Melvin & Helen
Melvin Jr., Butch, Curly, Anna Lee and Francis
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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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Jacques,” he said as they shook hands.
offered him a flask of bourbon. “Let’s
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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