A blog by Lori Lyons

Friday, July 2, 2021

The Summer of Solitude




 I have a friend, a fellow former sports writer pal, who takes his summers very seriously.

Every June (or July), he puts together a bucket list of people and places he wants to see and things he wants to do around the country. "Summer of John," he calls it and shares photos of his epic adventures with his friends (and occasional celebrities) at fabulous golf courses, restaurants and ball parks. It's pretty cool.

I take my summers pretty seriously too, especially since my longtime career as a sports writer ended and I became a full time school teacher. Yes, I am now one of those people y'all all envy, who gets summers "off." Although, I feel it is my teacher duty (hate that word!) to remind you that teachers do not get the summers "off," we just get laid off and have elected to spread our nine-month paycheck out over the months of June and July. 

We also do work in the summer -- some more than others. I deliberately forced myself not to do school work during the month of June, telling myself "wait until July...wait until July...". But, I confess that, when I got my new assignments for the fall I did tinker just a little.

In the meantime, I put together my own bucket list. Mine was not nearly as exciting as my friend John's, however. Mine had things like paint the porch, power wash the deck and hire a painter on it. But then, the kid I hired to come power wash the porch before I could paint it stood me up, and so did the painter we asked to come give us an estimate, so there went that. There are some things I can't do by myself anymore. 

And that's what I am. By myself. A lot.

Not all school people get summers off. My husband is still The Coach and has spent his summer so far coaching not one, but TWO baseball teams. If he's not playing, he's practicing. And if he's not doing either one of those, he's probably off watching somebody else do one of those. Then he got to be the interim principal for a month so, while I got to sleep in until 7:30 a.m. every day (damn teacher body clock), he had to go to work. That shoe was definitely on the other foot for us!

Of course, our beloved daughter is home for the summer from college, but, well, she has a boyfriend who just got his own place up the street so she is never home either. I follow her on Life 360, though, just to try to keep up. The dogs and I get butterflies whenever the little blip says she is home.  We hear the signal then patiently wait at the door for her arrival. But most of the time, she just keeps going and breaks all our little hearts. It's sad really.

I do have a fairly large basket of books I want to read, some for school and some for fun. Instead, I binge-watched Firefly Lane -- aloneAnd now I am reading that book. 

I did get to go on one trip, to Natchitoches, Louisiana, for the annual Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Despite my better sports writing days being behind me, I am still on the selection committee until they tell me otherwise. So, last weekend I took the four-hour drive -- alone. I stayed two nights in a hotel -- alone. I went to all the events -- alone (well, I was third wheel for one of my favorite couples). I got in a fender bender -- alone. Then I drove home -- alone. At least I could listen to Yacht Rock and sing as loudly as I wanted.

Now I'm spending this weekend alone again as The Coach plays ball on the road in Tennessee and The Daughter plays with my emotions.

I'm calling this my Summer of Solitude. 


And I'm not really complaining. I know some moms (and wives) that would kill for a little Alone Time, Me Time, Get Out of My Face Time. Sure it would be nice to have company on occasion, but at least I don't have to argue over what's for dinner or what show to watch on Netflix. I have never minded keeping my own company. I have hobbies and interests of my own. I have this blog, which obviously needs attention, a family tree I've been working on for 30 years, two more books that need to be written, a body to get in shape, a home office space I love (except it gets 100 degrees up here). And, now that it's July, classes to prepare for.

Oh yes. And a big, beautiful blue pool all to myself. 

There's a lot to be said for solitude. 







Saturday, February 27, 2021

Hey Mr. Banjo!

 

His parents named him Martin Behrman French, in honor of the one-time mayor of New Orleans who counted his father, former Louisiana State Representative Henry David French, as one of his dear friends. Oddly, his family would forgo the simpler, more usual name of Martin, calling him Behrman (pronounced Ber - man) instead. 

His wife called him Behrman too, but with a distinct west bank of New Orleans roil that turned it into "Boy-man." Only a handful of people ever called him Martin and he was never, ever a Marty. 

I just called him Grandpa.



Born in 1904, Behrman French was the fifth of six children born to Henry and Matilda Louise Sutherland French of Algiers, he of Irish descent, she of Dutch.  Three sisters came before him and a brother who was "sickly" and died at the age of 11. Two years younger, Behrman used to wheel his brother, Henry Jr. or "Bud" around in a little cart. His death in 1913 profoundly moved Behrman, who idolized his big brother. Likewise, the tragic death of little sister Lillian Irene, age 2, who, according to family legend, choked on a chicken bone at the dining room table, haunted him all of his days.

Behrman grew up in Algiers on the west bank of New Orleans, in a traditional camelback shotgun double at 813 Pacific Avenue. His mom was a big fan of ginger beer (a precursor to ginger ale) back in the day, and used the ceramic tan bottles to line the garden. There were hundreds.

When he was about 6 years old, he was playing with friends in his neighborhood when one of them, carrying a BB gun, tripped. The weapon fired and hit Behrman in his left eye, permanently blinding him on one side.

But that didn't stop Behrman from playing football or baseball. He matriculated at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans, every day riding the ferry across the Mississippi River, then taking a streetcar down Canal Street. Behrman was a member of the Eagles baseball team and later played on a few of the semipro teams in and around New Orleans. He loved to boast that he played with the great Mel Ott.


                                             Martin Behrman French, back row, third player.

In 1926 Behrman married a girl who lived in the neighborhood, Evelyn Himel Cross, who had broken up with the Mothe boy because she didn't want to marry the undertaker's son. (The Mothes later opened one of the largest funeral homes in the city.) 

Around that time, Behrman went to work for Bell Telephone Company. His first job was in an office, but when he got laid off, he offered to go to work as a pole digger. He did that for several years until he was able to work his way back to a desk and a position as office manager. His job took him from New Orleans to Patterson, where his only child, Lettie Lee, was born, to Baton Rouge and, finally, to Houma. He would retire in 1969 after 45 years with the company. The Houma Courier did a story on his retirement.

To this day I can't help but think of Edith and Archie Bunker when I think of my grandparents. He was a cantankerous old coot for much of my lifetime, a "get off my lawn" kind of guy who nearly had a stroke anytime anyone of the male persuasion dared to pull into our driveway to visit me. She was the sweetest soul you'd ever meet, who put up with his ire and anger for more than 60 years. Somehow, they made it work.

Grandpa loved to fish, too. But just a few days after his boss retired, Grandpa took him out on his boat fishing. The man suffered a heart attack and died on the trip and, shortly thereafter, Grandpa put his boat up for sale.

But he also doted on us grandkids, teaching my brother, Rhett, the proper way to throw a baseball and trying to turn my nephew, Lee, into a mini-Archie Manning back in the day. I wasn't into the sports thing, but we did share a love of music. 

Paw Paw may have spent 45 years working for the telephone company, but in his heart, he was an entertainer. I don't know when he first picked up an instrument, or how, but I know he loved music -- playing it, writing it, performing it. He played the guitar, the banjo, the ukulele and the organ.

But the banjo was his jam. And I'm guessing, if he had a say in the matter, he would have preferred to be called "Mr. Banjo." It was the title of one of the many tunes he played.

Most of my early childhood memories of my grandfather are of him with a banjo across his lap. He played it often on the breezeway of his home in Houma and he had frequent jam sessions with his musical pals, Gene Dusenberry and Sonny Thibodeaux. (And one of my greatest regrets is that I never asked Mr. Sonny to teach me how to play the Hawaiian/slide guitar.) 

He also played at the annual Telephone Pioneers picnics, before downtown Mardi Gras parades and at any other public event that called for musical entertainment. But Grandpa and Grannie were most known for their frequent gigs at the local nursing homes in Houma where they -- great-grandparents, mind you -- would perform for the "old folks."


Behrman and Evelyn French, performing at one of the long term care facilities in Houma.

The two of them had compiled a large repertoire of really silly songs from the early 19th Century, including such novelty tunes "Once There was a Little Pig" (in which the baby pig died and the mother pig cried herself to death), "The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia," (in which a cow was loitering on a railroad track and got run over), and "The Burglar Beau," about a burglar who happened to choose the home of a one-eyed, toothless woman for his victim. And we all learned to spell Mis - sis - sippi by singing it every time we crossed a bridge. 

But Gramps also wrote a few ditties himself. When his adopted home of Houma in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1972, Grampa wrote a lovely song called "This is the Place."

"This is the place where I was born.
This is the place I'll carry on.
This is the place I toot my horn.
Houma in Terrebonne."

He really hoped the town would adopt it as its official song, but, sadly, nothing ever came of it.

He also went to his grave bitterly convinced that his greatest story had been stolen from him. Back in the 1970s, Grandpa wrote a song about a Cajun Santa who delivered toys up and down the bayous of Louisiana in a pirogue with a red nose. He called it "La Christine" and it predated the immensely popular "Cajun Night Before Christmas." But no one ever seemed interested. 




But there were victories. 

In 1925, just a year before he got married, Berhman French recorded two records with the Norman Brownlee Orchestra. Brownlee also was from Algiers and was married to Grandpa's sister, Irma Lee French. 

I grew up knowing that Gramps had played on two records with some famous jazz musician in New Orleans, but that's really all I knew. After a visit to a recently opened museum to local jazz great Kid Ory, I was spurred to find out more about those recordings. Thanks to the modern marvel that is the internet, I was easily able to find the recording -- nearly 100 years after the fact.

This is my grandfather playing banjo. Norman Brownlee Orchestra - "Dirty Rag"/"Peculiar" 
(Note: He is not in the photographs of the orchestra but his name is in the notes.) 

I was moved to tears listening to this old recording and inspired to write this blog post. His dreams of fame may not have come true during his lifetime, but perhaps I can keep his name and a little piece of his music alive.

Rest well, Grandpa, and keep on playin'!