CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer
Happy Mother’s Day!
I hope you get to spend some quality time with your mother today. It’s been over twenty-five years since I was able to do that. And I miss momma so much. If you are lucky enough to spend Mother’s Day with your momma, please do so because there will come a time when she may not be with you, and all you have are memories of your life with her.
Today I want to share memories of my momma. She was a special person in so many ways. She was hard-working, she was loving, sometimes she was serious and sad, but more often, she was cheerful and fun to be with.
Born Antonia Lafleur on June 16, 1914, in Ville Platte, she was the fifth child of Valentine Lafleur and Agatha Dupré Lafleur. Mama’s family was deep rooted in the Opelousas area. Her genealogical chart includes names like Dupre, Joubert, Fusellier, Pont, Soileau, Ortego, Bordelon and Lafleur, to name a few. She loved South Louisiana and spent her entire life in the area.
Toni, as she was called, spent her early years in Ville Platte, attending elementary school at Sacred Heart Catholic School. When she was a young child, her father left for work one day and never returned, leaving her mother to raise the seven remaining children. Having no family to help her in Ville Platte, my grandmother moved her family to Opelousas to be near her oldest daughter and son-in-law.
Momma enrolled in the Academy of the Immaculate Conception, completed her studies and graduated in 1932. Following her graduation, she went to work for Heymann’s Department Store in downtown Opelousas. After saving enough to cover tuition and other expenses, she enrolled in Our Lady of the Lake Nursing School in Baton Rouge. During that time the United States became involved in WWII. Those war years changed momma’s life forever.
A few months prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, my mom’s older brother Verbis Lafleur, who was a Catholic Priest, enrolled in the Army Air Corps. He was sent to the Philippines and was there when the Island was attacked the day after Pearl Harbor, on December 8, 1941. He was eventually captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war in the Philippines. He died at sea, while being transported to Japan on September 7, 1944. Momma was very close to her brother and was devastated by his death. She never recovered from that loss and spoke of our Uncle Verbis often throughout her life.
But the war years weren’t all bad for momma. During those years a young soldier from the state of Iowa was called to duty and sent to Louisiana for training. Not long after, he met my mom, and in March of 1943, Toni and Charles Lillie were married. Momma had to resign from nursing school to marry my father, since it was against the rules to be married while studying to be a nurse at that time. When the war ended, my parents settled down in Opelousas. But after just a few years, in 1948 my dad’s job took us to Breaux Bridge.
My mom was amazing in so many ways. Although happy most of the time, on occasion she seemed to be overwhelmed. That is understandable since she had seven children in nine years and helped to run my dad’s electrical business. She answered phone calls, made appointments, and accompanied him on many of his service calls to the homes of local folks who did not speak English, translating their Cajun French so he could communicate. I have memories as a small child of going with mom and dad on those calls. And even with all of that, she had time to devote herself to her church, our school and the Breaux Bridge community.
I can remember momma being involved in all our school and social activities. She was the parent that showed up at the sports events, at the plays and at school dances. She was the chaperon at most of the events involving her seven children.
At that time, Breaux Bridge did not have a Teenage Center. So, momma would drive me and my friends fourteen miles back and forth to dances at the center in St. Martinville. That was almost every weekend. She did those things for my six siblings as well.
Our home was all-inclusive, opened to all our friends and relatives. Besides her seven kids, she had others to worry about since our friends were there most of the time. And they were included in all we did. We even had friends tag along with the family for vacations trips. And momma was ok with all of that.
She was funny. She had a great sense of humor, which I’m sure she needed. On occasion we had to laugh at some of the things she did. Like the time she was going to make homemade bread, the kind that was served at our small Catholic School. She got the recipe from the cafeteria cook and started making the bread one Saturday. When she had all ingredients mixed, she put the dough to rise and asked my brother to watch it while she went to have coffee with a neighbor, something she loved to do. Well, the dough began to rise, and rise, and rise, and continued to rise. And as it rose, it multiplied. My brother called momma and told her to come home right away. He needed help and had no more place to put all that dough. You see, she did not realize the recipe she had was enough to feed the entire school of over 200. We had bread for several days and supplied it to most of the neighborhood.
There was the time she was at a football game and got so excited when our small school team scored a touchdown. She jumped up and down. People began calling out “Miss Lillie, Miss Lillie.” She said “What’s wrong? Look we just made a touchdown.” Her friend said, “But your skirt fell down.” Momma just pulled it back up, said to her friend, “Oh well, that means I must be losing weight,” and kept on cheering.
Another time at an event in Breaux Bridge she went into the restroom. When she came out, she told me, “You know there was a man in that restroom.” I looked around and noticed she had gone into the wrong bathroom. When I told her it was the men’s bathroom, she laughed and said, “Well I guess that’s why he was in there.”
She was a devote Catholic and followed all the traditions of that religion. Sometimes she would automatically do things that she did in church in other places. Like the time she went to see the movie The Cardinal in the 1960s and genuflected when she left the row where she sat for the movie. And there was the time she entered the Breaux Bridge armory hall for an event, she placed her hand in the large bowls used for cigarette butts, thinking she was dipping in holy water to make the sign of the cross. She laughed at herself when those things happened and just went on with her life.
Momma loved to go anywhere. She would say, “let’s hurry up and go so we can get back.” Loved that saying. There was the time she was baking pies when a neighbor called asking if she wanted to take a ride to New Orleans. In just a few minutes she was ready to go, and off they went. But momma forgot about the pies in the oven. When my youngest brother got home from school, he had quite a surprise, and some very overcooked pies to take care of. And what did she say about that? She just shrugged her shoulders and said “Oh, shucks.”
My siblings and I loved our momma. She always had time for her children, even when we were adults and had families of our own.
I was fortunate to have momma in my life for so long, and especially in her last years when she and dad moved back to Opelousas. She had a stroke in 1992, and although she lived four years after that, she lost a lot of memory. Her mind was stuck in her younger years, so she did not know who we were much of the time. But she was happy, and that is what really mattered. I was with my mom on her last day, staying with her through the night. She passed away at 10AM on Sunday, November 10, 1996. I miss her every single day.
So today is Mother’s Day, and I remember my momma. How I wish she could be with me today. I would tell her how much I love her and how much I enjoyed my life with her. But instead, I will remember her, and ask her to please look down on us today and see how much she is remembered and how much she is loved and missed.