Wilda: A Woman With Many Lives

Wilda Duplantis Arceneaux was the wife of Alfred Phillip Arceneaux, Sr. and mother to Ralph and Alfred Arceneaux.

Wilda - On raft Grand Isle 1967

Wilda on a raft at Grand Isle in 1967, with one of her grandsons in the background. (click to enlarge)

By Maria Russo Arceneaux

In writing about Wilda Duplantis Arceneaux, my late mother-in-law, I feel a bit presumptuous. Would she be offended by having her personal life committed to paper for anyone to read? I pray not. I write this so that her descendants can know her. She was an important influence on my life, teaching me, supporting me and loving me.

Any biographer would find it impossible to give one general description of Wilda. My reflections on her long life produce several different pictures of this woman’s personality.

Wilda was born April 25, 1907, the second of Louis and Marie Duplantis’ three daughters. The girls and their parents and two younger brothers made up a small French-speaking family, living in the rice country of rural Vermilion Parish. Wilda’s reminiscences of her early life were few. She said their home was a long way from the school, and she dropped out after the sixth grade. She and her sisters did learn to sew, she said. One memory she shared was their adventure of taking a bus to Lafayette to shop for fabric for their homemade dresses.

I can only imagine what she was like during this early period. Fun and games were found mostly within the family, and I know they were a playful bunch. She may have attended the occasional house dance. She learned the basics of housekeeping and cooking, and since money was scarce, she learned frugality. Family pictures show her as a petite, dark haired beauty.

When Wilda was about 16, her father gave up rice farming and moved the family to Morgan City, where Wilda began the next phase of her life.

Alfred & Wilda 00

Wilda and Alfred
(click to enlarge)

There the family lived in a small rental in the 200 block of Fifth Street. The eldest daughter, Edna, had remained in Vermilion Parish with her husband, Arvin Marceaux. Wilda and her younger sister, Ella, helped their mother with household chores and occasionally earned money doing household chores for others. We know little of their social life except that young men came to call. According to the reminiscences of Alfred Arceneaux, this is how he courted Wilda until she agreed to become his wife.

On April 29, 1926, at age 19, Wilda married Alfred and moved into her first home. As lady of the house, she took her role seriously. She became an exceptional cook and homemaker. With the births of their sons, Ralph, on June 16, 1927, and Alfred, on December 30, 1928, she added good mothering to her list of accomplishments. The busyness of their lives, at work and at home, left little time for play. However, on some evenings, family members or friends came to “set up.” In the early years of their marriage, this exchange of visits was their main form of socialization. In later years, they enjoyed entertaining at their camp.

Wilda - Grass Skirt 90 yrs old 1997

Wilda, in 1997, at 90 years old.
(click to enlarge)

Wilda was an adult when she finally learned to drive a car. At that time, Fred was buying his cars from his brother-in-law, “PeeWee” Duplantis, who owned the local Buick dealership. The models of that time were long and wide, with high front ends and tailfins at the rear. Wilda, at about 5’ 1”, sat on a pillow so she could see over the dash. As she drove to and from her few destinations around town, her speed never exceeded 30 miles an hour.

Wilda - Ninety third birthday 2000

Wilda, in 2000, on her 93rd birthday.
(click to enlarge)

After her sons had moved out of the family home, Wilda joined a home economics club. The group, meeting monthly, studied many subjects of interest to homemakers. She enjoyed the programs and parties and developed several long lasting friendships with women who shared her interests.

Wilda’s first grandchild, Dirk, named her “MeMe.” And from then on, she was MeMe to the thirteen others that followed. Until then, I had addressed her as Mrs. Arceneaux, but eventually I found it easy to use the same familiar name of MeMe.

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