Various permutations of the family were there – every vacation, every year, back on the farm – Dad’s in White Castle, Mom’s in Morganza, both within a mile of Ol’ Man River. With Grandmothers, Aunts and Uncles, and cousins by the dozens.
My Blue Lake memories will require at least two postings, one for my younger “Tom Sawyer” personal adventures, a second for somewhat older, more compelling group experiences of farm life and history. Dramatic considerations dictate that I record in reverse chronological order.
A friend visiting years ago called the locale desolate; I call it Eden, and identify it even more than my hometown in Texas as my nostalgic home.
To begin with, there is no lake on what Mom’s family called Blue Lake Farm – it’s more accurately a pond, about two or three football fields long, and not as wide as a football field, geologically formed by one of the Mississippi’s scouting excursions when it felt constrained by the six-foot levee, which has grown over thirty feet tall and still unable to parent its waters into obedience. It’s also not usually blue, more often green, especially in drought conditions; and, except for the inconsistent pecan crop, is more small ranch than small farm. The farm is now leased for someone else’s cattle raising, and most of the farming is done on other land owned or leased by my cousin.
Millions of youth have experienced what I’m calling my Tom Sawyer adventures – hunting and fishing alone, with my big brother, or various combinations of siblings and cousins and Aunts and Uncles and Grandma – I remember maybe fifty-nine as the high water mark of sunfish and catfish we caught and cleaned one day, with Grandma instructing us to consume every morsel.
One of the most dramatic of the just-past-juvenile hunting scenes was a night frog-gigging adventure with my Uncle and Big Brother. With long gigging poles and headlamps, we found and gigged three of those amphibians who would later feel comfortable in the warming pot then vault out when they realized they were not being salon’ed. And they did taste like chicken – ask the guests who refused to eat them until told they were a feathered specie. The crisp part of this memory, however, is not the frogs – it’s the equal number of water mocassins, the last one which slithered in the water about thirty yards toward our light beams, into my Uncle’s gig. We never found out how they tasted.
The dramatic, “movie scene” occasions concern recent management of the “lake,” and ancestral management of the farm.
Cleanup #1 – Invasive Species, a “fish cleansing.” One summer’s vacation fishing experience was disrupted when Grandma asked some state agency or university department to help remove a certain fish from the lake. I can’t remember the name of the fish, but it was only five to eight inches long, silver, with a belly full of mud, beginning to dominate Blue Lake. We arrived for vacation to see a motorboat waiting for takeoff, carrying a barrel and the motor distributing a prescribed dosage to eliminate the silver fish only. Oops – an overdose! Multiple members of multiple genera surfaced. Soon the resulting aroma was as disturbing as the visual inspection of the silver fish’s innards.
I don’t remember being on the cleanup party, but I remember many hands of the adult variety on a long day’s journey dipping the “catch” out of the water with long nets, the pondside visual matching the aroma. Maybe the food source for the water snakes was also disrupted, because snakes were lazing on the bank with ovoids in their bellies, and word was that the duck eggs had all disappeared.
It was a movie scene, not one I’d want to see again. That was it for fishing that summer.
In another year, a more celebratory cleanup occurred. I wish I had a video of that one.
Cleanup #2 – Excess capacity frutti del lago, a celebratory “cleansing.” I don’t know how long it took for the pond to recover, but the next cleanup was visually and emotionally joyous and exciting. Maybe there were residual mud fish, but this cleanup was based on an abundance of supply of the edible varieties.
Long and wide (humungous) circular wire nets – maybe four to six feet long, maybe three to four feet circumfered, attached for a length of about sixteen or twenty feet – were deployed to travel the length of the pond and back, manually ported by a couple of my Uncle’s black ranch hands and about a dozen of their community colleagues, furiously paddling and kicking in upright positions in water mostly over their heads, many gleefully shouting they can’t swim, several reminders of snakes and turtles and branches in the water. Exhilarating adrenaline could be witnessed and experienced from the sidelines.
It wasn’t like the nets overfilling St. Peter’s boat, but the catch was varied and plentiful. I’m not sure if the fishermen received monetary compensation, but all of the catch was theirs to divide. Bass, perch, sunfish, catfish, garfish, sac-o-lait, maybe a few snakes, and the trophy of the event – at least three large turtles, deliverers of turtle soup supreme, we called loggerheads (which a google check co-identified as “alligator snapping” turtles* http://onlineathens.com/stories/090201/tec_0902010048.shtml#.WHkcZVMrKG4 “ugly, armored, tasty – and endangered?” and weighing up to 200 pounds). I wasn’t around for the division of the spoils, but I can imagine several potential points of conflict and additional movie scenes. Joy and Community and Exuberance are the lingering images of the event – maybe like an Acadian pots-and-pans-banging celebration of August 15, or a Mardi Gras or African village parade, or Super Bowl or World Series victory celebration. I regret that this description is not adequate to the sensation – you really, really had to be there!
*(In my Tom Sawyer version will be a story of snaring one of these on our overnight trot lines.)
Crash Go the Chariots: The Revelation. Despite my best extensive efforts in opposition, it eventually came time to grow up. The point of no return came as a stunning reality check while bringing my soon-to-be-fiancée to meet the home family and farm families soon after our college graduation.
One of my first “talking points” introducing Grandma was about her extensive genealogy research – the hard way, magazines and hand-written then typewritten letters to distant correspondents. She had traced her Scotch-Irish roots back to Europe, and somehow connected to Charlemagne. (Historians dispute the threads in most or all genealogies as historically impossible, given documentation processes of the day, but Charlemagne probably has tens or hundreds of thousands of descendants, through many genealogical lines, so who’s to say it isn’t possible?)
Grandma’s response to my introduction was immediate, surprising, and unsettling. She picked up a giant ledger book, turned to some random page, circa 1836, and showed an entry (I’m using generic names, don’t remember the real ones), “Sold Toby to the Johnsons, his wife Matilda to the Smiths.”
I had three or four reactions: self-conscious in my future wife’s presence; a casual “so what?” shirk; a controlled, screaming inside, “Whaaaaaat?”; and a naïveté-revealing “Why am I caught by surprise?” and “Why didn’t I ever think to ask, duh?” puzzlement.
Forty years later, I had never discussed this discovery with wife, friends, or family. Once I had mentioned it to a colleague from Tennessee, speaking ante bellum family yarns, and he exonerated me, but the conscience clouds would re-circulate from time to time, especially as the American Dream inched or millimetered toward far distant fulfillment.
The angst finally found expression via a most peculiar trigger. On a phone call to Momma, she said she was scheduled for a colonoscopy the next week; I asked who would be taking her; she replied, “Angela,” her aide with Dad suffering Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. My mind stretched “Angela” to “Angelina,” Grandma’s maid from early years, and the following verse rushed out of my pen, like the Mississippi overwhelming its banks one more time. (It is my only verse ever triggered by a colonoscopy.) I claim the verse took me five minutes to write. A friend responded it took me forty years to write.
Grandma had a maid named Angelina, she was the best friend I ever had.
She would listen to my troubles, cheer me up when I was sad.
Told me about her ancestor, sailed the ocean on some boat,
Locked in chains with other captives, miracle that it would float,
Sold to some big cotton farmer, thirty lashes when he tried
Runnin’ off to somewhere better, lookin’ for his child and bride.
Angelina, Angelina, please forgive our family,
For not realizing y’all were just as good as we.
Your scattered kin, your bending backs, your longing to be free —
Angelina, Angelina, please forgive our family.
Your will to live, and strength to toil, through steamy nights and days,
On foreign soil, with foreign tongues, and harsh plantation ways.
We thought that y’all were ignorant, and not as wise as we —
Angelina, Angelina, please forgive our family.
And when I listened to her tales, I could not understand
How we might not have been here but for strong and gentle hands,
Worked our fields, and made them fertile, nursed our babies at their breast,
But when we prayed in church, we didn’t know how we’d been blessed.
Lands we owned for generations might lie fallow, parched, and dry,
And families, proud and prosperous, might wither, fall, and die,
But for your perseverance, and your willing to survive,
While others watched their fortunes rise, and sons and daughters thrive,
That we might gather more, and write our names in history —
Angelina, Angelina, please forgive our family
Copyright 2005 George Comeaux
You really, really, really had to be there.
Tom Comeaux said:
Great post! I love the phrase “dozens of cousins.”
Regarding Charlemagne…after I definitively traced my lineage back 40+ generations to him (using the same books at Blue Lake, which may or may not have been accurate), I read online somewhere that probably a third of the world’s population descended from him. I doubt the veracity of that claim, also, but it re-grounded me. We’re no better or worse than anyone else. We’re different, but we have the same value. We’re not equal, but we’re congruent.
When it comes to family guilt about the story of Angelina and others, I try to remember what Mom always told us. She said that the reason our lives are good today is because of the sacrifices made by our ancestors. Clearly, there’s a difference between the willing sacrifices our ancestors made and the barbaric practice that brought her ancestors to this land. I’m not equating the two. But Angelina and her descendants are better off now in this land — by economic opportunity, at least — than they would have been if their ancestors had been left alone. As I recall, Angelina (and Dora, who I believe came later), were very strong, good-natured southern women who saw themselves more as blessed than oppressed. They had every right to be angry. They chose happiness instead.
Positive comments, Tom, but I can’t escape thinking I might have done the same thing at that time in that society. I’m imagining and hoping the family relationships with their slaves were as benign as it was with the “help” — Angelina and Dora. The only farm worker I remember is “Old Red,” who I must have met as a pre-teen and encountered again on my last visit to the farm six or seven years ago. He must have been into his seventies, the last on-site farm worker, still part of the farm family.
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