“Aren’t you happy?” asked my uncle of Marie Rodrigue on the night of my engagement to her son. “You’re going to have a daughter-in-law!”
“I had one,” she replied, her face deadpan. “It didn’t work out.”
When she died in 2008 at age one hundred and three, George Rodrigue’s mother still wanted to “go home” to New Iberia. She wanted her car back, to remove her grandsons’ hats and cut their hair, to lengthen my skirts and overcook my Thanksgiving turkey, to visit long-dead friends and family, and, most important, to see her son get a real job, “with the telephone company,” she said, as she worried about his pension:
“When will you realize that nobody’s gonna buy those pictures?”
She was tough, ‘solid,’ as George used to say, with legs like tree stumps (her description, not mine, although…)…
...and the closest she ever came to happiness was in worrying about it.
At age ninety-two she called us in Carmel, California as it stormed at our house in Lafayette, Louisiana, concerned about the rising water in the front yard. We heard the phone drop and an ‘Umph,’ amidst the thunder and rain, as she slipped on the front porch, her solid body rolling into the flower bed unharmed.
“Where are the sandbags?!” she hollered, recovering the phone as she lay trapped beneath an azalea bush.
Like most of her generation, the Depression hovered over Marie Rodrigue’s decisions, threatening to return at any moment. However, she lived with another experience just as powerful.
It was a Sunday morning in 1927, and like all of New Iberia, twenty-two year old Marie Courrege knew that the water was coming. The U.S. Corp of Engineers, hoping to spare the big city, blew up the levee at the Mississippi River near Morganza, north of New Orleans, and in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, a few days before.
Marie parked her Model T Ford at the edge of the floodplain, just east of New Iberia, where the river ran thousands of years, and where the land descends toward St. Martinville. She heard the water before she saw it, and for the rest of her life she recounted the story, her hands moving with the memory.
“The water was rollin’,” she said, her arms twirling and her eyes wide. “I jumped in the car and drove to the church, the river rising on the wheels of daddy’s car. ‘It’s coming!’ I screamed in the middle of the sermon, and the people ran from the church and left town.”
Marie Rodrigue, a devout Catholic, proud to be ‘French’ as opposed to ‘Cajun,’ was an odd and some would say charming mixture of funny and mean. “She has no filter,” George used to say in response to her biting comments. If it entered her head, it came out of her mouth, and like most families, maybe all families, it was those closest to her that felt the sting.
“George, you’re full of sh*t,” she said, on more than one occasion.
And eventually I was too. We learned to lie and tell her what she wanted to hear, that the new clothes were actually the dry cleaning, that I scraped the insides of the pumpkins to make the pies, that we sold paintings on our vacations, that her savings paid for her living expenses, that our dinner guests left twenty dollars at the door and, that if she would wear a new suit instead of her shroud to our wedding, I would,
“I swear, on the day you die, let the sleeves out so that someone else can wear it.”
George, an only child, tried to please her, and perhaps that is the best that can be said of their relationship. He loved her deeply and lied daily to his mother, because he wanted her happiness. I know for a fact that she bragged about George to others, yet she existed on another plane from her son, unable to acknowledge his accomplishments where it mattered most, to his face. Fortunately, her wit softened the blow.
“She didn’t think she was funny,’ says George, “but she had a dry, cynical humor that cut to the chase real fast.”
Immune to criticism from a young age, George is confident in his artwork and in life’s decisions. In the years I’ve known him, he coveted only his mother’s approval. Yet, in one of life’s ironies, the harder he tried, the less likely her praise. The saving grace, both at that time and now, as we reminisce about Marie, is the leftfield humor in her retorts.
“Well, did he have anything good to say?” she asked, after we gave her a rosary and a signed proclamation from the Pope.
She wore step-ins instead of panties, passed a good time with her visiting relatives, went ridin’ in the afternoons, had the en vie for chicken stew, and (unable to grasp the concept of reruns) marveled at how good Ed Sullivan looks for his age.
She roamed the house at night, checking doors and the refrigerator, one time locking me out in my nightgown at 5:30 a.m. as I picked blackberries in the backyard for a pie. (Thank you again, George Parker, our neighbor, for your discretion and the use of your bathrobe and phone-)
For no reason at all, she stood barefoot on a railroad tie in our driveway and sang the French National Anthem at the top of her lungs as George and I planted bamboo around our greenhouse. Another time she and her niece Berta Lou yelled like Janes throughout the evening during a Tarzan marathon, feasting on Doritos and red wine, as George, the boys and I stared from the next room.
During the two years she lived with us, she expected ‘dinner’ on the table daily at noon, shortcuts not allowed. I apologize here publicly to my stepsons for thinking that they finished off the cakes in the night, leaving me panicked nearly seven days a week for a new homemade dessert. It was the incessant roach problem that alerted me to the truth, when I found cakes and cokes stored beneath Marie’s bed, hidden, she explained, “from all those kids…..and from Dickie (Hebert)!”
On the road, George called her everyday to reassure her that he was working. He often recounts the time our California friends heard her on speakerphone after he explained that someone bought a painting for $50,000.
“She got real quiet and then said, ‘How much?’
....“So I repeated it slowly.
“‘She paused again before she got mad: “For one of your pictures? George, you give those poor people their money back right now!’
....“She was more worried about those ‘poor people’ than she was about me.”
Without question, Marie softened with age. She forgot about Andre’s long hair and Jacques’s girlfriends. She forgot that she hated Christmas. And she forgot me altogether. Unfortunately for George, she remembered that he took her car and that she wanted to go home. In her own way, a Mother’s way, she loved her son, and she reminisced until the end about his childhood studio in the attic and the way the other mothers cooed at him in the carriage.
While in her early nineties, Marie and George visited his father’s grave in New Iberia, where someone, probably a cousin, left fresh flowers on what would have been his one-hundredth birthday.
“Those hussies,” she snapped, “they’re still after him!”
And she never visited again.
For better or worse, Marie lived her later years (her last forty, according to George) in the past. Admittedly, the repeated conversations often brought tears to my eyes,
“George, let’s visit Lona,” she said, dressed and ready for the ride.
....“Lona’s dead,” he replied.
“Oh yes? Where’s Caspa?”
“Well then, let’s call Romain....”
But they were all dead. Finally we lied about that too and spoke of ghosts as though they lived. We explained that they would visit her next week, as we grabbed a chance, a fleeting chance, to make her happy.