Happy birthday, Miss Lena!

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 25, 1999

DEBORAH CORRAO / L’Observateur / October 25, 1999

“Did you see my pineapple?” 99-year-old Lena LaCroix asks. “Tell me ifit’s getting pink.”You see, it’s difficult for Lena LaCroix, who celebrates her 100th birthday Sunday, to check on her garden these days. The once-active woman whogave many hours as a hospital volunteer and church organist had one of her legs amputated below the knee almost a year ago – the result of complications from diabetes.

But there’s nothing wrong with her mind, which is still sharp as a tack.

And there’s nothing wrong with her sense of humor that has survived the surgery as well as a hundred years’ worth of life’s joys and sorrows.

“My niece and her husband planted that pineapple one Sunday afternoon,” she says. Sure enough, the pineapple plant sits in a large pot not far fromthe end of the ramp that now allows “Miss Lena” access to her small garden. The fruit is almost the right size and is almost ripe.Undoubtedly, Miss Lena got her love for the earth from her father, Gaeotano Busalacchi, who grew celery and okra and artichokes to feed his brood of 13 children. Little Lena was the last of the children born toGaeotano and his wife Frances, and the last of the 13 still living today.

LaCroix’s family arrived in Luling in 1900 when Lena was just a baby. Thefamily opened a grocery store and a saloon near the railroad tracks on what is now Paul Maillard Road, then the hub of commerce in the small river town.

LaCroix recalls the grocery store and the saloon each had a nickel slot machine back in the days before World War I.

The slot machines don’t pay off like they used too, LaCroix says. On arecent trip to an area casino, Lacroix says she complained to a casino employee that the slot machines there were set to pay off only 10 cents on a dollar. The employee asked what she new about slot machines.”I know plenty about them,” she responded. “I fixed them during World WarI. The customers got 60 cents and we got 40 cents.”Young Lena Busalacchi also became an accomplished pianist during that time. She learned how to play the piano from a neighbor who lived acrossthe street. She was able to transfer her keyboard skills to the churchorgan, where she played for 75 years – sometimes playing three masses on Sundays in Luling and Ama.

Church was important in the lives of the whole Busalacchi clan. LaCroix’smother, known as “Mama Bush,” took her children to Mass regularly to St.

Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, the small, white stucco Spanish-style church right around the corner from their house.

“In those days we went to church every evening during the month of May,” she reminisces. “Every evening we would pray the rosary and clean thechurch; my mother washed the linens.”She made her confirmation at St. Anthony’s on Dec. 12, 1910; later thatday her older sister got married there.

“After we left church, Mama had a little reception at the house,” she says.

“That night we had a showboat down on the river, so we had free music.”The newlyweds, along with the bridesmaid and best man, decided to celebrate on the riverboat.

“I cried because I couldn’t go with them,” she says. “The wedding partywas on the showboat having fun and I was home crying.”Two years later, the levee broke at Hymelia, flooding areas downriver.

LaCroix remembers water in the street and her family building a wooden bridge to get across the other side.

As LaCroix grew up, she never lacked for suitors herself.

A young woman during the first years of World War II, LaCroix says a truckload of her friends would drive down to an Army base at the bottom of the Huey P. Long Bridge to attend USO dances.She received several proposals, she says, but had never met the right man.

“I didn’t think I was in love with any of them,” she says. “And I didn’twant to leave my mama.”In 1944, at the age of 45, she met and married Alphonse LaCroix, to whom she was married for 30 years before his death. The couple never hadchildren of their own, but LaCroix says she has many special relationships with the children of her siblings.

“I’ve got nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews and great-great nieces and nephews,” she says. Many of them still get together tocelebrate each birthday as she nears the century mark.

A widow, she turned to volunteer work. Under the auspices of the Retiredand Senior Volunteer Services program in St. Charles Parish, she loggedalmost 1,900 hours of service at St. Charles Hospital.LaCroix was recognized for her efforts with the St. Louis Medallion fromthe Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1984 and the J.C. Penney Golden Ruleaward for volunteer services in 1988.

Five years later she was selected Citizen of the Year by the St. CharlesParish Rotary Club. In 1997 she was chosen Grand Marshal by the Krewe ofLul and rode in a red convertible wrapped in a fur coat for the hometown parade that year and as Past Grand Marshal the next.

But the gaiety of the day couldn’t hide the ravages of pain. A pictureshows the paleness and drawn expression brought on by the constant pain in her leg and foot. In November1998 gangrene set in, and she was told shewould have to lose part of her leg.

“I told the doctor to cut as high as he could go,” she says. “I didn’t want tohave that pain anymore.”She was surrounded by a host of nieces and nephews at the hospital.

“All them had long faces,” she says. “I told them that I was the one thatshould have the long face, but I was laughing.”LaCroix says she remained awake during the procedure, talking with the surgeon.

“When I got back to my room, I just thanked God the suffering was over,” she says.

Since the surgery, she is working with a prosthesis, going to physical therapy three times a week.

It hasn’t been easy for the once-active woman. She’s had to give up drivingand her volunteer work at the hospital. Even a stroll in her backyard isalmost impossible unless she has some help negotiating her wheelchair.

But she isn’t giving up.

“Don’t mention a nursing home to me,” she warns. “I’ve started trying tohelp myself. I can get in and out of bed, in and out of the bathroom and inand out of my wheelchair.”She has a sitter who stays with her at night. But the days are sometimeslonely for the lady whose enjoyed almost a century of parties.

She fills her time with television or playing the organ she has at home until she gets tired. Her eyes, she says, have been giving her troublelately, so she can’t sew and read like she used to.

But Lena LaCroix is anticipating her 100th birthday with much the same glee as a young girl looking forward to that special day. She proudlydisplays a myriad of snapshots posed for at birthdays long past.

Her centennial milestone will be marked much like the others – with a family reunion at the VFW Hall in Luling – but with even more jubilation and gratitude for a long and rewarding life.

Lena LaCroix is also looking forward to casting her vote in the upcoming St. Charles Parish elections today, the day before her birthday.”I bet I’ll be the oldest person to vote (in St. Charles Parish) this year,”she says.

Back to Top

Back to Leisure Headlines

Copyright © 1998, Wick Communications, Inc.

Internet services provided by NeoSoft.

Best viewed with 3.0 or higher