Cane River - By Lalita Tademy


M y great-grandmother Emily died in bed at her Louisiana home at the end of the summer of 1936, with $1,300 in cash hidden under her mattress. Although she passed away twelve years before I was born, her presence is firmly imprinted in our family lore. Neither my mother nor her brothers ever talk about Emily without a respectful catch in their throat, without a lingering note of adoration in their tone.

I’ve been told that Great-Grandma ’Tite (Emily’s nickname, rhymed with “sweet”) was very beautiful, and this is verified by the four photographs I have of her, two of which hang on the wall of my home in California. She was full of life into her seventies, dancing alone in the front room of her Aloha farmhouse on Cornfine Bayou to the music from her old Victrola, high-stepping and whirling to the cheering-on of family gathered on Sunday visiting day. Always, at the end of her performance, she would arch her spine and kick back one leg, little booted foot suspended in air beneath her long dress until the clapping stopped. It was her trademark move. My mother and all of the other surviving grandchildren remember this vividly. Laughter and fun surrounded Grandma ’Tite, they say, describing the flawless skin, thick chestnut hair, high cheekbones, thin sharp nose, and impossibly narrow waist. My mother has said to me often, each time with a proud, wistful smile, “She was an elegant lady, like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.”

I always found this last statement impossible to embrace. I now know that Emily Fredieu was born a slave in 1861, lived deep in the secluded backcountry of central Louisiana, dipped snuff, and drank homemade wine every day, insisting that all visitors, even children, drink along with her. She bore five children out of wedlock over the thirty-plus-year span of her liaison with my great-grandfather, a Frenchman. Interracial marriage wasn’t against the law for all of the time they were together, but it was dangerous and against custom for a colored woman, even if she did look white, and a white man to be together. My great-grandmother Emily was color-struck. She barely tolerated being called colored, and never Negro. My mother, the lightest of the grandchildren, with skin white enough to pass if she chose, was a favorite of hers. It is difficult to reconcile these facts and confirm my mother’s judgment of “elegant.”

I was always unsympathetic to the memory of Emily because of her skin color biases, although I never dared say so to my mother. But at the same time I was envious of Emily’s ability to stare down the defeats of her life and aggressively claim joy as her right, in ways I had never learned to do.

Emily fascinated me for years, an untapped mystery, but my life was too busy to dwell on impractical musings with no identified purpose. I loved my world, jolting awake every morning, impatient to begin the day, savoring the next deal, the next business to build or turn around, the next promotion. For two decades I had hoisted myself upward, hand over hand up the corporate ladder, until I was a vice president for a Fortune 500 high-technology company in Silicon Valley. The position brought all-consuming work, status, long hours, and stock options. But every so often, while reviewing strategic businesses in small, airless rooms, I found myself secretly thinking about Emily, who she was, how she came to be. During budget reviews my mind would drift to Emily’s mother, Philomene, about whom I knew so little, only as a name in a brief two-page family history written twenty years before by a great-cousin and sent to me by my uncle. I began to develop a nagging and unmanageable itch to identify Philomene’s mother, to find out if she lived on a plantation as someone else’s property, a slave, or if she had been free.

In 1995, driven by a hunger that I could not name, I surprised myself and quit my job, walking away from a coveted position for which I had spent my life preparing. Crossing back and forth from California to Louisiana, I interviewed family members and local historians, learning just how tangled the roots of family trees could become.

I scanned documents until headaches drove me from moldy basements where census records or badly preserved old newspapers from the 1800s and early 1900s were stored. In assorted Louisiana courthouses I waded through deeds, wills, inventories, land claims, and trial proceedings. Joining