Chapter 1: Louisiana
In order to understand more fully the woman we knew, variously, as Chris Dyer, or Mother, or C. Dorothea Greene, we must first look at the three most influential forces in the early and character-forming years of her life. They were her father, her mother, and old Calcasieu County in the bayou and Spanish moss country of Southwest Louisiana.
Even today, the area south of Lake Arthur and Lake Chades, Louisiana, what was old Calcasieu County, is relatively uninhabited. Swampy, reed-covered lowlands, marked on the map by diaphanous blue lines indicating small lakes, wandering streams and a few rivers lined with towering pine and cypress trees and studded with gnarled cypress knees, and quiet backwaters frequented by hunters, alligators, venomous cottonmouth moccasins and elusive red foxes.
In the 1920s and ’30s Mother recorded many of her childhood memories and of old Calcasieu County, she wrote,
“Southwest Louisiana was at that time the home of a mixture of peoples. Wandering Redbone Indians and isolated Cajun and Negro families.
“The Cajuns were descendants of the Acadians, the French Canadians who were expelled by the British and then settled in Louisiana. They spoke a patois, were completely illiterate and, as time went on, their French, such of it as they remembered, became very corrupt as all new objects coming in were called by their English names, which gave their speech a very odd sound.
“In the fantasy world of our childhood, the vast uncharted byways of the swamps and bayous were inhabited, of course, by Cajun, Redbone and Negro ghosts, and in real life by secretive figures mostly seen only at a distance. The lawless and the law evaders sought refuge and anonymity there, leaving sinewy trails through the dense almost rain-forest growth and rickety footbridges across the treacherous swamplands.
“Occasionally one of these outlaws would surface. One was brought in unconscious from a cottonmouth bite and Mother, hidden, watched her father and mother amputate his leg on the kitchen table. He stayed with the family for several years but no one ever knew, or asked, his background.
“The Redbone Indians, a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Negro and white bloods, were considered Louisiana’s most disreputable population. They were a ragged migrant group, living off the land and moving with the seasons. They were completely lawless and usually shunned the rest of the settlers. They were antagonistic, secretive and extremely clannish, very difficult to become acquainted with or to understand not only because of their language but also because of their nature. You could never be sure whether they were going to reflect their Spanish, French or Indian ancestry.”
The Redbone Indians finally accepted Mother, albeit warily, for as a young teenager she tried to save a dying Redbone baby and later gave it a funeral of sorts, but all of her childhood friends, the ones she fought with, played with, learned with, and got into trouble with were Negro and Cajun. She spoke the King’s English of her Father and Mother and also the patois of the blacks and Cajuns and, as an adult, when she was angry, she erupted in Cajun expletives.
“For most of my childhood, the Negroes outnumbered the whites. They too were completely uneducated. When I was small, our town had two saloons and no churches and no schools, which meant little one way or another to us. We were wise in other ways. We knew all the local superstitions the old wive’s tales, the voodoo charms, and the power of the voodoo itself. We heard stories of Jean LaFitte’s buried treasure, of the hidden fortunes of the Civil War, of the Jayhawkers, the Carpetbaggers and the stragglers from the Union Army.”
This, then, was Mother’s small, exciting, and exotic world. Through her father she knew more of London than she did of Jennings only some twelve miles away. Jennings, and the rest of the United States, was “The Outside.”
When speaking of the second dominant factor in her life, mother always referred to her as that “Gallant Lady,” in capitals. Mother’s mother, Ida Steding, was born in Texas and Ida Steding’s father died in a Union Army prisoner of war camp in Arkansas. From Mother’s descriptions, it is easy to picture her mother as a beautiful, slender and strong woman who respected yet somehow controlled her husband and who early established in her children a genuine compassion for others, all others, regardless of race, religion or social status—a compassion that would eventually determine the course of Mother’s life.
Her father was, by far, the most dominant figure in Mother’s early years. Although she saw comparatively little of him, his presence was powerful, and he was always “The Captain” to his children and to everyone who came in contact with him. Of him, she wrote,
“Cold, harsh, cruel, violent, iron-willed, stubborn, self-sufficient, courteous, kindly, generous, honest, highly intelligent, mystical, psychic, human—that was our Father, Captain Francis Edward Dyer. Last of generations of English seamen known as the ‘Fighting Dyers,’ known to the family and all of southwest Louisiana as ‘The Captain,’ Banker, lawyer, judge, dictator. Loved by a few, hated by some and feared by all except that Gallant Lady, Our Mother.”
The Captain had known little home except the sea and no discipline except that aboard ship, so he raised his children and ran his family and the townspeople in the manner of a ship’s captain. Mother never knew him well enough to talk to him in a father-child relationship, but she surely loved, respected and admired him, and listened to and remembered just about every word he must have spoken in her presence.
And she quoted him often. As children, we learned very early that when Mother said, “The Captain used to say…,” we were to listen well and remember. And when she said, “I wonder what The Captain would think if he saw…”, we knew we were being subtly reprimanded.