The Penny Postcard
By William Thibodeaux, History columnist
At a recent French table gathering in Rayne at the Bernard-Bertrand house its members heard a heart-wrenching story of Wilda Hebert, wife of long time Cajun fiddler Adam Hebert of Grand Marais, near Church Point. In 1948 Wilda Hebert spent the better part of a year lying on a hospital bed at New Orleans Charity Hospital. She was all alone to deal with a rare and deadly form of cancer. At the time the hospital was relatively new and considered state of the art. It was a teaching hospital and soon became a distinguished healing and medical research establishment. It was the second largest hospital in the United States with a total capacity of nearly 3,000 beds.
As Wilda Hebert languished all alone in the ten-bed hospital ward succumbing to the dreadful disease, she wrote home every day to her family in Church Point. She missed her family terribly, especially her four year old son, Kelly. According to her sister-in-law, Gercie Daigle of Church Point, Wilda Hebert wrote to her mother, who had been taking care of her son ever since her extensive hospital stay. All the postcards were sad and heart-breaking. You could feel how much she loved and missed her child. “Wilda Hebert would ask her mother to please “Hug him (Kelly) tight and smell him behind the ear,” said Daigle. Wilda Hebert’s mother was illiterate and although she had never set foot inside a classroom, she taught herself how to read by viewing pictures and words in magazines.
For years letter writing has been the primary form of communication, especially during the Second World War and for several years immediately following. During that period, postcards cost one-cent. It was cheaper than paper, envelopes, and stamps. Wilda Hebert wrote on every available space allowed on the penny postcards. “She wrote very tiny but also very legible,” said Daigle. Wilda Hebert never walked out of the hospital. She succumbed to the rare and deadly illness in 1949, after a lengthy bout with the vile disease.
Kelly continued to live with his grandmother until adulthood. It would be well over forty years later before Kelly would learn of his mother’s postcards. In 1989, after his grandmother’s demise, family members were clearing out the home when someone found a three-inch stack of Wilda Hebert’s penny postcards. Kelly recently showed his cherished postcards to friends at the Bernard-Bertrand house as he told the tragic story of his mother’s battle with cancer and subsequent death. As a toddler, Kelly visited his mother perhaps a total of three or four times.
Like his father before him, Kelly enjoys Cajun music. He has taught himself to play bass guitar and soon became an accomplished musician. He has performed with countless Cajun bands including twenty years with the legendary Paul Daigle and Cajun Gold. He is probably the first to utilize an electric bass guitar with Cajun bands. Kelly has been described by other musicians as possessing a golden ear. He has an uncanny ability to correctly judge whether or not an instrument is played out of tune.
Kelly is now 70 years of age and doesn’t remember much about his mother, but he treasures her postcards.