Francois, Mrs. Cammie, Melrose, and Me
| A cabin in the plantation country
of Louisiana serves
Clementine Hunter as her personal art gallery -
the only gallery she has ever known.
June 16, 1953. Photograph by Clarence John Laughlin
we went to Happy Landing , I always went by to see Clementine
and Francois. If Clementine wasn't busy or if Francois wasn't
showing people around I would sometimes stay and visit for hours.
Clementine lived across the cotton field and down the road from
Happy Landing in a little house that looked like it was patched
up with all kinds of boards and planks that may have been parts
of other houses at one time. My grandmother always had a bunch
of paints and brushes and things to paint on for Clementine.
always seemed glad to see me, maybe because if she was painting
or making something, I didn't ask too many questions and just
sat there and kept my mouth shut. I think she especially liked
young people, but with grownups, it wasn't always the same. One
time when I was out in the front yard with Clementine, she saw
a car coming down the road and said she didn't want to have to
talk to visitors, so she pulled me inside her house and shut
the door. We both hid and looked through a crack in the wall.
The people got out of the car, and a man started knocking on
the door. Clementine didn't answer him, but after he had knocked
about a dozen times, she said in a stern voice, "Nobody
home." And that was that. The people went away.
could speak her mind, and when she did, everybody knew she meant
business. She could put on a very grumpy expression if something
was going on she didn't like, but she could also be very funny
and say things in funny ways that made you laugh. I think that's
what I liked best of all about her. Every once in a while Clementine
would give me a picture to take and hang on the wall at Happy
Landing. One time when I was watching her paint a picture of
people working on the plantation, she said she was going to put
me in the picture, too. She did, and she painted me black like
My grandmother and Mrs. Cammie loved to weave rugs. My grandmother
had a big loom at her house in Alexandria, and Mrs. Cammie had
several of them at Melrose. When my grandmother and Mrs. Cammie
sat down at the looms they looked like they were playing a duet
on pianos, but instead of singing they talked. Mostly it was
about flowers and going out to dig up iris in the swamps, but
I was interested in stuff like that, so I felt perfectly at home
listening to them. I never got to know Mrs. Cammie really well,
because she hurt herself and died when I was pretty young, but
I liked her a lot. There was one loom that was small enough so
my feet could reach the pedals. Mrs. Cammie taught me how to
use it, and I made a rug nearly one foot wide.
If you've ever seen a big loom working, it looks kind of dangerous,
especially if you are a little kid. There are two sets of strings
that pass back and forth between each other like long fingers,
and when the person operating the loom pushes the pedals to change
the woof and warp, the loom makes a big thump. Francois told
me that one time a nosey little boy stuck his hand in a loom
and it got chopped right off and woven into the rug, and there
it remained forever, clawing and clutching at people's feet when
they walked across the floor. That was enough to make me and
anybody else keep their hands in their pockets.
I got tired of watching my grandmother and Mrs. Cammie weaving,
or if too many people came into the room, I'd go over to see
Francois. Francois' house was right near the Big House on Melrose.
He called it his "cabin". I remember that the house
was always nearly dark inside even during the day. The only light
in the room came through the slats in the window shutters. Francois'
eyesight was very bad, even way back then, but I never realized
until much later how bad it was. I guess having electric lights
on just didn't make much difference. Sometimes Francois would
be talking to you but not really looking at you, like he was
talking to somebody just over your shoulder. On one occasion
Francois sent my grandfather, Dr. Paul King Rand, a long typewritten
letter in which the words were nothing more than vague impressions
of the keys. Unseen by Francois, the old fashioned fabric ribbon
had simply reversed back and forth through the machine so often
that the ink had finally been typed away.
Francois always had lots of stories to tell. Some of them were
to keep kids out of trouble, like the one about the loom. And
there was another one about what would happen if you got too
close to the gigantic ground-level cistern in the garden at Melrose.
Francois said that two big water buffaloes had once lived inside
and that their ghosts still lived there. If a child got too close
to the edge of the open cistern, one of the ghosts would butt
him in, and the other would be waiting with its mouth wide open.
It was very convincing. I took a wide path around the mysterious
black hole. There were lots of other stories about all kinds
of other things. Some of the stories were real, but some of them
I know he just made up. Sometimes you'd hear the same story two
or three times, but a few more things had been added, or left
out, or changed. It didn't really matter to me or anybody else.
One version was as good as the next.
One of my favorite things about Francois was that he always treated
you like you were a grownup even if you were just a kid. He would
ask your opinion on things that you would only know if you were
a doctor, or a lawyer, or the President or something. And he'd
ask you to do things that you couldn't do unless you were six
feet tall, like asking me to feed his goldfish, which lived in
a little aquarium on a shelf by the window. He would inquire
as to how they were doing, and I would say fine. But I really
didn't know because I was too short to look over the top of the
aquarium, and the glass was so thick with algae that only a pale
green light from the shutters could filter through. I never saw
any fish, dead or alive. My grandmother told me later that there
hadn't been any goldfish in the aquarium for who knows how long.
And there wasn't any food in the little tin container that I
dutifully raised over my head and shook into the water. I think
maybe Francois knew all along and was just giving me something
important to do.
I remember Francois once offering my seven-year-old cousin a
cigarette. Francois was very polite and gentlemanly, holding
out the pack and tapping out a cigarette. My cousin, in turn,
replied in the most matter of fact, grown-up way, "No. Not
at the moment. But thank you very much". Whether Francois
was being playful or simply wasn't aware that my cousin was only
a child, I really don't know. It was just all part of the endless
surprises that happened when you went over to visit at Francois'