Something big was going on in Theodore that March day. Cars single-filed into a large field off McDonald Road, adjacent the home it’d girded for more than half a century. Hugs and hellos and casserole dishes were given this way and that amidst a hubbub of how dos.
Around the gnarled oak out back, a large circle of people formed, some holding signs, some gripping tufts of balloons, threatened to be carried away by an early spring breeze. The weather was perfect for a parade, everyone agreed. Oldies from a nearby boom box plus the sun’s afternoon emergence allowed for shaking off any lingering winter doldrums.
“She loves to dance,” Christine Whiteley said, inching closer to the cordon and looking over her left shoulder toward her mama’s house. “The doctor says she can easily go another 20 years.” If that’s the case, her mama would live to be 120.
From around the house came the lone float for which 80 or so revelers had been waiting. The guest of honor perched in her favorite recliner, wearing a birthday sash and sparkling tiara befitting a centenarian. She alternated her shawl-draped arms to wave to the crowd, her thin grin a constant accessory. Each lap around the yard was perhaps more jubilant than the last, but as all good things must, the parade ended, sending everyone shuffling to backyard tables in anticipation of lunch and birthday cake, of course.
“That oak is probably older than her,” Janie Huber said, catching up to her aunt Christine and nodding toward the ancient hardwood. “When I think of Granny, I always think of that tree. And her yeast rolls.”
“Sprinkle a little flour on the table.”
The ninth of 12 children, Marie Poiroux Wilson White was born March 20, 1921, to August and Jeanne Diacre Poiroux. “Mama and Daddy were both from France,” Marie says, now seated at the table in daughter Christine’s kitchen, the ceiling fan shooing the summer heat. As young adults, the Poirouxs (pronounced “Perus”) immigrated to Manitoba, Canada, and then to the United States, eventually settling in Irvington, when Marie was an infant. As far as anyone can tell, they, all 670 descendants of Marie’s parents, are the only Poirouxs in this country.
Christine preheats the oven and then sets a dough bowl and a bag of flour on the table in front of her aproned mama. Marie takes a sip of water and continues. “We were all French-speaking people. If you spoke French, you could join our community.” Her older siblings learned English at St. Elmo School. It was they who taught Marie. She attended school through the seventh grade, but her lessons far exceeded the bounds of any classroom.
As a child, Marie woke before sunrise to tend livestock, gather eggs and pick vegetables. “Daddy was a sharecropper, and I was Mama’s handy girl. From the time I was 10 years old, I was cooking, washing dishes and being the housekeeper. And I could milk a cow just as good as any of the boys.” But it wasn’t all work; the Poirouxs had their share of fun, too.
“On Sunday afternoons, the neighbors would all come to our house,” Marie says, dusting the table with flour before letting a wad of dough fall with a heavy smack. “We had the most kids. There was always a big ball game. We had an old phonograph, and all the girls played records and danced.” Christine grins, knowing her mom hasn’t lost her penchant for music.
“Sometimes you have to punch the air out.”
Marie kneads, pinches and pats the growing dough mindlessly before plopping it into the dusted bowl. “I’ve been making these for over 90 years,” she says of the yeast rolls her mama taught her to make. “If I had a nickel for every roll I’ve made, I’d be rich!” Her mottled hands move nimbly, belying their strength.
At 14, Marie married a neighbor boy, Woodrow Wilson, with whom she would go on to rear 12 children. She busied herself making dresses from feed sacks, cooking meals like stew or beans or chicken and dumplings on the wood-burning stove, using a scrub board to launder clothes and bartering for much-needed items or services.
“This old man gave us free rent if I cooked meals for him,” she says, proudly. “So, I did that. He also had a lot of acreage, and he told me he was going to have all the trees cut down. I asked him if we could have those trees, thinking we could build a house.” He obliged. “I had a yard full of nothing but lumber. We stacked them up and crossed them; whatever we had to do. Every Saturday, when the kids were not in school, we’d go out there and turn the wood.” The Wilsons built that house. It wasn’t the first time Marie orchestrated the family’s home construction — the first was built with wood from an old railroad depot they won at an auction.
A lifetime of jobs becomes a blur, the highlights of which include Marie running a successful grocery store, Wilson’s Grocery, that once stood where the caution light flashes at the intersection of Highway 90 and Irvington-Bayou La Batre Highway. She also cut lace at Vanity Fair Mills for nearly a decade. And, not the least of which, she raised a dozen children, all of whom attended Catholic school, the tuition offset by their working in the cafeteria and cleaning classrooms.
Marie straightens herself in the kitchen chair and removes the towel from atop the dough bowl. “If it’s risen too much, just punch it back down,” she says, giving the mound a wallop. Sometimes life has a way of knocking the air out of us, too, something Marie knows full well. In addition to losing three children, she buried both of her husbands: Woodrow, with whom she was married 40 years, and Ernest White. She and “Ernie” had recently celebrated 42 years.
“Give it time to rest and rise.”
“Mama used to welcome all the children to her house on Mondays,” Christine says, peeking into the oven. “She would be cooking yeast rolls and fixing lunch. All you had to do was show up. Her neighbors caught on, and they would often show up to get a roll or two.”
One of Christine’s sisters, Theresa Orrell, now sits at the table with her mama, having come by for a few fresh rolls herself. “Mama taught us how to make yeast rolls many years ago,” Theresa admits, “but when you’re young, you don’t remember. After all my kids were grown and gone, I recorded Mama making them. It was early one morning; she still had rollers in her hair.” The sisters share a smile from across the room.
“The Yeast Roll Lady” is just one moniker Marie has worn through the years. “The Hat Lady” is another, a name she earned for being the only person who still wears a hat to Mass at her beloved St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Tillman’s Corner. She’s also known as a prayer warrior, having taught her children that prayer is an essential part of life.
Though diminutive, standing at just 4 feet, 11 inches, Marie’s spirit mirrors the mighty oak round which her family gathered in March and whose girth shades the house she helped build. Her daughters watch their mama spread butter and jam on a hot yeast roll, one from the corner because those are her favorite. Her mind, now a complicated mix of haziness and clarity, plucks a memory from childhood.
“I was raised on goat milk,” Marie begins, between bites. “Daddy used to say, ‘You’ll live a long life because you were raised on goat milk.’” Perhaps there’s truth in that. Perhaps it’s more. She reaches for a second roll. “Always put God first and everything else will follow. I think I have accomplished what God had planned for me.”
Marie’s Famous Yeast Rolls
Marie Poiroux Wilson White has been making this prize-winning recipe for 90 years. Serve with butter, jam or jelly, toasted or stuffed with barbecue. Prefer tall rolls? Put them close together in the pan. Rolls can be stored in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks.
2 packages Fleischmann’s dry yeast
3 cups very warm water, divided
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
6 – 7 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting (Marie prefers King Arthur or Martha White flour)
2 tablespoons oil
1. In a small bowl, combine yeast with 1 cup warm water. Set aside. In a separate bowl, combine 2 cups warm water, sugar and salt. Stir until sugar and salt are dissolved. Set aside.
2. Sift flour into a large bowl. Make a hole, or well, in the center of the flour and pour both liquids into the well. Add oil. Gradually incorporate the flour, little by little, until all liquids are absorbed. (All of the flour may not be needed.) Work dough until firm.
3. Grease separate large bowl and put dough into it. Cover bowl with a towel and place in a warm area until the dough rises to twice its size, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Remove towel. Sprinkle tabletop or large work surface with flour and place dough onto it. Let dough stand for 5 minutes. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, punching out all air.
5. Grease desired baking pan. Divide dough, making two loaves or smaller individual dinner rolls. Place the loaves or rolls into the greased pan. Cover pan with towel and let loaves rise once more, until doubled in size.
6. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove towel and place the pan with dough into the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top is browned.