Inez Catalon, 1989, Photograph by Jack Vartoogian

I don’t remember my grandfather.  All I know is what my mother told me.   She never had too much to tell, because I don’t think that she really remembered much about him either.  One thing she told me, she said, “You see that picture? That’s exactly him, everyday. He would stay dressed up every day.  And that hat he’s wearing, it’s a silk hat. And the pin he’s wearing was a diamond.” From what I understand, he was a proud old man.

My father and mother both grew up on the Vermilion River.  Close by Milton, you know.  Between Aberville and Lafayette.  I can remember the road that she would tell me about, the place that we lived and everything, where my Daddy’s land was, and everything.

https://www.arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/inez-catalon

Inez Catalon, French Creole Singer and National Heritage Fellow, was 81 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1994.

When we moved here, to Caplan, I was small.  I hadn’t made my first communion yet.  I made my first communion when I was eleven.  My father was already dead at that time.  I can just barely remember him.

He was blind, you know.  That’s all I can remember.  And sometime I’d go places with him.  But I can’t really picture his face.  You see, he had cataracts in one eye.  And he couldn’t see.  So, he went to a doctor in Lafayette, at that time, it was a big thing.  They operated on that eye.  But the operation wasn’t a good success.  He lost that eye.  And he suffered a lot.  That’s what my mother would tell me.  And some doctor told him to go to New Orleans.

So he went to New Orleans.  They removed the bad operation eye.  They put in a crystal eye, the one they removed, and he came back and he was okay.  But he didn’t do what he was supposed to do at the time.  Now this is me talkin’, from what my mother told me.

So, when he came home, he took the shovel, and he made a gutter, you know, a gutter for the water to go away, a ditch?  He took his shovel, and he made that around three lots.  Momma sent me out there to tell him to come in, because the dinner was ready.  But he didn’t come, at the time.  He came when he was ready.  I can’t remember that, but Momma told me.  Now that I’m much older, I know that my father died of a hemorrhage.  My mother didn’t tell me this, but from what she tells me, that’s what happened.  Because he bled from his nose.  And that I can remember.  It would just drip, and it was just pink, you know.  Momma had a little whachu call ’em, a little wash band, whatever you call it, and she’d put it there, and it would just drip. My sister and I would go and she’d send us to bury that blood.

I can remember seein’ it drip, you know.  So he just bled to death from this hemorrhage.  They’ll tell you, if you have any kind of eye operation, you’re not supposed to put your head down like that.  Coulda been hot, too, and too long.  So, that’s how my father died.  My mother died of a stroke.

She stayed three weeks sick and she died.   And, my young days, as a child, that I can remember, I had a beautiful life.  I had a beautiful child life, as back, far as I can remember.  I would say from the age of seven, until now.  But I got well understanding how to do things, because, I was started to work,  scrub the floors, polish the furniture, you know, wash, iron, cook.

But today, I can look at the people and I can tell, they’re bored, they don’t know what to do with themselves.  And there is a lot they can do out there.  I know, because I’ve done it.  Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I feel like the government has taken over everything, and they took a lot from the people.  I worked, and whatever work I was told to do, I learned how to do it.  I washed, the first thing I learned to cook was some white beans and salt meat.  Second was salt meat with tomato gravy and rice.  That’s all we had.  That’s all we’d eat.

And I been workin’ since the age, I say, nine, maybe ten.  Fifty cents a week, for the whole week.  Babysittin’, you know, I don’t mean I did all this cookin’ when I was young.  No, I learned how.  But when I was young, I used to baby-sit.  And when I baby-sit for the people that I worked for, I was a member of that family.

My mother taught me a lot of things, and, where I worked, they taught me a lot of things.  But not in a rough way, not in an ugly way.  In a kind way.  I guess that’s why I was so interested in learning, because you  had this patience with me, and I was yet a child.  So I understood, I listened and I paid attention to what they would say. So that way I didn’t have no trouble to get along with people.

I had a wonderful mother.  And likewise, I think  my father would have been a wonderful father, had I known him.  We would visit a lot of my father’s people, and they would tell me I was just like my father. And I would say, “In what way?”

So one old cousin told me,  he said, “You know how your Daddy was?”  He said, one day for New Year, they used to go out, and wish a Happy New Year to all the eldest people in the country.  And he’d go on a buggy or  horse back  and he’d go, “Happy New Years.”  Today, they don’t do that no more.   You know, and that was a big day for him.

So they left, they had made a big pot of gumbo and they had cooked, this cousin and his wife, and they left to go wish a Happy New Year’s to the older people on the Bayou.  They lived in Delco.  But my Daddy and his friends came along at the same time, but they had taken a different route just as they’d meet.  So, when they got to this cousin’s house, the door didn’t lock.  It was either a nail or the string from the inside, and you’d wrap it around. My Daddy got to this cousin’s house, him and his friends.  The gumbo was hot, they had all the gumbo, they cleaned up the kitchen like it was not eaten, but this cousin told me that it was my Daddy’s doing.  He fed all his friends, and then they took the trail about where they were, and they went to meet them.  And they invited them over to eat gumbo to their house.  And my Daddy said,  “Hah, If you had some, you ain’t got no more,  Your pots are clean, I cleaned the kitchen good, though, but you ain’t got no gumbo.”

At the time, that was a joke.  You play a joke like that on somebody else, even on me, I wouldn’t accept that.  Don’t go in my house, and eat my food.  And you’re going to clean my pots?  I say that would have been a big fight.  But that was a joke.  And those were the things he would do.  To aggravate you.  And I guess I’m kind of that way, myself.  That’s what my Momma used to tell me.

So, life goes on, through sometime, you inherit whatever you know you inherited.  I don’t know, because I didn’t know my father.  But I know my mother.  And my mother, she was, some of the children think Momma was mean, but I guess, because I was the baby, maybe, I never see where she was mean.  You know, I would always see her kind.  But when She’d tell you something, you had to do it.  You had to be obedient to her.  ‘Cause that’s what she expected out of you. And whenever she would tell me to do anything that was that hard, I’d just go on and do it.  But they called me Momma’s Molasses.  She’d put that on bread and eat it.  I was her syrup, you would call it.

So, one day, I decided I would go ask my sister if she loved one of her children more than she loved one of the other ones.  And she told me, she said, “Oh no,”  She said no mother would pick one child to love more than the other child.  I said, “Really?  Well, how come you’re always calling me Momma’s syro?”   She said, “Because Momma’s always on your side, I guess, I don’t know.”

But she said, “Momma don’t love you no more than she loves me and I know because I’m the mother of nine sons and two daughters, and I know.”  She said, “I’ll tell you about it, a child is just like a little dog.  You can train him, or you can kick him around, and he might grow up to be a resentful child.  But, most mothers look at her child, and the child that’s more obedient to her, that’s the one she gets attached to.  It’s not that she love him more, but she gets attached to this child, because he’s obedient.”

But I knew how Momma was. She would call you, your name, you would have to say, “Oui, Mom.”  Don’t say what, she didn’t accept that.  Don’t never what her.  “Ma’am, yes, Ma’am,” and “No Ma’am.”  That went for everybody.  She was strict, you know, but she wasn’t mean.  She taught you the right way.  And me, instead of saying what, I said, “Huh?”

But anyway, lot of children resents, I can’t understand what goes on today, when the parents could be so rude to their children.  I don’t believe that, no.  I don’t believe none of what the TV say, the newspaper.   But it’s happening, I can’t put that in my mind, that a child would kill the mother.

I lived with my mother  from the beginning until the end in this old house right here.  Momma was the mother of ten children.  Her first batch of children was boys.  She had five boys.  There was Severin, the oldest one, that was his name, Severin, Lionel, Michel, Joseph, et Renauld. They was her five boys.

She had five boys, she didn’t want no more boys, she wanted girls.  And she had told my Daddy, “I’m going to dress him as a girl, for while.”  She’d comb him out of curls.  Have a little dress on.  She played madam with him.  But they didn’t go that far.  She started to have five girls.  They had Elorice, Esevina, Rosina, Matilda, et Inez.

All the pleasure of my mother’s living was right there at that fireplace. My father built that fireplace.  He built this house before he moved in from the country here.  And his intention was to build, Momma always told me, a better and a bigger house, but he got sick with these eyes first, and that took whatever he had, the saving he had, for his care.  So it never was done, and Momma was left with two little girls that, the others were all married and gone, it was just me and my sister up there.  That was left.  And then she got married and she left.  And I stayed.

I was married twice.  I must have been a child. I’d rather stay here and sing with my Momma right there, by the fireplace, than to put up with that.  But I had two children.  By my last husband, this little boy and girl.

One is Papoose and the other one’s Poochie.  Papoose, when she was born, she looked just like a little papoose, the way my Momma would wrap her around and have her all tied up.  And the other one looked just like a little dog, I guess.  He went with the name of Poochie.  Now his nickname, nobody would name his child Poochie, or Papoose, but you’re not gonna give him the name Michel either, ’cause that’s a name.

And I tell you, I had a beautiful life.  I tell the world that. My mother was a very charitable woman.  She loved everybody.  People are people.  They are human.  And me, if you’re intelligent, if you know how to live, if you’re not a bum, you can be my friend.  But I don’t care too much about a lot of things.

This Welfare junk, they could pass that up in my book.  If my mother hadn’t taught me how to work, I probably would have joined the welfare junk, too.  I don’t want you to get the wrong opinion about me.  I’m a poor girl.  I believe in getting whatever I get honest.  I believe in working for it.  Like I was taught.

We didn’t have no Daddy.  We had one, but God had taken him.  And the 50 cents we’d have, was to buy us little shoes.  When they had no more sole on the bottom.  Or a dress to keep you warm.  Why can’t we live like that today? I had no education.  I tell the world that, too. That’s right.  I worked. I was taught what I know. I listened and I looked.

I had the fireplace for a good many years.  The jokes, the songs, the prayers, the couscous and the sweetened water, and the sweet potato baking right there in the fireplace.  That’s where I learned everything I had to learn.

I learned the songs from my mother. My father used to sing a little bit, I think.  My mother told me he used to.  My grandmother on my Father’s side, her name was Marcelie Bouquet, like a bouquet of flowers.  That was her name.  Odele Catalon was my grandpa.  On my mother’s side, my grandmother was Matilda Broussard.  The husband of her, that was my mother’s father.

I know all my people on both sides, as far back as my mother taught me.  I know them all,  the bad, the good,  and everything.  On my mother’s side, the only thing I know is what she told me about her mother.  My grandmother was a slave.  I don’t know if she was from Africa, I can’t say that, I guess she was.

I want to show you something.  I have had my tomb made.  My other house is built.  And I was looking in all my stuff that I had to have to find out the things that I want to know.         My father was a man who took care of his business.  Momma always told me that.  All his business receipts all went into a box that he had.  The man that fixed the tomb, he tried to find out when my father was born.  And he tried to go and search for it, but he never could find it.  But I went into that box.  After I found this, I knew where I could build my tomb.         What my mother told me, was, “When your Daddy would go to pay his bill, he would never go with less or more money than he would owe when he paid his bill.  ‘Cause he had his receipt.”  When they would say, “More,” he said, “Oh no! I bought such and such a thing on a certain day,” and he’d go back to them receipts, you see.  “Certain time, I came here, I bought some chain, I bought a plow, whatever.  Here’s my receipt,  I’m not paying you more than I owe you.  And I’m not trying to cheat you.”

I was born in 1913.  I had been hearing Momma singing for a long time.  You know, I could hear her.  But, there came a time when I guess the nights were long for her, with two little girls, and I just would listen to her songs.  She’d sing, practically all the time.  She’d sing religious songs that would make you sad.  And some would make me feel good.  And when she’d sing, I would repeat, and She’d always tell me, “You can’t sing, your tongue is too heavy.”  But my mother had a beautiful voice, a delicate voice, soft, bien douce. I would just love to hear her sing. French Creole is what I was taught.

I’d say, “Mom, I can hear myself sing, and I like what I sing when I sing.  So I sing because I like to sing, not that I know how, no,  because I can’t sing like you.”  But I said, “At least I can hear myself singing, I like the things I sing.  Okay?”  So she went along and just let me do the way I wanted to do.

This song here, it speaks of mon ami, a friend.  And this friend has given this friend everything, but they don’t say if it’s a girl or a man or what.  But this ami has given me, let’s put it that way, my hat, my tie, my shirt, my pants, my garters, my short pants, my socks and my shoes.  Mon ami, my friend has given me all of this.

The garter, see a long time ago, the men used to wear garters.  They held the socks up.  And then they had the short pants, like the knickers?  And the shirt was fine material.  And his hat was on his head.

A a lot of people come here and, especially the girls that work in Lafayette and go to school and want to learn French.  I had a little friend by the name of Marcie LaCouture.  She and I became a team, but now she moved away.  She’s in Florida.  She’d take the song up French.  She came the other day and she wanted to know something about the song, what it meant.  You know, sometime, they don’t have it right.  This  song is short.  And Momma used to sing it at the fireplace.

Si j’aurais.”  He don’t have this hat no more.  He don’t have this tie no more, this shirt no more, he is out of everything, “Si j’aurais,” If  I had,

(sings)

“Si j’aurais le beau chapeau que m’ami m’avait donne,

si j’aurais la belle cravatte que m’ami m’avait donne,

si j’aurais la belle chemise que m’ami m’avait donne,

si j’aurais  les belles culottes que m’ami m’avait donnes,

si j’aurais les beaux arteres que m’ami m’avait donnes,

si j’aurais les beaux chossons  que m’ami m’avait donnes, 

si j’aurais les beaux souliers que m’ami m’avait donnes ,

mon chapeau est sur ma tete

ma cravatte assis cassat, 

ma chemise au cote du fine,

les culottes ca coute de bon,

les arteres se tait la terre,

les choussons sont sur mes pieds

et mes souliers sont ronds,

m’ami que j’aime tant,

ããm’ami que j’aime tant.

See? Poppa used to sing them, too.   It’s a lot of religious songs.  I can remember the song that I sang when my first communion.  And all the religious songs that my mother used to sing.  All the songs that I have learned, I couldn’t teach it to my children, I couldn’t teach it to the grandchildren. But I’m passing it on to other people.  I’m glad it’s going to go around.    And I’m sure that, as many times as I went to Washington, they got tapes over there, too,  pictures and everything else.  It’s going to go, somebody’s going to get a hold of that.  It was beautiful to get the National Heritage Award.  I enjoyed that so much.

You know, I had a little stroke there several years ago.  It affected my mouth.  I couldn’t talk.  But I kept talking.  I sing.  Until it came back.  But it’s not natural and more like it used to be.

This is a religious song that my mother used to sing all the time.  But it’s in French.  I’ll explain it to you. It’s about the blessed mother.  You have a crown that you have to represent as God will give you.  And  you’re offering your crown to the Blessed Mother.  Take it, Je vous la donne  “I’m giving it to you.”  Take my crown, I’m giving you the crown.  Prennes ma couronne, je te la donne .  “In Heaven.  Years to come, you’ll return it to me, but take my crown to Heaven with you,”  like you’re talking, to the Blessed Mother.  (Sings)

Bonne Marie

je te confit

mon coeur  est si bas

“Blessed Mother, I’ve got confidence in you, my heart is so low.”  Mon coeur est si bas.”  She’s hurt from the heart.  And she’s giving her crown to the Blessed Mother to lift her up. (Sings)

Bonne Marie,

je te confit

mon coeur est si bas

Bonne Marie,

prennes ma couronne

au ciel

tu l’a

au ciel

tu la’s roudra.

Bonne Marie,

Prennes ma couronne

prennes ma couronne,

je te la donne

Momma used to sing that all the time.  And today, I feel like she would sing that because she was really low in spirit.

And this other song, asking Jesus to return them back to life.  How they repent and do their duty.

(Sings)

O Mon Dieu,

faites nous la grace

“Give us grace”

Pour ou tu m’ai

ou dans seulement

“To turn back to life”

J’y vais oui a la messe

“He’ll go to church”

J’y vais oui a la messe

Charity of the poor.  He’ll give charity of the poor.”

Pour la charite a la pauvre

“For the honor of Jesus Christ”

O Mon Dieu

faites nous la grace

et touras tu dans seulement

J’y vais oui a la messe

et coute huile est Pete

de la charite a la pauvre

a l’honneur de Jesus Christ..

“He will give to the poor, to help the poor.  In the honor of Jesus Christ.”  If he get him to return back to earth, he’s going to do better.  Much better.

My father, my mother, and Jesus have been most important to me in my life.  I think about them all the time. It’s a funny thing, you know, sometimes, I think children may forget that they had a good mother.  And today, as God is my judge, the mothers the children have today, it’s sad, but it’s the truth, they don’t love their children.  They don’t play with their children.  They don’t teach them nothing.  Momma had a song all the time.

I tell you, there’s a lot more to tell you, in my life, yes, wonderful life, from the time I stood up.  And you see, that’s something else, too.  It’s all that hatred that people are walking around here with.  I don’t think that makes any sense at all.  I think that’s crazy. Everywhere I worked, I had a friend, you know?  Like if I didn’t have two, I sure had one.

So, I had a beautiful, beautiful world.  I can’t understand, that’s what I tell my brother all the time, Je ne comprends pas.  I’m all mixed up.  Because I’d like to, everybody would like to be happy.  You know, that life they lived, when they were young?  With their parents?   And now, they can go back and I don’t think they would really behave the way they do if only they would have learned better things in life coming up.

Now you won’t believe this. But this is my christening dress. I was baptized in that dress. And if I was to tell you how many children, how many women that came here, and borrowed this little dress to get baptized. I loaned it out to somebody not too long ago from Alberville. I let them use it and I tel them, bring it back.

So you see, we were poor.  It’s not a sin to be poor.  But it’s a disgrace to God to be nasty.  I can tell what kind of person Momma was, by keeping this for so many years. It’s handmade.  Both of my sisters gone that wore this.  Me and my sister still living.  That dress must be close to a hundred years old.

Momma would take time with us.  She took time with me.  And there’s a lot of things that she has told me that I see today, and I wonder where she got her learning from.

As you can see, we are Catholics.  My mother told me, she says, “When I die,” she says, “Don’t take your little bit of money and give it for prayers for me, have Mass said for me.”  She said, “Don’t do that,” she said, “Because you need your little money for you and your children to live.  Don’t be taking your money to give it to the church for prayers for me.  If I didn’t stay on earth long enough to have prayed to save my own soul,” she says, “When you’re dead, nobody can save you then.  You’re dead.”   But she said, “At the end of one year,  I want you to have a mass said for me, in church.  That’s to remind you all to remember that you all had a mother at one time.  So you all won’t forget, completely forget about me.”  And she said, “That’s all I’m asking.”

And so today, I can sit up and I say, “I wonder how did she know all of this?”  Because she had no education either.  But maybe her mother taught her.  Who knows where she got it.  I didn’t ask no questions, I just listened.  And today, I’m looking at that.  And that’s what makes me know and understand better that I was always taught the right thing.

Now, I wonder, I wish I had asked her where she had got her learning from.  Momma’s just talking.  But now I got my eyes open.  I’m looking, and I’m wondering at the same time.  Everything my mother taught me was right.  She was a good teacher.

I’m full of fluid.  And when this fluid come up to my heart, it’s bad, real bad.  And then, I got this whistle.  I can’t breathe.  Then it gets to my lungs.  And then I smother, really.  I get hot, hot, hot, and then I  can’t breathe.

One night, they were coming back from eating supper.  When I had that, some times, it would pass, you know.  This whistle would go away.  Well, I found out, when I start whistling, it’s in my lungs and that’s why I can’t breathe.  So I caught myself sitting out there, on the step, for it to pass so I can get more oxygen and air to my lungs.  And they were coming back from Aberville.

One of them, he picked me up like I was a trash can, and he was running across the street with me.  I can’t breathe.  They kept hollering at him,  “Not there, not there!”  He was going to put me down in the street.  “Not there!  Bring her back to the house!”

So, he brought me back to the house.  He had a pillow.  He was fanning me to make me breathe.  The girl had a piece of paper, and she was fanning me like this.  That’s what they told me.  I couldn’t see them, though.  So they called for the ambulance.  But if they hadn’t found me, I would have died that night.  Because I couldn’t breathe.

So, you see, that goes and comes.  That’s why I got this little tank here.  So if I get short winded, I can just pull it, and then, I can call for help.  But at the same time, I can breathe while waiting.

Then they made me pass all this fluid out, then I can come home.  In two or three days, I’m okay.  I take the pills and everything.  But this fluid builds up anyway.

But I’ve been feeling good, and I said down at the hospital since the last time I went there was, what, maybe two or three weeks ago.  But I was in and out.  But today, I feel pretty good.  Yesterday, I felt pretty good too.  So, it was a lucky day.

 

 

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