90 Years and a Mailbox Full of Cards
by Robby Dardeau
Irene Noel is known by many people here in Vermilion Parish. Most folks know her as “Mrs. Irene” and appreciate her joyful, pleasant and positive attitude. At 90 years of age, she has seen and experienced much of what many of us have only read about.
Her memories of growing up and experiencing these last ninety years are detailed and plentiful, too many for these few pages to hold. But we can share a little.
Born on November 20, 1923 in Mouton Cove to parents, Clovis and Ada Hebert Decuir, Mrs. Irene was the youngest of nine children. She was born nine years after her brother, Dalton, whom Mrs. Irene says wasn’t too happy about her birth. There’s a funny story in the family explaining how he cried when she was born because he was no longer the baby.
The house she grew up in no longer stands, but it was located on the property where the Sagrera’s alligator farm is now located. She recalls growing up without indoor plumbing and electricity, and shares, “No indoor plumbing until President Roosevelt took office in 1932.” Ice trucks making home deliveries haven’t escaped her memory either as she explains, “Donald Palumbo was a youngster with his father and they delivered ice. Oh, to have cool food and milk!”
Checking the mailbox and receiving mail has always been a love for Mrs. Irene. There was a story in her family about her mom not being able to find her when she was about 5 years old. Before anyone could panic, she was spotted on her way to the mailbox. All they could see was her head bobbing above the tall prairie grass. When asked where she was going, she replied, “I was going for the vail.” (More on her love for mail later).
As a young girl, their transportation was horse and buggy, or horseback, and the roads they traveled were only made of dirt. Like many back then, she didn’t only travel on roads. Countless trips were made across the river on the Bancker Ferry to attend Mass. She remembers how the ferry operator had to pull the ropes, and also how her mother would bring him food.
“Back then, we all helped one another,” she shares, and explained how all the neighbors were close regardless of skin color.
A favorite activity of Mrs. Irene’s childhood was saddling up a horse all by herself then taking off riding to visit neighbors.
Mrs. Irene picked cotton as a kid and enjoyed the trips made to the cotton gin in Bancker. Sitting next to her dad as he steered their team of horses pulling the loaded wagon was something special to her.
Going to the store was entirely different than it is today. The barter system was the way of business, and Mrs. Irene remembers walking to the store with a chicken under her arm to trade for some coffee beans. The store, operated by Whitney Holmes, “Mr. Whit” as they called him, was at the four-way intersection in Mouton Cove. This one particular day she recalls walking in with that chicken and seeing President Roosevelt’s picture on display with banners for all of the new federal programs being promoted. She was so impressed as she had never seen a photo of him before then.
Few people can say they were confirmed into the Catholic Church before they made their First Communion, but Mrs. Irene and those in her Catechism class can. She explains that it was uncommon for the bishop to come around too often, so when he was there, they took advantage of his visit and all were confirmed.
Mrs. Irene did not take attending Catechism classes at the Bancker Church lightly. It was expected of her to learn the Baltimore Catechism, so learn it she did. On a bridge near their home, while she’d wait for the “school bus,” she paced back and fourth memorizing every word. When it came time for her examination by Fr. DeVos, her answers were so thorough and accurate that he cut it short, told her to sit down, and then told her she was going to be a lawyer. She laughs, “I didn’t know what a lawyer was!” But she knew her Catechism, and still does.
Mrs. Irene attended her first seven years of school at Mouton Cove, and then went two years at Perry. She then graduated from Abbeville High in 1940.
In 1941, Mrs. Irene married Leopold Noel, Jr. (dec.). In ’42 he was drafted into the U.S. Army as World War II was underway. Noel served in France, and didn’t come back until 1944. With her husband away at war, Mrs. Irene worked as an index clerk at the Bank of Abbeville. A good memory she holds on to is getting some Chanel No. 5 in the mail from her husband overseas. She was, and still is, known to be a fan of this fragrance. She laughs when telling how she walked in the bank one morning and one of the men, after smelling her abundant perfume, asked in French, “Who overturned the perfume bottle!?”
Not all of her memories during this time are lighthearted. She can tell you all about how the church bells continued to ring here in Abbeville on D-Day, and how she felt like she had lost a family member upon hearing of President Roosevelt’s death.
After the war, Mrs. Irene and her husband eventually settled just off Hwy 694 in rural Abbeville and began farming cattle and rice. The couple had three children: Suzanne (dec.), Leopold III (dec.), and Ada. Farming was tough work and a family affair. During the harvest season, Mrs. Irene prepared “combine dinners” for the 15-25 men working in their fields. Ada’s young hands helped in this, too. A “combine dinner” consisted of carefully prepared rice and gravy, meat, and vegetables and was brought out to the men in the fields each day during the harvest.
Years later, Mrs. Irene began working for the Vermilion Parish Clerk of Court’s Office. She worked under the leadership of Irby Hebert and Russell Gaspard as an index clerk for almost twenty years. Here she enjoyed her job duties, and even more so, all the people she met. “I loved it there! I was happy there,” she says. Her job forced her to learn computers, something she knew nothing about. “Quelle belle affaire! Unbelievable. I learned how to use computers,” she exclaims. Mrs. Irene has certainly seen many changes in technology during her life. She grew up studying under the light of a kerosene lamp, and on her 89th birthday, her grandson, Christopher, chatted with her on Face Time from Afghanistan. With a sincere curiosity, she asks, “What is next?”
Today, Mrs. Irene enjoys drinking her morning coffee, watching “Good Morning Acadiana” with Dave Baker, cooking her own meals, and reading her newspapers from cover to cover. She is an avid reader who appreciates well-written pieces, and she has a keen eye for grammar, which provides no comfort for this writer. Mrs. Irene enjoys the company of her daughter, Ada, and dearly loves her family. She is a grandmother to three and a great-grandmother to four.
Something else Mrs. Irene continues to enjoy is sending and receiving mail. For years now, she has been sending out birthday cards to people she knows. Each month, she sends out dozens. To keep track, she’s got sheets of paper for each month with names, birthdates, and addresses. The cards get prepared at the beginning of the month, and on the back of the envelope written in pencil is a date reminding her when to put it in the mail. That way they get it right on time. She loves doing this.
You know how we reap what we sow? Well, last year for Mrs. Irene’s 90th birthday, Ada passed out a flyer, and used the Internet requesting people send birthday cards to her mom. The hope was for her to receive 90 birthday cards. Well, 233 cards showed up in her mailbox! Mrs. Irene’s first response in seeing the mailbox stuffed was “There’s something the matter! That’s not all for us. She (the mail carrier) made a mistake.” But there was no mistake. In fact, the mail carrier and postmaster in Perry all helped make this happen in a timely fashion. Mrs. Irene described this as “an unbelievable thing,” and she loved every moment of it. It took her weeks to read them all. The afternoon of her birthday, a party was held with good food and family at Ada’s house.
If you don’t know Mrs. Irene then you are missing out on a wonderful lady filled with more life than most people half of her age. Her life experiences, sense of humor and kindness are true gifts.
When asked what her secret was for a long and healthy life, Mrs. Irene pointed at Ada and said, “Having this little child look after her mother.” A blushing Ada added, “Mother, that’s not your secret. The secret is her smile. That’s the secret. And that memory of hers – not dwelling on the bad stuff, but always remembering the good.”