She had more names than most members of the royal family, starting with two first names and accumulating the rest from a Catholic baptism, two dads, and five husbands. Born in the last year of the 40s, she grew up in the 50s, was a teenager in the 60s (who got to see the Beatles live in New Orleans), a mom in the 70s, a divorcee in the 80s (a couple of times) and finally settled down in the 90s and 2000s as a hot shot real estate agent.
Nothing came easy for her and certainly nothing stayed easy. She had chips on her shoulders a lot of times and not much of a filter. A Scorpio through and through, she sometimes had a harsh sting. She wasn't cuddly. She wasn't always easy to love. But she was my big sister until I lost her in early December. It was way too soon for us but put an end to a long time of pain and suffering for her.
She got a brief little obituary on a funeral home website, but no funeral -- yet. One day this summer her husband Nick and I and whatever family chooses to gather will send her off the same way we said goodbye to Mama, on the banks of the Mississippi River. But since I have this little space and a knack for words, I figure I owe it to her to remind the world that she was here for 73 years and 44 days.
Officially, she was Jo Lee Ann Delanuville Lyons Saunier Miller Catton Bonura LeBlanc. But, to me, she was just Sissy -- my much older, wiser, grumpier, hell-hath-no-fury sister. She was born to a teenage mother who didn't have a clue what she was doing, but, thankfully, there was a set of grandparents there to pick up the slack and make sure she survived. Mama named her after her own grandmother, Lena Josephine, but reversed -- Jo Lee. Back then, you had to have a saint's name to be baptized, so Mama added the Ann.
Her father, a Navy man, came and went in a flash. Then my dad came along and she started using his name because no one could spell the other one (Still can't. It's even wrong in her obituary.) Then she got married. And again. And again. And again. And again. But she kept the name of her third husband because it was the one she used to establish herself as a hot shot real estate agent in Baton Rouge. She also refused to be called Jo Lee LeBlanc. It was too much like the Cajun song Jolie Blanc.
She became a big sister to our brother, Rhett, when she was 7 years old and spent the next several years trying to keep him alive. You see, Rhett was a bit of a daredevil who lived his life on the edge, even as a toddler. It was Sissy who interrupted mom's card game to inform her that Rhett was on the roof. "Tell him to get down," mom replied calmly, knowing if she went out there she would scream, scare the bejeezus out of him and probably make him fall. He got down safely on his own.
She had six more years before I came along and I'm certain she was not thrilled when mom and my dad announced my impending arrival. I was kind of an oops baby, conceived shortly after my mother recovered from a serious bout of rheumatic fever that nearly killed her and left her with a profound heart murmur.
Two weeks after I was born, Mom and Dad packed the family up in the station wagon and moved us all to Houston for Dad's new job. I, of course, have no memory of this time. I have heard stories of bike rides to Blueberry Hill and the daily adventures of my brother. There are a few photos of Sissy and me, in which she is acting like the Mother Hen, fussing over me or dressing me up in some silly costume. All I know is, when we moved back to Houma two years later, my parents were no longer married.
We moved in with Grannie and Grandpa for a time until my Gramps bought us a nice new trailer to put on the lot next door. Mom, Rhett and I moved in, but Sissy stayed in the added on back room at Grannie's. I have so many memories of that room, all filled with 1960s nostalgia. She had the little white record case filled with 45s of the Beatles, Elvis, The Monkees and other hit makers. She also had a stack of albums. She had cat-eyeglasses for the longest time and big, poofy hair. She had a best friend named Twig, who sort of looked like and was nicknamed for the super skinny model, Twiggy.
One of the main things everyone remembers about my sister was that she was double-jointed in her knees. When she stood up a certain way they would bend backwards unnaturally. She also could Hula Hoop like a mad woman.
When she got a boyfriend in high school, they used to sit in our tete-a-tete swing and I would go bother them in little sister ways. I remember being heart-broken when she left for college, not knowing it was just a short ways away in Hammond. I remember her calling to tell us that it was snowing there and I wished it was snowing on me too. She lasted only a semester or two as a Home Economics major -- back when there still was such a thing. Like a good 60s girl, she was a master at cooking.
I was only 6 years old when she married her first husband, in a hurry-up post-Christmas event after he joined the Marines but before he was stationed in San Clemente, California. They married at our local Catholic church, which we attended very infrequently, and they had always told me there was no bathroom there so it really wasn't my fault that I peed on my mom's new boyfriend's lap. I was the flower girl, and Sissy and I were dressed in identical white crepe miniskirt dresses. She really did look lovely. I was cute. (I can't find the photos though.)
Rhett, Grannie and I went to visit her and Lou the next summer, even though I was terrified of getting hijacked. (Y'all don't believe me when I say I watched the news my whole life!) My brother, in his wisdom, told me not to worry because, if we got hijacked, it would be on the trip home. So I refused to fly home. I spent the whole summer with Sissy and Louie, going to the beach and eating Jack-in-the-Box burgers. They made me stay up to watch the Lunar landing. But they also took me to see The Blob and I was afraid to turn on any faucets for days.
When it was time to come home, we drove -- from California to Louisiana in a Chevy Nova with no air conditioning. I didn't know she was pregnant at the time.
When I was two days shy of my eighth birthday, my sister gave me the best birthday gift ever -- a real live baby doll in my nephew, Lee. I was in love at first sight and he and I grew up much like a brother and a sister. My nephew Beau came along a few years later, but he attached to my Grannie. Lee and I were almost inseparable for most of our lives.
Life got hard after that as her first marriage broke up. She went up and down in weight, causing a myriad of issues for her. Then she went up and down in love, through husbands and stepchildren that came and went through our lives like butterflies.
She ran an apartment complex for a while and hired me to be the pool sitter to make sure only residents were there. I got a great tan out of it.
Eventually she moved to Baton Rouge and started talking with a "southern" accent.
We were not really close like some sisters are. Our relationship with each other, and with our mother, was very complicated. There were some jealousy issues when I was young and single and she was not. There were issues over the care and feeding of our grandparents, her children, and then our mother. But the death of our brother rocked us both to our core. That night, after we both got the horrifying phone calls, we sat on the phone together for an hour, not talking, just sobbing. Together. There were flashbacks to that night after I had to call her at 2 a.m. to tell her that Mama was gone.
She was a tough, don't-take-no-shit kind of woman, and that may have cost her dearly in some areas. But she also was smart as a whip, the only person who could challenge me in Scrabble without cheating. She loved to cook and was really good at it. Her task every Thanksgiving and Christmas was to bring the pies -- pecan for Grandpa, mincemeat for Mama and Grannie, cherry for Rhett and me. When we started to fight over them, she made two.
She also was a damn good bowler. I can't give any stats for her, but her name was on the walls at the Houma Bowl and one in Baton Rouge for high scores. She ran the Saturday morning and Monday night bowling leagues I used to belong to in my teen years. I never was as good as her. When she couldn't bowl any more, she played pool and darts and was good at both of those.
She also loved LSU sports with a passion. I was the sports writer, but her knowledge of LSU players and personnel rivaled that of the best beat writers I know. Many of our weekly phone calls were spent listening to her question the coaching decisions and lineup changes. I called it "Jo-splaining."
The only thing my sister wasn't really good at is cleaning. She was a bona fide slob. One time I went to her apartment and I asked if it had been ransacked. I was ready to call the police! Housework was not her thing.
She also was early for everything -- sometimes too early. If our party started at 2, she was there by noon. And she had to leave early because she never liked to drive at night.
But she was the first to insist that our family had to get together for some type of Christmas. She saw herself as our matriarch and did her best to try to keep us together. We did good for a while, getting together annually a few days after Christmas for a Pot Luck/White Elephant party with our clan. But then came Covid... then her health went. The last time we all got together was 2019.
We spoke infrequently, usually only to commiserate over the latest quirk of our quirky mother. Both of us had difficult, complicated relationships with our mom, who was as head-strong as they come. She would fight with one of us then call the other to complain, then we would call each other. Both of us would begin those conversations with, "Your mother is nuts!"
After Mama died, we made a pact to call each other once a week. We would exchange mundane details of our lives as well as the exciting ones. The last year was hard. She couldn't walk, couldn't get out of the bed, fought with doctors and insurance. She had EMS on speed dial. Mostly I tried to cheer her up and give her a reason to get up and fight, to get moving again.
She would call more often if there was a hurricane headed our way to remind me that I was going to drown in my attic if I didn't evacuate to her house in Baton Rouge. In 2021, we finally had to take her up on that offer after Hurricane Ida hit our town and knocked out power for a month. We spent a week in her guest bedroom, listening to her and Nick "fight" just like my grandparents used to. I'm so thankful for that week now.
We were shocked to find her pretty much confined to a hospital bed in her living room, surrounded by my grandparents' antique furniture and dishes. She had never fully recovered from a hip replacement and, largely thanks to Covid, services she normally would have received were not available to her. Both she and her husband, Nick, had been in and out of the ER and hospitals over the past two years. She spent all of November and December of 2021 in the hospital with no visitors allowed.
Ultimately, an infection set into her incision in November and she couldn't fight it this time. She died on Dec. 11, 2022. She was the daughter of the late Lettie Lee French and the late Louis Delanuville Jr. She had two half-sisters -- me, Lori Lyons and, oddly enough, Lori Delanuville Graff of Texas; three sons -- Lee Saunier, Beau Saunier and Casey Catton; three grandchildren, Mallory, Aubrey and Ava; seven step grandchildren and three step great-grandchildren. (I do not know all of their names); nieces Lena Lyons Brunet (Clayton), Marti Lyons and Lora Leigh Luquet; step niece Courtney Luquet; a nephew Kevin Lyons (Samantha); step nephew Daniel Luquet (Cori); grand niece Madison Brunet; grand nephews Job and Isaac Lyons, Carson and Lincoln Brunet and Sage Hebert; step grand nieces Robi and Laken Luquet. She was preceded in death by her parents, her brother Rhett, and her grand parents Evelyn Himel Cross French and Martin Behrman French.
On her Facebook page, many friends expressed their sadness and sorrow over her death. They talked about how nice and caring she was, how much fun she was to be around. She definitely loved to give advice. I am rather lost without our weekly phone calls. Sometimes I go to push the button, forgetting she isn't there. I'll probably miss her the most the next time there is a hurricane in the Gulf headed our way or the next time LSU wins a National Championship in baseball or football. She won't be their angel in the outfield, though. She'll be the little devil on the coach's shoulder, telling him to bunt.
Fly high, Sissy. I miss you.