I could always count on Aunt Edwina for assistance and good advice.
Edwina Damonte Fredricks was the eldest in my mother’s family, and when my grandfather’s lavish lifestyle collapsed in the Great Depression, it was she who took over running the household, paying bills with whatever money she and her four siblings could bring in to augment funds from the family grocery store — a proto-Langenstein’s that Grandpa, Joseph R. Damonte, opened catty-corner to the substantial residence at Walnut and Magazine that he’d built for his bride, but lost to the bank.
When things were flourishing, he’d designed and built many of the small cottages on land he owned along Walnut and Audubon streets. Edwina, who’d studied with the artist Galle in those days of prosperity, painted his portrait, with ghostly posts and beams visible in the background. It hangs today in the parlor at Madewood.
Edwina and her husband, Earl, eventually settled into a small raised cottage on West End Boulevard, where they could keep horses and Earl could sail his beloved boat, The Ballerina.They acquired adjacent rental properties, and this is where this story properly begins.
In 1979, I noticed that a gutter at the rear of the French Quarter house where Millie and I would live for more than two decades was hanging down again. Mother suggested I call Edwina. With her rental properties, surely she’d know someone who could make the repair.
Yes, of course, she said, She had a young man who worked on the properties, last name Capital-D-apostrophe-Capital-A-u-n-o-y. She told me I could get in touch with him through Raftery’s Hardware.
Shirley Raftery didn’t mind that I mangled the pronunciation of her soon-to-be son-in-law’s name. But I soon got it straight. Think actress Faye DUN-AWAY. Keep the DUN, discard the AWAY, and replace it with WAH, as in “Wah you talkin’ that way, man?
Got it? (At the time, I didn’t know about either Feelings Cafe D’aunoy in the Marigny, or the impressive painting, General Charles Favre D’Aunoy and Son that hangs in The Cabildo — which might have helped me with the name.)
Don fixed the gutter, then renovated the house. Moved on to repairs at Dixie Art Supplies’ 323 Magazine St. location. Then things exploded with the company’s decision to renovate a 52,000 square-foot building in the newly-upcoming Warehouse District. It was the first commercial renovation in the area, and it was a beauty, especially the wrap-around, open-in-the-center level that one of Don’s workmen referred to as the “mescaline.”
Don’s P&D Contractors left its mark on Madewood, most notably in construction of an elaborate entrance gate that I’d copied from a Chateau in Normandy. Renovation of the 1822 residence of Captain Pierre Charlet, which I’d moved to Madewood, was next, then some work on Rosedale, a small 1916 plantation house that later became Madewood’s little opera theater.
When his construction days ended, Don slid right into Dixie Art as manager (and eventually vice-president) and opened its first suburban location, on Jefferson Highway. That location became business central when Dixie Art closed its downtown location in the late 1990s.
Uncle Earl died in the early 1980s. He loved doing work himself on their house and properties — but one day he just overdid it. At his funeral, Aunt Edwina sat next to his coffin, with a man I didn’t recognize standing next to her.
“He’s my plumber,” she said, as I gave her a hug and expressed my condolences. “But I’m not going to tell you his name so you can’t steal him from me.”
Once bitten, twice shy. But I got the best. I got Don.
He’ll now carry on the business that my mother established in 1934, taking octogenarian Dixie Art down new paths. Things couldn’t have turned out better.