“I’m drinking the stars”

May 18, 2020

“I’m drinking the stars”

-Dom Perignon

Each of us has our own way of converting all family memories into fond ones. These are mine.

My family, the Champagnes, would have been well served by a stay-at-home order. There were outdoor family reunions, where we were back in our cars, angrily heading back to our homes before the charcoal got hot. I was ten before I knew that eating cold hot dogs in the back seat of a car, while my parents screamed about my uncles and aunts, was not actually a “barbecue” as most people knew them.

I had an uncle who lived in Texas, and was the progenitor for the phrase, “all hat and no cattle.” I’d never known him to have drawn a sober breath in my presence, and whenever it was announced that Uncle Harry was coming to town, it was a call to board up the house like we were expecting a hurricane. On his sweetest, most beloved days he was rash, tempestuous, obnoxious, insulting, obstreperous, vile, vulgar and venal. Then there were the days he’d show up drunk and in a bad mood.

The Champagnes were matriarchal in that we were cowered by a grandmother of German ancestry, who had survived Nazi Germany by pleading no contest at the Nuremberg trials. Settling in the bayou country of south Louisiana, she operated an ice cream store, running it into the ground by terrorizing the children who would come in for a cone and order the wrong flavor. In her later years living in Chalmette, we’d sometimes drive her back to the bayous to see the “old country.” When she returned, she was immediately on the phone reporting back on who had died, who was dying and who’d be better off dead.

My grandmother was notoriously tightfisted with money. I once saw the large mayonnaise jar where she kept cold hard cash rolled into tight wads of 50s and 100s like a gun moll. Yet, she was kind and helpful to those family members in need, and would always meet them halfway. Literally. If someone asked for a $100 “loan,” she’d dole out $50, knowing full well she’d never see even the $50 again.

When my parents were buying their first (and only) house, my father was $500 short for the downpayment. That was a lot of money for the Champagnes, and my father approached my grandfather first. Knowing my grandmother’s vig regardless of who made the request, my father asked for $1000 hoping to get the $500. My grandfather, also knowing the vig with his wife, asked her for $2000. True to form,  maw-maw palmed ten benjis from a thick wad, and pushed them to paw-paw like a blackjack dealer, who then proudly presented all ten to my father. And that, according to my mother, was how we got the house and a used car in the transaction.

“The Champagnes were matriarchal in that we were cowered by a grandmother of German ancestry, who had survived Nazi Germany by pleading no contest at the Nuremberg trials.”

My father and an uncle once became rivals during a period of time in the 60s known in the family as Dueling Cadillacs. My uncle was the first, followed by my father. They were both used caddies, of course, they being the only type either could barely afford. They were big finned and black. When both were parked in front of my grandparents’s house, it looked like a mafia sit-down, with the matriarch inside, sitting around the kitchen table, peeling off 50s, a big thick cigar chuffing from her lips.

At least that’s the way, I’d like to fondly remember her and all the rest of them.

 

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