My grandma Regina was a small woman of immense personal power. She was both mean and magical. The people who where frightened by her only remember the mean. I want to tell you a little something about the magical.
Over the course of her short life span, my grandma was a healer, a self taught medicine woman, and an herbalist, long before these things were trendy. Had she not been born in the deep south to an extremely “old world” Roman Catholic family, she may have been thought of as a witch. Her mumbled words, chanted as she “laid hands on” a client (hands said to have generated a mysterious healing heat…) were believed to be prayers spoken in Cajun French.
I know nothing of her life first hand, because she died at the age of 56, on July 29th, 1954, when I was only 7 months old. My cousin Mikie… (This is Mikie from the Cat and Mikie stories with which I’ve regaled generations of students…) had not yet been born. There were many stories told to me about Regina, as I was growing up. I’m going to try to give you an idea of what she was like by repeating these stories. Most of the stories came from my own mother, Regina’s oldest daughter, LeDonia.
Mama told me her mother was born on a plantation… and delivered by an elderly midwife named Calpurnia, who was a former slave. The year was 1898, thirty-three years after the End of the Civil War, and the census records that Mikie found indicate the birth happened somewhere in Jefferson Parish. Mikie has told me that births occurring in rural locations “back in the day” were usually recorded as actually happening in a hospital in the nearest city. So, I’m thinking “…or maybe even just somewhere in the parish.”
We know that Regina’s father was John H. Stout and her mother was Valerine (Valerie) Terrebonne. On a romantic note, Mama claimed that John Stout was once a British sailor, (Mikie adds “of German-Prussian descent”) who might have jumped ship to marry the beautiful Valerine. This ship jumping bit is probably more fiction than fact, but it does make a good story. I have seen a formal portrait of John and Valerine, and they were very attractive people.
This is most of what I know of my Cajun roots, and most of the credit for my knowing this goes to Mikie, who has done a wonderful job of researching our common ancestors. He learned that John and Valerine, lived for a time on the Cheniere Caminada (…a tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico about 55 miles south west of New Orleans, by boat. The island is thought of as the far southern tip of Jefferson Parish…) They endured and survived the hurricane of 1893 (The Great October Storm) which killed over 700 of their neighbors, and over 2,000 people in all. It gives Mikie and I chills to think about this, since our grandmother Regina was born five years later.
Baby Regina eventually grew to womanhood and married my grandfather, Adam Gomez. Because of Mikie’s research, we also know a little bit about our Hispanic roots, in what has become the United States. We stem from a young couple, Angel and Lazaria Gomez, Adam’s ancestors, who came over as Spanish emigrants in the 1700’s, from the Canary Islands. Angel and Lazaria were brave young Isleños, possessing a pioneering spirit. I like to think that Mikie and I, as the youngest and probably the most adventurous in our generation, have inherited that spirit.
On an historical note, the Isleños were sent by the Spanish government to establish Spain’s claim to the area, and to guard it from British take over. Isleños were given small land grants to establish homesteads… mostly farms.
Sadly, our family’s genealogy is sketchy at best, because we waited too long to become curious about our past. We have had to piece it together by a combination of research and incidental stories told by family members. Most of our elders had passed away by the time we became interested in knowing. If you are young, reading this, and you have living elders, please ask them about your family now. Don’t wait, like we did… do it now!
Getting back to Regina… everything we know about her is from her time as a wife, mother, and grandmother. The first stories are set in and around South Front Street in New Orleans, beginning in the 1920’s. When I imagine daily life in that neighborhood, I can almost smell the rusty metallic air that swept over it from the Mississippi River. Sounds would have included the screech of railcar wheels on the metal tracks, the clanging of the cars as they banged together, and ship whistles and horns from river boat traffic. On the street itself, I imagine the cries of vendors selling their wares from goat drawn carts. I have seen a picture of my mother driving such a goat cart. She looked to be about five years old, and was dressed in a white cotton shift, her hair cut very short. She was noticeably smaller than the goat harnessed to the cart. She and her brother Lawrence were selling “catfish.” In fact, my “Uncle Cat” was so named because of his great success at selling river fish.
My mama started telling me her memories of her mother, of course, as they related to her own childhood. As the oldest girl in a large family, LeDonia was given chores to do at a very early age. She remembered being made to scrub the wooden floors of their house with water and a worn down brick. Soap was a luxury but old bricks could be found for free in New Orleans in the early 1920’s. Grandma Regina taught my mama a basic frugality.
Another early memory Donia shared was of helping to pick turnips in the fields somewhere outside the city. Mama said they were told by the bossman that they would be allowed some turnips to take home after the harvest, but she was so hungry she stole some of them just for herself, hidden in her dress pockets. Once back home, she tried to eat them raw, just to stop the hunger pains. Some of the turnips had gone “mushy” because they had been in the sun too long… and they gave her terrible stomach pains. Regina caught her hiding behind the house, groaning in pain and vomiting. Donia remembered Regina spanking her for stealing, instead of comforting her. This taught her that no matter how hungry she was, stealing food would never be an option. Grandma taught my mama a basic honesty.
Regina and Adam would eventually raise ten children to adulthood. There would be three girls and seven boys. My mother was followed by Vera and Shirley. The boys were Lawrence, Leo, James, Lionel, John, Pete and Melvin. Their’s was a hardscrabble existence and yet… they were able to shelter, feed and clothe all those children, while saving money to eventually buy property on the west bank of the Mississippi River, in an unincorporated area sold by the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad. The property (at least four 25’ X 75’ lots) was located near the west bank foot of the Huey P. Long Bridge, on what would be called 7th Street, once the area became known as Bridge City.
Adam, a first rate carpenter, built a large Louisiana-style “shot-gun-house,” with additional rooms and porches, and an attached carpentry shop. A “shot gun” house was built long, one room after another with the doors open and aligned, and it was said that one could shoot a shot gun through the front door and out the back without hitting anything. The ceilings were high, and “transom windows” (windows placed above each door to let hot air flow out of the rooms in the hot southern summers…) were common. That house on 7th Street would shelter two more generations of the Gomez family before it fell into ruin in the 1980’s.
During the years the family lived on South Front Street in New Orleans, according to census reports that Mikie has studied, Adam worked for Dixie Machine on Tchoupitoulas Street. We don’t know exactly what his job was, but we know he was a skilled laborer. Tchoupitoulas is a word from a Native American tribe (now extinct) called côte des Chapitoulas, and it means “those who live by the river.” Tchoupitoulas Street is in fact the closest “through street” along the river… but South Front Street is much closer.
There were two other stories about Regina that I believe took place on South Front Street. This next story illustrates her healing side, and maybe a little bit of her mean side. It definitely shows her mettle.
The Great Depression in the United States took place between 1929 and 1939. Regina would have been in her 30’s for most of that decade. My mama turned 11 in October 1929 when the Depression began, so my Uncle Cat was probably 12 or 13. They would already have had younger brothers and sisters. Regina somehow found ways to feed them all, and yet she also set up a daily free breakfast for homeless men who rode the rails into and out of the nearby railroad yard. I am sure there were line drawings of a cat, the universal hobo symbol for a kindly woman who has food… on the fences leading to her door.
Hobos, as they were called, knew to come to her back doors (multi-paned French Doors, according to mama…) just after day break, but never before. (Never… ever… before!) Breakfast was simply fresh French bread, home churned butter with sugar mixed into it, and “café au lait” with a lot of sugar added. (The coffee would have had ground up dried chicory root added, a fairly cheap way to extend the grounds so as to make more coffee.) Regina would also doctor any injuries these men had sustained. She kept needles and thread at ready, and an assortment of disinfectants and herbal salves that she made herself.
One predawn morning, Regina heard the sound of someone rattling her back doors. She grabbed a butcher knife, and standing at the closed doors, she shouted “Come back after dawn!”
The man punched a glass panel out of the door instead and reached inside for the door handle. Regina calmly began sawing through the flesh of his wrist with her butcher knife. He screamed and yanked his hand back. Regina is said to have repeated, “I said, come back after dawn!”
Mama said that the man actually did return, once the sun was well up, and Regina cleaned his wound, disinfected it, stitched it up, bandaged it with old cotton scraps, and yes, she fed him his breakfast.
This next story also speaks to her power as a healer. The family had a mongrel dog named Brownie. Grandma Regina was especially fond of her. One day the kids found Brownie near the railroad tracks with her stomach torn open. Mama said it was like she was almost torn in half. My Uncle Cat scooped her up and ran back home with her. Grandma had him place Brownie on the kitchen table. The young dog was nearly dead, her intestines exposed, but Regina set about to stem the bleeding, then to clean the wound and the abdominal cavity with turpentine. She stitched Brownie up and prayed over her. Over the next few weeks Regina fed and cared for Brownie until the dog was completely healed. Mama said Brownie eventually died of old age, many years later.
I can well imagine this kind of healing, because when I was a child, and was sick or injured, my mama would take me to a Cajun healer in Bridge City, named Mr. Préjean (pronounced PRAY-zhahn.) I broke my ankle when I was in the fourth grade… and Mr. Préjean poured a smelly ointment over it, then gently massaged the ankle, and began praying (to me, an indecipherable Cajun French prayer.) I remember his hands becoming very hot. He didn’t set the bone, but he made the pain stop. The ankle healed, with no loss in range of motion, but I can still feel the jagged edged break of the bone that snapped.
In 1954 when Regina was on her death bed, she asked my mama to bring me to her. I of course was only about six or seven months old, so I don’t remember this… but mama said that grandma was thrilled to hold me… and that she let me pull all of the tissue out of a tissue box she had on the bed. I suspect had she not died so young (56 seems very young now that I am 68) she would have spoiled me rotten. She may have taught me many skills too… maybe passed on some of her magic. When I think about that, I feel a poignancy… it is a soft sense of loss.