Friday, July 15, 2011

In Which We See Dead People

Awesome polychrome Jesus, Dugas Cemetery, Montegut, LA

Matt & I took a trip to south Louisiana a couple of weeks ago to visit some of the little towns that come up over and over in my family tree, and to scan in old family photos. I adore old black-and-white family photos.

My grandmother's family is from the pink area, while my grandfather's is from the blue. We visited Breaux Bridge, St Martinville, Lafayette, Thibodaux, Houma, and tiny Montegut.

We also saw a bunch of cemeteries, hoping to find ancestors. It was a sort of treasure hunt, where the treasure is an ancient, crumbly tomb whose residents have long since turned to dust, or possibly something wetter and stickier than dust, this being south Louisiana. We found a few, plus many unrelated tombs that were interesting in their own right.

Since this is usually a garden-centric blog, I'll start with items of horticultural interest.

This neat little fern was growing in all the crevices and cracks it could find in tombs from Breaux Bridge to Houma. This specimen placed itself particularly artfully.

A permanent green bouquet. Not bad for a dude who's been dead since 1882.

Louisiana, like much of the south, is in a nasty drought. Not as bad as ours here in Texas, but pretty bad. The funny thing is, a terrible drought by Louisiana standards looks like an unbelievably lush summer by Austin standards. It even rained while we were there. Yeah, that's right--they still make rain in Louisiana. Jammy bastards.

Small cemetery by the border of Vermillion Parish. I wish our drought looked like this.

Of course, a drought isn't about how much water you get in absolute terms; it's about how much water you get relative to what you usually get and what you need to be productive. From that perspective, all this gorgeous green is deceptive. Still, I'd rather suffer in a pool of emerald than on a barren brown rock.

Matt was unbelievably sweet about this whole trip--patient and interested and accommodating about everything, even though ancestors are mostly only interesting to the folks who owe them their genetic material. He even memorized the relationships between all the principle ancestors, by both real name and family nickname (no easy task!), and kept a little chart in his pocket notebook. By way of reward, we stopped at a nursery that had caught his eye. Of course we bought stuff. I got a small silver-blue saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) for the shade garden, and a Formosa lily (Lilium formosum) for... someplace. Matt got a new cuphea (he loves cupheas), an orange-flowered Crossandra, and an unknown variegated foliage plant. Plus Granny Babe gave us some of her yellow-flowered Louisiana irises.

Neat Cemeteries
One of our best finds in terms of ancestral mausolea was for awesomely named Alidor Stoufflet (b1848) and his equally awesome wife Melicie Walker (b1844) in Houma. They were my g-g-g grandparents, and they died in 1930 and 1924, respectively, but they were almost the oldest ancestors we found. Their tomb is only 80 years old, but it already looks like it's about to fall apart. All flesh is grass, folks. Unless you build a Taj Mahal or a pyramid, don't expect to stick around too terribly long after you shuffle off the mortal coil. (This trip may have accelerated the mid-life crisis I'm due for in a few years.)

The very oldest was this guy--not an ancestor, but more like a third cousin, 8 times removed. Or something. His tomb in Montegut, Louisiana is about as creepy as you can desire--the very picture of decay. Deliciously, the inscription's in French; it says, "Here rests Honore Robichaux, died 7 Oct 1907, age 88 years." He was the grandson of my g-g-g-g-g grandfather, Jean Baptiste Robichaux of Halifax. I guess that actually makes him my second cousin, 6 times removed?

I'd have love to have found tombs of older ancestors, but I guess that will have to wait for a future trip. (To be taken at a much cooler time of year. Good lord, it was hot! I think I may have broken Louisiana's drought just by sweating all over the state.)

Thibodaux had the most intrinsically fantastic cemetery (which is good thing, since it's ginormous and took hours to cover, but didn't actually furnish up any family members). First, you see this unbelievably genteel boulevard of irreproachably white and identical mausolea. So uniform! So tidy! But this is the new part.

Respectability Row

When you turn the corner, you start seeing a lot more variety--new tombs, old tombs, rich tombs, poor tombs, big ones, small ones... This is where it starts to get fun.

Old Town

Then, if you're Matt, you go poking around behind the tombs and discover this hidden alleyway. There's no real path to it; you just have to pick your way between the tombs. There's no grass--though there are weeds. It's the weirdest thing. It's like burying someone behind your garage or something--a neglected, hidden area that stretches on most of the length of the (very large) cemetery. Could it be an island of unconsecrated ground? Is this where they stick the Protestants? Or is it just where they stash the poor? Did they dig these folks up and move them to make way for Respectability Row? Answer comes there none.


Meanwhile, Matt, in his role as intrepid investigative reporter, stuck his camera in a tomb whose front door was partially missing. This is what the inside looks like. All those roots dangling from the ceiling kind of creep me out. Stop trying to eat people, you sinister plants!

In an "oven"

According to the internet, a niche like this within a tomb is popularly known as an "oven," partly because these tombs heat up in the sun and turn their occupants into humus in a year or two. Then if space is at a premium, the remaining bones are dumped out of the coffin and swept into a communal ossuary within the same mausoleum, and the oven is ready for its next occupant. Sort of like slow-motion cremation. Pragmatic and efficient, though I find the idea of my bones commingling promiscuously with those of my family members to be off-puttingly incestuous.

Here's a commingling that I love, though: old tomb, new occupant; old vase, new flowers.

Grey tomb, yellow flowers

Family Photos
My grandmother and her cousin, Shirley, were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, and I was able to scan hundreds of wonderful old photos and gather stories about them. Here are a handful. Shirley has an awesome old carte-de-visite style album given to my great-great grandmother by a hitherto unknown (male!) friend with the implausible name of Webb Zenor. Check out the inscription: his handwriting's as fantastical as his name. See the little curlicues inside of the word "Compliments"?

To Miss Rosa Muller / Compliments of / Webb Zenor / 1879

This is the oldest family photo that I know of. Below it is the inscription "Mrs. (Felicie) Nicholas Muller." Now Felicie Hebert was born in 1833, according to my records, which makes this one old photograph (maybe 1836?). I don't think England's royal family started having their pictures taken till the 1840s. Victoria's coronation in 1837, for example, wasn't photographed. So I'm suspicious--either the attribution or Felicie's birthdate is likely in error. Still, for the moment we'll call it our oldest photo.

Felicie? Maybe? If so, her parents--who lived in New Iberia--were crazy early adopters of photography. They'd have been all over the iPad like white on rice.

Here's her son, Anthony Muller, dressed as a Mardi Gras king.

Anthony Muller, g-g-g uncle

And here's where family history meets the larger tide of history. Several decades later, it's a Mardi Gras parade in Morgan City. The king and page are white. The guys pulling the float and carrying the torches are all very reluctant looking black guys. Very, very Jim Crow. Eerie.

Morgan City's first(?) Mardi Gras parade

On a happier note, here's Tante Rose (g-g aunt) with two unknown pals. She's dressed as a man and smoking a cigar. Granny says Tante Rose was "a character"--not, I think, in a good way. She liked her own way, I gather, and maybe she was a bit selfish and hard on others. But here she looks like a barrel of fun--like the family cutup.

Tante Rose on left, with cigar

And lastly, the Venus of the Bayou. This might be Maggie Elbina Stoufflet (Mommom--pronounced "muh-MOM," not "mom-mom"), but then again it might not. I love her come-hitherish pose.

Acadian Odalisque

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