From Pointe-A-Pitre to New Orleans (Part 7): Sonny

Since we’ve moved back to Louisiana, there has been one family member who motivated me to solidify my identification with my French heritage. This person is my Uncle Sonny. Sonny is the youngest and the only boy of my Mimi’s three children. He is my uncle, an older brother figure, and a best friend to me—even after his passing.

I grew up having him around my entire life. He was fiery and passionate about the things he loved. With zero qualms about saying what was on his mind, he would tell you the truth, no matter how brutal it was. My mom always used to joke that Sonny could probably start a cult and masses of people would follow him. He gave terrible advice—like that if anyone wanted to lose weight they should really just start smoking cigarettes—but it was from the heart undoubtedly.

Sonny played an irreplaceable role in our connection to our family that lives in France. We have a significant amount of family in Europe, and prior to this my Papa Jack and Meme visited the family many times, and Sonny was welcomed in France. He packed his things to move overseas to live with our family in Bordeaux at their Chateau—Montjon le Gravier—which also happens to be a vineyard.

The history of Chateau Montjon le Gravier is astounding in itself as it was built in 1780 by a wealthy nobleman Francois de Montjon. During the French Revolution, de Montjon and his family (as part of the aristocracy) were taken and beheaded by the citizens of France. Then, in World War II it was taken over by the Germans and used as Nazi headquarters.

After the war, our family gained ownership of the chateau and have been successfully running their vineyard ever since. Sonny actually stayed in one of the rooms that is visible in the photos taken of the front of the building that is printed on their wine bottles. Around the same time period that we moved to Wisconsin, Sonny came home from France for the second time, and this time to stay.

Drew and Sonny on Thanksgiving in 2011. Photograph owned by Drew Kinchen.

We were living in Hammond, Louisiana at the time. He brought my sister Rhys and I little glass animals that had been hand-crafted in Spain while he’d been jet setting and sailing around Europe. When I was a teenager, he showed my mother and me the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. We went into our backyard in Mandeville and he literally taped beer bottle-caps to the bottom of his bare feet to try to bottle-cap tap dance like Jesco White. We almost peed on ourselves from laughter, but this was just another typical night with Sonny. He was rough around the edges for sure; he may have drank too much, smoked too much, and certainly loved a bucket of fried chicken for himself, but I loved him. His death left a hole that absolutely nothing could ever fill.

When I graduated high school, we planned a trip to Europe together. We talked about all the places I wanted to go, all the places he wanted to show me, and promised me he wouldn’t get too drunk for me to have to “be the adult” (That was an empty promise for sure). I know that when I go—and I will be soon—he will undoubtedly be with me.

As for Guadeloupe, I would love to get back in touch with that part of our family’s heritage. Sonny was lucky enough to visit our family’s resort on Martinique, but I don’t think he ever got to see Guadeloupe. I would love to see the banana plantation, go to Pointe-a-Pitre, and try the delicious lychee fruit that my great-grandparents’ mouths still water over by the mere thought of it. I would maybe even dance to the biguine music they loved so much.

Our family focuses much of its attention on our relationship with France, but I feel that it would be very important to visit Guadeloupe as well. I would love to see the family tomb that not only holds my great-great grandparents but Anatilde, the woman who singlehandedly did so much to create the man my Papa Jack is today. The island shaped my Meme and Papa Jack and shaped our family, which in turn has had an impact on me; I believe it would be very important to take it back to where it all started. 

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.

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