He knew he was dying. He had this realization for a long time. And, he was. But he wanted to say something first. Something important. He knew he could trust her.
Lonis was born in south Mississippi in an age of Jim Crow, 1911 or maybe 1913. We don’t know because he frequently changed his mind about it. It was funny when he asked his wife, “How old am I?” At the time I thought the old man was getting senile. But the truth is he had used different dates so often he could not settle on one and had to be reminded by his wife of the most likely alternative.
In the early part of the twentieth century in the south and to a slightly lesser extent most of the north, African Americans “knew their place”. White people did too. Society was a parfait of class and segregation and to pass from one layer upward to the next was often difficult, but for black and brown people not just difficult but impossible and illegal. There were elites with old money and land. There was the struggling middle class. And, there was a vast layer of poor whites. Then, finally, African Americans – most of whom were the children and grandchildren of former slaves. They were on the bottom economically and legally. This situation was acute in the south where power was in the hands of the very, very few at the top near the whipped cream.
Those days are gone and good riddance to them. Desegregation, educational opportunities, and the elimination of Jim Crow voting restrictions have contributed to a more homogeneous society. There are African-American mayors, supervisors, and sheriffs throughout Mississippi now. We are not perfect but have made progress. Still, the parfait remains. Churches for the most part are either black or white. The same with social clubs. Our culture is mixed but voluntary associations are still influenced by race. Not by law, but by choice. That does not make it right, but merely an accurate reflection of how it is.
Lonis Ladner was the child of this era. His people, as we say, were lower middle class farmers. They never starved but they never got wealthy either. They held their own, raising their own food, hunting, fishing some, and tending to a few cows. The mother maintained a house where she enjoyed primacy and although a small woman her word carried the day. Her husband, Stephen, knew this. Ella, Lonis’ mother, had streaks of intense and debilitating headaches. We now know them as migraines. When a streak began she sent one of the children walking down the road to the little country store. It would take credit. It had to. There was not that much money around. Ella’s personal remedy was a root beer and a BC Headache Powder. This was followed by tightly tying a rag around her head and excluding her husband and all of the six children from inside the house until the pain eased. Over a century later we now realize that caffeine, and soft drinks are full of it, actually helps with a migraine. She was prescient.
In many areas in the rural south back then if one had a front lawn it was considered a disgrace to allow grass to grow anywhere near the house. Bad form as the British might say. Allowing grass in the the yard was a sign of laziness and Indulgence. No self respecting lady would allow such a thing. Thus, Lonis’ mother, Ella, spent countless hours sweeping the front with an old broom Made from twigs and sticks. If a blade popped up by the next day it was quickly dispatched with a sweep. I always found this peculiar until I took a sociology class and discovered from a lecture it was not an uncommon practice. I wish this had been the custom when we had our first house and many hours were spent mowing and trimming the lawn.
The Pearl River runs down from somewhere near the capitol at Jackson, Mississippi and slowly meanders south through the extensive forests and fields. It leads to the Gulf of Mexico through Lake Borgne. It’s not really a lake but more of a lagoon of sorts having long ago had its boarders washed out by hurricanes and erosion and the large appetite of the Gulf of Mexico which hungers for devouring land. In French borgne means one eyed. Above one eyed the river is the boundary between a part of Mississippi and Louisiana. Pearl River County has gentle areas of cleared fields full of small subsistence farms and a few scattered cities.
Lonis and his family were French descendants and many of their children bore French first names. Yet, as is said in the south with a smile, over the years and because the language was mixed and shaken with a dose of English these beautiful names were “red necked” into words and pronunciations unrecognizable even to a first year high school student of the French language. Plisead and Dicede, twin relatives of my wife became pronounced “Pli-seed” and Di-seed”. Something you would expect to read on a fertilizer sack. Almachene and Almada, another set of twins, became “Al-ma-chin” and “Al-ma-die”.
Other French relatives down the years simply had their names truncated into mere letters. Thus, RL and XL and RZ were Ladners. There were no first or middle names. RZ and RL were girls. Made it easy to remember your initials I suppose. Our children delighted in the names and often would beg their grandmother to “tell us some names” and she would. They would ask she to talk French and she would break into poems and ditties such as “Me and My People”. My mother-in-law was throughly French and did not learn English until she entered the first grade. English was not spoken in her home. She was a Dedeaux and Ladner and Dedeaux marriages were common.
If asked who settled America most people would answer the English along the east coast, but this is not true. There were Spanish and French and Germans and Dutch and a smattering of other countries. The English centric idea belies the fact that in south Mississippi and Louisiana it was the French. In 1699 a colony was begun in what is now mOcean Springs, Mississippi by Frenchmen Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his brother, Jean Baptiste de Bienville. The French were desperate for women to come to the colony and they sent to France to send some. Thus, in 1704 they arrived.
In its earliest days, before Mobile was part of Alabama, it was a struggling French colony in need of settlers. The men far outnumbered the women, leading not only to a decrease in probability of new progeny but also to the problem of men with little to keep them occupied. The women, largely penniless and recruited from orphanages and convents, had few prospects in France and readily agreed to sail to the strange lands of Mobile and Dauphin Island in hopes of becoming colonists’ wives.
The girls were given several nicknames – Pelican Girls after the ship that transported them, Le Pelican; or Cassette or Casket Girls for the boxes, called casquettes, used to carry their belongings to a new world. They weren’t prostitutes or convicts, as many forced colonists had been in the past. In fact, the girls – ages 14 to 19 – were chosen because they were virgins. They were not assigned husbands but, rather, were courted and allowed to choose among the men. Many of the brides carried yellow fever that killed 22 of the settlers. Conditions were harsh and their houses were inadequate. To force their husbands to build better homes, the Pelican Girls launched the Petticoat Rebellion and denied their husbands “bed and board” until better homes were built. The ploy worked. My wife was descended from these brave settlers. Or, as southerners express it, they are her people.
My father-in-law always advised my wife not to be too quick to claim another Ladner as being related. Of course, they all are. He warned there are two basic types of Ladner, the school teacher Ladners (which they as ascribed to) and the bootlegger Ladners (which they did not). This does not account for Uncle Osvald Ladner who ran a small store in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He lived upstairs and sold “hootch” from the back. One year we visited Uncle Osvald and despite being raided by the dreaded Revenooers he still made some moonshine. I took a sip which was offered to me. A good sip. My eyes rolled back, my throat was on fire, and my stomach felt like it was a smelter for liquid steel.
“Son”, Lonis said, “you can’t drink this stuff, you have to slowly take some in your mouth and let it melt. You understand?”
“Ugg, umm, ah.” I nodded. The power of speech eluded me. So did my taste buds until the next day. So much for the small bootlegger portion of the Ladner clan.
Mr. Ladner was an educator and taught in the classroom and served as principal for thirty-six years. My mother-in-law taught elementary school for forty-three. my wife for twenty-four until she became disabled. I tried it and lasted one year. My father-in-law was my principal.
I was thankful I taught math because the kids in rural Hancock County couldn’t read much. This was over fifty years ago. I will never forget Jimmy Gibson in the seventh grade. It was my first class and my first day and suddenly his hand shot up.
“Mr. Teel, Mr. Teel.”
“What is it?”
My ears could not have been working.
“What did you say?”
“Paul farted.” He shouted out again.
Dumbfounded, I said, “Get up here, boy.” Back then we were allowed to paddle a kid, and I gave one good solid wack. I heard Paul in the background saying, “I didn’t mean to fart”.
“Why are you whipping me? Paul was the one who farted.” This time it was his turn to be dumbfounded. And, he was.
As far as I know Paul either never farted in my class again or if he did my class was afraid to bring it to me attention. Either way I had their attention, but that day convinced me my career choice should not be education.
My in-laws adored our children. I f it was going to be cold the next day we would get a call warning us if the dire weather threat to their health.
“You know it’s going to be cold tomorrow?” My mother-in-law Tecia asked my wife, Myrna.
“Yes, mother.” she answered with a I already know that voice.
“You need to put out a blanket in their beds.” Tecia offered.
“They are going to need warm clothes too.”
And on it went for years. One time Myrna stunned her dad.
“Myrna Ann.” Her dad, Lonis, said. When this appellation was used her folks meant serious business. “It is freezing out there now. Use an extra blanket on their beds and wrap them up real warm tomorrow.” He instructed her.
“Daddy, they like sleeping on the cold floor and they want to wear shorts to school.” Myrna spoofed him. He did not take the bait.
“Myrna Ann, don’t make me come down there and check on those children. Now you listen to me.” He firmly said. He would have too.
I was blessed with most wonderful in-laws. My father-in-law became my friend, my hunting buddy, and my substitute dad since my own dad had died when I was very young. My mother-in-law was like a second mother. She would come visit us for a week or so and she cooked all my favorite meals. Anything I wanted. That Frenchwoman could cook the phone book – you remember those – and make it taste good. I loved them dearly and still miss them.
My memories include the time when we had stopped at a roadside cafe somewhere between Oxford and the Gulf Coast. When we were ordering at the counter Lonis saw some pickled peppers and he asked for one assuming they were mildly hot. We were sitting down and the first thing he popped in his mouth was a pepper.
“That’s a hot little son of a bitch,” he loudly yelled. Heads turned and we started laughing. He gulped down a glass of water and of course that set off the pepper on another round of heat in his mouth. “That’s a hot little son of a bitch he yelled again. U this time my wife and I had choked on our first bite of food and were laughingstock hard we cried.
“Lonis, you stop that. Hush now. I mean it. Hush up.” My mother-in-law ordered. Then she began to laugh and she cried because it was so funny. He reached for my water and drank it down. The more water he poured on his pepper fire the more intense the heat from the pepper became. I will never forget it.
One night we had to take Myrna’s mother somewhere and suddenly she told me to stop at the next place because she had to go to the bathroom. We pulled into a little country store and she went in as we stayed in the car.
“I’ll only be a minute.” She said.
Five, fifteen, and then twenty minutes went by. My checked on her and came back to the car.
“She’s almost done.” Myrna advised.
Thirty minutes later we are still in the car. It was night and at ten o’clock the store manager came out and I saw him turn off the lights and lock the door. Just in time I ran out to his car as he started the engine and begged him to open up and let my mother-in-law out. He had no idea she was still there. Kindly, he did.
“You’re going to have to tell her to hurry up.” He said.
My wife begged her through the bathroom door to finish. Finally, after nearly an hour Tecia walked back to the car and the exasperated manager closed up for good. I doubt there was any toilet paper left.
“I had to use up all the tissue and the ones I keep in my purse and even my good scarf.” She was mad.
“Mother, please tell me you didn’t bring back that scarf.”
“No, but I should have.”
Lonis was the hardest working person I ever knew. When they visited he could not keep still. We always left some small project for him to accomplish when they visited. Trimming the flowers, mowing, raking leaves, helping to put up the swing. Something. Anything. He was miserable without a task at our house. Foolishly I asked him on a call if he would me paint the trim on our house.
“Sure. Glad to. We’ll see you Saturday.”
At five thirty in the morning the doorbell rang and as my mother-in-law walked in he was unloading his ladder from the truck and banging around making noise. It was still dark. For the rest of the day we painted and painted. He did not believe in stopping until something was completed. Nor did he believe in taking a break. He gave me a dirty look when I told him I needed to use the bathroom. It took all day and the old man just about killed me. He was almost twice my age and could outwork me hands down.
Once he asked me to help bale hay on his farm. That took all day too. I am a city boy. I worked with my mind not my hands. I was so tired my wife had to drive home while I slept in the car. Like I said, the old man almost killed me again.
As he lay dying of cancer he called for my wife. His last wish was for her to take good care of the boys, his grandchildren to whom he was devoted. He was not a perfect man. None of us are. He let our little kids put his unlit cigar in their mouths for just a second which enraged Tecia, but made them laugh. He took out his false teeth to tease them, which also enraged Tecia. He was generous and kind and funny. Most of all he taught me how to be a grandfather to my grandchildren and Tecia taught Myrna how to be a grandmother. I am crying as I write this because I miss them. My wife will cry too when she reads this. They are tears of happiness and remembrance and thankfulness. Our footsteps are numbered but out path is for us to determine. Let us be one of kindness.