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Memories of My Cajun Man.
Think back, don't we all have some one in our lives that pointed us in one direction or the other? A teacher, relative, or an event. Probably we didn't even relate to it at the time it happened.
My person was a Cajun Man that could neither read or write and he taught me some lessons of life that came in handy many times. No, I'm not claiming they were good or bad! For you see I'm still batting those two elements around. Walking that tight rope in-between seems to work for me.
Emile Evariste Navarre, was born in Chacahoula Louisiana in 1862. He was simply speaking the true meaning of a Cajun man at that time. He only knew how to do one thing and that was work the land. The hurricane of 1909 convinced him to leave the area with his wife and six children. Unfortunately at that same time a man came through that area and scammed them out of their meager savings by selling them land in Arizona that did not exist. Some how they existed by working on ranches around the Tempe and Chandler area and raised their family.
I would like you to meet my Grandfather (grand p"ere) which I called Papa. The events I bring forward from this beginning are true and what I learned from Papa in his senior years. I hope you get a chuckle or two out of it.
Tempe Arizona: 1941
Tempe was at that time a sleepy little town of approximately 2,906 citizens. In the center of town on the corner of Mill ave and 5th, stood the Laird Pharmacy. My grandparents lived there in a small apartment over the pharmacy for twenty-five years. It was the only real home I ever had as a child.
Laird & Dines was where everbody went for ice-cream. However, the most remembered treat was the ice cream cones which were first squirted with warm chocolate in the cone, then the ice cream scooped on top which froze the chocolate down in the bottom---it was pure delight!
A sign attached to the roof of the building and stretched across Mill Ave to an old vacant building read: "Arizona State Teachers College." (Now---Arizona State University.)
My parents had long gone their separate ways for the were doing their own thing? So I got past around to whom ever would take care of me. Yes, I was a wild child. That big veranda that stretched around that building became my safe place where all my dreams and secrets were shared with Papa. He listened to every word that came out of my nine-year old mouth. He not only listened but more importantly---understood. My grand'mere was good to me and there was always a plate set at the table for me. She was very religious and her faith became first and beyond anyone else around her. She seemed to spend most of her time on her knees with rosary in hand. Papa and I found it much wiser to stay out on the veranda. I also learned early on that grand'mere was to be kept out of the family antics because it would up set her and she would take to her bed for days---with headaches.
Papa was a very quiet man. In a room full of people he would sit quietly in the corner, listening and never say a word. In their house Cajun French was spoken when any of their sons or daughters were visiting, except when my father came by. He would simply tell grand'mere to speak English or he would leave. He was her youngest child and she adored him. I really don't know if he was ashamed of them speaking Cajun French because he would only say that they were not on the Bayou now, they were in Tempe Arizona and they should speak English. Therefore I was not taught this wonderful language. Yet, could understand a lot of it. The Cajun French is interesting in the fact that if they did not have a Cajun word for something new, they would simply use the English word. Therefore, in a conversation you would be able to hear both and make out the jest of the conversation.
Sitting there on that big veranda you could see everyone that passed through or lingered. Papa would point out that, "there goes Mrs Kelton or there goes old man Jackson and he would wave and they would respond. They did not have air conditioning, as we know it today. In the summer time papa and I slept out side on the veranda where we had two cots next to the inside wall. Grand'mere always slept inside.
After Pearl Harbor some of our everday routines seem to change. One of our greatest pleasures was when the college was used to house and school some of the army solders. They would march them at 5:00 am, down Mill Ave to the big swimming pool at the far end by the bridge. They were very quiet---going. We would stand there in or pajamas, and marvel at the sound of their feet---silently keeping in perfect unison. We really looked forward to their return trip for they were no longer silent. They marched with energetic cadence. The few cars that were on the street proudly pulled over to the side to let them pass. One of our favorite cadence song was:
"Momma, mamma, can't you see? Look what the Army's done to me---they took away my faded jeans; now I'm wearing Army green. They took away my gin and rum; now I'm up before the sun. We would laugh and give them our best effort of a salute.
Papa always answered my very serious and silly questions in the only way he knew how. He never told me directly what I should or should not do---instead he would take the situation and put into a Cajun story. It usually started out with---"Well, now that happened to my cousin (cousine) Leon once," and then at the end of the story it seemed to be worked out for me.
My own code of ethic's had a long way yet to go. I had no problem about helping myself to a news paper out side of the drug store. They would be stacked there and a tin-can sat on the top paper where you dropped your coin into. I noticed that there was always papers that were not sold and besides I always took one off the bottom of the stack. I never took the money. Of course I told grand'mere that someone gave it to me. I knew that they could not afford the simple luxury of buying a news paper and she enjoyed reading it and would sometimes read it aloud to papa. In addition I found out that the drug store threw out some of their other magazines at times, so I dug through the trash bin often. Comic books were my favorite and some times, they even tossed them, but more often as not, so I did help myself to a few of them. I notced that papa would really study those pictures, so I started reading them to him. He would point to the picture and I would tell him what it said. Maybe, his lack of knowing how to read made me a better reader?
It was at one of those times that I decided to teach papa to read and write. I printed the letters of the alphabet on the paper and asked him to copy them. He then took the pencil and very slowly printed Emile Navarre. It was simply the only thing he needed to know---in his world.
We never ate a big meal in the evening. It was a habit in Arizona at that time to eat your main meal about 1:00 pm when everyone would come in from the heat of the day and then after you ate, you took a long nap---a Siesta. Then you would return to work later when it was cooler. They brought one custom with them from Louisiana that I still enjoy today. In the evening before you retired, grand'mere would serve us a big glass of milk and a piece of corn bread. (Cajun--couche-couche.) Papa would break up his cornbread and put it into his glass of milk and eat it with a spoon---of course I copied his habit.
Papa and I enjoyed walkng and we would sneak off several times a week from grand'mere, especially if she was lecturing us about going to church and confessing our sins to the priest. We were not sure just what we were supposed to confess. As far as we were concerned, we had not done to much sinning just sitting there on the veranda watching the people go by.
Seeing grand'mere placing her little black hat on and settling it in place as she carefully stuck a pretty little hat pin through to hold it in place, meant she was off to church. It was at one of those times that I asked papa a question that had been bothering me for quite sometime. "Papa, can God only hear our prayer's in church?" It was not unusaual for him to sometimes just not reply to my numerous questions. Finally, he turned and looked straight at me with those sky blue eyes. "God will hear your prayers where ever you are." Of course that just led to my next question, "then why do we go to church?" This time there was a very long pause, "We go there to learn about God." This was still a puzzle to me because when I accompanied them to church I did not understand what the priest was saying. (At that time it was still in Latin.) I just kneeled when everyone else did.
It was not long after this conversatrion, I was surprised to hear papa raising his voice to grand'mere. Of course it was in Cajun French, but still this was out of the normal tone. I stood back out of sight and tried to piece together the jest of the argument. I could see grand'mere giving the sign of the cross numerous times and papa shaking his head and repeatedly saying "Non-non." It seemed that papa was refusing to attend church.
For the next week, all meals were served in complete silence and each morning she would put her little hat on and go to church but not before glaring hard at papa as she passed by him. It was not long after this occurrence that papa had a visit from the priest. The priests ask me to leave while he talked to papa in private. Of course, I just stepped around the corner and listened to every word.
It seemed that papa was refusing to attend church because he could not understand what they were saying either. Papa politely told the priest that when they could speak in English or Cajun French, then he would come back and until then he would pray in the comfort of his home and would not miss kneeling on those hard kneeling rails. It took a long time for grand'mere to finally start speaking to us again. After that she never missed a day to go to Church and confess for us. Papa once remarked that if she knew half of what the family did---she would have to live in that confession booth.
Grand'mere had a cousin that lived on the other end of town and he had several acres of land that at one time had a lot of fruit and citrus trees. He no longer tended to his orchard and some how it survived without him. On one of our long walks, we picked a large sack of his citrus and stopped to visit for a moment. He asked us what we had in the bag. I told him it was oranges and grapefruit and he did not ask where we obtained it from but eargerly asked if he could buy some as he picked through the bag. Well, need I say we laughed many times how we could sell him his own fruit each time we went there. This money bought us an ice-cream cone at the drug store before we took grand'mere the sack of citrus and fruit that someone gave us.
This same scenario was played out on the Monday morning walks. We took a short-cut through the cemetery and carefully selcted a bouquet of flowers from different graves. It seemed that people would go on Sunday and place fresh flowers, on the graves in vases. We were careful to only take a few to make a pretty arraignment to give to grand'mere to put in her blue vase in the center of the table. (of course someone gave them to us.) Those pretty flowers seemed to please her very much and she never questioned on who gave them to us---only "I hope you thanked them properly." We assured her we did as we quickly looked away.
One day I asked papa if those secrets that we kept from grand'mere were maybe just plain lies? He said that the way he looked at Lies there were two kinds. There were bad lies that hurt people and there were good lies that kept people from getting hurt. Yes, I could see his logic to that subject.
It had been one of those very hot days and papa said that he was going to wash his hair and maybe that would make him feel cooler. I opted to head down to the public swimming pool and spend the afternoon to keep cool. Later that day when I entered the apartment, I quickly noticed that papa was sitting in his usual rocking chair but he had his hat on and it was pulled down low. This was something that was not allowed in grand'meres presence. There was a hat rack right by the door. Grand'mere was in the kitchen and the Cajun French was as loud as the pots and pans that banged around.
It seems that papa had indeed shampooed his hair and some how picked the wrong bottle and not being able to read the label put it on his hair. It was a bottle of Bluing, something that grand'mere used in her laundry. Now papa's hair was blue and they matched his eyes. For weeks after that, I accompanied him to the barber shop. Not, to watch the barber cut some of the blue hair away. No! my job was to walk by the shop and make sure that there were no other customers, so papa would not be seen with blue hair. Of course, I am sure the barber had already told everyone else in town about Mr. Navarre's blue hair. After that incident papa was only allowed to use a bar of Ivory soap.
Emile Navarre past away at the age of 100. He would not have understood what this thing called, Hooter's Restaurant"that contained scantily clad waitresses that now resides there and grand'mere would definitely be in the confession booth at the church.
NOTE; I have no riches but my thoughts and memories, Yet these are wealth enough for me.