I’ve written about the long line of strong women in my family. I devoted an entire post to my grandmother, “Grammy“, a nurse who ran a MASH unit as a Lieutenant in World War 2. In Rebellious Role Models I wrote about my other grandmother, “Mama Byrd”, who went against her family’s wishes and married the man she loved, to whom she was married for 52 years, raising 7 children. In that post I also mentioned my great-grandmother leaving Chicago with her husband and family to start a new life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and how her mother participated in a protest march in Chicago to support women’s right to vote. I’ve written about my phenomenal aunt who crossed the Atlantic four times in a sailboat. But there are a couple of “bonus” women in my life who are just as strong and have been just as influential.
Seventeen years ago my dad married Terry Gautier, a wonderful woman who has never once treated my sister or me any differently than the three daughters she brought into the family. She’s loving, nurturing, and a “mama bear” when she needs to be. It also means we don’t all always see eye-to-eye, either, but that’s how it goes in most families, and that’s okay. I realize it’s easy for me to say how much I adore her, since I was already married by the time she came along because I never actually lived under her roof. That’s probably a good thing, since our blended family consists of my dad, Terry, and five daughters. I can’t imagine all six of us strong-headed women and my daddy all living in the same house at the same time. Unless the need for differentiation comes up in a conversation with someone else, most of the time we drop the word “step” from in front of whatever word explains our relationship.
There’s a seventh strong-headed woman, though, one who actually does live with my parents. Mrs. Ruby Gautier is Terry’s mother and she is an amazing woman in her own right. The cool thing is that I’ve actually known her my entire life. Okay… see if you can follow this. My dad’s dad and Terry’s dad were best friends since at least high school. They even owned a business together for forty years. Nothing made my grandfather or Grandpa Gautier more proud than the day their children got married. “It’s about time we’re officially related,” they would say to other wedding guests. My dad was given Grandpa Gautier’s middle name. It got screwed up on his birth certificate and officially became his middle name, too, but it’s the one he introduces himself with. My parents’ very first date was when they were teenagers and they went to a ball together. We have names in both families that we can’t figure out which family they originated with. We all easily accepted, blended, and kept right on going not “as if”, but because it was the most natural thing in the world to us.
Grandma and Grandpa were married for sixty years when he passed away at the age of 97. She was the love of his life, as he was hers. He was ill toward the end of his life, but he and Grandma were determined to live on their own, in their own home for as long as they could. On occasion, he would be in a position where Grandma wasn’t able to help him up or down. If one of their kids couldn’t do it, they’d call the fire department, who would always come out and respectfully help him, preserving as much of his dignity as possible. But Grandma was the one who really rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
When she was 46 years old she decided to go back to school to do what she’d always wanted: become a nurse. Grandma told me that her dad hadn’t been supportive of the idea. After he died she wanted to be able to take care of her mother, so she did it anyway. She worked as a nurse and tried to retire at the age of 69. According to Grandma, the doctors where she had worked – and the patients – loved her so much they kept calling her back to work. She finally retired “for real” at the age of 80 (mostly triage stuff). Between her determination and years of training, she was able to provide amazing, loving care for her husband that most of us can only dream we will experience at that age. Just before Grandpa died she told me her greatest prayer was that God would allow her to live long enough to take care of Grandpa for as long as he needed it. Grandpa gently slipped away at home with her by his side.
Grandma moved in with my parents after suffering a small stroke not long after Grandpa passed away. That woman is a feisty little spitfire of a woman with an incredibly sharp brain for someone who is 95 years old. I have to admit, though, sometimes she says things we kind of wonder about. She’s still active in her church, does daily devotionals without fail, and visits with her sisters every Wednesday. Female longevity is definitely a family trait: her three brothers have all passed on, but of eight girls in her family, she is one of five still living, ranging in age from 89 to 98. She also loves to tell stories about her life. As with most elderly people I know, she likes to tell the same stories over and over, as if to make sure the listener has plenty of opportunities to memorize them for retelling after she’s gone. It’s her shot at immortality, and the last time we were in Mississippi for a visit, my husband sat with her for six straight hours listening to every word, cataloging every single detail, with so much love and compassion and respect it made me love him even more. He not only listened, he heard, and he really loved her stories. In fact, I think he knows her stories better than my parents do. He loves to tell me about how proud Grandma was of Grandpa and his role in World War 2 (he was awarded a Bronze Star for the Battle of the Bulge). To my husband it’s a great love story, and he’s right. My favorite story, however, is the one about the shrimp factory.
Grandma, as you’ve already noticed, came from a very large family. Eleven mouths to feed and clothe during the 1920s and 1930s was no easy task. During the time Grandma was in school, she had a pair of shoes for school, a pair of shoes for church, and a pair of tennis shoes for basketball. Yeah, you read that straight: basketball. Grandma was quite the athlete back in her day. She was on the girls’ basketball team (a “Big 8 team”, she’ll proudly tell you), she ran track (75 yard dash winner, thank-you-very-much), and she eventually played tennis for a while. By the time she started ninth grade, though, her school shoes were getting worn. By the time winter rolled around she had holes in the bottoms that were big enough she couldn’t walk to school in them anymore. I’m not really clear on why she couldn’t wear her tennis shoes to school. Maybe it was rule, maybe it was just how things were done in those days, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, though, she dropped out of school to go to work to earn the five dollars it cost to buy a new pair of shoes. I know what you’re thinking, but child labor laws didn’t exist then. Even if they had, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have mattered, knowing how things were in those days.
Grandma’s first job was as a car hop. She earned a little money each week and was proud to tell me that getting a nickel for a tip was a huge deal. She made thirty cents a day. Everybody else had to give some of it to the restaurant, but her aunt was her boss and let her keep all thirty cents. But she was’t making as much as she wanted to. She really wanted to go back to school in the fall, so she quit the car hop gig and went to work in one of the shrimp factories on the beach in Biloxi.
The seafood and shrimp industries were the biggest source of income for most people in Biloxi, and there were several shrimp and fish processing plants on the eastern tip – referred to by locals as “The Point” – of the peninsula that is the town. At one time there was also a cat food factory there. The factories had whistles that would blow so loudly they could be heard all over town, and each factory’s whistle had a different tone. A factory’s whistle would blow as soon as the boats started coming in, and employees could tell by the whistle tone whether or not it was time for them to go to work. Grandma said the whistles usually blew at 3 AM. When her factory’s whistle blew everybody would get there as quickly as they could to get a good spot on the table. If there were ever any doubt as to the sharpness of that 95 year old woman’s memory, take a quick peek at the picture at the top of this article, then come back and read her description. We’ll wait…. Keep in mind she hadn’t seen that picture when she related all of this to me.
There were tables set up in the room. Each table was about six feet in length of so, and had enough room for about twelve people to stand around working, a few more if they squeezed in. The room the tables were in backed right up to the dock and had a track running through it. As the shrimp came in, it was loaded onto a cart about three or four feet long and two feet high with wheels, that was run up into the rooms and near the tables. Factory workers would peel the shrimp, pull the heads off, toss the shells on the floor, and put the shrimp meat in a little metal bucket. Grandma said the buckets were about six inches high and about as big around as a dinner plate, and they called them “cups”. As soon as the cup was full, the worker would take it up to a little window where it would be weighed. Each shrimp picker was paid by the pound. If you got there early enough and worked fast enough you could out-pick the other workers and earn more money. School-aged children would work as long as they could before they had to leave to go home, get cleaned up and eat, and then walk to school. They were expected to stay awake and finish their homework at night before starting all over again the next day. (Go ahead… read this to your teenager when he or she complains about his/her hard life. I know you want to! haha) The rest of the workers would pick shrimp until the last of the haul was gone and the bins were empty. Grandma’s tennis shoes would be soaked through with shrimp juice from standing in the water and the shells all over the floor. She’d go home, wash them out, and hang them up to dry for the next day.
Eventually, Grandma made enough money to buy herself a new pair of shoes. She also had enough to buy some three yards of fabric to make a dress. She was good to go, and started school again, repeating part of ninth grade and graduating a year later than her original class. That’s the point, though, isn’t it? She understood the value of having an education and was willing to do whatever she could to get it. When I was growing up kids in my generation were regularly threatened with being dragged down to a factory to pick shrimp or clean fish guts as punishment for bad grades or really bad behavior. It was kind of our version of “scared straight” and it worked like a charm. I’m betting there’s not a native Biloxian I went to school with who wasn’t relieved when those factories closed. Yet Grandma did that awful work willingly.
I love this story for three reasons. One, it’s a great replacement for the “I walked two miles uphill in the snow both ways” story when your kids finally get tired of it. Two, it tells of a time when there were no child labor laws and things were so bad for some families during the depression era that they would send their little guys off to work in those kinds of conditions. Although, picking shrimp was probably way better than a slaughterhouse. Third, and most importantly for me, it tells about a woman determined not to let anything stand in her way. This story sets the tone for who she was throughout her life. She has never been one to shy away from hard work, and she has never been afraid to stand up for what she wants. She may be stubborn and hard-headed at the age of 95, but that served her well when she needed it to. It’s what makes her a great role model.
I love you Grandma! I’m listening…