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Nellie



Nellie

I watched the morning come in and thought about my mother. She was born on this day in 1932 in Ville Platte, Louisiana, a day that brought snow. Her memory of long ago was vivid, and my interest was always eager. A few years before she died, she took some time to tell me a few stories from deep in her childhood, a bucolic childhood immersed in the Great Depression…here is one story about an elderly black gentleman named Earlie…

By 1935, the Cajuns of South Louisiana were fully affected by the Great Depression. Poverty and sickness came from those times but so did determination and survival. Bits of happiness were still captured, and discovered in simple people with simple ways, Fiddler Earlie was one such person.

 

Earlie was an elderly black gentleman living on a farm about five miles south of Ville Platte, Louisiana. Earlie spent his days driving the team of plow horses through the sweet potato field, preparing broken fences, and picking cotton. For this, he was given a place to sleep in the corn shuck room off the barn. Earlie was just like any other farm worker in 1935 except for one thing, Earlie played the fiddle. Every evening, he would sit on the front porch of the farmhouse and play his fiddle. He would close his eyes and tap his foot, leaving the Great Depression behind and entering a world of promise made by his music.

The Vellion and Soileau families who owned the farm, would gather on the steps about dark. They would sip black coffee, whittle, and listen to Earlie. They too would escape to better times and happier moments.

 

Several children were living on the Veillon-Soileau farm, and they all loved Earlie and his fiddle, but there was one little girl there that found her way into Fiddler Earlie’s heart. This little girl was somewhat unlike her brothers and sisters, she was dark-haired and dark-eyed. She was born with a rhythm and Earlie could make her dance. Nellie was only 3 or 4 in 1935 but she remembers her white night gown and Earlie’s strong hands lifting her from her grandmere’s lap and placing her next to him on the porch, he would play, and she would dance. Her dark curls bounced, and her eyes twinkled. She and Earlie created another place, a place of hope.

 

There were no lyrics to Earlie’s songs, only music, but music and feeling so powerful and felt so deep the words were never missed or needed. Earlie’s music expressed feelings of determination and pride that had been shrouded by these ravenous times. The depression would bring much sorrow to South Louisiana, but the spirit of the people would endure and remain.

Earlie became a dear friend to Nellie. She was the youngest child and not much help on the farm, so as time demanded, she was frequently cast aside by busy and overworked adults. Earlie had some time and the time he had was for Nellie.

 

Earlie and Nellie would spend time in early June picking mulberries from Grandmere Marie’s backyard tree. Earlie would cup a step with his hands and raise Nellie to the top of the tree to reach the biggest berries. Most of the berries would slip through her tiny fingers but that was no matter, the happiness was found in the journey and the warmth was felt in the friendship.

 

To some, it seemed that Earlie was placed on this earth to watch over Nellie, to make her childhood rich. A day never passed that Earlie and Nellie didn’t make a memory – perhaps it was only stealing a honeycomb to chew and suck from Grandmere’s beehive or maybe it was just one of Earlie’s long-ago stories, but memories were made, and friendship grew. Nellie gave new reason to Earlie’s life, a life that time and circumstances had robbed of spirit. She listened to his stories of the past and strangely seemed to understand his hope for the future.

 

Much time passed, the Depression ended, the War began and ended, and Nellie moved away. I imagine Earlie still played the fiddle through all those times, but not for the little dark-haired girl.

 

By 1947, Nellie had grown to be a young woman. She lived in town now and had a job at the Platte Theater in Ville Platte. Every Saturday, early in the afternoon, she left her house on Beech Street and walked to work. Each Saturday’s journey was the same, past the courthouse, past the post office, and through the French Market. On one particular Saturday in July, while walking through the market, Nellie stopped to notice a very old black gentleman with bent fingers and white hair packing vegetables in a basket. He seemed to be about a hundred. He was bent and thin and tired from life. Leaning next to his cash box was a walking stick and an old fiddle.

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