Got Me a Baby Bull!
It was clear and cold, four days after New Year’s 1999. I had taken my mom, Janell Ernst, to her doctor in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and he found adhesions in her stomach. To end the pain she experienced after eating, he told her surgery was necessary: He would put a laser in her stomach and burn the adhesions.
“I’m putting off surgery as long as I can,” she said.
We drove north on Highway 171, a small two-laner, home to DeRidder. It was a little after four in the afternoon, and the sun hung low and golden to our left.
Mom didn’t want to have any more operations; she’d had five in the last eight years. These included three arthroscopic knee operations – scopes, she called them – two on the left and one on the right. But the right knee did not respond. Two years later it was replaced with an artificial one. Her most recent surgery was a modified radical mastectomy. In English: her right breast was removed because of cancer.
“I’ll stick to drinking Slim-Fast. My stomach doesn’t hurt as much then.”
“With the laser, the surgery shouldn’t hurt that bad,” I said.
“That’s what they said about those scopes. But those jokers hurt.” She crossed her hands on her lap and pulled her mouth tight. Mom was a rotund woman standing 5’ 3’’; her well-defined cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, which shut when she laughed, exhibited the Cheyenne lineage inherited from her grandmother.
I didn’t know what to tell her about the surgery.
“We’re still stopping at Estelle’s?” I asked.
Mom took a moment to answer. “We’ll have to make it short. I want to get home so we can feed the cows before it gets dark.” Estelle Richard (Ree-shard) was an old friend of Mom’s, more like an aunt really.
That morning I’d said: “Estelle can tell me how to roll my ‘R’s.”
“I told you,” Mom said, “just put your tongue at the top of your mouth and pull it down quick.”
I’d tried that, and it worked a little, but not consistently. “Estelle might have a short-cut for me,” I said.
“She doesn’t have much education,” Mom said. “And she was brought up talking Cajun. She’s not going to be able to explain how to speak it.”
I knew, most likely, this was true. When I was in elementary school back in Pensacola, Florida, I tried to get Mom to teach me Cajun French, but she always said the same thing: “The French I know is a slang. You don’t want to learn that.” Despite not receiving formal lessons from Mom, I picked up simple expressions: hello, good-bye, good-night; plus all the names of different Cajun dishes. But since Mom wouldn’t teach me Cajun French, I figured it wasn’t that she didn’t want to teach me, but that she simply couldn’t.
We rounded a bend in the highway and crossed into Beauregard Parish and on our right rows in the dry rice fields arced into the horizon. Next to the rice fields sat three trailer-homes spaced roughly fifty yards apart, and across the highway sat Estelle’s small stained wood house; her yard and pasture were yellow and the grass looked hard. I turned in and parked just outside her carport, a simple wooden addition to the house, also stained, not painted.
A gust of bitter wind hit us as we walked up to the house. Estelle was 87 and lived alone. Her son, Alvin, passed away in 1993 and then her husband, Dennis, in 1995, both from colon cancer. Alvin had a high fever at birth that left him with minor brain damage and he lived with his parents his whole life. Her daughter Jean lived next door with her husband. All of Jean’s children were adopted and were now grown and out of the house. Estelle’s and Jean’s houses were separated by a hundred yards of pasture.
Estelle’s blue LTD sat in the carport. It didn’t have a license plate and the tires were flat.
Mom took the three wooden steps to the front door one at a time. She held on to the screen door’s handle and I balanced her with the other hand. She knocked. No answer. She knocked again. We waited a moment. No answer. “She must be up at Jean’s,” Mom said. I held her hand and she walked down the steps one at a time. Another blast of cold air took my breath when we walked from under the carport.
“You want to go to Jean’s?”
“Let’s just go on home,” Mom said.
I wished Estelle was home. Not just because I missed a chance of learning how to trill a Cajun ‘R,’ but because I didn’t want to be in the car with Mom. She was looking for an answer I didn’t have. Of course I didn’t want her to face another operation. There are always risks, no matter how routine the procedure. But if an operation would, in the long run, take away her pain, I couldn’t be against it.
The screen door squeaked behind us. We turned around and there was Estelle looking cautiously through the screen.
She stood behind the screen door and watched us with her mouth agape.
A knowing smile came across Estelle’s wrinkled face. “Pass yourself through the door and sit down.” Estelle’s skin was a golden yellow. It was now dulled by her mostly gray hair, but in her younger days, her hair was coal black and made her skin shine. She and Mom were about the same height, but Estelle’s hair was shorter. “Don’t mind my heater,” she said. Three gas heaters were burning, two in the living room, flanking the doorway to the kitchen; the third sat in the kitchen, next to the stove.
Estelle had on a black polyester house dress and gray slippers and sat in a green naugahyde recliner on the right side of the room. A closed-up wood stove was to her left with an aluminum pie tin covering the stove-pipe hole. Estelle cooked with this stove up until twelve years ago, when Dennis bought her a gas one from Montgomery Ward.
Mom and I sat in felt recliners on the left side of the living room. Color pictures of babies and black and white ones of older folks hung on the walls. Two paintings hung side-by-side over a small, cluttered desk. One painting was Jesus in a white robe on his knees praying, and the other was the Virgin Mary ascending into Heaven. A black rosary hung around both paintings.
“How you been, Estelle?” Mom asked.
“Went to the doctor. He checked my heart and said it okay. I’m not going to die today.” She smiled with a closed mouth. “And I had to get ‘shoes’ for my walker.” Shoes were Estelle’s term for the rubber cushions on the bottom of her walker. “Got to use it when I check my cows. Me and Jean just got home a few hours before. She drove me to Lake Charles.” Estelle waved her hands demonstratively as she spoke. When her cadence increased, so did the tempo of her hands; it was as if she conducted while she spoke, her hands saying as much as her Cajun accented English.
“We just came from the doctor too.” Mom sighed. “I have to have surgery on my stomach.”
“That bad, Nell.” Estelle made the sign of the cross. “I don’t need surgery, no. The doctor checked my heart. It miss a beat every now and then.” She patted her hand on her chest. “But it still good, yeah. Keep beating.”
There was silence; for a moment, the air was heavy as Estelle and Mom took a moment to consider their mortality.
“What happened to your license plate?” Mom asked.
“Jean don’t want me to drive. Say my actions not so fast no more.”
“With my artificial knee, it’s hard for me to drive,” Mom said. “I can’t tell how hard I’m pushing the pedal. Chip’s my chauffeur when he’s home from college.”
“That’s good.” Estelle smiled at me. “Jean don’t want to drive me till it good for her. I tell her I got to go to when I got to go. She took the plate off the car and the battery out too.”
Estelle grinned shyly. The grin told me she did not like being dependent on Jean.
“I got me a baby bull!” Estelle pointed her hand and shook her finger, motioning to the back of the house and the barn. “When we got back, I pass to the bathtub to give my cows water. One of my heifer there licking a new calf. I call Jean and she come saw it. He pretty, black and white.”
“That’s good, yeah,” Mom said. Ten minutes into our visit and her Cajun accent returned. “How was your Christmas, Estelle?”
“Good. I went to Jean’s. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren all there.”
“My son in DeRidder came and my daughter from Alabama and her youngest son came in,” Mom said. “And Chip came in too. That was it this year.”
Mom has eight children. I am the youngest and the only one she had with her second husband, Hardy Jones, Sr. Mom had seven children with her first husband, Clovis Richard, no relation to Estelle. Clovis was a rice sharecropper; he and Mom and my seven half-brothers and sisters lived on the Illinois Plantation in Hayes, Louisiana. Clovis was also an alcoholic and developed a Valium habit after his right leg was crushed while working on his tractor. He committed suicide in 1972.
Except for Becky and Barbara, my half-sisters who live in Alabama and Florida, and myself, in Memphis, all the other children live in southwest Louisiana, no more than two hours away from each other and Mom. Of the three who made it to Mom’s for Christmas, two of us live out of state.
Jean walked up from her house wearing a purple knee length jacket and a tan mesh-scarf over her head. She was a tall, rangy woman. Her hair was onyx and her skin a creamy gold, looking as Estelle’s did in her younger days. Mom stood and they hugged in the center of the living room. Mom and Jean attended the one room school house in Ragley back in the 40’s. Mom has twelve brothers and sisters and is the fifth child. Due to her location as one of the middle children, she was forced to wear hand-me-downs and homemade dresses made out of rice sacks. Jean, on the other hand, being the only girl, wore no hand-me downs.
“How was your Christmas, Jean?” Mom asked.
“Good. The kids all came home. That was the first time all of them made it in four years. Usually one of them’s got to work, or goes to the in-laws. Rest of the time I’m watching her.” She pointed to Estelle. “She gets into trouble.”
“I don’t, no.”
“The doctor don’t want Mama tending her cows,” Jean said. “He’s afraid she’ll hurt herself out there. And I am too. He asked her today if she been tending her cows.”
“My cows need water. You gonna pass water to them?”
“I’ve done it before.”
“What’d you tell the doctor?” Mom asked.
Estelle’s hands stopped. She rested them on her lap and grinned. “I told him...”
“She told him she don’t tend her cows,” Jean said, “but I do.”
“You checked my bull calf,” Estelle said.
“After you called me, Mama.”
“But you still checked it.” Estelle shook her hands, palms out, at Jean.“Jean don’t think I can drive, no. But I can, yeah. I can pass myself to the doctor. Sometimes I get lost....”
“Don’t feel bad,” Mom said, “I do too. Those cancer pills I take, they mess up my memory.” The pills are actually chemotherapy in pill form, and therefore are anti-cancer. But Mom never refers to them as such.
“I took the license plate off the car because Mama ain’t suppose to be driving,” Jean said. “The doctor don’t want her to. But Mama drove the car without the license plate.” Jean twisted in the chair. “I called her one afternoon, and she didn’t answer. I walked down here to see if something had happened to her. I get here and the car’s not here.”
Estelle smiled proudly like an obedient child who had done her one mischievous deed. Fifty years ago their roles would have been reversed.
The phone rang twice. Estelle nodded at us and got up and answered it. “Hello?” After hello, the rest of the phone conversation was in Cajun French until good-bye. I recognized the words aujourd’hui – today – and docteur – doctor – so I knew she was saying she went to the doctor today. I liked hearing Estelle speak Cajun French. This woman grew up speaking the language as her native tongue, and in today’s Louisiana, when most younger Cajuns like myself do not speak it, I was glad to hear it from a native speaker.
Estelle hung up the phone. “That’s my sister. She live in DeRidder too.” Estelle sat back down. “On the road to Merryville. You know, where it go that way” – she pointed – “the little house on the right side.” Mom and I both knew the highway Estelle spoke of, but we had no idea where the house was she described. Mom and I nodded, and Estelle believed we understood.
“Chip wants know how to roll the ‘R’ in Cajun,” Mom said.
“I can say it on words like tres bien,” I said. “It’s when the ‘R’ comes at the beginning of the word that I have trouble.”
Estelle looked to Jean; Jean looked to her mama, and then to me. I waited for the short-cut.
“Say Raymond,” Jean said. She rolled the ‘R.’
“You feel how your tongue hit the back of your teeth?”
I nodded, Yes.
“Get by yourself so folks won’t make fun of you and say that over and over.”
I looked to Estelle to see what tips she had, but she only nodded in agreement with Jean. There was no Cajun short-cut.
“Me and Mama were in line at the store talking,” Jean said, “and a little girl behind us asked if we were French. She told us her parents were Cajun.” Jean crossed her legs. “What’s a shame is that now people won’t teach their kids French. Their daddy or uncle will teach them a dirty word, but not the language.”
“You remember how we’d get whippings at school,” Mom said, “if we got caught speaking French.”
“I got plenty of them.”
“Me too,” Mom said. “I remember when I brought the note home saying that there would be no more French spoke in school. I read it to Mama, and she said ‘Why can’t y’all speak French? We speak it at home.’ She didn’t understand why, and I didn’t either.” Mom’s voice trailed off and she took a moment before continuing: “Dub,” Mom’s tongue-tied twin brother, “he pledged allegiance to the flag in French to spite them. Mrs. Thorton, that old maid, she was so ugly, sent him to the principal’s office. Old Principal Showers, he couldn’t speak French either. And his wife was my second grade teacher and she got on to me for answering her ‘oui.’” Mom’s hands waved and pointed. “Mrs. Showers took me in front of the class and shook me and called me dumb; told me to speak English or get out of her class.”
Mom’s hands stopped. She rubbed them on the arms of the chair. The gas heaters hissed.
“Old Principal Showers asked Dub, ‘Why’d you say the pledge in French? You knew you were going to get into trouble.’ And Dub said, ‘It ain’t my fault y’all can’t understand.” All three women laughed loud and long; three pairs of hands waved.
I’ve heard this story before. I like it, and all the other stories Mom tells me about Uncle Dub. All death is untimely, but Uncle Dub’s was extremely so. He died the week before he was scheduled to play the Grand Old Opry. In 1965 a drunk driver hit him head-on at an intersection. Dub was in a new white Cadillac convertible and the steering wheel went through his chest as he was on his way to RadioCityMusic Hall for a show. Uncle Dub had his own country band, though his band started out playing Cajun music and would play an occasional country song. But when he signed his record contract, the record company made him stop singing in French and play only country music. He played the accordion, guitar, steel-guitar and drums, all self-taught. He made five records before his death, and Mom has tapes of him – his voice sounds like Johnny Cash, deep and mournful. I wish I had known Uncle Dub. Since he was Mom’s twin, I know we would have been close.
“I got me a bull calf.” Estelle said smiling. Mom glanced at me.
“She had to call me and come tell her if it was a bull or a heifer.”
“I know what it was. I just want you to see it.”
“We better go, if we going to get back before dark.” Mom looked at me. “You still got to feed the cows.” I stood and helped Mom up. Estelle and Jean stood.
“Don’t got to go so soon.” Estelle walked behind us to the door.
“You had you a calf today and I got a Jersey that’s pregnant,” Mom said. “Now I got to go see if mine had one. It was good seeing you, Jean.”
“You too, Nell. Y’all drive careful.”
“Next time you pass to Lake Charles stop by,” Estelle said.
“We will,” Mom said. She hugged Estelle. “Every time we pass, Chip wants to stop and hear you talk.”
Estelle smiled at me watery-eyed.
“Would you say something in French?” I asked.
“What you want to hear?”
Estelle put her hand to her mouth, cast her eyes down. “Look cross the road.” She pointed her short, yellowish arm, and then the Cajun came smooth and lilting, the opposite of her rough-hewn appearance.
Mom nodded her head as Estelle spoke.
“What’d you say?”
“Your mama know.”
I looked to Mom. “The trailers are pretty, but they’re nothing but paper and wood. That’s why I wouldn’t have one.”
Mom, despite my misgivings, knew Cajun French.
“Take care, Estelle.” I helped Mom down the steps. As we walked by Estelle’s car, I thought: It will never move again with her behind the wheel.
“Why don’t Jean sell that car instead of letting it sit there and rot,” Mom said. “She could give the money to her mama. Estelle mentioned that calf twice. Her mind ain’t what it was.”
I pulled onto Highway 171. The sun was orange, half of it below the horizon. The sky was dusky gray. I turned on the headlights.
“Why didn’t you teach me French?” I asked.
Mom turned her head and looked me in the face. Her eyes were almost shut and full of tears. “I was afraid you’d speak it at school, and I didn’t know what they’d do to you.” She patted my knee and wiped her eyes.
I wished I’d never questioned Mom’s reason for not teaching me French.
“When will you be home from college?” she asked.
“Sometime in May.” I looked over at Mom. Her cheeks were colored, her eyes now dry and focused forward.
“I’ll put that surgery off till then.”
It was night when we got home. I fed the cows in the dark.