This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Beginning Life

Like people everywhere, the people of the Myette Point families were born, lived their lives, and died - that’s all. But perhaps there is a difference in that they did it while living on water most of the time and this provided some circumstances that people who lived on land did not have to deal with. Things like modes of travel and the distances between institutions like doctors and churches come to mind, and the isolation and smallness of the floating communities themselves was a factor too.

As in most other parts of this story, the span of time covered (about 100 years) dictates that circumstances changed over that long period. Opportunities came and went, technologies came and died out or were improved, and people adapted to the changes as necessary. The practical issue of safely giving birth was one of the things that changed over time, or perhaps it is better to say that the means of assistance at a birthing event changed.

There is a consensus among those interviewed that assistance at birth was always sought. From the earliest times people recognized that giving birth was a time filled with both great hope and at least moderate anxiety. Even though the great majority of births took place with no unforeseen negative consequences, there was enough potential for serious complications that the presence of someone with prior training was always engaged for the event. This person was the midwife of frequent mention in stories of the old days. Curiously, even though a medical doctor might have been within reach in Morgan City, he was not the first person to be called to assist at a birth. It was the midwife. From the early 1900s to the 1950s, and even beyond, people who lived on the water towed their houseboats and pregnant wives to Morgan City, a distance of about 15 miles. They tied up in a large excavated area adjacent to the Atchafalaya River called The Pit and a midwife was contacted to assist at the birth. The midwife would sometimes come to live with the family until the baby came. This process of towing to Morgan City continued for a long time, with some families having nine children born with this process, accounting for at least 18 years of continuous practice. Dot Bailey Couvillier, born in 1938, relates how and where her birth was brought about.

DC: Well, they had…just before I was born, they had moved to Morgan City from across the lake [at Blaise's Canal], you see? To wait, for my arrival. Yeah. And after I was born, they moved back. You see?

JD: Did they tow the houseboat down to Morgan City?

DC: Oh yeah. Towed everything.

JD: Now, what’s the reason why your momma would’ve wanted, you think, to move to Morgan City for you to be born? I mean, not all your brothers and sisters weren’t born in…in hospitals?

DC: No, most of em was born at home but they always towed…you know, towed to Morgan City. In case they need a doctor.

JD: So, oh, I see, all right…all right…all right. So they towed to Morgan City in case the doctor would be needed. But who delivered the children anyway, if the doctor wasn’t needed?

DC: Midwife.

JD: A midwife…black, white, old, young?

DC: No it was a white [woman]. I forgot what Momma used to call her, but uh, they’d go get her ahead of time, you know? She’d actually live with em until it was all over with.

The midwife’s name was Ms. Florence Duval. And Dot’s mother Agnes Sauce Bailey, was born in the same place under similar circumstances, but 26 years earlier. And her husband, Myon, adopted the practice from his father-in-law, towing his houseboat to Morgan City for his own children to be born. Dot, in the above quote, was one of his children.

Many of these midwives were older members of the Myette Point families, especially those who had taken up residence in Morgan City. It would seem that there was a large number of them, but maybe not. Midwives kept books on the births they administered, presumably for later recording in parish archives. One such document is in the possession of the Anslem family in Morgan City.

After 1950 the Myette Point families were mostly living on land, having hauled their houseboats up and over the levee to form a land-based community. This location was near enough to the town of Franklin for medical assistance to be within reach if called for. It came in the form of doctors who would come out to the families for a birth, or the families could come in to town and engage a doctor to help there. Joe Sauce was born in 1949 and he was delivered by a Dr. Horton who would come out to Myette Point to help when asked. Lena Mae Couvillier was one of the women who left Myette Point and went to nearby town of Franklin when birth was imminent. Sometimes the process didn’t quite turn out to be as smooth as it could be because the doctor mishandled the situation. She says this about the 1960 birth of her youngest son, Kevin:

LC: Kevin’s born…he come out, Dr. [. . .] dropped him in the garbage can. And I heard him. I say “You dropped my baby!”. “Ah no, no”. And he wouldn’t admit that for years and years and years. And not too long before he died, Kevin had got a kissing disease, or something, whatever…Yeah, I had to bring him to the doctor. “Ah” he say “Is that the one I dropped in the garbage can?” I say “You trash!” [laughs] I say “I knew you had dropped that baby”. [laughs] [Lena Mae Couvillier, 2005]

There were all the usual pregnancy-associated anomalies that you encounter in other populations. There were miscarriages and premature births, and stillborn babies too. Dot Couvillier, who carries the dark skin of her European Spanish blood, was one of the premature ones.

“ And the story they tell about Dot concerns why she’s so dark, in color. They say that she was born prematurely on a houseboat in the Atchafalaya Basin, and she was so small that she wasn’t able to keep her body temperature up, so what they did was they lit a fire in the wood stove…and in those days of course the wood stoves were the big ones they used to bake bread with, and everything else. So they wrapped her in towels, and put her inside the oven of the wood stove, and kept the oven warm to keep her warm. And they did this, apparently, for several weeks. And we always laughed that the reason she’d so dark is because they overcooked her…in the oven.” [Jim Delahoussaye, 1992]

Some examples of the size of some of the families would go like this. The family that Blaise Sauce was from had 14 children, Edward Couvillier had ten siblings and his sister Margaret had 11 children, Liza Henry had nine siblings. Edward sums it up with:

“All them people had a lot of kids, didn’t have no television.” [Edward Couvillier, 2007]

The pictures with people in them are courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.

The river is at 18.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling very slowly over the next several days. And then it should fall pretty rapidly because there isn’t any water pushing down from the Ohio and Mississippi. Both are falling. Make your living while you can, boys.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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