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  • Five years before my mother mortgaged our house near Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain and bought a seventeen-table steak house, she started a job as a lab technician at Tulane Medical School. Divorced with two young sons, Mom heard about a young woman seeking a position as a housekeeper. They scheduled an interview. That morning, the appointed hour came and went. Tired of waiting, Mom went fishing. I was home reading.

    Hours later, a knock at the door. I opened. The young African-American woman, I learned, had gotten lost on the buses. And that she had “come for the job.”


    That was the interview. It was 1960. I was ten years old. Years later, when Earner told me the story of how I hired her, she added with a cackle that she didn’t meet my mother for three weeks. Mom would leave money on the kitchen counter for groceries. But on the strength of that interview, Earner Sylvain landed a job that lasted forty-two years. It was the only job she ever had.

    Like my mother, Earner came from the country — Edgard, Louisiana, in St. John the Baptist Parish, about the same distance up the Mississippi River from New Orleans as Happy Jack in Plaquemines, where Mom grew up, is down. Her name is pronounced “Earn-ah,” but she was indeed the “earner” in her family. She lived with four generations of Sylvains under the roof that my mother helped her purchase on Arts Street near Elysian Fields and not far from Desire. Earner started very early to produce children, each with a different man. But "mens," she would say, "who needs ’em?"

    Sylvain: she is well-named, a hardworking nymph of the primal cypress forests. Though I don’t think nymphs cackle and guffaw quite like Earner, or prefer wigs to fussing with their thinning hair, or sometimes forget their false teeth.

    Earner’s day job was to be Mom’s Girl Friday. She cleaned house, cooked dinner, and ran errands. For eight years, until I went to college, it was Earner who made my tuna sandwiches, with chopped egg (how I liked it) and with sweet relish (how she liked it) on white Sunbeam bread, which back then we all liked. I would urge the addition of bacon, a luxury and a bother she sometimes indulged me. Earner would tease about the empty plates I’d leave under my bed, too engrossed by my French and Russian novels to bus them to the kitchen.

    Five years and a lot of tuna sandwiches later, with my parents’ divorce finally settled, Mom looked in the classifieds and found a three-line ad under Businesses for Sale. Chris Steak House had been in business for thirty-eight years, since the very day Mom was born: February 5, 1927. The price was $18,000. Determined and assured — I can do that — she approached her banker. He looked the deal over and said, “Ruth, you better borrow $22,000. You’ll need some working capital.” Mom always gave credit for her success to that banker. She would later add more restaurants and her name, which created the memorable tongue twister: Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
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