La ‘Tite Eastonne
How an Américaine learned Louisiana French
There is a tape recording of my parents in 1982 where mom calls dad a gros tub (big tub), I repeat it, and he howls with laughter. Mom, from Ville Platte, did not speak French but was always making pat-pat-zoo (pain perdu) and cleaning the gra-doo (gradoux, or pan drippings and other good stuff) off of things. Dad was a Baton Rouge musician with what he called the “dark French skin.” He was so charmed with the Ville Plattians’ expressions that he used them in his songwriting in fact, a song he wrote won the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair theme song contest. At the end of the song, “Mardi Gras City,” a familiar voice can be heard trailing, “’Eh là bas, allons…to the World’s Fair, y’all.”
I first heard fluent French in the rural hamlet of Pointe Blue, where I spent weekends with my best friend and her grandmother. Madame Soileau and her son would sit in their cowhide rockers in front of the fireplace and chicane back and forth while we ate squirrel rice and gravy, spitting the BBs out until they went ting ting ting on the plate.
Mrs. Soileau gave us Moon Pies and pop rouge as a snack. She’d always say to me, “Aw, chère, you so fat!” They assured me that it was a compliment. She was from a different era and had kept the old ways. I loved her rice and gravy, her button collection and her kind eyes. She called me “la ‘tite Eastonne” because I was of the Eastin family. They were owners of a store in town where the country people had traded eggs for generations. To her, I was a ‘tite américaine. I had an américain last name. And I was fat.
One day the kitchen conversation was so lively that I asked what language it was? Mr. Soileau said it was French and did I want to learn? I said that I did. He was eating a banana and held it up. Banane, he said. Even though French seemed impossible for us kids to learn, I kept that word, banane, in my head like a treasure.
In 1990, I’d ride to Vidrine Elementary with a Ms. Fontenot who would listen to the French news on the local radio station, KVPI. The whole drive through the misty cow fields of the Vidrine Road I would listen and pretend that I, too, understood this mysterious town language. After awhile I did understand some things like commercials and telephone numbers, because they’d say, trois-six-trois (363) which was the prefix of all the phone numbers in Ville Platte. That year, a girl on the playground started to teach me French curse words, passing them off as something nice to say, but I knew better. Américaine or not, I was learning.