Friday, February 8, 2019

Little L

Little L

As a child, my cousin Lahoma was known as “Little L.” My mother Wenonah said that she was always generous, sweet and cheerful. “Nobody could stay in a bad mood when Little L was around.”

It must have been hard for Little L to stay cheerful, because she had a tough childhood. She grew up during the depression and during WWII, raised by a single mother, my aunt Kaliteyo, who during most of her childhood, eked out a living as a seamstress.

Kaliteyo quit school in 1931 to marry a young man from the nearby town of Paoli, Oklahoma. She stayed with him for four years in spite of the fact that he spent most of his weekends out drinking, usually with other women. Kaliteyo got a divorce in 1936, but that didn’t end her troubles. The next year she and Little L were overwhelmed by fumes in a garage apartment where they were living. It was a wonder they survived.

After their close call, Kaliteyo and Little L moved in with Grandmother in Pauls Valley, while Kaliteyo looked for a job. Grandmother was happy to have a granddaughter to spoil, and she also had a playmate for her, her cousin Tom, the son of my uncle Haskell, who was also recently divorced. As soon as Kaliteyo recovered from carbon monoxide poisoning, she enrolled in a secretarial school in Oklahoma City, staying with Wenonah, who had a job with the state highway department, and leaving Little L in Pauls Valley with Grandmother.

This was too much for Little L. She thought Wenonah had taken her mother away. One weekend when Kaliteyo and Wenonah came home for a visit, Little L kicked Wenonah in the shin  So Kaliteyo quit school and moved back to Pauls Valley. Eventually she got a job there working for the new welfare department created under President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Little L and Kaliteyo

The next problem came when Little L started to school. Her teacher said that she paid attention in class, but just couldn’t seem to understand the lessons. She wasn’t learning to read and she couldn’t understand math. The whole family worried about her. Finally her teacher noticed that Little L couldn’t see the blackboard. Wenonah, who still had a job, went out and bought her some glasses. She never had trouble in school again.

The next year Kaliteyo was transferred to Purcell, Oklahoma, and that gave her an opportunity to send Little L to St. Elizabeth’s Academy, where she had gone to school during her high school years. Lahoma loved it, just like her mother. Wenonah told me about visiting her once during an open house. Little L was excited that Wenonah had come, and she proudly showed her around and introduced her to her teachers. There was one nun at the school whom she particularly liked and she kept looking for her. Finally she cried, “There she is,” and ran to where one of the nuns was standing. When the nun turned around, Little L said, “Oh, it’s the wrong one.” The nun just laughed and said, “We do look alike in our habits.”

Aunt Kaliteyo tried to give Little L a good childhood, but she always had trouble making ends meet. She eventually lost her job in Purcell and moved to Oklahoma City, where she tried to make a living as a seamstress. Wenonah worried about them. She said that one time she went by to visit and all they had in the refrigerator was a stick of butter.

Little L always found a way to be cheerful. As soon as she was old enough she got a job at a flower shop to help out. She always made sure her mother had flowers in their apartment. In spite of their poverty Kaliteyo managed to give Little L dancing lessons, starting in grade school, and she was really talented. She danced in recitals, and at school programs, and once for the Indian-Okla Club that Wenonah belonged to. Yvonne Chouteau, who would become a famous ballerina, was about the same age as Little L, and she danced on the same program.

Little L , 1939

When my parents were married in June of 1941, they moved into an apartment just a block down the street from Kaliteyo and Little L. On November 7 of that year, called by President Roosevelt “the date that will live in infamy,” the US naval fleet in Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. The nation was in shock, but especially my parents, because my dad’s brother Everett was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, one of the ships that was sunk. 

After the attack, Little L came by to visit Wenonah every day after school.  "Lahoma was always cheerful," Wenonah told me. "She tried to give us hope that Everett had survived." Christmas was coming, but as the days went by, and there was still no word from Everett, celebrating the holiday was the last thing on my parents’ minds. One day Little L came in and said, “You need some Christmas decorations,” and she proceeded to hang some tinsel and ornaments she had bought with her meager savings.

It was January before Everett was able to get word to the family that he was okay. My parents thanked God that he was alive, and they thanked Lahoma for helping them get through the weeks of worry. Wenonah told me that my dad carried Little L’s picture in his wallet for years.

After about a year my mother thought of another way to show her thanks. At the time there was an annual Indian Exposition in Anadarko, Oklahoma, attended by Indians from all over the United States. The family had been going to the “Indian Fair” ever since it began in 1935, and she noticed that some of the tribes selected a “Princess” to represent them, so she called our cousin, Floyd Maytubby, then the Chickasaw Governor, and asked him if he would consider appointing Lahoma. He did, and she was crowned Chickasaw Princess in 1943. She was twelve. 

Little L with other tribal princesses, 1943

In 1948, when Little L was just 15, her dancing teacher, Molly Day, decided to start a professional dancing troupe, and she invited her to join. But she needed $500 from each girl for startup money. I don’t know what Lahoma thought. I guess the idea seemed exciting and glamorous. The surprising thing was that her mother supported her. She still regretted not being able to follow her own dreams.

When the family found out what Little L was planning, they were horrified. They tried to talk Kaliteyo out of allowing her to go. Then they refused to give her the money. We were living in Wichita, Kansas at the time, but grandmother kept Wenonah in the loop. Finally Kaliteyo got the money from her boyfriend, and so Little L, just out of junior high school, headed for Texas and later Mexico, performing with a dancing troupe.  

To be continued.