Dynamite does indeed come in small packages. Standing 4'7" and weighing less than a hundred pounds, Mrs. Martha Verret is a tiny bundle of perpetual energy whose strength of character and depth of faith have carried her through 90 years of tragedy and triumph.
I first met Mrs. Verret nearly ten years ago when my then-to-be husband took me to her modest residence in Lafayette and introduced me to his "other mother," whose youngest son, O.P. Ditch, has been his friend for more than 50 years.
"I can never remember not knowing her or O.P.," he told me on the way over. "I spent more time at her house than I did in my own, and she treated me just like another one of her kids
I was immediately captivated by her feistiness, her sense of humor and and her no-nonsense directness. In the years since, as I pieced together all the events of her life, I realized that these are the very attributes which helped make her the survivor which she is.
She married in 1920, when she was 18 years old. Seventeen years later, when both were only 35, her husband died, leaving her with six children to care for, the last one born just a week after the tragic event.
"I've never been one to cry," she told me. "That doesn't mean I don't feel it like everyone else, but I never shed a tear and I never felt sorry for myself. I just accepted it as the Lord's will, and I knew I had to do something to make a living for me and my family."
The first thing she did was to buy a house with the lump sum of $1,200 she received following her husband's death. The cost of the house was $1,300. She agreed to pay the difference in monthly installments, though she had not the faintest idea where she was going to get the money.
Shortly after moving her family into the tiny house she was approached by a woman who asked if she would be interested in sewing costumes for the Mardi Gras parade.
"I had never before in my life sewed anything," she related. "But I knew it would be a way for me to make money and be at home to take care of my children at the same time. I told her `yes."'
She obtained a used pedal sewing machine, and with nothing to guide her except a crude sketch of each costume, she proceeded to produce 113 garments. "I never made a mistake or ruined a piece of fabric," she recalled with a mixture of pride and amazement. "It was a gift. It was in me and I didn't know it until I needed it."
As word of her sewing skills spread, more and more people came to her. "I charged 65 cents a dress and I never had to worry about having money to eat," she said. "I used that old pedal machine for two years.
The demand for her work grew larger, she was able to purchase an electric sewing machine, and she began sewing dance costumes, wedding gowns and graduation dresses.
As her four boys and two girls got older, the little house became overcrowded. In 1945 she sold it, making a $6,700 profit, and bought another, where she's lived ever since, just a block from the university.
She remarried a year later in 1946 and continued her sewing to supplement the modest salary her husband received as a salesman for a grocery company. Two years later, following her mother's death, she also assumed the responsibility of caring for a younger sister whom she added to her household.
In 1953, to help meet the growing financial needs of her large family, she added two bedrooms and a bath to the back of the house, installed three double bunkbeds, and began taking in student boarders. She also began cooking meals for college students, feeding approximately 75 boys t noon and 40 at night.
"I never thought I couldn't do anything," she said. "I did my sewing in the mornings from 3-8 a.m. Then I started my cooking. For 10 years I boarded six boys for $35 a month each; I got 50 cents for every meal. I made a living out of this house and my kids never wanted for anything."
It was in 1953. also, that Mardi Gras balls first began in Lafayette and she was called upon to make costumes for the ball. The work involved not only sewing the garments, but also attaching by hand literally thousands of beads, stones and sequins in elaborate patterns and designs. As always, she worked with nothing but sketches to guide her.
Her hard work enabled her to pay the tuition to send all six children to Catholic schools, the boys to Cathedral and the girls to Mt. Carmel, "because they needed a Catholic education."
Widowed a second time in 1977. she continued sewing Mardi Gras costumes, making a living for herself and her sister who, after 44 years, is still with her. But in 1986, at the age c83 she finally had to give up the sewing she had done for 48 years "because the costumes were too heavy for me to handle."
Even now, though, "because I can't sit and do nothing," she stays busy making elaborate beaded satin Christmas ornaments, 150 a year, which are given away to family members and close friends.
It's faith, she says, which has sustained her through all the years.
"I give thanks to the Lord every day that he's given me what I have," she says.
Throughout her adult life she walked to the Cathedral every morning for Mass and Communion, and it's what she misses most since she had to discontinue it four years ago. But she and her sister watch the televised Mass every Sunday and receive Communion twice a month when a deacon visits their home.
She has a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother and prays the rosary a dozen times a day, in addition to praying the Piata every night. A small altar in her bedroom contains religious articles contributed by family members and friends and includes rosaries from Lourdes, Fatima, Rome and Medjugorje.
When approached for advice or direction by her grandchildren, this masterful matriarch immediately responds in typical no-nonsence fashion: "Faith, that's the first thing, the biggest thing. Second, work. You can't sit down and expect it to come to you. Third, save your money. Remember, it's not what you make that counts; it's what you save. And never worry about tomorrow, never look back at the hard times. But faith, that's the most important thing."
Last week Martha Verret celebrated her 90th birthday, surrounded by her six children, 21 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren, one great-great-grandchild and an assortment of in-laws who came from all parts of the nation for a day-long tribute to "Little Mama."
My husband and I were honored and grateful to be included in that wonderful family event.
Laura's MIDI Heaven!