my new orleans grandmother

Grandma and me, 1960

Today is Eveline’s birthday.  She was known as Evelyn, but the French version is the name on her birth certificate.  Her maternal grandmother was the daughter of Rosa, a French Quarter orphan married to a flamboyant French doctor who had other wives, other children.  When they separated, she taught dancing and French on Royal Street in New Orleans.

Evelyn’s father was an Irish immigrant; her husband the son and grandson of German immigrants.  My mother’s genealogy records read like the History of New Orleans, starting at 1790 when Rosa’s father escaped the slave rebellion of Santa Domingo and married his first wife, daughter of a plantation owner.

I love genealogy.  Can you tell?

Grandma was orphaned, too.  Her father, a handsome Irish policeman, died two years before his wife, of yellow fever.  Grandma worked in a sweat shop, sewing shirts.    Her ambitious and stern nightmare of a German mother-in-law was not impressed.

Louis and Evelyn's wedding day

My New Orleans grandmother was a character, as opposite from my cool New England grandmother as a grandmother could get.   She liked to laugh, she hugged, she called me her “little daw-lin”.  She cooked gumbo and jambalaya in giant pots and scooped dinner in big ladles from the stove.  The old house was small and sparse, a shotgun style, with a narrow porch on one side and a square porch on the other.  A rarely used “front room” held a trunk filled with old Mardi Gras costumes.

Grandma played poker, bet the horses, worked as a shill in the nearby Mississippi casinos.  To make extra money, she and Grandpa (a sweet man who worked on the locks on the river) ran concession stands at baseball games and racetracks.  She carried a pistol in her purse and at least once, on a public bus, defended my grandfather’s life and the night’s income by threatening to kill the thugs who thought robbing the old folks would be easy.

Her fenced yard was guarded by a pack of mean dogs who answered only to Grandma; she called them her “babies”, but everyone else was terrified to cross the driveway to my aunt’s house without Grandma’s protection.

We visited New Orleans (for Mardi Gras)  three times when I was a child and teenager.  I flew there by myself after Christmas, right before I started dating Banjo Man.  (That was back when going on an airplane meant dressing in your best clothes, wearing panty hose, making sure your shoes matched your handbag.)  I loved those visits, loved my Grandma’s laugh, loved the hot French bread delivered to the house each morning.

I knew nothing about the gambling then, except the three times she came to Rhode Island to visit us, my mother would whisper, “Remember, don’t play poker with her!”

We’d play for pennies anyway, but neither my brother or I had inherited the betting gene and were therefore no challenge for her.

My brother, grandmother and me, 1960.

 Happy Birthday, Grandma.  Thank you for the gumbo, the giggles and the hugs.  Your quiet little bookworm granddaughter thought you were absolutely wonderful.

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4 Responses to my new orleans grandmother

  1. Sharon says:

    Eveline sounds like a hoot! The only grandparent I knew was my father’s mother Delia McDermott Moore. She made me toast with cinnamon sugar and tea with lots of milk and slipped me five dollar bills when I went home. I really loved her.

  2. “Delia McDermott Moore” is a wonderful name. Did she live near you when you were growing up?

  3. sharon says:

    Delia lived with my aunt and my cousins about a half hour car ride away. I wish she’d lived next door so I could see her every day for cinnamon toast and milky tea.

  4. Pingback: Christmas eve gumbo | is there any more pie?

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