They eat ants!
My grandmother, Erna Stecher Rameau, was a gifted and shrewd lady. She had to be: she had a long career in education as a teacher and as a principal of children’s schools–a trying task for anyone, anywhere, anytime. While masterfully navigating the waters of this challenging career, she managed to remain a devoted wife, a doting mother (and grandmother!), and a loyal, gracious friend. Admirably, she did it all without losing her fiercely strong sense of self, or her love of excitement and adventure. I found a wonderful photograph of her recently and thought I’d tell its story…
Two dear friends of hers, Leonce and his wife Annette, were both educators. He and his wife set about achieving that universally desired (and universally challenging) feat of giving their family a brighter future. Their route? They left Port-au-Prince for the newly independent Central African Republic, and he took a teaching position at the University in CAR. Far away in their new country of residence, husband and wife sat quietly for dinner each night, unable to eat, instead using many a mealtime to cry together. They cried every day for their five young children that they had left behind in Haiti with relatives. There was little hope of seeing their children anytime soon: all five were minors between the ages of two and eleven; they were too young to travel unaccompanied, and no airline was willing to take on the responsibility of ushering five little ones through such a long journey with so many layovers.
Skip back to the island in the Caribbean, fast forward to a later time…my grandmother was readying herself for a trip to France to visit her oldest daughter (my aunt) who was studying in Paris. Ever resourceful, dear grandmother phoned her friends Leonce and Annette in CAR and told them that she would be in Paris on Day X of Month Y (Year 1962), and that if they would be willing to travel to Paris to meet halfway, she would gladly bring their children with her. Annette, who now lives in New York, says she never forgot that day. Already painfully separated from her young brood for over a year at that point, Annette quickly accepted the offer, then soon after countered it with a fun raising of the stakes: “Erna, would you mind bringing the children the whole way to CAR? Come for a visit, we’ll send you a ticket for the Paris-Africa leg…” My grandmother, not about to pass up an opportunity to see Africa, accepted the offer. She made all the travel arrangements and when the big day arrived, set off for Central Africa, her friends’ five kids in tow. The youngest, two-year-old Georges, clung to her the entire trip and refused to let go of her even during her visit in Africa. After being reunited, the family remained in CAR for a decade. Today, the surviving members (Leonce passed away a few years ago, and sadly, exhaustive illness claimed one of his and Annette’s daughters last year) still fondly remember the trip that brought them back together.
After some weeks with her friends in CAR, my grandmother traveled to France for a month to spend time with her daughter. She finally returned home to a patient husband and three impatient adolescent offspring, the fourth remaining in Paris, not yet done with her studies. My aunt tells me all interested parties keenly felt the distance; she describes my grandmother as une mère-poule (a mother hen). I wholeheartedly agree.
The homecoming brings me back to the wonderful photograph, the inspiration for this blog post. This photo was taken the day that my grandmother returned to Port-au-Prince from her trip to CAR and France. Relatives and friends came over that evening to hear tales. She’s seated center stage in the adirondack chair, her aunt on one side resting her hand on the chair, my mother (smiling, arms crossed) and my youngest aunt in matching white dresses on the other side. Attention is fixed on my dear grandmother. Her body language is priceless: hands up gesticulating, the mouth smiling and open and surely telling an exciting story. My aunt and mother both tell me they vividly remember this enthusiastic statement my grandmother made about the Central African Republic: “I loved the markets! The marchandes sell ants in the marketplace by the bowlful! They eat ants!” Classic.