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October, 2001

Obscure Origins - Cemetery Sleuthing

by Larry

For most of us, it unfortunately does not take long to exhaust the existing knowledge of our ancestral roots. Even though in recent years there have been some wonderful efforts, especially by my mother, Julia, to compile records and anecdotes about our family backgrounds, huge gaps remain. The frontier that represents the demarcation between the known and the almost completely unknown seems to begin within just two or at most three generations back.

In our heritage, this is oddly more true for the female sides of the family tree. Indeed, the richest source for colorful reverie lies in speculations, with an absence of facts, about my maternal grandmother's childhood and origins.

Mama Louise
Mama Louise, as we called her, was a delightful lady who often had a merry twinkle in the eye and could be relied upon to have something to say about just about anything except her own personal history. Nor have questions about it led to answers among other surviving relatives who may have known more.

But nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum. The mind tends to fill in what is missing. The myth may be more interesting than the reality. However, from various hints, it seems likely this is not the case with Mama Louise. In any event, I think there is nothing to cause me to admire her less that could arise from a better record of her life and its childhood setting. And I would dearly love to know more of our cultural and family history from before my first remembrance of her, as a middle-aged woman living in Waco.

It seems likely that she grew up in New Orleans or at least southern Louisiana, probably having been nurtured in the very rich cultural and language traditions of the Acadians, Creoles, or Cajuns. She may have heard and understood or even spoken a form of French as she was maturing. Beyond this, little, if anything, is known. Had she brothers and sisters? What were her parents like, and theirs? Just what kind of life did she have, growing up in America? Was there a sinister skeleton in her family closet?

In contrast to the exclusively Protestant Christian background of my other relatives, she may have been brought up as a Catholic. Could part of her family have been among the significant minority in that region who practiced "voodoo" (from "voudon," meaning deity or insight)? She was apparently a religious woman. When I knew her, prayerful images of Jesus adorned her simple abodes. Some also say that she had "the second sight."

We have reason to think she knew her share of pain. (Certainly as an adult, terribly poor at times, trying to rear children alone in the Great Depression, this was quite true.) From the qualities of her offspring, we can assume she was not unintelligent and that probably her own parents would have been reasonably smart as well. There is just such a tremendously tantalizing lack of further information about her!

If I were ever to become wealthy (much less hope in this after the stock market's recent behavior), I would like to hire a good genealogy detective to research further my own roots, particularly in this "dark side" of the lineage.

Chances are, such a sleuth might pursue his or her quest amid the exotic cemeteries of Louisiana. What with the periodic flooding from the Mississippi and the area being generally below sea level (and sinking further all the time), there is an extremely high water table in the region, dug graves often fill up with water, and coffins or their contents used to sometimes float down the streets or across the fields.

To deal with this situation, aboveground graves were often constructed. Many outstanding old examples of this tradition persist to this day and can be seen among the cemeteries of New Orleans.

One of my early memories is of being taken along with them by Julia and Leon, my father, on a visit to a large, ancient cemetery in that splendid, picturesque city.

Here were row on row of little buildings for the dead, with small, street-like walking lanes between them. It was a kind of rundown suburb. As with any neighborhood, the houses had to have proper upkeep or the community would become dilapidated. Despite all the impressive, initial constructions, this one was definitely now a low-rent district.

Some of the raised graves stood taller than a man, while others were in all dimensions small, to hold the earthly residue of young children. To me, these seemed very sad, like doll houses left forever just as they had been before their youthful owners had prematurely departed.

Often the brick and mortar had deteriorated, giving glimpses through large cracks of mysterious inner recesses.

Several entire walls had given way, exposing to my view the resting remains.

Sometimes the deterioration was even worse, with evidence of human or animal vandalism, a leering skull separated from its torso frame and rigid extremities in the dim and dusty chamber. ("Alas, poor Yorick...")

Occasionally the bones were entirely missing. Were they out wandering the alleys of New Orleans? Was this why people locked their doors at night?

For a child with active imagination ("perchance to dream"), there was much material here for nocturnal mayhem, befitting the current, Halloween season.

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