|The Poisoned Ink Well|
Thursday, February 20, 2003
My Grandmother's house on Ovid Street.
That's pronounced Oh-vid like the street in Baton Rouge that I grew up on and not Ah-vid like the poet.
I grew up in a family that was well versed in the early history of the United States of America. I spent summers and weekends with my father’s mother, our official family historian. I was 5, 6, and 7 and she was in her seventies and we would sit together in her little parlor, and read, and paint, and she would try to teach me needle point, and every night she’d let her waist length hair down and we would both brush our long hair one hundred strokes, as she talked to me about our family and the fact that we were direct descendants of a Revolutionary War soldier, Matthew Davis. I was surrounded by my family's history, old book collections and tales, her oil paintings and pastels, and every candy dish was handmade with her own homemade candy inside.
Ladies didn’t smoke or talk loudly and I was expected to read quietly, draw, paint, or do embroidery, when I visited her. I liked her books the best, and I learned about world religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, early Christianity, the Jewish faith, and then philosophy, world history and poetry, and the Greeks, and of course the Revolutionary War and Benjamin Franklin (one of her favorites) It would have been the typical upbringing of a young girl from the 19th century but it was the late 1960s and 1970s. My father was left her extensive book collection after she passed away in 1972 and for many years after her death, I would exclaim with delight over a newspaper article, or poem, or column, that she had a habit of clipping out, and leaving behind in whatever book she was reading with news of her day and the popular culture, literary, and art world of her young and middle aged adulthood.
My hippie cousins were in and out frequently (returning from rock concerts, anti-war protest, or road trips, college, etc) and she held them special in her heart, because she always was a bit of a firebrand in our family, (one of many) and she loved them (every one of them) and their intellectual and artistic freedom. There was a special room for them that I was never allowed to sleep in with her most controversial works; tapestries, crazy looking quilts, and wild psychedelic paintings. My favorite was my cousin Warren, who has since passed away; was 20 years older than me, and he would appear out of nowhere with his beautiful long curly brown hair, his guitar in hand, reciting poetry, or singing a song that he had just written on the spot and dedicated to my Grandmother and me. (Children in my family are known to sew their wild oats well into their late thirties, at which time we all return to school and become engineers, doctors, or accountants, ( a few judges) and respectable citizens at rather late ages. Wild spent youthful years were bragged on and encouraged in my father's family.) I know it all sounds bipolar, but that's the way they were back then, so forgive me my momentary insanities.
My father loved Opera and Woodie Guthrie's music; he admired Will Geer, and the Longs (The disenfranchised in Louisiana liked him and his populist family;) he really thought (at the time) that Will Rogers (and we ain't talking Jr.-- bleh) was running for president, and backed him, and his left leaning platform wholeheartedly, and my father was a bit of a socialist, who loved to read, and study; he hopped trains when he was a teenager, and then he hitchhiked around the country after the war before returning to college to become a staid engineer (yeah, right). Contrary to popular belief Louisiana politics have never been really static and it might surprise some people to know that Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate of 1912, carried most of the state, especially certain parishes in northern Louisiana.
There was once a family uproar over my Grandmother (I have a picture of her with a made up face and Clara Bow lips and short vivid red hair. In it she is a gorgeous, tiny woman in a lace blouse, just beautiful like all of her paintings.) When she was in her twenties, she bobbed her hair in a moment of pique, and scandalized the entire city of Ruston, Louisiana, where she ran a rooming house for university students after her husband died. She was a young hardworking widow, considered to be wild at the time (the 1920s and 30s) and I think she would have abandoned it all and headed for Hollywood, or an artist garret in Paris, if it weren’t for her children.
Instead, she ended up in Biloxi, while her sons and nephews went to fight in WWII, and maybe that was just as good for her purposes, because she never remarried, and was rumored to have a lover in that area. After that she moved to Baton Rouge to work in civil service and had an artist studio on Chimes Street and then finally settled on Ovid Street just off Perkins Road.She loved to paint swamps; incredible oils with snakes, boats, and trees rising out of the mist that looked vaguely like people in her life. She was an awesome Grandmother. She still had beautiful legs when I knew her, and she loved to wear short skirts even in her 60s and 70s, along with her beret and artist smocks.
You could never curse, or say the word Nigger, or be racist around Edith; anything like that was met with a stony faced silence that let the speaker know that, that was considered the utmost in uncouthness and ill breeding, and God forbid if you were ever uncouth or ill bred in Edith’s presence. I think it was because after her husband died the only people who befriended and helped her were the black people in the (Rayville) community. She was a beautiful petite 25 year old woman with five young children when he died in 1922 and left her in debt with a large farm and house to care for and the busy bodies in the town labeled her as a racy widow woman and all the local good people gave her a hard time. They even suggested that she put her children in an orphanage. Edith was very stubborn and refused the sort of help that the white town council offered. It was the black farm families that came to her rescue when she needed help with anything. She always spoke so fondly of them. The bank finally foreclosed on the farm and her house and she moved to Ruston to run the rooming house. She managed to put all five of her children through college, including her girls, and she never forgot the slight that the uppities in town gave her and she never forgot who her friends were during the most difficult times of her life.