Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Angels in The Architecture


I was thinking about my maternal grandmother recently. This is a picture of her, standing with her younger sister, Marion, whom we knew as Aunt Teet.

Although few people know this, she was probably responsible for ending World War I. She had a steel will, a great laugh and a strong impact on my life. When I was a child she lived about two miles away from us and was a frequent presence in my life. She was a good cook and often brought over desserts or came just to visit and talk. My grandfather, who had planted multitudes of red amaryllis around the entire house, often went outside to tidy up the flower beds.

Momo, as we called her, made most of my clothes since I was the only girl in the family at the time and she loved to sew. By the time I was 6, all I had to do was draw a picture and she would whip up a pattern and make whatever I desired, not that I cared much what I wore at that age. I remember drawing a picture of myself sitting on the bank of a creek with a cane fishing pole. By my side there was a can of worms. I was sort of a tomboy. I loved to go down to the "scramble tracks" as we called it with my brothers to find crawdads in the storm ditch by the woods.

I showed her the drawing and asked for a simple dress with that picture on the front. She nearly laughed herself silly. She told me with tears in her eyes that it would be very hard to find fabric with worms printed on it. She made the dress, but we substituted another fabric, although I cannot remember what it was. What I do remember was that she took me to J.C. Penney’s and let me pick out the fabric I liked, which made me feel very grown-up and tremendously pleased with myself.

Here is a picture of me and two of my four brothers when I was in about the 4th grade. She made my coat. It had a velvet collar. We are standing in front of my dad's 1950 Studebaker.

Even as an old woman, Momo had a beautiful smile, with deep dimples and blue-gray eyes. Her skin was white as milk and as a young woman, her hair was a rich sable. Her sister, my Aunt Teet, once told me that when Alice was young, she was called “The Belle of New Orleans” because she was so beautiful and had so many beaus.

My great-aunt Teet was not beautiful, but she was handsome and original-looking, which I thought was more interesting. She had a clever, frank and generous disposition and her eyes twinkled when she looked at me. Some people just look at you when you are a child, but I liked it when their eyes looked into mine and saw me.

And I liked to look into grownups eyes and "see" them, which sometimes made them uncomfortable. Sometimes I made grownups look back at me so they wouldn't underestimate me just because I was a child. I let them know I was watching them. It was my way of feeling that power of the stare and showing them that I knew my own worth, so they'd better not trifle with me.

But I digress. Teet was never jealous of her sister, in fact, she probably did not care for beaus. Or for being pretty. She was quite intelligent in a thoughtful way, a voracious reader and was hooked on the New York Times crossword puzzle, which she did every night in bed up into her early 90s.

I have a picture of her on a horse in English riding jodhpurs. She dressed well, never married and was a career woman before women managers were accepted in the workplace, especially in the South. When I traveled to Tulsa for her 80th birthday party, she wore a sweatshirt with “The older the violin, the sweeter the music” printed on the front. She laughed at her many wrinkles and said she was just glad they didn't hurt.

Aunt Teet and her schoolteacher companion, whom we called Aunt Susie, lived together for 50 years in Tulsa and were devoted to each other. They took trips around the world together and brought back fabulous slideshows for us to see of Hawaii, Paris, Italy, all exotic faraway destinations for a kid growing up in Texas. My mother adored her aunt, and my grandmother was also close to her sister.

My grandmother, Alice Madeline Leleu, was a devout lifelong Catholic. She collected angels before angels became acceptable icons among the Protestant sects. Her house, kept meticulously, was full of angels. She had big ones, small ones, paintings, sculptures and angel coffee cups. She even had pink ceramic mother and baby cow angels with wings and shiny gold haloes. In retrospect, she was probably somewhat obsessive-compulsive about all her enthusiasms, but I just thought she was fun.

The walls had special shelves that my grandfather made to hold her collection of over 2,000 angels. We always knew what to get her for her birthday. A trip to the dimestore and we would bring her our small offerings. She prized our gifts with all the reverence she gave to the ones her brother brought back from Denmark or Italy, where he lived for a time.

But her angels weren’t just for show. She was in relationship with them. She talked to them daily, asked favors and made deals. When she needed a parking space, she would start talking to them while we were still about a block away from our destination. She would said, “OK, little angels, fly your little wingies and find me a parking spot.” She said you had to give them travel time to get the job done. Sure enough, there was always a car pulling out right near the door of the department store. I don’t remember her ever not getting what she asked of them.

My grandmother was born in 1898 in New Orleans’ French quarter. She lived on Canal Street in a house that was torn down many decades ago. Her father, a Sorbonne-educated artist, grew up in a 16th century chateau in the south of France. Her mother was of Irish descent, the daughter of an engineer who oversaw the building of the New Orleans canal. Alice met my grandfather Joseph when she was 19. Her mother died a few years earlier from what we believe was cancer.

Joe was in the army, the youngest of eleven children who grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Severy, Kansas. He was playing the trombone in the Army band when they met at a military ball. He was 32 and not a Catholic, but she was not deterred. World War I was still in full progress and my grandfather was about to get sent to the front.

It was love at first sight, she told me. They knew each other only 5 days when he proposed. I figure that he had met his match in my grandmother. They got a dispensation from the priest and were married immediately.

Her family scraped some money together as a wedding gift to pay the hotel for their wedding night. My grandfather was leaving the next day for Europe. I remember my grandmother telling me that she prayed to all the saints and to her special angels to spare my grandfather from the war. Her French male cousins were all dead, killed early in the war, as was an entire generation of young Frenchmen and she didn’t want him to go.

She said that when she woke up the morning after her wedding, they heard a great racket down on the street. There was yelling and singing and strangers were kissing. When they opened their hotel window to ask what was happening, they were told that the Armistice had been signed and the war was over. We used to joke that she made a deal with her angels to end the war so that her Joe would not be sent away, and maybe we were right. And that’s how my grandmother personally ended World War I.


At 12:29 PM, Blogger Tinky/Caddy said...

You make me remember why I became an English major. *hug*

At 2:24 PM, Blogger glenda said...

Well gosh, thanks (blush)!!!

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