Grandma was a bootlegger and my Valentine
Down Life’s Highway By Roy Dunn
Everyone who has a grandparent should spend some time with them. After all, we are a part of them, and they are a part of us.
Availa Duplantis was a special person in my childhood. She was my grandma. With a strong arm and a strong will, she was a Cajun whose heritage included German, Spanish and Acadian French. Like most people exposed to the Cajun culture, her ancestors were absorbed into the Cajun way of life. She spoke only French.
She had been with child 21 times. Most died shortly after birth; some were stillborn. Grandma Availa had three sets of twins. The longest surviving twin, Meldan (Tee-Dan), a very talented artist who spent most of his life in the newspaper business, passed away several years ago. He was single when I was a small child and would often play and spend time giving me a little attention. He was the only male in my young life that did.
Prior to the killing of President John Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, Dan did a pen-and-ink drawing of Oswald that he took from a picture that ran in the New Orleans paper. He had the artwork on display in a Beaumont show two months before Oswald shot Kennedy. I always thought that ironic.
After Jack Ruby, who I knew, killed Oswald, Dan painted a picture of the murder scene using house paint. The large painting hangs in my den today, a reminder of his talent and the times.
Two other uncles stand out in my mind. Uncle Minos died a few years back at age 90. He was Availa and Nelson Duplantis’ eldest son. Another uncle, Manson, spent his later years in Port Arthur and as a carpenter, worked for me at Dunn’s Bluff. He built ‘most everything at the bayou place.
Uncle Tee-Dan and Uncle Manson were extremely proud of me and always showed it. They were aware of the poor background I had to overcome and the struggles Mom and I faced. They didn’t live nearby and couldn’t have helped us anyway.
I mention them to bring us to a point in Grandma’s life when she was a bootlegger. She made home brew and white lightning and the two boys peddled the stuff. (Dan always swore he knew where some was still buried.) When she got busted 90 years ago, Grandpa took the rap and served the time.
Times were hard for her and her large family. I came along as an extended child. She treated me as her own. Mom was very young.
We both caught hell from Grandma. She was a strong disciplinarian. She taught me a lot, including the value of hard work.
She told me stories about the Civil War and how her dad stayed alive by eating a white dog. (Afterwards, he often got upset at the sight of a white dog.)
I recall many of her stories. I was close to her and always thought I was her favorite. At age 12, I worked to help support her, but if I got out of line, she didn’t spare the rod. She didn’t hesitate to put soap in my mouth for saying a bad word or having me kneel on pea gravel for disobeying.
I recall times when we were all so hungry. She never owned much, didn’t even have running water. She traveled by buggy and wagon.
She lost her husband, Nelson, when I was five. I became the little man in her life. She had the only bed so on cold winter nights I slept with her on her feather mattress. She would warm a brick, wrap it up in a grass sack and put it at the foot of the bed. The only downside of snuggling next to her in that warm bed was that I had the chore of emptying the ‘pojom’ (slop jar) in the morning.
My folks still kid me about sleeping with Grandma until I was 14-years-old. I plead not guilty, but they insist it happened. Anyway, it beat the pallet on the floor ar our shack with the Norther whistling through all the cracks and no heat in the house.
The last thing she did before going to bed was grind the coffee. In the morning, she made a pot, one spoonful of water at a time. She gave me a demitasse full with sugar and cow cream, dark and strong. I loved it. I wouldn’t be tough enough to drink it today.
A Cajun never puts the coffee pot directly on the fire. It stays fresh if you keep the pot in a pan of hot water. It keeps it from scorching.
Grandma was like two different people in my life. In her elder years, she was so kind and warm. She had a rocker, her only possession that had been handed down to me. She rocked for hours, saying her constant rosary. She had a jug in her lap that turned cream into butter as she rocked. That rocker sits in my bedroom today, a prized possession. She died at the age of 90 after breaking a hip and getting pneumonia.
In my mind I often wander home where I used to run and play. I recall that strong woman’s love. I thank her often for assuring me I was as good as anyone, even though we were poor. She gave me a great gift of self-esteem. She was proud of the smallest of my accomplishments.
These roots of my raising and the stock from which I came are a proud heritage. I’ve missed her since her death on Dec. 29, 1968. She paved the way for me down life’s highway.
Mom has been gone for nearly 13 years now, a victim of Alzheimer’s, Aunt Anna Mae, my godmother, and Availa’s youngest child, died 11 years ago.
Grandma Availa was probably the strongest influence in all our lives. She insisted on church and putting God first in our lives. The story is told that even as Grandma brewed the booze, she recited that rosary.
I messed with her a lot when she got older, kidding and playing tricks on her. Paying her back, I would say, for all the whippings she gave me.
I guess you could say I’m the product of a bootlegging grandmother. That’s not so bad, thank God she wasn’t a politician. She was always my special Valentine in my upbringing.