The Daughters of Seafarers And Fishermen
© 2005 By Rhonda Richoux Fox
I was conceived when my father came home from sea. Although my mother had decided after her second child that she was tired of my father’s philandering, he talked his way back into hearth and home, just long enough to secure my entry into the human race. Shortly afterward, she remembered why she had wanted him gone in the first place, and kicked him out- all the way across the street to his mother’s house. After the divorce, my father stayed at sea for more than a year at a time, and when he did come in, he was like a stranger to my brothers, and to me, who had no history with him.
Most of the men in my family, on both sides, were seafarers. My male role models were whichever uncle or grandfather was ashore at any given time, and though they were loving and caring men, I was raised by the women. In my mother’s family, our male ancestors were Filipino seamen who found their way to Louisiana, liked it, and settled here. They left the sea, but they didn’t leave the water. Our progenitor, Felipé Madriaga, was a mariner from “Ilocos, North of the Philippines” who fell in love with an Irish girl named Bridgett Nugent. She was a passenger, coming with her family to America, and he was a crewman on the ship. She was just a teenager, and he was more than 10 years older, but I’m told he was a handsome and charming man, and she fell in love. On arrival at the Port of New Orleans, she informed her parents that she would not be going on to New York with them, and they left, distraught, never to speak to her again.
Bridgett and Felipe married and started a family, eventually settling in coastal Louisiana and making a living at the Filipino fishing villages in St. Bernard, Plaquemine and Jefferson parishes. Their daughters, Helen, Mary Ellen and Elizabeth, married Filipinos who were, at various times, fishermen and seafarers. Elizabeth, my great-great grandmother, married Baltic Valeriano Borabod of Cebu. Baltic divided his time between the shrimp drying industry at Manila Village and the sugar cane industry, being the overseer at the Wilkinson Plantation in Myrtle Grove. Life in the fishing village was harsh, despite the tight social bonds of its inhabitants. Wives and children would stay with the men to help with what they could, but oftentimes went to visit with relatives, someplace where the air was sweeter and you didn’t swallow a mouthful of mosquitoes every time you spoke.
The women were used to being on their own, and as long as the family’s financial needs were met, they didn’t mind. They had a life without their husbands that seemed as satisfying as their lives with them, forming strong relationships with their extended family of aunts, nieces, cousins, in-laws and friends. From the beginning, the children were taught that family was everything, and that has survived through the generations. Elizabeth and Baltic divorced, but he remained in his children’s lives until his death in 1918.
Elizabeth’s daughter, my Great-Grandma Rosie, was accustomed to the itinerant life, staying here and there, moving back and forth from Manila Village to the plantation to the city. Her parents thought that a man named Benito Martinez would be a good husband for her. Benito, born Benito Martinez Yabut in Iloilo, Philippines, began as a mariner on Spanish ships. During a trip to America, he learned that war between Spain and The United States was inevitable, so he jumped ship, dropping his mother’s surname of Yabut, keeping his father’s surname of Martinez. Like many Filipinos, he headed for the fishing villages to work. When he met Grandma Rosie, he was making a decent living with his own boat and was ready to settle down. According to my Grandma Lillian, their eldest daughter, they lived “from pillar to post” in rented homes. Benito would divide his time between the shrimp industry at Manila Village and the sugar cane plantation at Myrtle Grove, where he’d take the whole family during harvest time to earn money.
In an attempt to provide a more settled life for his family, Benito decided to try his hand as a tailor in New Orleans, but I think it’s difficult for a man to leave the water once it’s in his blood. Aside from that, he and my Grandma Rosie didn’t always see eye to eye. She was a sociable sort, having grown up in a small Filipino fishing community, and she loved the city. She would dress herself and her children in their best for Sunday Mass, and afterwards, a walk to the river. She told me how much they loved to sit on the levee and watch the boats, talk to people, and enjoy the sunshine. There was a voodoo priestess she traded herbs and remedies with at the French Market. They would often get home late from church after their social activities. But Benito was very jealous, and one day, when she and the children came home from their Sunday outing, hot and sweaty from the walk, he accused her of being with a man. She laughed at the accusation, he thinking that a woman with four little children in tow could possibly find time for a rendezvous with a lover. There was a basin of dirty dishwater sitting in the kitchen, which Benito threw all over her beautiful Sunday dress.
Grandma Rosie, like her mother before her, would not be treated disrespectfully by a man, especially her own husband. She left him shortly after that. Still, Benito took care of his children with the wages he earned from fishing and sugar cane. Grandma Rosie eventually met a man named Charles Lamm, a baker, and settled down at long last. During the depression in the ‘30’s, they took in many relatives who had fallen on hard times. Grandpa Charlie never complained; he was devoted to his wife, and knew how important family was to her. There were times when he was the only one working, but he fed everyone he could. “If one has a job, no one will go hungry. If one has a home, no one will be homeless.” It’s our family motto.
My grandmother, Lillian Martinez, married Walter “Buddy” Burtanog of Mobile, Alabama, the son of Pio Burtanog of the Philippines and Maude Barnes, a Quaker woman. At first, Grandpa Buddy was a reluctant seaman. On his first trip, he got off the ship at Mobile and came back home. He didn’t like to be away from his family. Grandma convinced him that he could make a better living at sea than he could at home, so he settled into it and learned to love the life. Grandma loved it, too. An independent soul, she liked making decisions for her family and doing what she wanted to do, like taking long walks to visit relatives, and window shopping on Canal Street. And she liked to gamble, finding a good card game impossible to resist. More than once, when grandpa returned from sea and turned over his money, she would tell him that she was going to get her mink out of “storage”, and headed for the pawn shop to retrieve the things she had pawned after a bad run at the card table. What grandpa didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
Years later, his retirement was difficult to adjust to. Not for him- he still woke up at 3:00 a.m. and cooked enough to feed the Navy, now feeding every family member within a ten block radius. He still took afternoon naps and went to bed with the sun. It was my grandmother who found it so hard to adjust. Grandpa often worked on Grandma’s absolute last nerve. One day, as we were chopping onions for a pot of beans, Grandpa Buddy was grumbling, as usual, about something that grandma thought was totally unimportant. She turned to him with the knife and said, “I swear to God, Buddy, if you say one more word, I’m gonna stick you with this knife!” I was taken aback by that. My grandmother was usually the calmest woman on earth, yet here she was, waving a knife at my grandfather! I got between them and calmed her down. Grandpa shut up and left the room. I sometimes wonder if she really would have stuck him with that knife…I’m pretty sure he thought so.
My mother, Lillian Mae, tired of being a seaman’s wife, married a soldier from Vermont named Malcolm “Mickey” Faxon. After he was discharged from the army, we had a daddy who came home from work every day. But my mother, much like her mother before her, didn’t let a husband stop her from being with her family. He would have to get used to our extended family or hit the road. The daughters of seafarers spend so much time in the company of women that there are times when the men just seem to get in the way of our plans.
Daddy Mickey was sociable when he was young, and so we went on picnics, attended parties, and celebrated baptisms with our ever widening circle of family and friends. Life wasn’t easy, but mom loved being a mother. She was always singing with that beautiful voice, whether cooking or cleaning or changing a diaper. She could have been a professional chanteuse, but motherhood was her calling, and she was good at it. They added two brothers and two sisters to the family. Our traditions are embedded in our brains at birth, and although my stepfather was not a seaman, the boys still had an unshakeable compulsion to be the protectors of their sisters, and the girls were more apt to listen to mom and, usually in collusion with each other, talk their way around daddy. As adults, my brothers still protect us, and my sisters are still my very best friends.
When Daddy Mickey retired from his job as an elevator mechanic, my mother experienced some of the anxiety grandma had. Although he had a land job, she had only had to deal with her husband for a few hours a day; as he got older and less sociable, we’d leave him behind on the weekends and go to grandma’s house or to the Filipino club. She finally figured out that she could do what she had always done: whatever she wanted. If he came with her, he came. If not, that was okay.
The children in our family were allowed to be children, most of the time. With the usual “dysfunction” that I have come to classify as “normal family life”, we had our days when we were called upon by fate to experience adult moments and handle them as best we could. But on the whole, we had the freedom to enjoy ourselves. We learned the basic rules early: on time for meals, in front of the house after dark, and run home whenever we heard Aunt Joyce whistle. My mother’s sister, Joyce, had a whistle that had kids running home that didn’t even belong in our family. She could reprimand us with a raised eyebrow that sent chills down our spine. To this day, when one of us has a problem child, we threaten to send them to Aunt Joyce to learn better manners.
What we got from our fathers was an inborn penchant for adventure. With the men at work or at sea, and mothers tending to house and new babies, we gave in to it and roamed the neighborhood to discover what we could. We were nosey and nervy, imposing ourselves on the neighbors for conversation and cookies, invading St. Roch playground as though we owned it, and pretending to be detectives with our “Secret Club”, minding the business of everyone around us.
Card games were a treat. If it was on a weekend, my mother took us with her. We could often help the hostess serve drinks and sandwiches to the card players for tips. I could make $3.00 easy in a night. On mom’s night to host, we did the same, plus we had the children of the other players to hang out with. I enjoyed those nights. I had a keen interest in people from an early age, and these kids were from other neighborhoods, with different stories to tell.
Although we weren’t wealthy, my life was rich with interesting experiences. Living next door to the family beatnik on Spain Street, I learned more than my mother would have liked. Al Sedillo, my mother’s younger cousin, had an endless parade of people coming in and out of his house. His house was a “crash pad” for friends who couldn’t go home to their mother’s house after a hard night of partying. People who hitch-hiked into town would often end up at his house, and there wasn’t a boring person among them.
Al taught us how to make newspaper balls for stickball, taught us how to build and paint newspaper kites, and taught the neighborhood boys how to box. Al and his sister Roselyn were younger than our parents, and we loved spending time with them. They spoke to us as though they were interested in what we had to say, unlike most of the adults around us, and we considered ourselves “cool” to be a part of Al’s circle.
But, it was the women who taught us what we needed to know. Our manners, our important lessons, how to clean house and change diapers. It was a group effort, and we listened to the adult females in our family as though they, too, were our mothers. When we misbehaved, it was the woman nearest us who landed a swat on our backsides. Never, and I mean NEVER, would these words issue from our mouths: “You’re not my mother!!”. We knew that as soon as those words left our lips, a second beating was coming, this time from our mother, who would say between each slap, “Do-Not-Ever-Let-Me-Hear-You-Talk-To-An-Adult-Like-That!!!”. I witnessed a cousin getting this treatment, and made sure it didn’t happen to me! I don’t ever remember being spanked by a male family member. Grandpa threatened, but a threat was all we needed from this stern-faced man. We weren’t as familiar with the men, not seeing them for months at a time, so we were never sure if they were capable of following through with their threats. We chose not to test them.
I learned what I know from some wonderful women: my grandmothers, aunts and older cousins, the daughters and descendants of fishermen and seafarers. They taught me to accept myself, and to respect myself. They also showed me that a man can’t make me happy, only I can do that. Like the small fishing villages that our predecessors lived in, we had a tight social circle. When one family member moved to a different neighborhood, the rest of the family followed. We were never out of walking distance from the people we loved and depended on.
Living in the shadow of so many family icons, I was a shy child. But when the time came for me to be on my own, I charged into life head-first, with reckless abandon. I made mistakes, but learned from them. My heart was cracked open many times, but left only the shadow of a scar as it healed. I felt sorrow that could break a soul in two, but grabbed on to hope until the day of healing came. I have left behind me the men who tried to change me to suit their needs, and have settled down with a man who loves who I am. Through it all, I knew that my family was there, allowing me to fall, but ready to pick me up if I needed them. I have become my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother, the daughters of seafarers and fishermen, who, in the absence of men, determined their fates for themselves.