grandmother was called. I hope she is aware of my love and gratitude to her. When I am sitting in the dim light of morning mass, I feel my grandmother’s presence. I hear the rosary which we recited every night. I hear the prayers of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius Loyola, and the Litany of the Blessed Mother. Holy Mary, Holy Mother of God...Mirror of Justice...Seat of Wisdom...Comforter of the Afflicted...Cause of Our Joy...The words of the Latin mass also remain with me: "Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui lætificat juventutem meam." (I will go up to the altar of God. To God who gives joy to my youth). All these things played a role in my formation.
My grandmother passed away many years ago, but her memory is vivid. In so many ways, she is still with me, and will remain.
I hope somehow she can be aware of this humble offering.
~Florina Roy Alexander, December, 2014, Shreveport, LA
© 2014 Flo Roy Alexander