The Folklore Project
Such a Lady
By Beth Boquet
When my grandmother died, she left five surviving children. My mom, at 26, was the fourth of the five, the youngest girl and the third of the three sisters. My mom’s older sisters were the two oldest children, Aunt Sally, or Anse as we call her, and Aunt Betty. Irish twins they were, less than a year apart. My mom came along a few years later, between Uncle Andy, the oldest boy, and Uncle Bill, the baby.
My grandmother left surviving siblings, too, a couple of brothers who had all died by the time I was old enough to know any better and three sisters: Ettie, Winnie, and Maud. Ettie and Winnie, like my grandmother, had been schooled at the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans and had married well. They served coffee in bone-china cups and sat in needlepoint-covered chairs and had their hair set once a week. Nanny Maud was different. She was blind and deaf from a childhood case of the measles. She wore flesh-colored hearing aids and Coke-bottle glasses that magnified her googly eyes. Neither seemed to do much for her. At family gatherings, she sat in a straight-backed chair, legs crossed at the ankle just above her black orthopedic shoes, silver hair pulled loosely into a tiny bun at the nape of her neck. She mostly offered a tiny chorus of affirmations as the family stories flew around her, her eyes fixed above the crowd, the right one wandering up to the ceiling, like she was reading the words off it. But she managed, and more than that. She lived on her own for her whole adult life in a shotgun house behind Landry’s Funeral Parlor in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
Before it was the funeral home, Landry’s was the house my grandmother, Ma, grew up in with Ettie, Winnie, and Maud, right next to St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral on Canal Boulevard. When Ma died, she was laid out in the same room where Pa had proposed to her. He used to say he could remember getting down on one knee right there in the living room and asking for her hand. A long time ago, but not nearly long enough for him. They had a good marriage, especially for those days. I mean, people didn’t expect to be happy all the time, not like today. Life isn’t all about being happy. But they loved each other. They really did.
When Pa died, we had his service at the new funeral home that had gone up across the bayou. It was small, plain. Blond brick. Built to bury people, knew no other purpose, better for the old folks, with a paved parking lot and no stairs to negotiate. I suspect my mom and them couldn’t bear to see Pa laid out at Landry’s either. We went to a lot of services there and they would always remind me it was the old family home.
Nanny Maud’s house was just on the other side of Landry’s parking lot, a white shotgun with green shutters and a porch as wide as the house, so the sun never streamed in the windows that opened onto her living room and bedroom. We didn’t visit at Nanny Maud’s the way we did at Aunt Ettie’s or Nanny Winnie’s. She couldn’t serve a cup of coffee in her bone china or offer a hand-pointed rocker. But she did own the phone.
* * *
Oh, Lord, they used to say, Nanny Maud knew everything. I’m telling you, everything. That phone in the Big House would ring, it didn’t matter who picked it up, they were on the receiving end of Nanny Maud’s broadcast. She never said hello, remember? Just, “Who’s that?” And then it didn’t matter, because she couldn’t tell who it was, anyway. I guess she could just tell that it had stopped ringing. I don’t know. It went like this: “Who’s that? Pat, Bert, Betty, Beth, Sally? This is Nanny Maud. This is Nanny Maud.” And then, there she went, off to the races. “Tell your mama…” whatever the news was. “Tell your mama.” So fucking funny. “Don’t say fucking.” But it was; it was fucking funny. “Don’t use that language. Poor old Nanny Maud. Tell your mama…”
And then, click. No goodbye, no nothing. Just hung up. She was a trip. She was a lady. Such a lady — yes, she was. They don’t make ’em like her anymore. Lord, no. No, they don’t.
Nanny Maud knew everybody, too, and they knew her. She never missed a baptism, a birthday, a graduation. Would call up Treasure Lane or Peacock Jewelry or Johnny’s Men’s Shop, whatever the occasion called for, and have a gift sent to the house. How did she pay for that? Oh, for goodness’ sake, she didn’t pay for that. Nanny Maud didn’t know what money was. I don't think she paid for a single thing her whole life, didn’t even know anything cost anything. No, Uncle Warren paid for that. Nanny Winnie’s husband. Everybody in town knew to send him the bill.
Well, now, I don’t know about that. She always had a little pin money, but not to buy things. To give to people. Yes, to give to people. Have them do little things for her. Don’t you remember she chased that burglar out of her house one night? He must have been somebody who had been around looking for work, come back one night to rifle through her drawers. How in the world did she know somebody was in her house? Let me tell you something; she smelled him. Smelled that cigarette right on him. Next to her bed, while she slept. While she slept. Can you imagine that? Uh-uh, no, I cannot. I truly cannot. How’d he get in? Well, I don’t know how he got in. But I know how he got out. Straight through her bedroom window. That’s right, out the window, Nanny Maud and her baseball bat a step behind him. Well, you know Uncle Warren had to pay for that, too. But it was worth it. Oh, it was worth it, all right. Just some old boy. I don’t think he meant any harm. But I wish I could have seen his face when she chased him out that window. Her in her dressing gown going after him. Well, he got more than he bargained for, he surely did. Nobody ought to ever underestimate Nanny Maud, I tell you what. Bet he didn’t make that mistake again.
* * *
I loved Nanny Maud’s house. It was tiny and spare, like a dollhouse. Barely furnished, and dark. The drawn curtains kept it cool, and what did she need the light for, anyway? Once, when my mom and I got there, Nanny Maud was in the bathroom.
“Yoo-hoo,” we said, and again, a little farther inside the house and a little louder. “Yoooo-hooooo.”
But she couldn’t hear us. We headed in with the food we had brought for her and we heard low tones coming from the tiny bathroom off the hall.
“She’s praying,” my mom said. I listened more closely and recognized the cadence of the Hail Mary. “She’s in the tub,” my mom said. We tiptoed to the kitchen, set the plates in the fridge, and tiptoed out.
Once we were in the car, I asked why Nanny Maud was saying her prayers in the tub.
“Because she was touching herself,” my mom said, as she flipped the ignition on the brown Chevrolet, put it in drive, and rounded the corner back onto Canal.
“Oh,” I said, because that made sense to me then.