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The Roux in the Gumbo

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Capa Nominee 2005

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ISBN: 978-0-9820679-0 -1


Autographed prints of The Roux in the Gumbo. The price $15.00 and $3.00 for shipping and handling.



Helen Simpson
Annie Thomas
Genevieve Smith
Melvin & Helen
Broussard
Helen, Melvin Jr., Butch, Curly, Anna Lee and Francis
Buddy and Martha

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The Roux in the Gumbo is my great grandmother and grandmother’s life story. My grandmother would sit telling all them old stories of her life that always start with “I remember” or “let me tell you about the time,” and one day we decided to start writing them down. She died November 1997 of spinal cancer.

I went to her home town in Louisiana and all the stories she told me from her childhood came to life. My great grandmother’s name still rings like a church house bell. My family migrated to Los Angeles in the 1940’s.

The Roux in the Gumbo is emotional and inspirational. As you read, you will actually feel what the characters felt during that time. In spite of the obstacles and struggles that life brought their way, these characters persevered. This was due to a strong family support even though they were not all blood relatives.

The story relates the lives of several women, intertwined by one common goal: basic survival during reconstruction era Louisiana. Elizabeth beseeches a Voodooiene to help her seek revenge on her husband Marcelle for the incestuous acts he has practiced on their daughter.

Jennifer is wed and killed by her husband Jacques when he discovers that the new born baby,Tallulah is not his child but that of Sachwaw, a Muskogean Indian. Jacques shoots Sachwaw leaving him and the infant for Alligator food. The cries of the olive skinned child with Jennifer’s eyes give Sachwaw the strength to make it back to his village where the medicine man heals him.. When he is able to walk he avenges Jennifer’s death.

Elizabeth under the impression that her daughter Jennifer was buried along with her grandchild, ventures into the Muskogean village to give Sachwaw a picture of Jennifer. He presents her with Tallulah. The green eyed child at his feet is God’s way of giving her back a connection with her daughter through her grandchild. Tallulah raised by Sachwaw and Elizabeth grows to become the town healer and midwife. She loses her husband and father in the same year and is left without family.

Tallulah finds a runaway slave named Gizelle who she mentors and takes her under her wing. They live as mother and daughter for twenty years before Tallulah passes. Gizelle falls in love as in married to a Grayman, the son of Rebi and is taken in by their family. She has two son’s who deal with tremendous adversity from the Ku Klux Klan.

Gizelle is searched out by Annie, a young girl dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. She gives the child the strength and realization that though the White father of the baby she carries will never rescue her, she has a treasure in the gift that god has bestowed on her in the form of Helen. Annie is adopted by Gizelle’s family and learns doctoring, Voodoo/Hoodoo. She ventures into the life of prohibition when she learns to gamble and make liquor and opens her own speakeasy where her long lost brother finds her one day.

Helen the mulatto daughter of Annie and Willie Simpson seeks to escape the life her mother has chosen and makes her own way in the world. She and the town playboy are wed at the end of Annie’s shotgun. She finds herself out of the frying pan and into the fire, raising seven children in ten years. They migrate from Louisiana to depression era Central Avenue in Los Angeles living in boarding houses. They move to the projects in Watts. By selling breast milk and cleaning homes for affluent families during the day and office buildings at night her cooking lands her a job where she is on call with the Hollywood studio’s where she cooked and cleaned for actors who lived in the leased homes while they were in town.

She saved the money to purchase her own home on Hillford Avenue in Compton. Heartbreak and pride lead her to independence. She began catering parties, her famous food bringing people from near and far to her restaurant in Southwest Los Angeles, Mom’s Soul Food, where she was the ‘The Roux in the Gumbo.’


CHAPTER 1

Gizelle

Gizelle welcomed the feel of the cool sheets against her skin. She crawled exhausted into her bed, naked as always during the humid summer. As Gizelle slept, her subconscious took her back to a night twenty years ago in 1850. She was twelve years old and alone in the middle of the night. Scared, tired, hungry and sick, she sat crying and shivering under a huge magnolia tree in driving rain, deep in the bayou near Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Gizelle decided to sit and wait. Surely, one of the water moccasins or some deadly spider would put her out of her misery. No matter what, she was not going back to the plantation.

Before Gizelle was old enough to be weaned, she had been wrenched from her mother’s breast and sold to the Sunrise Plantation. They should have called it the Graveyard because so many slaves were buried there. They worked clearing the bayous so the boats could navigate through the waters to bring in materials to build plantation homes and slave quarters. They also brought in seed and supplies to cultivate the fields of cotton, rice, sugar cane, anything that was agriculturally profitable.

The overseers did not allow slaves who labored in the fetid water to get out as they watched others pulled under by the alligators. If the poisonous snakes and spiders did not kill them, the elements would. They worked regardless of rain or snow. Those who fell ill were left on the bank to die. The owners could always buy more slaves.

During the epidemics, cholera and yellow fever laid claim to many. Hundreds expired from colds, croup or the many diseases that thrived in the swampy water. The soles of their feet split open from the fungus brought on by standing in dirty water for too long. They bound their feet with bandages but without proper treatment, the cuts developed gangrene. The limbs were amputated. Cripples sat in pirogues to transfer the debris from the water to the bank. A slave was lucky to make it through a year working at Sunrise.

Gizelle’s dark skin dictated that by the age of four she be sent to the fields to pick cotton. When she was nine years old, the overseer gave her a gift. He raped her. He had been doing so for three years now. He had very strange and unnatural desires; Gizelle could not take it anymore. She would prefer death to the tortured existence she was living.

Each time lightning brightened the sky, Gizelle prayed for God to end her life. Finally, the storm passed. She gathered Spanish moss from the trees and made a pallet. She closed her eyes, hoping they would never again open.

“Cher, Cher, Wake up Chile! What are you doing here? Get up Cher you are soaking wet. Come with me. Open your eyes!” The voice said.

Gizelle heard the words but did not want to open her eyes. She did not want to be alive. Maybe God was a woman, or maybe he was busy and had sent an angel for her. She peeked out with one eye. Nope it was not God; God did not have long white hair that hung down to his waist. She opened the other eye and looked into eyes that looked like a cats; colored a greenish gray. Her face was soft with what seemed to be concern. No one had ever looked at Gizelle with such kindness.

“Can you stand Cher? Are you hurt?” The woman touched Gizelle’s forehead and found it burning with fever. “You poor Chile, you come with Tallulah, I will make you better,” The woman said.

Gizelle rose shakily to her feet and leaned against the strange woman. Tallulah was the tallest woman she had ever seen. When Gizelle got so dizzy she could not walk, Tallulah carried her.

Tallulah took her to a cabin built three feet above the ground alongside a creek, allowing the water to flow under rather than through the house when the water was high. It was a cozy habitat.

Three large rooms were more than adequate for Tallulah. One, a large inviting kitchen kept warm by the stove where she prepared her food. Another was the bedroom, which boasted a four-poster bed with night tables and an armoire that covered an entire wall. The custom furniture would have done any mansion proud. The last room had a massive desk on one wall. The other three walls were bookshelves, overflowing with books and mementos of her life. The collection of Indian and French artifacts spoke volumes about Tallulah’s heritage.

Gizelle dreamed that someone removed her wet clothes and placed her in a large metal basin filled with lavender scented water that had been warmed in a teakettle that sat on the top of a big pot-bellied stove. Her hair gently washed and braided. She was spooned hot soup; the tastiest she had ever eaten, nothing like the slop at Sunrise. The woman held a cup for her so that she could sip delicious honey-sweetened herb tea. It soothed and warmed her from the inside out.

Once out of the tub, Gizelle’s body was rubbed down with oils that made her skin feel smooth and soft like a babes. The towel was soft as freshly ginned and cleaned cotton. She wondered if she was dreaming, or maybe this was heaven. Wherever she was, this was where she wanted to be.

Gizelle awoke in the comfort of a soft feather mattress. “This must be how the people in the big house slept.” She thought. She was afraid that if she moved, her surroundings would disappear and she would find herself back on the floor of her cabin. Tallulah warmed the sheets by filling a bottle with hot water and rolling it between them. The quilt smelled as if it were filled with fragrant flowers. She drifted back to sleep.


Tallulah - 1850

As Tallulah bathed the child, she noticed scars, welts and burns. Tortured slaves were a familiar sight for her. She spent her days making rounds to plantations in the area. Some plantation owners believed in caring for the Blacks that worked for them; not that they considered them human but just as horses or dogs could get sick, so could slaves. They did not mind the small retainer. It was much less than the cost to care for a sick slave or replace a dead one.

Tallulah worked wonders on slaves and animals. It seemed she always knew which herb would revive her patient. Many physicians who refused to work on Blacks came to her for advice on perplexing cases. Some White people found her much more effective than the college-educated doctors and before long joined her list of exclusive clients.

The fullness of Gizelle’s breast, and the life-giving milk that leaked from her swollen nipples, along with the slight roundness of her stomach alerted Tallulah. She would wait for Gizelle to get better to ask if she wanted to keep the baby. If not, she would prepare a brew from the black cohosh plant. If taken early in pregnancy, it causes the necessary bleeding to bring down the period and abort the fetus. She had prepared this for many women with great success. Tallulah lay down next to Gizelle and went to sleep.

Tallulah was French and Indian. The result of an affair her mother Jennifer, had with a tall Muskogean (Black and Indian) warrior named Sachwaw. She was nearly five feet eleven inches tall. She had bronze skin and a slim figure that even at her age of fifty was statuesque.

Tallulah came into the world amidst great tragedy. Jennifer’s husband, Jacques Boneaux, a French Diplomat with blonde hair and blue eyes, could not deal with the horror of his wife’s betrayal.


Jacques - 1800

Jacques rushed home after receiving word from one of his slaves that Jennifer had borne the child. Upon entering the foyer of his massive plantation home, he saw the doctor coming down the stairs.

“Congratulations Jacques,” he said as they shook hands.

Jacques offered him a flask of bourbon. “Let’s celebrate, Doc.”

Doc took the flask, closed and returned it without taking sip. “Your wife and daughter are resting, both healthy and fine, now I must get home to my own wife.” He put on his coat and hat and went out to his waiting carriage.

Jacques could not help feeling something was amiss. Doc’s eyes never met his and he seemed nervous, and in a hurry to leave, much as a man with something to hide.

Jacques had never known the doctor to refuse a drink. Yet he had begged off, saying that he had to get home to his wife as he hurried out the door. Jacques had spent many a night in brothels with the Doc and he had never seen him in a rush to get home. Actually, it was just the opposite, and who could blame him. Jacques had met the good doctor’s wife and she was far from attractive. Pictures in their home professed to the great beauty she once was. When she got pregnant with their only son, she had put on quite a bit of weight and after the birth continued to blow up like a balloon, which distorted the once pristine features of her face. “No,” he thought, “Doc just said they were fine?” Then he remembered he had a baby. He took the stairs two at a time.

Jacques stood at the bedside watching Jennifer in her slumber. He could not help but smile at the blissful serenity of her sleeping, angelic face. They had been married exactly one year ago during this very month, December of 1800. Their fathers had been childhood friends in France and had come to America to make their fortunes in slaves and cotton. From the day Jennifer was born, their parents spoke of their marriage.

Growing up Jacques and Jennifer rarely saw each other, as he was away at boarding schools. When they were together on holidays and gatherings, he was so enchanted with her that he did not quite know how to act. She was a Lady, born and bred.

Jacques remembered deflowering Jennifer on their wedding night. For a moment, he had felt guilty, and even considered not consummating their marriage. When he entered the room and saw her slim figure, so blonde and beautiful, her creamy skin accentuated by the glow of the candlelight, he had to have all five foot six of her. Jacques felt just as eager as he had when he was twelve and his father had arranged his first encounter with a slave girl named Riva.

Jacques had fantasized about being with Jennifer for so long that he lost all self-control. He showed no consideration for her feelings. His father’s instructions about the delicate task of handling a virginal bride left him. He laid her down on the bed and thrust himself into her. As he entered her warm moist flower, before he could pull out of her, he spent himself. “My God!” he thought. This had never happened before. He was grateful she was a virgin and knew nothing of the way sex should be. Even a whore on Bourbon Street would have laughed herself silly over his performance. He was ashamed and hated himself for being such an inconsiderate buffoon.


Kim Robinson, © 2004, all rights reserved.
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