On a down day, if you have the energy, go into the kitchen, look in your pantry, and providing you’ve got the necessary ingredients, bake something.
Due to the pandemic, I no longer grocery shop, but daughters keep me fairly stocked up, and I had the needed ingredients for Grandma Louveau’s cinnamon rolls. As I baked them, I was reminded of a long-ago memory. It was sometime in the 1930s and I was visiting at Grandma Louveau’s house. Aunt Vallie, Mom’s sister, was still living at home, not yet married. Grandma baked the cinnamon rolls and sent us up to the railroad crossing with a pan of rolls for a family living in a railroad car on the tracks. The car was on a side track to the main tracks where trains passed day and night.
I remember being told the husband worked for the railroad but I don’t remember how exactly my grandparents knew they were living there – perhaps the man or his wife had come to the house for water. While they could have hooked up to a train and left at any time, it seemed that they settled there for a bit.
I was only 5 or 6 years old, and while Aunt Vallie visited with the woman, who had two small children, I watched a train roaring by, frightening and very noisy, with only a screen in the door of the railroad car between us and the moving train.
Through the years I have baked those same rolls, usually around Christmastime.
Another French grandma, on my husband’s side, from Old Mines in Washington County, Missouri, made meat pie every Christmas Eve. Her name was Norah LaChance Portell. I have asked different French women from Old Mines – with the last names of DeClue, Boyer, Bequette, and none had ever heard of the meat pies, which were always made Christmas Eve morning and served after Midnight Mass.
When we were first married, Cliff gave me a bite of the pie, but I didn’t care for it and figured it was a dish you had to be raised on.
All through the years, until our own family got too large, we would have Christmas dinner at noon at my parents’ home, then we’d visit his parents who also had their dinner at noon. The food would be put away but the meat pies would always be sitting out for anyone to sample, and again, Cliff would head to the kitchen for a piece, but I always declined.
Years later, Cliff’s mother, Genevieve, was in the hospital on what would be her last Christmas. My father-in-law, Timan, asked me to make a meat pie so he could take her a piece. I was taken aback – he had four daughters who had grown up on the meat pie and who knew better how it should taste. But I loved Genevieve – we had always gotten along and she always gave me the impression that she would take my side over her son. A sign of a saintly mother-in-law, though I never put her to the test. So, I asked, “What’s the recipe?” He replied, “Oh, just cook, but don’t brown, a pound of Rice’s pork sausage and add some water and use a lot of pepper.” Huh?!
I gave it a try. When Timan took the pie to Grandma in the hospital, she took one bite and said it was too rich. Later, Timan, Cliff, and Cliff’s brothers gobbled up the rest of the pie – grease and all.
Now, about 50 years later, I’m still making meat pies on Christmas Eve morning, and our kids come in, as their father did, looking for a piece on Christmas day.
I can’t say I’ve perfected it since I’ve never known anyone who has ever made it, except Grandma Genevieve and Grandma Norah, and sadly, I never asked them for the recipe. Through the years, though, I’ve stayed with the same recipe, but I make 2 or 3 pies. I use two pounds of Rice’s pork sausage, cooked – but not browned, pour off the grease, add about two cups of water, and make a paste of flour and water to thicken. At Cliff’s direction – while he was close by at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and playing solitaire, I’d add two pods of crushed, dried red pepper.
Now, in December 2020, Cliff has been gone for four years and son, Ted, has been gone seven months, and Christmas was much different this year. I still made two pies and sent pieces home with those who stopped by for a short visit. I thought back on those strong French grandmothers as I baked and listened to the news of people refusing to wear masks and complaining of bar and restaurant closings. I remember how Grandma Louveau’s 19-year-old son died of the Spanish Flu. I remember Grandma Norah telling about going out in the early mornings with a bucket looking for water in the tiff (barite) holes in Old Mines. She had to be sparing with the drinking water that came from a common well, and used the water from the tiff holes for cleaning. And, then I remember the motto, “Strong women – may we know them, may we raise them, may we be them.”
[Note: I’ve learned that the French name for the meat pie is tourtiere and it originated in French Canada. A family researcher said the Old Mines French did not come from Canada, so I’m not sure how they adopted this tradition. Still, the basics of the recipe and the tradition of having it on Christmas Eve are the same. More information can be found here and here.]
“How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.”
Growing up in Coffman, my brother and I attended the same one-room schools our Dad had attended when he was a boy. Our school year was split between two schools – one in Coffman and the other, Gordon school, two miles away. The cold, winter walks to and from school were no fun, but I happily remember our walks home during the fall.
Some of the kids would walk the paths through the woods to their farm homes, but the rest of us would walk the gravel road back to Coffman. There were no houses along the road except for two farm houses owned by Vogt families set far back across the fields.
We had to walk a steep hill, named Cheese Bluff and cross Carver Creek where we would linger and play. Along the way home, we’d root around in our lunch pails to see if we had any leftovers, but I don’t recall finding much. If the season was right, we’d stop at a certain spot to look for wild grapes that grew in a small tree. One of the boys would climb it and throw clusters down to us. That was a treat.
Enjoying Life’s Simple Offerings
This fall, I spent a week in Coffman and as always, it felt very much like home. With so much of travel and visits with family limited due to the pandemic, Coffman has become even more dear to me – a safe place to socially distance while enjoying a beautiful change of scenery.
It’s been a tough year and many of us will miss family get-togethers. I did not host our traditional big Thanksgiving dinner and we won’t be gathering for Christmas – for the health of us all.
Fortunately, all our family members live nearby, and from time to time I see one of the great-grands. A few weeks ago, granddaughter Becky brought a chicken potpie and set it on my front step. I stood at the door and 6-year-old Matt was happy to pick up a pocket of acorns from the driveway and 4-year-old Bella flitted around the yard, bringing smiles and much joy.
In early November, daughter Carolyn drove us to search for pecans in Ste. Genevieve. Her 5-year-old twin granddaughters, Emma and Cora, went along and helped to rake aside leaves to search them out. What an enjoyable two hours we had until we had a bag full. (Carolyn and I enjoyed it more than the little ones.) We recalled years of hunting pecans with Cliff and Ted, then roasting hot dogs at a nearby park.
And that brings up many more memories – of long ago fall days when Cliff would often take a week’s vacation, long walks on creek roads, trips with Merlin to Colorado, the Smokey Mountains, Sanibel, Florida, and Mackinac Island, and old songs we’d listen to during those long car rides that bring to mind old memories, both sweet and sad.
Some weeks ago, I was reading a mystery by Ian Rankin who writes about John Rebus, a detective in Edinburgh, Scotland. Rebus, while insubordinate, a heavy drinker, and something of a joker, still manages to solve his cases. The author, Ranken, is also a punk musician and has Rebus listening to a variety of music while pondering and drinking and one night the character played Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues. I stopped reading, amazed! On one of our road trips with Cliff and Merlin the car radio played that song over and over. I hadn’t heard or thought of that song in years and here a story set in Scotland brought it to mind. I don’t remember the trip or the year, but I loved the song. Daughter Chris got me the CD and I listen to it often, thinking of Cliff and Merlin.
Chicken Soup for the Soul
The fall days also bring up memories of an old one-room school house up in the hills from Minnith, owned and used as a clubhouse by Merlin’s friend, Art. Cliff would save his vacation days until November when he, Merlin, and a few of their buddies would go to the clubhouse for their annual deer hunt. Old stories, card games, beer, long drives, walks and much laughter took up all of their time. The deer had nothing to fear.
Uncle Spruce often joined in the trip and he would bring a fat hen from the farm and make a big pot of greasy bouillon. Of course the hen had to be fat, which caused about a fourth cup of grease bubbling on the top, giving it flavor, though some of it had to be skimmed off. One of the friends, Ray “Saunch” Saunchegraw was very curious about what was cooking in the pot and would pester Spruce. Finally, on peering into the pot he said, “That’s only chicken stock – put some vegetables in there.” Of course any Frenchman knows you never add vegetables to bouillon, but year after year they would have the same argument, with Spruce keeping a very close eye on the pot.
Saunch (left) and Cliff
Fall Road Trips
After a few days at the clubhouse, Cliff would come home and we’d go to Pere Marquette State Park and stay at the lodge for a night or two – more long walks, enjoyable days, then we’d head to Art’s Clubhouse where we’d meet up with Merlin. He enjoyed the season as well and we’d take walks along the creek, watch the falling leaves, and build bonfires in the evenings. Memorable times.
Another song, by Jo Stafford, Autumn Leaves, takes me back to walking the Saline Creek Road with them, the creek running low, but murmuring and leaves falling. Somehow those memories are the best.
Pere Marquette State Park, 1963.
At one time when our kids were little, Merlin too had a clubhouse – a former one-room schoolhouse up in the hills outside of Coffman. Our son, Ted, as a little boy, loved to spend time there with Merlin and my Dad.
Merlin’s clubhouse, outside Minnith, MO
While Carolyn doesn’t look too happy (Ted and Kathy are behind her), we all enjoyed get-aways to Merlin’s clubhouse.
Last spring, on one of his better days before he died, Ted called me and said, “Let’s go down to Coffman to see where Boyd Road ends.” We did and found it ends at two farms along the creek, not far from where Jimmy Nations’ old store and the post office were many years ago.
We stopped at a spot along the creek and Ted pointed to an old wagon road across the creek and remembered as a little boy walking with Dad and Merlin down the steep hill through the woods from Merlin’s clubhouse and walking that same road to where it comes out – right at the creek bank. He remembered a game warden checking to make sure they had fishing licenses, then staying to chat.
Ted also wanted to find an old wooden bridge he remembered on another road, but all we found was a concrete culvert that had replaced the old bridge. Still, it was a good day with him, his wife, Cheryl, and their daughter, Stephanie. The weather was nice and we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the Saline Creek. I will always treasure that day with Ted and his memories.
Now, all of those men are gone – the old school houses have been torn down. Nothing remains except falling leaves and the creek. Nearing 90 years old, in telling their old stories, no one will know if I get them wrong.
Sheltering in a Familiar Place
When my family moved from Coffman in 1943 – during the war years – we didn’t look back. Somehow, though, in 2020, going back gives me comfort. We drive past the old homes of the Boyds, the Harters, Aunt Maude, and Aunt May, and the old store, along the maze of creek roads which I’m trying to teach our daughters to remember and I tell the old stories they can’t keep track of.
Because of the pandemic, instead of a Florida trip in November, we settled for a week at Chaumette winery just outside of Coffman. We went to our favorite places – stopping on our first day for a lunch of Perryville bologna and crackers at Johnny’s bridge (named by us after my cousin John Yallaly who nearly drowned there as a toddler, but was rescued by his father, Uncle Spruce.) We went to Mayberry Cemetery and visited the Thompsons who live in Aunt Maude’s old home. They are always very welcoming and gave us flower seeds for next spring and a bag of bur oaks for our fall decorations, and told us where we could find more.
During the week, cousins Bobbie and Jeanette from Illinois visited one day and we caught up on family news. And, one day we visited in the front yard with Pat Billington, who lives “down in the bend,” named for a road with lots of turns. We were joined by cousin Johnny Yallaly. Pat’s mother Jean and Johnny’s father, Spruce, were first cousins, but Johnny and Pat had never met until last year. The two of them had much to talk about – acreage, mules, cattle, dogs, deer hunting and fishing. While Pat drove Johnny around his property, daughter Chris and I were content staying in the yard, collecting hedge apples (also known as Osage oranges) and filling her car trunk with them to use later as fall decorations. And, we made a nice arrangement of them on Pat’s front porch. He wasn’t too enthused about them when he got back, but what the heck. When they blacken and rot, all he has to do is pitch them in the woods that edge his yard. It was a good visit and Johnny was grateful when told he could come back and fish in Pat’s favorite fishing spot.
Pat also has a black walnut tree in his front yard and about two bushels of walnuts were lying on the ground. Years ago, I would have gathered them, hulled, dried, cracked and picked them out for oatmeal cookies and black walnut fudge. No more – those days are gone. Now, daughter Kathy gives me a big bag from Sam’s and I share the homemade fudge with her.
The next day our plan was to walk the creek and follow the old road Ted had pointed out. When we drove onto the gravel bar, a deer was standing across the creek, right at the edge of that very road. We all eyed each other until the deer turned tail and ran back into the woods. We took it as a good sign.
Seeing this beautiful deer made a special day all the better.
It was a perfect fall day and we walked the road along the creek, gathering more hedge apples, bur oaks and branches of winter berries – simple but delightful pleasures.
Gathering hedge apples with daughter Laurie.
Back at our Chaumette villa, we had happy hours on the porch, watched a flock of mocking birds in the hedges, ate delicious lunches at the Grapevine Grill, and played games of liverpool rummy every evening. And the views! The countryside is beautiful.
On Saturday, things really livened up. Jan’s daughter Amanda arrived with Genevieve and Georgie – 5 and 3 years old. Grandma Jan took them on a tour of the grounds with Etta, a friendly dog who lives up Boyd Road. Then we went to the creek where we waded, climbed hills, walked Boyd Road, ate carryout pizza from Charleville Winery on the creek bank. What more could one ask for?
Gentle, friendly Etta stopped by for a visit.
Amanda, George, Chris, Jan, Genevieve, and I enjoyed a wonderful day together.
I feel my Dad’s presence – five generations from his days of living and playing on the Saline at the Pratt place on Yallaly ford.
I’ll be going back – there’s one more house I remember from my childhood. I’m going to look for it, though I don’t know what creek road to take. I’ll know the old house when I see it – on a slope, back from the road. The owners were family friends and Dad boarded there while teaching school.
Now, the fall days are coming to a close. We’re not able to have our usual holiday gatherings – we give them up willingly for the health of all. Sadly, I believe we would get comfort from them after the passing of dear family members this year.
Daughter Laurie and I attended a service of remembrance at the Mercy Retreat Center on All Souls’ Day. Though the chapel is large, the number of attendees was limited due to the need for spacing. The room was dimly lit and the readings and music were beautiful. I wiped away tears at the sung response, “All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.”
Born August 27, 1953, Theodore Patrick Portell was my firstborn and only son. He passed away from cancer on May 22. When he was little, we called him Teddy, then Ted. He held many roles in his 66 years – as a son, grandson, brother, husband, father, uncle, cousin, friend, neighbor, police officer, business owner and bartender, estate sale worker, and many, many times, the first volunteer when something needed to be done.
In the past few months, I’ve been thinking mostly of his role as the Mayor of Sinking Creek, a place he introduced our family to more than 35 years ago, a place I love.
In 1983, our son, Ted, was invited, along with a group of men, to a camp, privately owned, in Shannon County, between Eminence and Salem, Missouri. Ted thought the hilly, wooded area was a wonderful spot and was told he could bring his family there for vacations, and most years we have gone every June.
Through the years, after Ted retired, our trips lengthened from a few days to a week, then longer.
The site includes a lodge and about 12 cabins scattered around in the woods – the cabins are small and consist of wooden bunks. The lodge has a dining room, long tables and benches and open shelves filled with dishes, cutlery, and cooking utensils. The adjoining kitchen has a freezer, fridge, two electric ranges and two large sinks.
A hot shower and toilet is off the lodge, and an out building with cold showers and toilets sits at the end of the long yard in front. And behind the lodge, a secure metal shed stands on concrete blocks and holds plastic-covered mattresses just big enough for the sleeping bunks as well as inner tubes for floating the creek.
There is no air conditioning, television or cell phone service. We bring our own food, drink, bedding, towels and toilet paper and we remember that in the woods, we are in someone else’s territory, the home of snakes, mice, bats, bugs, etc., and we respect them, though we do set a mouse trap as needed. The snakes are usually seen at a distance and we leave them alone.
Ted and his wife, Cheryl, always stayed in the same cabin not far from the lodge, until one year, as Ted was putting his belongings there he found a black snake coiled on the bunk. Ted quickly dumped it outside and went about his chores of turning on the utilities and opening up camp. Later, he found the snake had returned to his cabin. He left it there and found another cabin to sleep in. The following year, the snake was no longer in residence there, so he moved his son Brian and 2-year-old grandson into that cabin. Thankfully, the snake never returned.
Live and let live is our motto!
Setting Up Camp
Most years, Ted and I would arrive a day before the rest of the family so we could open up camp and get things in order. Cheryl would caution him, “Don’t you and your Mom try to do everything and get overheated.” Now, for the past few years, daughter Jan and her husband Bob arrive at the same time and we all work together.
Doors and shutters are unlocked, windows opened, sliding screens are put in, fridge and freezer plugged in. Cabins are swept, mattresses put in the sun to air, porch swept, chairs set up on the porch, and a table for a jigsaw puzzle is placed at one end. Finally, when the fridge and freezer have cooled, Jan unpacks the food while I hang the hummingbird feeder on the porch and string up a clothes line between two trees behind the lodge for swimsuits and towels. By early afternoon, Ted and Bob are finished with their jobs and we all decide to check on the creek.
A path leads down through the woods, and it’s rough with tree roots and slick in a few places, especially if it has rained recently. At the bottom of the hill lies a shaded glade, then out from under the trees, a sunlit sandy area with wild roses and creek willows. Around a turn we come out on the gravel bar and see the clear burbling icy cold creek, which some miles down, flows into the Current River.
By now, it’s late afternoon – we head back up to the lodge, open beers and heat up our prepared supper. We eat on the porch and remember all the years before so happily spent with family members no longer with us – my parents, who joined us that first year, a few uncles, my brother, Merlin, and my husband, Cliff.
We sit on the porch until fairly late, watch the stars and listen to the tree frogs, whippoorwills, and sometimes an owl. The next day will be busy, with more family coming – unloading, talking, laughing, filled with just plain happiness at being here. We discuss who is coming and how many cabins need to be swept out. Family members always tell us not to bother, they’ll clean their own cabins, but we know they will have enough to do with unpacking, and many will have little ones, so we are happy to help out. There are plenty of cabins, but some prefer their tents and there’s a large grassy area yards from the lodge where they can set up.
Mid-morning the next day cars start arriving, honking happily as they round the last bend after a three-hour drive from St. Louis. They quickly start unpacking loads of stuff, including cranky toddlers who have slept most of the trip, but quickly liven up, anxious to get to the creek.
Another year, I read to Alli.
For the most part, campers include immediate family members – but extended family have joined us and they are always welcome. One year Merlin brought Uncle Spruce, and he loved it and came back another year or two. Now, Spruce was not much of an asset to camping chores. Aunt Mary would happily pack everything he needed and no doubt was glad to see him off for a few days. During his first trip, on the very first night, he decided he didn’t like his cabin and opted to sleep on the front porch of the lodge. Of course someone had to fetch his bedding and help him get settled.
The next morning, awakening at his usual time of 4:00 a.m., he proceeded to head into the kitchen to make bacon, eggs and biscuits (from scratch). Finding a cowbell in a drawer, he rang it loudly for everyone to “come and get it.” No one did, except maybe Merlin and Cliff. Son-in-law Bob H. was not happy. Never an early riser, Bob hadn’t slept well because son Robbie was a restless 3-year-old at the time.
Spruce, meanwhile, was rather weary after his endeavors and proceeded to have a little nap, leaving flour on the floor from his baking and the rest of his cooking mess for someone else to clean up.
Later in the day, he told me he’d woken up chilled in the morning and asked if Aunt Mary had packed him a cover. I said, “Yeah, you left it in the cabin.” He replied crankily, “Well it’s not doing me any good there, is it?”
Truth be told, I didn’t mind moving his bedding or cleaning up his breakfast mess. Even before Sinking Creek, Spruce joined us on other camping trips and always could be counted on for good company and laughs.
The three of them – Spruce, Merlin and Cliff – would spend the days on the porch, telling old stories, waiting for the next meal and keeping watch over camp while the rest of us were off floating and jumping off the rock at the swimming hole. Another year, our Uncle Bill, Spruce’s brother, and his, wife Dorothy, joined us as well. Bill joined the men on the porch and Dorothy helped out a lot in the kitchen. Jan had brought a baked bone-in ham but had never sliced one. Dorothy took over and while visiting and chatting the whole time, sliced the whole thing perfectly without dropping or eating a single piece.
“Go ask the Mayor”
Since Ted organized each year’s trip and knew how camp should be run, he was dubbed the “Mayor of Sinking Creek.” Daughter Laurie ordered a t-shirt for him with that title printed on it and he wore it proudly. If any question arose, it was always answered with, “Ask the Mayor.”
Some years after Spruce died, the Mayor and I agreed to “grandfather in” Spruce’s sons, Marty and Johnny. They tended to be a bit more of an asset, waited on themselves, cooked, brought their musical instruments, and sang and entertained us. A few more years passed, and we grandfathered in Bill’s son Craig and his wife, Susie. Though they weren’t acquainted with many of our grandkids, they quickly became favorites and were very good sports.
A Long & Winding Tale
In his last years, with both Spruce and Merlin gone, Cliff found it more difficult to manage the rough terrain and the sleeping cabins, and would skip some years, though granddaughter Amanda would beg him to join us. On years he agreed to join us, son-in-law Bob S. would set his alarm for 4:00 a.m., come to the cabin, help him navigate the rocky path to the lodge and settle him on the porch with his coffee and cigars. (Cliff, like Spruce, was an early riser.)
One year, before old age overtook him, he and Ted decided to walk, fishing the creek all the way to the Current River bridge. They hadn’t gotten too far before they realized it was too much of a trek, but had to keep going until they reached the spot Merlin had arranged to meet them with his car so he could drive them back to camp. When Merlin got to the bridge, he found Cliff lying flat on the gravel bar, exhausted.
On arriving back at the lodge, they flopped down in their chairs and rehashed the trip over and over, consuming several beers while doing so. Luckily, most of us were at the creek and didn’t have to hear it all, but Merlin later said Cheryl, after listening for an hour or so, took her book and retired to her cabin.
So many wonderful days are spent at the creek, looking for crawdads and tadpoles, swimming, playing games and just being together, sharing meals and memories.
But I enjoy the evenings almost as much. I am usually the first to head to my cabin for the night and fall asleep while listening to the sounds of the woods. In recent years, I’ve had a cabin all to myself but many years I shared with others.
One year I shared a cabin with Cliff, Merlin, grandson Joey and his friend David. At that time, I could still climb into the top bunk as did the two boys, though they would jump straight down from their bunks, shaking the whole place and making a lot of noise.
Later years, I changed to a different cabin which was farther from the lodge but was brighter. Since by this time, I was in my 80s, the Mayor brought a step ladder and lantern for me which made it easier for me. Eventually, after a few more years, I moved to the only cabin that has electricity and numerous daughters wanted to share the cabin with me, though it only sleeps three.
Ted always tried to help everyone have a good stay at Sinking Creek and he and Cheryl would bring electric cords, flash lights and citronella candles, among other needed items.
Others said that he and I were always “in cahoots” about something and when a daughter complained to him about me washing my hair in the kitchen sink, his reply was, “She can do anything she wants.” Now that same daughter and others wash their hair in the sink too and sometimes a toddler gets a bath there.
Again, we say, “Live and let live!”
On Sundays, we always have a short prayer service around 10:00 a.m. A prayer is said, two or more psalms read and we sing a hymn, usually “How Great Thou Art,” Cliff’s favorite. We give thanks that as a family we are able to come to this beautiful wooded spot which we all love so much.
Now in 2020, a pandemic has changed the world. Our country is in turmoil with sickness, death, unemployment, killings, riots, protests, and hatred. June has come and gone. The camp at Sinking Creek is closed, locked, and shuttered. No more will I wait anxiously for Ted to pull into the driveway, load up my stack of baggage and start the long drive.
No more will we watch for various landmarks until at last we turn down the familiar rock road, cross a stream, pass the house where the hound dogs live, take the middle fork in the road and pull into the gravel yard of camp at Sinking Creek.
No more early mornings, the two of us drinking coffee, not talking, just watching the hummingbirds and the early morning mist rising from the trees.
What sadness for us all. At some point over the last few months, daughter Laurie remarked, “We can no longer go to Sinking Creek – it will be too sad.” I replied, “We will be closer to Ted there than anywhere else.” And, if we do go back, we will also feel the presence of Spruce, Merlin, Cliff and hear the refrain of “How Great Thou Art.”
No matter what, we give thanks for the years we had together at Sinking Creek.
When I was a child, Grandma Louveau would tell me stories of her own childhood. She often pointed out a house where she remembered hearing a baby crying, and while walking one day with her mother, she asked who were the two women sitting on the front porch. Her mother looked up, but saw no one there. Two women had lived there at one time, but had been dead for years.
She also told me when a cat is walking across the yard, stops abruptly, stares, and then turns and walks in another direction, it means it has seen the ghost of another cat. I watched the cats more closely after hearing that.
She never seemed to worry about scaring me – she didn’t believe in coddling children. Never, though, did she tell me about the sad event that happened in another house farther down the road, where her oldest son, Arthur, died of the Spanish flu when he was 19 years old. He was working for a farmer at the time and became ill. Grandma could not help nurse him since she had six younger children at home.
The family Bible, which Grandpa Louveau often prayed with, lists the date of Arthur’s death: December 10, 1918.
How sad would that have been? Maybe some memories were too painful to tell.
Arthur played the fiddle, and when our family would visit and spend the night, just before bedtime, Uncle Elvin, Arthur’s brother, would get out the fiddle and play a piece called “Soldier’s Joy” in his memory.
My father was about the same age as Arthur and in late 1918, toward the end of World War I, Dad was stationed in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Many of the young men were sick and dying of the Spanish flu and it was Dad’s duty to help tend to them. His boyhood friend, Ralph Coffman, stationed there also, was very ill and was being sent by train to his home in Minnith. Dad found an extra blanket and a thermos of soup, helped Ralph bed down on a bunk and told him goodbye, thinking he would never see him again. Though Ralph recovered, Dad – like Grandma – never talked about that time.
When my brother, Merlin, was in third grade, he had scarlet fever and we were quarantined. Dad’s Uncle Carroll Boyd, who ran the Coffman store, died during that time, but Dad could not attend the funeral. Uncle Carroll’s wife, Aunt Emily, was Ralph’s sister. Instead of burying Uncle Carroll at the Mayberry cemetery, where the Boyds are buried, she had him buried at the Minnith cemetery where her family still lived.
Merlin recovered, the quarantine was lifted, and before school started, Dad sent us on our ferry ride and the long walk to visit our grandparents.
Though Merlin was a strong and healthy looking kid, he seemed to catch every virus that came along and in later years Dad claimed if humans could get hog cholera, Merlin would have gotten that too.
Merlin, now gone for nine years from leukemia, is not here to worry about a new deadly virus that they claim humans contracted from an animal. Our bodies have no resistance to it and there is no cure. Isolation seems to be the best prevention.
The first days the outbreak reaches our area are cold, rainy and dreary, which makes the isolation worse. On days with some sunshine and warmth it is a bit more tolerable for us, but not for those in the medical field or those dealing with sickness and death or the loss of jobs.
Since the elderly are more susceptible, there is talk of me sheltering in place with one of my children, but I feel I will be alright alone. I don’t go anywhere and no one comes into my home. The few groceries I need are brought and left in my garage for me to carry inside. Family take turns calling in the morning and at night, making sure I’m alright. I tell them that is not necessary, surely if I felt ill, I would have sense enough to call someone, but they ignore me and check in regularly.
Though my energy level is low some days, I’m never lonely, though sometimes a bit bored. I have a stack of library books, but only read at night after supper – old eyes age along with the rest of the body. I read the morning paper, do the cross word puzzles and only watch an hour of TV for the news.
With time on my hands, I look out the windows and watch the neighbors’ dogs. From the window to the west, I see Zoe who lives next door and Bonnie, across the yard. Bonnie seems old and not too lively. I have never seen her run or frolic and she and Zoe eye each other at the fence, but don’t bark at one another. From the bedroom window, I see Holly and Jack who often sit on their deck. They whine and bark, wanting to be let inside. Gabriel, directly across the back yard is a newcomer, young and barks when I’m picking up leaves from the flower bed. Maybe he’ll get used to me – or maybe not.
From the windows, the birds are a bit more interesting – red and yellow finches like the thistle seed and sparrows are always around. Now chickadees are making a nest in the wren house Merlin made. I see them in the winter, but now they look like they intend to stay a while. Cardinals, robins and a blue jay now and then also come around. I put stale craisins on the window sill and mocking birds enjoy them. The Carolina wren is around but no sign of the house wren yet.
The birds, including the doves, and squirrels take over the patio in the winter and leave it a mess. The first warm day I wash the old wooden glider and a glass top side table and make me a clean place to sit and watch them all. One day I look out the bedroom window and a fat rabbit is sitting on the mat, washing himself like a cat. I think he lives by the garden. A chipmunk digs holes in the flower bed and drinks from a birdbath. As you can see, exciting things are happening around here!
The kids also drop off meals and some days, if I’m in the mood, I cook. One day I ask daughter Chris to get me some dried baby lima beans to cook with a ham bone I had in the freezer. I’m pretty sure Chris has never cooked dried beans of any kind and may not be able to find them in the store. She locates them and says the shelf was well-stocked – there doesn’t seem to be a run on dried beans.
Another day I am hungry for pie and find a can of cherry pie filling in the pantry even though I stopped buying it years ago because it usually had about ten cherries and the rest was thick goo. A friend told me the filling is better now and she was right.
For a fairly good pie crust, use one cup flour, rinse out a measuring cup and add one cup Crisco. The damp cup will make the Crisco slide out easier. Add that to the flour and work in a scant 1/4 cup of ice water, add more flour if needed, and chill for a half hour or so in the same bowl.
Roll out the dough on a floured cloth (saving a handful of dough for the top), flour the rolling pin well and use your smallest pie plate. Stir 1/4 teaspooon almond extract into the cherries and pour mixture into crust. Roll out the rest of the dough and make a lattice work or just make a top crust. Bake at 450 about 30 minutes or till lightly browned.
Now, this recipe is just a quick fix – if you want a better pie, buy a can of tart cherries. Thicken the juice with flour over low heat, sugar the cherries and add to thickened juice along with half a teaspoon of almond extract.
Any cookbook will give you precise directions or a recipe may be on the can. These cherries are about $3 a can and you will need 2 cans for a 9-inch pie. Lattice work looks good on a cherry pie and after all, you’ve spent $6, so you might as well go to the trouble. I don’t weave the strips in, I just lay them on top of each other, crisscrossed. The strips tend to break, but I pinch them together.
I don’t eat much bread and if I do run out I bake my own. All you need is flour and yeast and I already have that on hand, along with some water. They tell me flour and yeast cannot be found in the stores some days – people are baking bread again.
Boredom lifts one afternoon when granddaughter Becky visits with her five children. Though they can’t come inside, nor can we hug, we make good use of our time together. We walk to the prayer garden outside church and they help pick up sticks and twigs. On the way, we drop off my beer cans at the recycling bin on the church parking lot. The boys throw them in one at a time, missing often and making quite a clatter. They work hard cleaning up the prayer garden and fill a yard waste bag with sticks, then sweep leaves from the steps.
Another day, daughter Carolyn walks over with four-year-old twins, Emma and Cora. Again, we walk to the prayer garden, carrying a bucket of rags and a child’s broom. They sweep the numbered plaques on the ground in front of each Station of the Cross and wash them so the wording can be read.
On Palm Sunday, a table full of blessed palms is placed outside of church and I walk up to get mine. A few cars pull up and palms are handed to the drivers through the windows.
Church is closed at this time, but during Holy Week it is open for private prayer from 9:00 a.m. to noon each day. I take my leaflets of favorite prayers and my rosary and pray for an hour. About four other parishioners are scattered about the church.
Some days I walk to the prayer garden, pray the Stations of the Cross, then sit on a bench and say the rosary. No one is around and it is very peaceful.
Although the weather is improving, it is still chilly, and I bundle up, some days cutting my walk short because of the biting wind. I swept the patio a week earlier, but now it’s full of leaves again and too cold to sit in my cleaned off space and listen to the CD player I’ve brought out from the house.
More days go by, library books are all read so I re-read others. I get out my Robert Galbraith series and the last three mysteries by Reginald Hill, as well as books by Ian Rankin, Rick Bragg and Peter May.
Some days are brightened by the thoughtfulness of others. Two calls from long ago neighbors, “thinking of you” cards in the mail, a big pot of pansies and a handful of tulips from one daughter and a ceramic blue bird from another which I hang in the budding lilac bush next to the birdhouse so I can see it from a bedroom window.
I make myself do something, put on a warm sweater, take a bucket of garden tools and go to the garden, picking up gumballs from the neighboring tree as I go and already start to feel more energetic. I spend nearly two hours working on the worst of the weeds. Someone will till the garden for me when it gets drier.
I bring in a branch of lilacs, put it in an old green glass pitcher and decide to bake a double batch of bread.
Early one afternoon, I look out a window and a chipmunk is sitting on a concrete ledge, staring into space, probably taking a rest from digging holes in my flower beds. In the next yard, a dog barks, but the chipmunk isn’t too concerned, although he then dives into the ivy.
I owe letters to cousins, but I don’t have any news to write about. Now don’t go thinking I’m feeling sorry for myself because of the isolation. I am not. My sympathy and prayers go to the sick and dying, the medical workers, families with small children, unpaid workers and closed businesses. Such hard times for them all.
If I push myself, my boredom changes quickly. I can pick up a book, take a walk, bake bread or a pie. Now I could clean out a closet or a drawer, rearrange my sewing area and oil the sewing machine, but I don’t think I can push myself that hard. Maybe a nap instead.
More days go by and I start to lose interest in the neighbors’ dogs, but one day, Zoe’s owner waves a bubble wand and Zoe runs and leaps high, trying to catch the bubbles. Bonnie watches stolidly through the chain link fence, not enthused or barking. Bonnie never circles or inspects her yard. Nothing interests her at all. She slowly climbs the three steps to her back door, waits but never barks and soon is let in.
In late April we have a few warm days, welcome the sun and start thinking flowers. Two daughters brave the plant nurseries with masks and hand sanitizer and I give them my shopping list of plants.
Enjoyable hours are spent on the patio potting plants and trying to make some order out of the mess of pots, plant stands and bags of potting soil. We will still have cool nights and more rain is predicted, so I place them all near the wall so they’re sheltered. It’s still too early to plant directly in the flower beds.
Son-in-law Bob tills the garden and does a fine job. Cliff and I used to make short work of the tilling and left big clods, but Bob works thoroughly and slowly and pulverizes the soil. Son-in-law Joe repairs and repaints a weathered trellis, originally made by son-in-law Dave, and it’s now in its place near the patio.
On rainy days, I’m back inside and though I owe several letters, I manage to answer only two, but am pleased with myself until the letter carrier ignores the raised flag on the mailbox and drives right by. Now I lived with a mailman for 64 years, and he could be pretty aggravating, but these workers are the worst yet! A year or so ago, the mail service was so bad that I bypassed the local branch and wrote directly to the Postmaster General. Though I received a letter back quickly and a call from the local post office, I don’t think any heads rolled.
While my accomplishments over the last several weeks have been few, I have spent a lot of time praying for our country. I do my praying in a bedroom. I don’t kneel, but sit in an old wingback chair that faces a dresser across the room. The dresser mirror reflects the window behind me and shows the lilac bush and birdhouse. It’s a pleasant spot. The house is always quiet, and in the morning when I do most of my praying, the phone seldom rings.
I read from my Jesus Calling book of daily reflections and come across the line, “Open your heart to receive this day as a precious gift from Me,” which makes me think. Somehow I don’t believe He means for me to spend this “gift of a day” slouching around in my worn old robe.
I finish my prayers, shower and get dressed, determined to make something of my gift. Now, I don’t get it all done in a day or two. I still laze around some, but over several days I’ve baked an apple pie, finished a sewing job for a daughter, written several letters, planted tomatoes and flowers, pulled weeds, and prayed, prayed, prayed.
As this year comes to a close, we’ll be hearing this song and may not give it much thought. But the title can be interpreted as since long ago or for old times’ sake, and it reminds me of the precious memories I have of long ago. This past year I have gone back 80-some years and visited two homes of families I once knew.
Just before my family lived in Coffman, we lived in the settlement of Minnith, Missouri, during the 1930s. The town consisted of a general store, run by Johnny Boyd, a barbershop, owned by Freddie Litterest, a small white wooden Baptist church and a one-room school. Behind the church and school was a cemetery, a few homes along the road, and the Saline Creek ran a few yards away.
Some of the Coffman family had settled there and built their homes high on the hills and we lived in one of them when Dad taught school there. Though they were not blood kin, my parents considered the Coffmans as family, and we called the elder Coffmans “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” Their son, Ralph, (Dad’s good friend from boyhood) and his wife Verna, and their boys lived near us in a stone house with a spring house which my brother and I found fascinating.
We loved them all and were very close. When Verna was to have her third child, Helen, their son, Tootie (Eugene), was sent to our house for the day. He and my brother Merlin, both about 4 or 5 then, soon got into a scrap. Tootie jumped on Merlin’s tricycle, pedaled down the steep hill and was headed for home before Mom caught up with him and brought him back.
Tootie was heard to say he “hoped the new baby was a boy, like Merlin, but not as dumb as Merlin.”
Mom had made me a red wool coat, hat, leggings and muff, trimmed in black lamb’s wool and Verna thought it beautiful and hoped it could be handed down to Helen in years to come. However, I played outside often and was too rough on it and it wasn’t fit for another child.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind?
Such memories come back to me often, but now my brother, parents, and all those dear people from those long ago years have passed away. I remembered, however, that a member of the Coffman family still lived in the original Coffman home. So, one day while making one of our trips to Coffman, my daughter, Laurie, and I drove up the hill to a house near where we once lived and knocked on the back door. The home now belongs to Tootie’s son and when I told him I was a Boyd, he welcomed us in, and we talked for a long time. The time flew as we told old stories, looked at family pictures and scrap books and talked about people still living in the surrounding area.
I asked about people in Ozora and among others he mentioned Pat Billington who still lived “down in the bend” on Roth Cemetery Road. Now I hadn’t seen Pat since we were about 10, but I knew that was the house I was going to visit on my next trip to the area.
Pat and his family were kin of a sort. His grandmother, Lizzie Perry, was a sister to Dad’s stepfather, Will Yallaly. My brother and I had many good times playing with Pat, his sister, Helen, and their cousin, Patsy, at the Perry home. On one visit, Pat came back to our home with Merlin and I stayed with Helen and Patsy for a week. It was a memorable time for us all.
Some months after visiting Tootie’s son, I went to Coffman again, this time with daughters Jan and Chris. We made a weekend trip of it, staying overnight in a villa at Chaumette Winery. It was a hot, July day. We drove along the wooded roads, then made our way up a hill and arrived at Pat’s house. I was apprehensive, arriving uninvited and not knowing if Pat would even remember me from so many years ago. We knocked on the door. Pat answered it, remembered me and my family, and again, I was told, “Come on in.”
We two have run about the slopes, And picked the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, Since auld lang syne.
More stories, compared memories, and much laughter made for a delightful visit. I remembered visiting Pat’s family home and there being game cocks fighting on a kitchen table and men standing around. And, one of Dad’s stories told to me stands out in my mind. He and his brother, Pete, were traveling late one night and arrived at the Perry’s home. The family had other visitors as well and the beds were all taken. Aunt Lizzie (Pat’s grandmother) and Jean (Pat’s mother) gave up their bedrooms and bedded down on the dining room table. Shortly after everyone was settled, Pete yelled to Jean that he was hungry. What she yelled back to him is unprintable.
I had never met Pat’s wife, Barbara, and was happy to meet her on this visit. She is a Cassoutt from Kaskaskia Island and related to Grandma Louveau’s father, Felix Beauvais.
Even though I’d never met Barbara and hadn’t seen or talked to Pat in 80 years, they both said, “Come back anytime.”
I have younger cousins who are about the same ages as my children. Most of them were born in Illinois and never met their Missouri cousins. One cousin, Johnny, on hearing about our visit with Pat, wanted to go with us on our next visit, which happened in October. This time we called ahead since we took down Pat’s number. Again, more stories, laughter. Pat’s daughter, Lisa, was there and prompted her Dad to tell story after story as she has many fond memories of his parents, sister, aunts, and uncles. As we left, the same words were repeated, “Come back again. You are welcome anytime.”
My Uncle Tom Yallaly was a wise, gentle man and admonished his sons to “Be careful of your behavior, never besmirch your good name – it’s the most important thing you’ll ever own.” What a warm wonderful feeling it is to be welcomed into homes from long ago because of my ancestors’ name and the friendship of those days long ago.
Christmastime in Coffman
The Thompsons are another family who have welcomed me because of the Boyd name. Cathy and Buck live in the home previously owned by Dad’s Aunt Maude Boyd Gegg, and we delight to visit and see what they have done to Aunt Maude’s home and grove.
Aunt Maude was not Catholic, but she allowed the little church of St. Catherine of Alexandria to have their annual picnic on her grounds until the parish grew and the picnic attracted enough people that it needed to be moved to another site.
When we visited last summer, the Thompsons invited us to come back before Christmas to see their decorations, and I did the week before Christmas, this time with daughters Jan, Laurie, and Chris. The Thompsons love antiques and decorate with beautiful, vintage items they’ve collected. Each room is more beautiful. Cathy has a knack – each idea is unique. Outside it’s chilly, but we walk through the old grove with gardens bedded for the winter, surrounded by old iron work, garden gates, and green house. We take it all in and listen to their plans for the old smoke house.
Buck skillfully carries out Cathy’s ideas, and when he’s not working around their home, he can be found taking care of the grounds at nearby cemeteries, including Mayberry Cemetery where many of my Boyd ancestors are buried. Buck also knows some good morel spots, but those locations he doesn’t share with me.
We hate to leave their warm, beautiful home, but we head on to lunch at Chaumette Winery and then to Mayberry Cemetery where we lay swags of greens with red berries and ribbons on the old Boyd graves.
From there, past New Church – now just an old building where Dad taught school – past Clear Water, where Jimmy Nations ran the store and post office and then we turn right along Boyd Road, that runs along the Saline Creek and stop at a special spot loved by my cousin, Joan Sucher, who passed away from ALS. The creek is full and running clear. We place a sprig of fresh holly in memory of Joan as well as Cliff and say a prayer.
Back through Coffman to route B and right on route P to Roth Cemetery Road where we are late for our next visit with Pat Billington. Pat, at 87, is the only one left who can answer my questions from those long ago years.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give me a hand o’ thine! And we’ll take a right good-will draught, For auld lang syne.
Again, we tell our stories, talk about our long gone kin, laugh, and sometimes are near tears. Jan, Laurie, and Chris listen to us patiently – they are very entertained by our stories, and I must share one of Pat’s many memories. His father, Jack, was a career army man. The family traveled with him and lived together on base when they could, but other times, Pat, his sister, Helen, and their mother, Jean, lived with Jean’s parents at the Perry home, down in the bend, near Ozora. The memory Pat shared was from wartime, and their father was serving overseas. Pat, Jean, and Helen were in a store and Jean asked the owner for a certain item. The owner didn’t have the item and replied, “Lady, don’t you know there’s a war on?” Now Jack had been stationed in Europe for two years. Jean let loose loudly with a few choice words and never went in that store again.
Now it was late afternoon and the sun was low in the sky. Tomorrow would be the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. We made our goodbyes, leaving Pat with homemade cookies, a gift for his wife, Barbara, and promises for another visit.
At 87 and 88 how many more visits will there be?
Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year with plenty of happy times with new friends and old.
For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne, We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
It was a sad day when the Belleville diocese closed St. Leo’s Church in Modoc, Illinois, on February 23, 2014. Sad for all of us with our long ago memories of Sunday Masses, weddings, funerals, and parish picnics, but saddest of all for the faithful parishioners who had put years of hard work and a lot of love into the little white church at the top of St. Leo’s hill.
The original church was built in 1893, and rebuilt in 1925, after a fire destroyed the original building on Christmas Day, 1924. Standing on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River bottoms, the church holds a great deal of history for both my parents’ sides of the family.
My mother, Lola Louveau Boyd, once had an old snapshot of men in her family sawing wood for the building. Her father’s brother, Francois Louveau, and his bride were the first to be married in it, and Francois was the first to be buried there, after dying at an early age – in his 30s. His tombstone, in the church cemetery, is just inside the iron fence along the road. His wife, Grandma Louveau’s half sister, Laura DeRousse, is buried there also.
Mom’s ancestors had been born and raised on Kaskaskia Island and had moved across the river to the bottom land, down the hill from St. Leo’s. The Yallaly side of the family were also long-time parishioners, having moved to Moro Island, connected to the bottom land. My parents were married at St. Leo’s and my brother and I were baptized there, although shortly after, we moved to Minnith, Missouri, in Ste. Genevieve County, where Dad took a job as a teacher.
We would go back as often as we could for Christmas Mass and St. Leo’s picnic, always held on the first Saturday of August. Until the last picnic was held there in 2013, the annual picnic was a favorite time for many of us to return to the church, visit with friends and relatives, enjoy a fried chicken dinner, and play quilt bingo.
One of my earliest memories is of being at the picnic with Mom, Grandma Louveau, and her good friend Frieda Marshall LaChance. One picnic, of many, stands out in my mind. I was playing with my brother, Merlin, and our cousins, Steve and Imogene Yallaly. (Their parents were Dad’s half-brother, Pete, and his wife, Edith Godier.) Our Uncle Jules Yallaly was there, and we kids were pestering him at the ring toss booth to win us prizes. He loved games and would toss rings as long as we had dimes. (As a young priest, he did not have much money to spare.) Mom’s brother, our Uncle Elvin Louveau, a lifelong parishioner, also was there and would keep everyone laughing, whether helping in the lunch stand or parking cars.
One year, Uncle Pete, while calling bingo, was approached by a teary-eyed child who’d become lost from his parents. Pete’s brother, Tom, showed up to claim the little boy, probably his son, Jerry, if I remember correctly. Another year, I remember that St. Leo’s hill was too muddy to navigate, and Dad had to drive the long way around. Seemed like we’d never get there!
At that time, our Aunt Ruth worked in what they called the “fancy stand,” with beautiful handmade needlework items for prizes, including pillow cases, dresser scarves, and doilies. I think the woman in charge of that stand was Ethel Jostes.
Years later, when I was grown and married, our oldest, Ted, then a toddler, lost a little red tennis shoe at the picnic. Someone picked it up and left it on the church steps where Uncle Elvin found it before Mass the next day, took it home, and mailed it back to us in St. Louis.
Ruth had married Roy Hahn and lived on St. Leo’s Road, not far from the church. Through the years, she and other ladies in the parish met weekly for a sewing circle and hand made all the quilts that would be bingo prizes at the picnic. People would drive from miles away and sit on wooden benches all night long for a chance to win one of those beautiful quilts. One year Uncle Jules won a red and white quilt. We were all envious, but he had no intention of giving it away. He brought it home with him to DePaul Hospital where he was chaplain and raffled it off to raise money for charity.
People also came to the picnic from far away for the fried chicken dinners. Aunt Ruth and her family spent long hours in the hot kitchen preparing and serving the dinners. Men of the parish fried the chicken outside, behind the church hall, and there was always a line of people waiting to get a seat for dinner inside the hall. The chicken was served family style – all you could eat – and meals included mashed potatoes and gravy, delicious dressing – a signature recipe of Ethel Mollett – vegetables, slaw, home grown tomatoes and cucumbers, and homemade cakes and pies for dessert.
When Ruth died, one of her great nieces, Kathleen Carmack Holthaus, wrote a song titled St. Leo’s. Road, nostalgic, beautiful, and meaningful to us all.
So many years have gone by since those picnics of my childhood. I’m told no one lives on Moro Island anymore. When we’ve driven through the bottom, our grandparents’ home is gone and I can’t distinguish where the road leading to their house is. But the faith of those families lives on.
I have nine guest books signed by people who attended the funerals of those ancestors. I’ve gotten rid of the sympathy cards and notes, but cannot allow myself to get rid of the books, especially the one from my Grandpa Louveau’s funeral. He was respected and well-loved, and there was a long line of cars in his funeral procession as it made its way up St. Leo’s hill to the church. I get the guest book out every few years and read the names Grandma would tell me about – of all those who lived nearby and were important to them. Names including Will, Barr, Mulholland (Red was a fiddler), Van Pelt, Greathouse, Valleroy, Brown, Gendron, Tillman, DeRousse, Conner, Burch, Kayser, Jones, Farrar, Mollett, Pierman, Roche, Currat — too many to name all of them.
Rite of Leave Taking
On the day the church was closed, our daughter, Laurie, drove Cliff and me to the final Mass. The priests, deacon, and altar servers processed through some of the significant ritual stations of the church: the shrine of St. Leo the Great, the image of Mary, the baptismal font, the confessional, the twelfth station of the Cross, the holy oils, the ambo, the altar. Prayers were said at each of these, and as we followed the procession outside, the church doors were closed and locked. The church was no longer a parish church, and its future was unknown.
Great pains had been taken to make the liturgy meaningful and one of thanksgiving for its parishioners. But the day was not without a few mishaps. After the turn of the key to lock the door, and as we began walking to the church hall for a meal, one of the priests said he needed to go back into church to use the restroom. But that was not allowed.
Parishioners had sadly but lovingly prepared a fried chicken dinner, and just as they had for many years at the parish picnic, people filled their plates in a buffet line as they entered the hall, then began eating their meal. Unaware that more prayers were planned, they did so before Bishop Edward Braxton blessed the meal and said grace, for which he severely chided everyone. Oh my!
Though I am elderly, a bit senile some days, and at 88, am tottering down the road to “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” as the song goes, I still remember a thing or two and that is an invited guest should not criticize the hosts who have prepared a delicious meal, even though their beloved church is being closed. Poor manners, indeed.
A few of us had not filled our plates yet – mainly because we were all trying to get Cliff settled comfortably. Somehow we ended up at a table very close to where the priests, deacon, and bishop sat.
Then Cliff realized he had forgotten his lighter and wanted to have one handy so he could smoke a cigar outside after he ate. He half jokingly suggested Laurie ask if the priests had a light. She refused and finally one of the Hahn boys took pity on him and found some matches in a drawer in the kitchen.
It was a sad drive home, but the car radio started playing, “Good Night, Irene,” which prompted a memory from Cliff on being enroute to Korea with fellow soldiers. One had just gotten married to an Irene, and to annoy him, the men kept singing the song.
It had been a long day and the sun was setting as we drove home. It was a beautiful sunset. The colors lingered on in the sky, and the three of us sang, Good Night Irene.” That bittersweet memory stays with me.
Credit: Historical photos and information on St. Leo’s Church courtesy of Jeanette Hahn Melliere.
More than five years after St. Leo’s Church was closed, its doors remain locked and its fate is unknown. Determined not to let the historic church be sold or torn down by the diocese, a group of parishioners and community members, led by Ruth Hahn’s son-in-law, Ron Melliere, have requested that they be allowed to keep the church and parish hall open for special occasions. Their case is being heard by the Vatican.
The group has worked to raise funds to maintain the church buildings and grounds, by organizing a non-profit known as The Friends of St. Leo’s. The main source of funding is a monthly raffle for a beautiful handmade quilt.
If you would like to support this cause and participate in the raffle, you may send $20 (for 12 months) to: Friends of St. Leo’s. P.O. Box 74, Prairie du Rocher, IL 62277. Or, feel free to call Ron Melliere at 618-284-3491 – for information.
Lola Anna Bernice Louveau was named after her grandmothers, Annie Mourot Louveau and Bernice DeRousse. I don’t know where the name Lola came from.
Growing up with five brothers and one younger sister, she was somewhat of a tomboy as a child, but grew up more refined than anyone I’ve known, including her mother whose speech, patience, and housekeeping could have used some improvement. However, the two of them got along very well and she learned her cooking and sewing skills from Grandma as well as the art of “making do” with very little.
Grandma’s maiden name was Beauvais, from the Beauvais St. Gemme family, whose family tree could be traced back to the Daughters of the American Revolution, I learned from research by a genealogist. Had Mom and Grandma known, they would not have been impressed. The “here and now,” day-to-day living was what was important in the bottom land by the Kaskaskia River (known as The Okaw by the locals).
Mom’s growing up years were spent helping at home, and she went to school for nine years, repeating the 8th grade in order to help the younger children as a teacher’s assistant. In her late teens, she also occasionally helped her married girlfriends, Gladys Burch DeRousse and Madge Tillman at their homes when they started their families. Much time, of course, was spent on cooking meals for a large family of men and nearly every Sunday there was drop-in company for dinner. On Saturdays, Mom would bake a cake for the Sunday meal, but when her brothers would come in from the fields, they’d beg for the cake to be cut for supper that same evening. Grandma would say, “Oh, let them have it. I’ll bake pies tomorrow morning, and the cake would be quickly demolished.
A lot of time would be spent sewing with Grandma. Everything was saved. Buttons were cut from worn garments, too long pant legs were cut off and saved, unworn pieces of a garment were cut out and salvaged before the item was discarded. They were not quilters, but pieces of material were sewn into warm bed covers for cold winters in a drafty farm house.
They never had many clothes and sometimes tried to make an old dress look a bit different. Like the time Grandma strung three strands of jet beads and attached them to an old dress. At a dance, while dancing with a neighbor man, the beads got caught on his shirt buttons. When the dance ended, they realized they were hung up. Not wanting to appear “too cozy,” Grandma yanked on the strands and beads scattered all over the floor.
Though Grandma and the men cussed like sailors, the Louveaus had a strong set of morals. Nothing of sex was ever mentioned and no inappropriate jokes were told around the women. One time a drunken guest made an unseemly remark and Grandpa locked him in the chicken house where he slept it off and then staggered home.
Mom and Grandma loved flowers and Grandma had her sons build a trellis along the front porch. The vines grew lush in the rich bottom soil, but then she decided a snake could lurk in there and she had them tear it all down.
Mom’s love for flowers continued. Through the years, she always had a garden, often started from seeds or cuttings from plants friends gave her.
A New Love
When Mom was about 19 years old, the Yallaly family moved from Ste. Genevieve County in Missouri, to Moro Island, Illinois, and attended the same church as the Louveaus, St. Leo’s. The new family of six sons and one daughter, was an attraction, of course, and caused much talk. The Yallaly siblings had lots to say about some of their fellow parishioners as well, and after Mass one Sunday, Jules Yallaly (who would become a priest) commented on one of the men’s flashy belt buckle with the initials G.H. What could that stand for? He decided on “Goofy Henry.” This story was told through the years and my brother, Merlin, and I, when irked with each other, would call one another the same name. Some years later, the one Yallaly daughter, Ruth, married into that family, the Hahns.
The Louveaus made up their own description of the Yallaly boys. One was the “rough one,” — Spruce because of his size and rugged appearance, and one the “slick one,” because he always kept himself neat and had a handsome appearance. He was the oldest and a Boyd, not a Yallaly, because his father died when he was just one year old. He was often away because he boarded with his grandparents and taught school in Missouri, but he and Mom grew to know one another when she worked as a hired girl for his mother.
In 1928, Mom married the “slick one.” Dad gave up his teaching job and he and Mom rented a farm (known as the Burch place) just off Moro Island and Merlin and I were born in 1929 and 1931. Sadly, that was the time of the Great Depression, and low yield corn crops barely covered the cost of seed and supplies. On top of that, lightening struck and killed Dad’s pair of plow mules, making farming no longer an option. But help came from an old friend in Minnith, Missouri.
The Boyd, Coffman, and Fields families had migrated together from Kentucky to Missouri and remained friends through the generations. My Dad, Adolph Boyd, Ralph Coffman, and Rudolph Fields were close friends. Near the end of World War I, Dad and Ralph were stationed at Cape Girardeau during the outbreak of the flu. Dad’s duties were mainly helping to care for the sick and dying. Ralph was very ill and was sent home to Minnith on the train. Dad found an extra blanket and a thermos of soup for Ralph’s journey home, and told him good bye, thinking he would never see him again. Ralph survived and years later sent word to Dad that the Minnith school needed a teacher and he had a house for the family to rent.
Happy years in the 1930s were spent there, and despite the Depression, Mom and Dad provided a good home and we had most everything we needed, including our dog, Maggie.
When Merlin started school, with Dad as his teacher, my playmate was gone. I learned to play alone and entertain myself with the help of a family of kittens, Maggie, dolls, tea sets, and paper dolls, cut by Mom from the Sears catalog. In a root cellar, with a dirt roof covered with trumpet vine, I found small colored medicine bottles left by a former tenant and spent hours playing, pretending they were people. I always had a doll and before Christmas, Mom would hide it and Santa would bring her back with a new dress along with a new doll. One year, my old doll showed up on Christmas morning with new shoes made from the same leather-like material Mom had used to recover the seats in Dad’s car.
While I played, Mom was always nearby, but she had many chores. She raised chickens and guineas and tried to raise turkeys, which are difficult to keep because the hens tend to lay their eggs in a hidden nest in the woods instead of in the chicken house. When the turkey – an old hen – would head for the woods, Mom and I would sneak behind her at a distance and try to find the nest. Mom would put the eggs under a hen in the chicken house to hatch. I don’t remember her having much luck with turkeys.
Although she had plenty of work to get done before Dad and Merlin returned home, she spent lots of time with me and some afternoons we would walk to visit neighbors, all who lived about a mile away – Mr. and Mrs. Tobe Brown, Mrs. LeClare, Ralph Coffman’s mother, and of course, Ralph’s wife, Verna Coffman. She and Mom grew to be life-long friends and kept in touch through long letters throughout their lives.
On winter days when Dad and Merlin were at school, she would let the kitchen stove go out and we would stay in the warm living room. She read stories to me and taught me to read. For lunch we’d have home canned tomato juice and crackers and listen to our stories on the radio. I can’t recall the names of any of the stories, except one – Bachelor’s Children. The Bachelor was entrusted with being the guardian to the twin daughters of his former sergeant from his military days, after the sergeant suddenly died. In true soap opera fashion, the Bachelor falls in love with one of the young women. It sounds silly now, but some of the stories were sad and I would cry.
Just as she and Grandma sewed for their family, Mom sewed for us. She worked at a treadle sewing machine and would sing old Baptist hymns – The Old Rugged Cross, The Great Speckled Bird, That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine, etc. She sewed while I napped and on a rare occasion I would awaken from a nap with a Baby Ruth candy bar on my pillow.
One November, on Dad’s birthday, I helped stir the batter for his cake while he and Merlin were at school. But we had no candles! Mom gave me a dull kitchen knife and told me to go out and whittle some sticks for candles just to get me out of the way for a while. I found pretty quickly that was a lost cause. She knew all along what she would do and that was to cover toothpicks with pink crepe paper. I thought them beautiful.
After I was grown, I realized how hard it must have been for her to leave her family, home and friends for another state and strangers. In those early years in Missouri, when I was just a couple of years old, she had a baby girl who lived three days. Dad made the small casket and a cross, and she was buried at the church cemetery in Ozora. How hard that must have been on them as well as on her family back in Illinois.
Mom and Grandma kept in touch through long letters, and we visited her family on rare occasions, including some holidays. There was always love, laughter, and just plain silliness in that old Louveau home in the bottom land. Mom retained that strong sense of humor in good times and bad.
In the move to Minnith and later to Coffman, she got to know and love Dad’s Missouri relatives and friends. Our Sundays after Mass were spent at the home of Dad’s Aunt Rosie and Uncle Godfrey Kreitler, or they would come to ours. Many Sundays we visited his Aunts Angie and Ethel at the Yallaly home, or we’d visit with the Perrys. Aunt Lizzie Yallaly had married Gus Perry and had a big family so similar to the Louveaus that Dad claimed one could hardly tell the difference. Mom, of course, fit right in with the Perrys – Charlie, Jean, and Ada, and their cousin, Judith Rudloff, whose mother was a Yallaly.
Mom and Judith were kindred spirits, and though grown women, could fall helpless with giggles. Like the night we came out of the church hall at Ozora and got into the wrong car. (Merlin, a small child at the time, would have recognized the mistake immediately, but he had lingered inside with the men.) When an old German man with a thick accent came to get in his car, they laughed so hard they could barely climb out.
Mom was always gracious to others and had a lot of empathy.
When it was time for Merlin and me to make our First Communion, Merlin had to wear white pants and shirt and I needed a white dress and veil. Fabric was usually ordered from a Sears catalog, but Dad’s Aunt Maude Boyd Gegg had a white crepe dress from years ago and she offered it to Mom. Mom ripped it apart and made the dress and Aunt Maude was pleased and proud of the result. I was to borrow a veil from a school friend, Christine Gegg.
It was Ascension Thursday and when we arrived at church, a little girl from neighboring Staabtown, River Aux Vases, was there to make hers also. She had no mother, was raised by an elderly aunt, and instead of a veil, she had a white shoe string for a bow for her hair. When the friend’s family arrived with the veil, Mom rushed out to the car and said she could not allow me to wear the veil when the little girl had only a shoe string.
While still teaching, Dad agreed to manage the Coffman store and Post Office after his uncle died, a move Mom was very much against. She was concerned the store would take up much of their time and wouldn’t make any money during those hard times, and she was right. But the store had been built and run by Boyds and Dad felt it his duty. So, in addition to keeping house, Mom tended to the store and the Post Office.
When I was seven and ten years old, two more sisters were born and the youngest, Mary Lea, had many health problems. No food agreed with her and she was always sickly. Dad and Mom managed to raise her with love and the tenderest of care. She was very slow to learn, but attended special schools until she was 16. Mom taught her all she was capable of learning and often said it was one step forward and two steps back. She taught her to be dutiful, calm, and friendly and Mom claimed her greatest compliment came from her sister-in-law Dorothy when she said that Mary Lea was not spoiled.
Mom always made time for her family and continued to sew – wedding and bridesmaid dresses, suits, coats, and First Communion dresses for granddaughters. She always helped cheerfully, never stinting with her time, and was always patient.
In her last years, she claimed being in her 70s wasn’t bad, but the 80s were no fun at all. Her thick, silvery hair was always kept in a French roll, until arthritis made it too painful to put her hair up. She had her hair cut shorter to make it more manageable – she still looked beautiful.
One evening, at 88 years, she was sitting in her chair working on a crossword puzzle and Merlin noticed she was just waving her pencil back and forth. She had a stroke, was in a coma for two weeks until she died. Family members took turns staying with her day and night. One evening, daughter Jan was taking her turn, standing over Mom’s hospital bed praying the rosary with her eyes closed. On opening them she saw another rosary lying on the bed. None of us had lost our rosaries. It was December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
On the day of Mom’s funeral, the Church of Ste. Genevieve was beautifully decorated with candles and greenery on each windowsill. Sunshine shone on the casket as the priest blessed it.
The women in our family have a motto hanging on our walls: Strong women, may we know them, may we raise them, may we be them.
One of our favorite family outings in the spring was when the jonquils bloomed.
One of our favorite family outings in the spring was when the jonquils bloomed. As a letter carrier for the post office, Cliff’s days off were in the middle of the week, except for every fifth Saturday.
If we knew the jonquils were in bloom and it was a nice day, we would keep the kids out of school and go flower picking. On our way we would drive past their school so they could see their classmates going in – that was an added treat for them. Then, we’d drive down old Highway 21 to Old Mines, the French town in Washington County where Cliff’s family was from. His mother, Genevieve, had taken us to a spot one year where jonquils had spread in the woods atop a big hill hidden from the road. We would park off the road and climb the hill. She said the area was called Shibboleth.
When we finally reached the top of the hill, the jonquils were spread out over a large area. We gathered until we were tired, put them in buckets in the trunk and added water from the creek.
At the bottom of the hill was a small creek and a spring. Cliff remembered as a child walking to Mass and drinking from the spring. He recalled an Easter morning, coming home from Mass and stopping at the creek to eat hard-boiled Easter eggs which his mother had tucked inside her purse. They cracked and peeled the eggs, then ate them and drank cold water from the spring. None of them had eaten breakfast yet because, like all Catholics, they fasted an hour before Mass. It was one of his treasured childhood memories.
On our way home, we’d stop at Washington State Park, build a fire and have a lunch of roasted hot dogs, dip and chips, and cold soda.
The next day, I would send written excuses to school, explaining exactly what we had done, along with a bouquet of jonquils. The nuns didn’t seem real happy with me, but the lay teachers wished they had been invited.
In early spring, when the lilacs are just starting to bud out, the redbud trees are blooming and mayapples are a few inches high, you know it’s mushroom season.
Years ago, Cliff and I would head for the woods often during mushroom season. Most years we were too anxious and had many false runs, but finally we would start finding the black ones and the small grays.
One Sunday, after Mass, I put a beef roast in the oven and we drove to Bee Tree Park in south county. Just off a well-traveled path, we started finding small tan ones and they seemed to just keep popping up and we kept picking dozens. A man walking by asked what we were doing. We explained and he started picking too. Worried about the roast in the oven, we had to leave him still picking.
Though it was a longer drive we started going to Babler State Park off Highway 109, and we always had luck there. As the season progressed, the dogwoods would bloom and we’d find different varieties in different spots with the larger white ones coming in last.
Some days we’d pick up our old friends, Jim and Mary Lou, who didn’t care for our early start at 7:00 a.m., but Jim would come out of the house, still buttoning his shirt and carrying his beer cooler. We’d take a lunch and spend the whole day in the woods. On the way home, Mary Lou and I would sit in the backseat of the car, open a beer, and count the mushrooms – sometimes in the hundreds.
Before Cliff’s back started bothering him, we were able to hunt every season, finding lots of mushrooms and traipsing up and down hills even in all kinds of weather. But old age comes to us all – Cliff had a bad back and legs and could no longer walk far or climb the ravines, though was still anxious to go. The kids started taking us, and most enjoyed the hunt.
We had learned that towards the end of the season, small cream ones could be found in the lower end of the park. This day our son, Ted, had taken us and by now Cliff would stay near the car, smoking his cigar and taking short strolls with his cane. Ted and I were the equivalent of about two city blocks from the car, and not far off a path we found a nice path of large white morels. Just a few minutes before, I had spoken to another hunter, but he was no longer in sight. I told Ted that Cliff had to come see them growing before we picked them, and I would stand guard while he went to get Cliff. It seemed forever before Cliff made his way there, but he was able to look and exclaim before we started picking. He was exhausted, though, and couldn’t walk back to the car. There was a narrow road for park vehicles and Ted managed to drive the car back on that road and pick Cliff up.
In an earlier year, we had gotten to the park at 7:00 a.m., had a successful hunt, and when we got back to the car a park ranger was waiting for us. She politely told us a bike race was on, that we were not supposed to be there, and she’d escort us out of the park. We gifted her with some mushrooms.
We always shared with kids and friends and a widow of one of Cliff’s card-playing friends. There are many recipes, but we liked morels just rolled in flour and browned on both sides in butter. Sometimes I’d make gravy and serve them on toast. Not many people would like this next dish, but wild onions are up the same time as morels and we would pick a mess of them. They reduce down quite a bit when they’re cooked, so we’d fill a grocery bag, though it was a job to clean them all. I’d cook them in a large pot for about two hours, with some scraps of ham and a little water. Then I’d scramble two eggs and stir them in until all was cooked. I’d sprinkle vinegar on mine and Cliff would use hot sauce.
Our days of hunting mushrooms together ended, but we had more than our share of happy hunts.
The Saline Creek
Through the years of raising our family, there was never money for vacations, but what we did have was the Saline Creek in Ste. Genevieve County where my father and his parents were born. It is a clear-running creek a few miles from Coffman, near Minnith, Missouri, about an hour from St. Louis.
The Saline Creek was a happy place for Dad and his siblings. Their home was on the Saline, near Ozora. Summer days were spent in the creek. His stepfather, Will Yallaly, many times had to hitch his mules and pull a stranded car out of the creek bed which had no bridge. That stretch of the creek became known as Yallaly ford.
When Dad taught school at Minnith, the creek ran just across a field from our home, and many summer evenings, after supper, we would go there for our baths.
Years later, my brother bought an old one-room schoolhouse from Dad’s cousin Tucker Boyd, and it made a great clubhouse for the weekends. It was a few miles from the creek, just 15 minutes away by car. Many wonderful days were spent there, and family and friends would join us at the clubhouse.
Usually in June, on one of Cliff’s days off when the kids were little, we’d pack a lunch, swim suits, towels, old inner tubes, and off we’d go. The creek was mostly shallow and kids didn’t have to be watched too closely while they were playing in the sand, building rock walls for moats and catching tadpoles.
I’d also throw plastic kitchen junk in a bag for playing in the sand and water – sour cream and margarine containers, an old metal sieve, spoons, etc. We never had store bought sand toys, though one year we bought a sand bucket with attachments called a “Sand Pal,” as a bribe for daughter Chris to stop sucking her thumb, and as I recall, it worked.
The years passed and June rolled around and we were back at the creek with our first grandchild, Stephanie. I had my bag of junk, but she had nice new sand toys. Other family members would gather there with us and I showed my Dad Stephanie’s new toys and also the bag of plastic junk. Now Dad had seen four generations of kids playing in the Saline and he told me my stuff would still get played with. Sure enough, the next year as soon as we arrived at the creek, Stephanie asked, “Maw Maw, did you bring your creek toys?”
Even now, years later, when we visit Coffman and the Old Mayberry Cemetery, we drive to the creek no matter the time of year. We get out of the car, look around and remember many happy days on the creek.
It was while living in the Clinton Peabody projects that I met Cliff. We’d known each other for a few years and we both were part of a circle of friends, many of whom also lived in the projects. We all enjoyed each other’s company and went together to dances or to a bar. Cliff was one of the only guys in the group who had a car, so sometimes we’d all pile in and go for a drive to a park where we’d have a weanie roast. It was all a lot of fun — and very innocent.
I liked Cliff, but didn’t think of him as someone to marry. After he was called back into the Army during the Korean War, I didn’t see him for a long time. Then, in 1951, at Christmas Eve Mass, we saw each other and spoke, and a few days later he called and asked me for a date.
Not long ago, I was going through some old boxes and found the photos and document below. I hadn’t looked at these in a very long time, although I’d heard the story many times from Cliff.
Before he went into the service for the second time, he dated Iva, one of the girls in our circle of friends. While he was away, his mom sent him a letter telling him Iva had married someone else. To cheer Cliff up, his buddies put together a funeral of sorts, to bury Iva’s picture — and his broken heart. George was Cliff’s first name and the one his troop leaders used, so his friends used that in the ceremony document.
Let’s go back nearly 70 years to Korea where a group of young soldiers entertained themselves without the USO. Kind of makes you think of MASH, doesn’t it?
The “official” document, titled “Why the GIs in Korea Want to Get Home,” is dated June 24, 1951, and six months later, he was back home, and we both were at Midnight Mass. We married on Oct. 4, 1952, and were married for 64 years when Cliff died on Dec. 15, 2016.
Sprigs of Holly
After Cliff retired from the Post Office, he and a group of other retired men played pinochle for many years in the Lyle House in Carondelet Park. Just outside the house is a large holly bush and every Christmas season he would gather an armload of branches and bring them home for all of us to use in our decorations.
The year he died, he was in and out of the hospital, beginning in November, and he had stopped going to the pinochle club. So, we had no holly. But, one day, our daughter Laurie, was riding in the car with her husband, Bob, on a winding road near their home. She saw a pile of holly branches along the roadside. She screeched, “Stop! Back up.” Then she jumped out of the car, gathered the holly, and brought it home. How many times have you seen a pile of holly along the road? She shared it with all of us.
A few weeks ago, on a Saturday, at a moving sale with daughter Jan, I spotted a holly bush in the yard and promptly asked if I could buy a small bunch. The very gracious homeowner considered it, and after I told her about Cliff and his tradition of bringing us holly, she handed me a pair of scissors and told me to take all I wanted. (Son-in-law Bob calls it “playing the old lady card,” and sometimes I play it to the hilt.) This time I restrained myself and clipped just a few branches that would not be missed and thanked her profusely. I shared sprigs with the girls when I got home.
On a table top by the fireplace, near where Cliff always sat, I’ve placed an old Christmas card, now in a frame. Last year I found the card in a box of his father’s belongings that has been stored in the basement for years. It’s a large, very pretty card. Now, Cliff never wanted cards from the kids, claiming it was a waste of money. Yet, many years ago he had sent a Christmas card, about 6 by 12 inches, to his parents with a line stating he was in Japan on his way to Korea.
I put sprigs of holly with other greenery in a small vase and placed it by the frame. Somehow, he never lets us forget him. As if I could.
We left Coffman for St. Louis and the housing project of Clinton Peabody in January of 1943. I was 11 years old. We left unpaved roads and long walks to school, woods to play in, fields for berry-picking and kite-flying, clear, running creeks where we waded in the summer and chopped ice chunks in the winter for homemade ice cream. We left neighbors, friends, and relatives, many of whom we never saw again.
We gained indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, concrete side walks, roller skates with keys, empty parking lots for ballgames, brick walls for games of twelves and ledgeball, kids, kids, and more kids to play with and build lifelong friendships.
The war was on and Pearl Harbor bombed. Clinton Peabody was built for the very poor, but also provided housing for defense plant workers. Many poor country people moved there, also a few who had always lived in St. Louis. They were three story buildings, bordered by Park Avenue, 14th Street, Chouteau, and Grattan. A Catholic church, Holy Guardian Angels, was enclosed, near Chouteau and 14th.
It was a time of rationing: meat, toilet paper, sugar, and gasoline, among other things. Buses and street cars ran frequently, and men sold their cars because of the gasoline shortage and used public transportation for work. That left empty streets and parking lots for ballgames, jump rope, double dutch and double Irish. There was a ballgame everyday, and if you didn’t have enough for teams, you played “Move Up.” Every time an out was made, you moved up a position.
Though we came from a one-room school house, in some subjects we were ahead of our classmates in the city school. I would finish my work before Florence, the classmate who sat behind me, and I would read her book until she finished her work. She told me it was a library book. I found out where the library was and Dad walked Merlin and me across the 14th Street viaduct to 14th and Locust to the main library. He signed our applications and we were able to get our cards and checked out three books as I recall. We loved to read and had little access to books in the country.
Though we still fought, as siblings do, Merlin and I were no longer playmates. We had our own friends now, but some weekends we would leave our friends, go to Union Station on Market Street, catch the “dinky,” and go back to visit our grandparents in Illinois. The dinky was made up of an engine, passenger car, and a mail car. It would stop at Roots Station, a lean-to shed in the middle of a field and we would walk from there to our grandparents’ home. When it was time to return to St. Louis, an uncle would stand in the middle of the track with a roll of lighted newspaper, wave it and the train would stop for us. Talk about efficiency and “making do.”
Neighbors Become Family
There was, as my mother would say, a “duke’s mixture” of families in that crowded housing project. Some educated, many not. A lot of kid fights and some bickering among the women, but mostly there was friendliness, borrowing and generosity. One neighbor even borrowed Dad’s felt hat for his father’s funeral. Men thought they always had to wear a felt hat with their suits.
One day, I was in the 6th or 7th grade, and was walking up St. Ange Lane with a younger neighbor boy named Jerry, and as we passed Hickory Lane, a teenager was turning into his home. He had a ballcap on and was carrying a baseball glove. He was coming from the 12th Street lot, down by the railroad tracks. Jerry said, “That’s Geno Portell’s brother, Doc.” Several families of French descent came from the French town of Old Mines in Washington County and his was one of them. Little did I know then that he was to be my future husband. I don’t remember seeing him again until I was out of high school.
Merlin graduated in 1947 from St. Mary’s High School, which was then called South Side. Like many young men of the time, he decided to go into service. He enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to Germany.
After I graduated from Rosati Kain High School in 1949, I worked at Kieffer Cleaners for three years. A group of friends from grade school and high school would meet and hang out together on the weekends. Cliff (Doc) showed up again, was in our crowd, and dated one of our friends.
Before that, he had dropped out of high school, gone through several jobs, joined the Army, was stationed on Guam, returned home, and then was called back into service during the Korean War. Geno also served in Korea at the same time as Cliff, and on finding out Geno was at the front, Cliff went AWOL looking for him. He was turned back at some point and had to return to his unit. Geno was injured by shrapnel, sent back to the States and was in a hospital in California for months before coming back home.
When Cliff was discharged, I saw him again at Midnight Mass one Christmas Eve and he called a few weeks later to ask for a date. I turned him down then, but he called again a few weeks later and I agreed to go out. He did not yet have a steady job, but he made me laugh and we continued dating for several months. Now Cliff was not one to go to a lot of trouble, and he asked his brother-in-law, who worked part time at a pawn shop on Delmar, to bring him a selection of engagement rings. He picked one out and one night he gave it to me and asked me to marry him.
When I showed it to my parents the next morning, Mom quickly took it to the window to inspect it in better light and asked if it was real. My parents, though nothing was said at the time, were not too pleased with my choice. But my mother thought highly of Cliff’s mother and figured some of her goodness possibly had worn off on him. Up until a few months ago, when I had the ring appraised, I didn’t know whether or not the diamond is real. It is, but what does it matter? I will always cherish it no matter what.
Cliff, along with his parents and his oldest sister, Verna, took me to meet his grandmother and aunts in Old Mines. I remember all the women discussed in French what they would serve us for lunch.
In the same manner, my parents and I took Cliff to meet my grandparents. The Yallaly side was unimpressed, though they took to Cliff later and he and Uncle Spruce got to be great friends, and along with Merlin and a Louveau uncle had some great times together.
All the Louveaus, on the other hand, took to him immediately. After all, what was not to like? Wasn’t he a fellow Frenchman — and a card-playing Frenchman at that?! At that first meeting, Cliff, my grandfather and uncles sat down to a game of euchre.
And so, on October 4, 1952, my uncle, Fr. Jules Yallaly, married us at Holy Angels. Merlin was discharged from the Air Force and arrived home that same morning, right before the ceremony. How happy we and all the relatives were to see him.
With a borrowed car from the same brother-in-law who helped Cliff purchase the engagement ring and $300 mustering out pay Cliff had received from the Army, we had a week’s honeymoon.
Through the Years
Call us “babes in the wood,” or whatever you will. I never said it was easy. Don’t ever believe it was. Not for either of us. For the first time, Cliff had to stick to a steady job and stop hanging out with his buddies at Heine Beck’s tavern on Grattan and Chouteau, though he still spent a lot of time playing ball. And me? That first year I contemplated different methods of killing him – with either my rolling pin or the cast iron skillet, and it would have to be when he was asleep. There was certainly no money for a divorce!
But with inborn grit, coming from good, plain, strong stock, and the grace of God, we made it through that first year. We had years of raising six kids in rented flats, one paycheck, one car – always used, until we had enough money saved and a loan from the bank for our first home. Years of grand times and bad, spats, tears, scrimping, but also love and support from our families, good friends, all in the same boat, healthy kids, always love and laughter, and God’s grace and our faith helped pull us through.
All of that and we managed 64 years together until various ailments combined and caused Cliff’s death at age 88. He had a long, healthy retirement until he reached his 80s. He left a legacy of love and respect from his family and friends and they recall his many sayings with tears, love, and laughter.
A Mother and a Neighbor
Now, I live alone, with no schedule most days and sometimes I think back on those years in rented rooms in south St. Louis and the long-ago neighbors, many elderly – or seemed elderly to me at the time. I remember Mrs. DePrender, always kind to our kids, giving us homemade goodies, like Easter bread and oatmeal cookies, made with dates. We, in our turn, invited her to dinner for her birthday and Carolyn, a tiny tot, said” Good suppah, huh ‘Pender’?”
I remember Mrs. Korman a landlady who offered us her downstairs flat at a cheaper rent. Then there was Mrs. Frank who put beautifully-filled baskets over the fence early Easter morning. She also took the laundry off the clothes line one day when I had to head to the hospital to give birth to our fifth child.
I remember our stern neighbor with her German accent, Mrs. Gering, and her sour cream pound cake recipe for the best pound cake we’ve ever eaten and which I’ve made countless times.
Now, I’m the elderly neighbor. Younger neighbors look out for me – they watch my house when I’m away, bring in my trash cans, bring in my mail and newspapers. Neighbor children who found the plastic Easter eggs filled with candy that I scattered on their front lawns when they were small now mow my lawn and help with other chores. My children, grandchildren, and in-laws take me to doctor appointments, family functions, and vacations.