Family Story: a line of descent

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“Grandmother, who taught me to read….”

So begins the best poem I have yet written. If I never write another as good, I’ll still be able to count this one as an accomplishment. Take that as accomplishment in the literal sense of something accomplished, like Niggle’s leaf in Tolkien’s story.

The poem begins, like almost the whole of my creative life, with my mother’s mother. I had deep bonds with the mothers of both parents, although the connections were as different as the names I called them. My father’s mother was Nana, at her insistence. She was young when my father was born, and became a grandmother at a fairly young age. She told my parents that anything other than Nana would make her feel too old. Grandmother, by contrast, was just as insistent that she would be Grandmother. It was proper, correct and fully spoken. Those values were important. She was not a person in whose presence one said, “Yeah,” when what one meant was, “Yes.” Lazy speech went hand in hand with sloppy thinking. She never let either pass unchallenged.

I do not know how old I was when she started teaching me to read. I do not remember beginning. A memory I do have is sitting on her lap as a four-year-old, reading aloud from A Shropshire Lad. Broken and worn, that gift from her is still among my treasures.

Housman may have been the primer from which I acquired the basics or it may have been the first step up from something simpler. Years later my mother shared that Grandmother’s sisters tried to convince her that I was inappropriately young for the lessons. According to Mother, Grandmother answered, “No. He is ready.”

An early introduction to poetry was no accident. Grandmother was herself a poet—among other things. She was also an artist who worked in oils, water colors, acrylics and collage. She played piano and wrote short stories. Raising the children of her first two marriages as a single parent, she was a journalist who wrote for The Southern Baptist Messenger and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In Texas during the last years of her life, she helped pioneer education for special needs children. She was an avid gardener and a life-long devotee of coffee. There were few things she loved more than fresh coffee and free-ranging conversation. As the saying goes, I come by it honestly.

She had three children during her first marriage, although one died as an infant. During her second marriage she had two. One of those was my mother. Her third husband was my father’s maternal grandfather, whom she met after my parents married. My father’s grandfather became my mother’s stepfather. My mother and my father’s mother were thus stepsisters. That made my mother an aunt of my father by marriage, my father a first cousin of his children, and me my own second cousin. I received several letters from Dad during my college years in which he wrote of “our grandfather.”

Forget the Pilgrims

Through Grandmother I descend from several of the old French and Spanish families of New Orleans. One of my seven-times great grandfathers, Joseph Chauvin de Lery, was with d’Iberville and Bienville when they established Louisiana, and present at the founding of Biloxi, Mobile and, finally, New Orleans. The last was where he settled. At one point he was ambassador of French Louisiana to the Choctaw nation. His son, my six-times great grandfather, married a Choctaw woman who took his mother’s name when she was baptized. This helps muddy genealogical research, especially since her husband was already Joseph, after his father.

Another of her ancestors, one of my five-times great grandfathers, Matías de Alpuente, held the office of mayordomo of the cabildo of Spanish Louisiana longer than any other. He kept the books and disbursed the funds when the Spanish rebuilt the city after the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788. The result is now questionably called “The French Quarter,” even though the whole of it—the masonry, the wrought iron, the courtyards, the bougainvillea—is distinctly Spanish. Only the street names are French.

Matías’s son, my four-times great grandfather, left a different footprint. Francisco Buenaventura de Alpuente, aka François Bonaventure de Alpointe, aka Francis (Frank) Alpuente, aka various combinations of parts of those versions of his name, was son of Matías and Marguerite (Margarita) Amiraud du Plessis, a French creole said by some sources to be related to the infamous Cardinal Richelieu. As everyone knows (right?), Richelieu was a du Plessis. Francisco/François married Catarina/Catherine Millon, daughter of Santiago Millon, himself a Franco-Spanish mashup and officer in the Spanish colonial army.

By trade, Francisco/François was an auctioneer in the city his father helped rebuild. A casual internet search turned up records of nineteen transactions in which he bought or sold human beings. Diligence would almost certainly turn up more of that. He was also a syndic—similar to a council member—in city government when mayor Nicholas Girod, a devoted Bonapartist, hatched a plan to rescue Napoleon and bring him to New Orleans. The plot had advanced to the point of engaging Jean Lafitte to effect the rescue when this possible alternate history was derailed by news of Napoleon’s death. That was in 1821. It was a conspiracy, so what part my ancestor played is unknown.

More is known about the role of Francisco/François six years earlier during the Battle of New Orleans. Although by that time the French of the city were U.S. citizens, they were not so much patriotic as they were passionately anti-British. In 1815 Waterloo was fresh in everyone’s mind. As captain of the city militia, Alpuente offered his force to General Jackson.

Old Hickory was many things, but stupid was not one of them. Imagine him facing this company of original weekend warriors, the officers in tailored uniforms, moved less to fight for their country than to avenge the humiliation of their empereur. The goodwill of the local population was critical to Jackson’s strategy. He could not afford to dismiss or disrespect the militia. His solution was to accept command and deploy them to protect a tavern far from the action. His order was that they were to prevent even a single drop of the tavern’s whiskey from falling into British hands. He named the militia a “forlorn hope,” which meant they were to execute the order at all costs and to the last man standing.

The British never came near the tavern. Had they come, they would have found no whiskey. As the story goes, the militia covered itself with glory by following Jackson’s order to the letter. They suffered no casualties in battle, but not one was left standing.

Lost causes

Today, Captain Alpuente’s sword is on display as part of the weapons collection of the Louisiana State Museum in the former Spanish cabildo of New Orleans. Several years ago my brother Glenn and I came up with the idea to encourage descendants of Francisco/François to visit the museum and have a photo taken with the sword that commanded the whiskey defense. The idea spread, and many relations near and distant have shared photos of themselves beside that blade. The museum is friendly to the idea as long as their “no flash” rule is followed. Sadly, I have not been back to New Orleans since we put the idea into the world. Maybe one day.

Francisco/François and Catarina/Catherine were the parents of my three-times great grandfather, Francisco Ruiz Alpuente, who earned a medical degree in Paris, married Mathilde Antoinette Hepburn, and was seemingly content to live as a respected member of the community who left few tracks. Mathilde Antoinette descended from the previously referenced Joseph Chauvin de Lery, in case you wondered how he connects, but her mother, Charlotte de Morant, was also great granddaughter of a vicomte who fled France at the time of the revolution in order to keep his head attached to his neck. Mathilde Antoinette’s father was James Hepburn, through whom I claim distant relation to the brilliant Katherine Hepburn and to another, monstrous James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell and third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

A daughter of Mathilde Antoinette and Francisco Ruiz, my great great grandmother Marie Mathilde Alpuente, was not content to leave few tracks. When I was a child there were still French speakers native to New Orleans, and one of them ended up in my hometown, La Porte, Texas. Local folks who knew her only in passing referred to her as “the French lady.” She occasionally had coffee with my grandmother and one of my great aunts, and a few times with my mother. She remembered Marie Mathilde as a grande dame of New Orleans society. Even the internet documents some of that. Marie Mathilde married Joseph W. Bailey, who had labored to restore the merchant Baileys to affluence after the family fortune was wiped out by the Civil War. His father’s ill-considered investment in Confederate bonds could not have helped.

Besides the usual social activities among a parochial elite, Marie Mathilde was an author who enjoyed local repute for her novels. Sad to say, those works have not been completely erased by time. I tried to read her supposed magnum opus, Right or Wrong, A Tale of War and Faith, but abandoned it after a few chapters. Combining purple prose, racist language, total dedication to the myth of the noble South and self-justifying Christian witness, it is worse than simply bad. It’s impossible to stomach. At the same time, though, the fact that it was admired in the city of her day brings home the temper of the milieu shaping and shaped by this lineage of mine as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth.

From ancestors to family

Marie Mathilde and Joseph W. had three children, including my great grandfather, Marc Hepburn Bailey. A story I heard in my youth was that he was christened Mark, but changed the spelling as an adult to celebrate his French heritage. He was the earliest of this line with whom I overlapped. Mother once asked if I remembered him at all.

“Only as a giant, kindly shadow.”

“No,” my father objected. “Mr. Bailey was a small man.”

“Dad,” I countered, “He died when I was three. You were all giants.”

Great Granddaddy Bailey married Iva Lott of Jackson, Mississippi, and converted to the New Orleans version of her Southern Baptist faith. Mother told me that New Orleans baptists were viewed with suspicion by the rest of the denomination because they used real champagne to toast at weddings, and they danced. I’ve known many baptists who do both those things, although some of them not around other baptists.

Marc and Iva had eight children, of whom Grandmother, second born, was eldest of the seven who lived to adulthood. Great grandmother Iva died long before I drew breath.

In the genes

Great Granddaddy Bailey’s occupation lies buried in the past. Whatever it was, it was not his passion. That was poetry, which he pursued with dedication. A few of his poems have survived within the family. Somewhat naive, unabashedly sentimental, the writing is, even so, not unskilled. He won prizes in city poetry contests. Imagine a time when cities had poetry contests and citizens took them seriously. Marc Bailey’s verse was a small ornament of New Orleans in the first half of the twentieth century. I am pleased to report on available evidence that it is free of the racism and reactionary mythologizing of his mother’s fiction. His drive to create descended to and through several of his children, not least his eldest daughter.

Had Grandmother dedicated herself to only one of her talents, she still would have been remarkable. Her poetry was far better than that of her father, and her fiction was accomplished and humane to a degree Marie Mathilde’s never approached. Journalism probably sharpened her prose. She drew, she painted, she made collages and she sculpted in papier-mâché. My earliest memories of Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Stephen Foster are of Grandmother at her spinet. As a gift to her first grandchild, my cousin Deborah, she wrote and illustrated a science fiction story about a stainless steel mechanical man. During World War II she was a special agent of the Louisiana State Police, assigned to counter-espionage in the Port of New Orleans. And, as mentioned, late in life she was a teacher of special needs children in Texas.

Getting personal

A year before my father died, he confessed to me that as a teen he received a psychological diagnosis almost identical to mine. We talked about ways we both had struggled and coped. One thing he shared was the La Porte school district’s initial intention to segregate me because I was thought likely to disrupt a classroom. He said that Grandmother demanded my parents fight them.

“Don’t let them isolate him,” she insisted. “That’s the worst thing they could do.”

Mother and Dad took on the district together. Dad said there was no one more ferocious than Mother when someone threatened her cubs.

In the event, I was disruptive in the classroom—for the first week of first grade. I have a habit picked up from Dad of whistling when I lose myself in an activity. A story Mother repeated to me many times was that my first grade teacher, Mrs. Moore, called her during lunch on the first Friday and asked her to come to the school. She told Mother that every day she had had to ask me more than once to stop whistling. Finally, on Friday, when I started again, she put me on a stool in front of the class. She said that I completely shut down. She had called Mother to come take me home. My whistling, she said, was really quite pretty, but disturbed the other students. Mrs. Moore also promised, “I will never again do anything like that to your child.”

She never had to. When I started first grade I could already read, I could add and subtract, and name all fifty states. The very first lesson I actually learned in school was that I would be punished if I enjoyed myself. That was the last time I whistled in a classroom.

Another story Mother loved to tell was when my second grade teacher, Mrs. Butler, called her, crushed. She had assigned the class to draw pictures of the school. It was a lovely old building with tall windows, pilasters, and a portico. I drew a jail in a desert, cactus on either side, a vulture on the roof, and “SCHOOL” carefully lettered over the door. Upon seeing it, Mrs. Butler had called me to her desk and asked, “You don’t really feel this way, do you?” She said I looked up at her, absolutely solemn, and answered, “Yes, ma’am.”

Drawing to a close

My first lessons in drawing were also from Grandmother, although calling them lessons gives a wrong impression. She would put paper, pencils and crayons in front of me, and either sit herself to draw or continue with what she had been doing. If there was any lesson, it was simply watching what Grandmother did. I knew from her that before drawing a thing one had to really look at it. Years passed before I learned the knack of seeing on which drawing depends. I’m still not adept. Always, I have drawn more from determination than talent. This is why I put such value on erasers.

I remember once, around the time I broke Mrs. Butler’s heart, sitting at Grandmother’s table, struggling to draw a bison that looked like a bison. I hope I whistled. I like to think that I did. My model was the back of an old nickel. Even with a basically two-dimensional representation in front of me, it still seemed to take forever to get something bison-like on paper. The result was only a second grader’s drawing but Grandmother still praised it, not effusively but specifically. She pointed out what she thought I had done particularly well. I offered it to her, but she suggested that I take it home to my mother. It had its fifteen minutes on the door of our refrigerator before migrating to the box in Mother’s closet that collected such traces of her offspring. I found it again when I was in high school, and was pleased to note that it did kind of look like the bison on an old nickel. It was probably a better representation than the vulture I put on the jail for Mrs. Butler. I’m pretty sure that was cribbed from some strip in the Sunday comics.

When I was eight, Grandmother suffered a stroke that stole her precise speech and weakened her right side. She continued to teach by example, making no attempt to hide her struggle to regain strength or her concentration on recovering control of her words. Every single thing she said was pronounced carefully. Another stroke, when I was ten, took her life. She is in my heart always.