illustration by Deanna Staffo
My grandfather was a Justice of the Peace and barber in Des Allemands in Louisiana. He went broke as a barber because he only took in payment that his customers could afford, which, during the Depression, was often nothing.
My grandmother was a great Disturber of the Peace who ran an ice cream store. She went broke selling ice cream, not because of the Depression, but because she frightened children. In Des Allemands resided perhaps the only children in America who were afraid of ice cream.
A cross between Margaret Thatcher and a wounded badger, my grandmother remained ready to pounce at the slightest infraction. My father would review the Rules of Engagement before any visit, which included a prohibition on just about every activity normal to boys. It was customary when having dinner with my grandmother that you never drank your drink until the meal was complete. There were no seconds on drinks, so you had to preserve what you had until the last possible moment of thirst, then slake it in a torrent.
When my grandparents moved to Chalmette, where I grew up, I became the Dedicated Visitor to my grandmother. I had two obligations: lose at Canasta and not flush the toilet after using it. My grandmother was a terrible card player, but still expected to win, though she was constantly distracted by the soap operas she watched while playing. Her judgment was harsh for the most troubled of the characters, believing that most of their problems stemmed from them not being Catholic.
(Once, out of frustration with having to spend the summers of my youth with the Third Reich, I snuck out during one hand of Canasta, then ran to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. The screams could be heard all the way to the French Quarter.)
On Saturdays it often fell to my father to take my grandfather grocery shopping. I think my grandfather was assigned the task so my grandmother could remain home preparing the Bills of Indictment directed at all the wrong items my grandfather would buy. There was always a sense of impending doom as my grandmother examined each item with a jeweler’s eye while we unloaded them. Railing against charges of buying the wrong brand of butter (American Beauty was on sale! J’Accuse!) to the wrong size of toilet paper, my grandfather’s only defense was a sheepish “Aw, momma,” a meek attempt at an auto da fey that invariably failed to quiet
Occasionally, my grandmother would travel back to Des Allemands to visit her people and to frighten the now-grown children, who still did not like going into ice cream stores. Upon her return from the bayou, my grandmother would call us to report on who was dead, who was dying and who’d be better off dead.”
My grandmother lived a long time. People like her often do. A deeply religious person, she no doubt crossed the Pearly Gates with an E-ZPass, though leaving many of Heaven’s current residents wondering whether their judgment had suddenly been reversed.
Reid Champagne reports from Newark that he has never much been interested in genealogy.