Because my parents’ marriage failed early, I spent my childhood with my great-aunt Mamie Schlumbrecht and her husband, Albert, on a five-acre chicken farm outside Abita Springs, Louisiana. Abita, which is about 35 miles north of New Orleans in St. Tammany Parish, is now a chic town—the famous home of an excellent micro-brewed beer. But in the 1940s, it was a hamlet of 200 people where all the clocks had stopped after the Crash of 1929.
We didn’t actually live in Abita but rather two miles out on Talisheek Road. The flat countryside had been logged clear a generation earlier, leaving swathes of open country dotted with second-growth pine, scrub oak, and gall berry bushes amid grass that was brown all year. We could hear dynamite blasts in the far distance where huge beef cattle farms were clearing pasture. Ours was the only home within sight on our side of the graveled road.
Mamie and Albert had built the house themselves in 1923, a typical bungalow whose rough-sawn clapboards had been stained and weathered to gray. Scattered around it were chicken houses and sheds, vegetable gardens, piles of sand and gravel for construction, and the much smaller house where the black hired couple Rosie and Brown used to live (it was later adapted for raising turkeys). The front of the property was landscaped with neat hedges of box and sweet bay, azaleas, magnolias, a giant gardenia bush, a tall holly that bore no berries, and, right by the front doors, a huge crape myrtle entwined with honeysuckle vines thick as your wrist—both blooming together in a sweet tangle that drew bees and hummingbirds.
Mamie (née Myra Katherine Klink) was strong and squarely built, with long brown hair braided and coiled around her head and blue eyes behind bifocals. She showed me that a woman should be equally adept with an axe and a needle. I gave up on the axe after one unauthorized attempt left me with a gashed knee at age four. The same year, I learned to crochet and embroider—skills I’ve kept for life. Three decades later Mamie would take her crocheting to the hospital lest she fail to keep busy on her deathbed.
Albert was tall, gaunt, and black-haired. He was susceptible to crackpot ideas including eugenics, fruit fasts, and the Lost Books of the Bible. He’d been put out to work after fourth grade and, while still young, lost half his right thumb in a machinery accident. As a result, he had a curl of yellowed bone instead of a first joint (though it sufficed to roll cigarettes from his beloved King Bee tobacco). Albert’s many eccentricities didn’t impinge on me much as a child, but I eventually realized he’d put Mamie through a very difficult life.
A lapsed Lutheran, Albert didn’t believe much in church-going. But Mamie was an intensely devout Catholic. I loved to read about the saints in the onionskin pages of her daily missal, never suspecting that I would one day grow up to write about them myself. Mamie said her prayers on a silvery rosary missing a bead (though her favorite devotion was to the Sacred Heart). To get a precious blessed palm to slide lovingly behind Our Lord’s picture, she drove out one Palm Sunday through flood waters pouring over a bridge in three places.
Trying to make a living meant ceaseless toil for Mamie and Albert. From five in the morning until supper, they worked. No one had told Mamie that she could labor without wearing her boned corset, so she did her rounds well-cinched. The electrical generator died during the War and couldn’t be fixed, so we depended on kerosene lamps until rural electrification and telephone service arrived by 1948. Happily, we did have indoor plumbing, though we had to boil water in a teakettle for our baths.
Mamie cooked with bottled gas, baked in a woodstove, did laundry on a washboard, and sewed on a treadle machine, often using bright calico that had been cut from feed sacks. The main business of the place was raising chickens: white “broilers” raised indoors in cages and plump Barred Rock or Rhode Island Red laying hens whose airy house had access to the outdoors. I briefly made a pet of one runty Barred Rock and called her “Inquisitor,” but she got turned into someone’s stewing hen. Chicks were usually chosen from a mail-order catalog and arrived a day old in special cardboard boxes, cheeping at the post office. One year, Albert experimented with breeding his own crosses and incubated a batch of eggs in the house, and I got to watch the hatching process.
While I didn’t go out of my way to watch chickens get killed on the chopping block, I can’t pretend it disgusted me. The offal went into 500-gallon steel drums until it rotted and was turned out on the garden as compost. Our perfect organic vegetables grew from that graveyard of chicken leg bones and skulls.
Besides chickens, we sold produce—strawberries, honey, pecans, potatoes, peas, greens, and parsley. I’d go with Mamie as she made deliveries on weekends. So I got to see the full range of Abita’s homes, from the rich family whose heavy German furniture was decorated with carved wooden stags’ heads to the poor woman who bought chicken feet for soup. At one extreme were the gorgeous summer homes of wealthy New Orleans gentry; at the other, a shotgun house crammed with a family so poor the mother boiled their wash in a cauldron in the yard. But in Abita, respectability was a function of personal behavior, not income.
Abita sprawled over a railroad track, neither side “wrong.” The eponymous springs—which had supposedly restored the Choctaw princess Abita to health in the days of Spanish rule—were covered by a pavilion in the town park. There was also an artesian well in the park spurting an icy torrent. Because several nearby homes had similar wells, some ditches ran with spring water, making a delightful place to play and catch frogs. Abita boasted four groceries, three barrooms, two drugstores, two gas stations, an icehouse, and a pool hall whose owner doubled as a cabbie. The town hall was used for weekly municipal bingo games and housed a tiny library.
Bingo bored me, so on Friday nights I watched television at the home of family friends while Mamie played. Other forms of gambling held no interest either. I realized early on that neither the spinners at the town summer festival nor the slot machine and punchboard at the drugstore were going to pay off. In other places, I now realize, respectable little girls didn’t take a pull at the slot machine while they licked their Sunday ice cream cones. But this was Louisiana.
There were two churches in Abita—the white clapboard Lutheran parish presided over by Pastor Klamm and our red brick St. Jane de Chantal church. People were scandalized when Baptists attempted to form a church because it complicated allegiances: Their appearance even dissuaded a widow with Catholic children from converting to Catholicism. There was also a black Pentecostal congregation at the edge of town. Years before, my Aunt Hermanie and her teenage friends had tried to spy on their services. When they tried a second time, they found the windows covered with newspaper. Mamie scolded Hermanie—hard.
St. Jane’s had been built in the 1920s and never had the funds afterward to install stained-glass windows. But the big wedding-cake white altar had a life-size statue of the Sacred Heart flanked by kneeling angels holding candelabra. The Madonna was Our Lady of Victory—resplendent in a turquoise gown and filigreed brass crown (completely outshining poor and plain St. Joseph). Our saints were St. Jane in voluminous habit holding a golden heart, St. Therésè with her roses, St. Rita with her crown of thorns, and St. Anthony holding the Christ Child. Lost and found objects were left at his feet in the back of the church.
Also in the back was the usher’s table presided over by Mr. Peters in his white suit and shoes. My aunt always bought the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, and the Messenger of the Sacred Heart. Little did I know that I’d grow up to write for the first two.
Our pastor was Father Thomas (properly, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Schwerigkeit O.C.S.O.), a refugee German Trappist who was attached to nearby St. Joseph’s Abbey. He had advanced tastes in liturgy and introduced the Dialogue Mass and another practice of startling impropriety: As he said the Canon in Latin, the ladies of the choir read it aloud in English. No one as far as I know questioned this; Father always knew best. Mamie sewed his monk’s habit out of fine white wool, and I used scraps of it to dress my teddy bears. In 1948, our beloved Father Thomas contracted cancer and went back to Germany to die.
While the next pastor was a rather gloomy monk named Father Athanasius, he was soon succeeded by colorful Father Aloysius Fischer—a secular priest who arrived with Miz Martha, his own housekeeper. Father Aloysius was old enough to be retired, with fingers knobby from arthritis. Nevertheless, he was a fiery preacher who disdained the pulpit to stand in the middle of the sanctuary and pound on the communion rail for emphasis.
Miz Martha joined the choir and the Altar and Rosary Society, which were coextensive. While Miz Lustalot played the pipe organ, Mamie sang second soprano to her friend Miz Mamie Rau. The latter was a Railway Express agent with an obese cocker spaniel named Soda who slept in a laundry basket. Miz Mamie wouldn’t let me sing in the choir because I “put her out.” So in my early years, I’d sit in the choir loft and try to keep still.
At some point after I vomited during the Tre Ore service on Good Friday of 1947, I was sent downstairs to sit with my friend Connie in the first pew on the St. Joseph side. I carefully followed the Mass in my pocket-sized Fr. Stedman’s Sunday Missal, which is easier to use and more comprehensive in coverage than today’s miserable “worship aids.” Sunday Mass usually ended with the hymn “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” and Benediction followed.
St. Jane’s had a varied congregation. Names like Abadie, Hébert, Privette, Marieuse, Kustermacher, Matranga, O’Brien, McNeeley, Miller, Perez, and Alcantara were common. People ranged from poor Archie who’d been shell-shocked in the War and trembled incessantly to tiny Miz Bébé, the grocery clerk. One regular attendee turned out not to be Catholic at all. When Mamie found her dead in her home, the priest refused to have the church bell tolled because the lady was actually Jewish and had never formally converted.
Black parishioners sat in the back row as the customs of the time required. These were, after all, the days of legal segregation. (Archbishop Rummel’s heroic resistance to racism lay some years in the future.) The black population of Abita led almost entirely separate lives. Mamie was remarkably free of prejudice, when she could recognize it. (She didn’t while reading me the hopelessly racist pages of a classic Southern children’s book, Miss Minerva and William Green Hill.) But she would cheerfully give Annie the housemaid a ride when she saw her walking along the road in broken shoes. And Mamie had no problem accepting a ride to church from our black fellow parishioners when ours was unavailable.
They were a mixed-race clan that kept to itself on several small farms up Talisheek Road. Mamie bought an old Wurlitzer piano from them so that I could take lessons, but its sound board was so damaged (even after we removed the beans, pebbles, and mud dauber nests) that I never learned what the notes were supposed to sound like. It pains me now to describe their poverty: a tiny cabin perched on a sea of cracked mud with chicken wire—not screens—in the windows and fat flies swarming over their baby. It horrified me that these unusually beautiful and obviously honest people had to live that way.
There were, of course, no black children in our schools and—I confess—I never really wondered where they were educated. But Louisiana allowed parochial school children to ride public buses. That’s how Abita’s Catholic children got to St. Peter’s School in Covington, three miles away. What went on in Abita’s own public grade school I never knew, although my best friend, Li’l Harold, went there.
In those days, school buses had no stop signs to swing out. When I was in second grade, a public school girl was killed on the highway by a car speeding around the bus. All I saw was an explosion of papers and a thin line of dark blood across the asphalt. Ever after, I imagined seeing that glossy red line every time we drove across the spot.
St. Peter’s School must have run on thin air because it charged two dollars a month for tuition and an extra dollar for lunch. It was staffed by Benedictines whose motherhouse was in the next block where they also operated St. Scholastica Academy for girls. The congregation no longer exists, but I have happy memories of them. Thank you Sisters Philippine, Anthony, Stephen, Agatha, and Anna—not to mention our lay teachers Miz Edwards and Miz Viola.
Yes, there were ruler slaps and the principal once spanked me for swatting another girl with a jump rope, but none of my teachers was ever mean.
The school was funded by St. Peter’s Parish, whose unusually contemporary church opened in 1946. Vaguely Norman in style, its interior walls were plain rose brick and its stylized statues were carved from pale wood. By 1950 it acquired some marvelous modern stained glass tracing the life of St. Peter. Around the same time, though, a parishioner donated life-size, glass-eyed plaster statues of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Fatima, which rather spoiled the effect.
St. Peter’s School, in contrast, was a wooden relic two stories tall, with every classroom’s walls and ceiling paneled in dingy beadboard pine. The lower floor (called the basement) housed a stage, foul restrooms, and a cafeteria that served hideous food. The school occupied an entire city block—plenty of space for 200 pupils—with trees and grass as well as game courts of packed yellow clay. Spanish moss from the live oaks was a favorite play material. A surprising number of students came from divorced or widowed homes, and families were generally small. Diversity consisted of a single Colombian girl who boarded at St. Scholastica’s.
In most respects, St. Peter’s offered an average education for its time and place. The state provided our texts in secular subjects, supplemented with the Baltimore Catechism, Bible history, and the magnificent Loyola Voyages in English series, which taught me all the grammar I know. Reading was taught through the worthless “look-say” method, but the nuns zealously encouraged us to read. The best students got the first shot at new books, ceremoniously presented in front of the class. But there was nothing done for the worst student in my class, a boy who was probably retarded and certainly had behavioral problems. The nuns much preferred two angel-perfect cousins who strolled rather than played at recess, lest they muss their crisp uniforms.
A lot of our religious formation came through osmosis. We had plenty of occasions for Mass, including First Fridays when the communicants would get hot cocoa afterward to break their fast. Prayer opened the school day, and we said the Angelus before lunch. May crowning was an elaborate event that featured small girls strewing rose petals down the church aisle ahead of the procession. We fought over the privilege of providing flowers for the Blessed Mother’s altar in each classroom, fashioned spiritual bouquets, and collected money to ransom pagan babies.
There were many mansions in the realm of Catholic culture. We read Our Little Messenger and Treasure Chest Catholic comics, although I preferred pretty booklets on the lives of female saints. There was much talk about the evils of Communism, made vivid by the presence of a Hungarian refugee family in the school.
Not only did we troop off to watch religious-themed movies in town (Guilty of Treason and The Next Voice You Hear, for example), the nuns also showed us explicitly Catholic films in the school basement—Italian lives of St. Benedict and St. Francis and a particularly hokey Mexican account of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The St. Benedict story— straight out of The Dialogues—made an unforgettable impression on me in second grade. The prologue ended with a crawler, “The barbarians were at the gates,” and faded to show a bunch of howling savages clad in skins menacing a set of wrought-iron gates. For years that was my image of the fall of Rome. I also naively asked Sister Anna why the floating image of a woman’s face constituted a temptation for Benedict.
I left Louisiana just before my eleventh birthday. Rickety old St. Peter’s School was replaced long ago and then closed, and Abita has been renovated for yuppies. But when Mass at my present parish ends with “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” I close my eyes and I’m back in the first pew at St. Jane’s. And Aunt Mamie is waiting for me by the church door.