A Mid-winter Mardi Gras
When Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, and the Chinese New Year (with an Aquarius new moon/partial solar eclipse) follow fast on one another’s heels, it feels portentous, and NOLA DIASPORA is all about significant change, about starting over, about new beginnings—initiated on purpose or implemented by chance.
In this issue, a fortuitous query on Facebook led the editor into a long talk with New Orleans native/Austin activist and poet Abe Louise Young. One of the results of our confab is this: our second feature issue. We focus on Young’s creative work and highlight her relentless efforts since 2005 in victims’ aid and hurricane relief—first with Katrina and most recently, with Harvey in Houston. We catch Young at a transition point in her own career, as she leaves behind independent visionary work, writing and community-funded hurricane relief, to join TexasCASA.
NOLA DIASPORA is also in transition. We are moving home and headquarters from the county to the city; in the process, we are losing our river-view and the main component of our post-Katrina/levee break identity. Additionally, both webhost and editor are coping with the ruthless ravages of Alzheimer’s on our father. This medical topic was broached in our last issue in the lyric poetry of Loren Graham and recalled in this issue’s review of Morgan Babst’s The Floating World, wherein Vincent, a revered furniture maker and family patriarch, is dying of Lewy body dementia (LBD).
Shaman/astrologer Barry Goddard, who only just lost his mother to Alzheimer’s and who does not find it as disastrous as I—or as most Westerners, informs my thinking. Goddard recently told his mother he hoped she had enjoyed wherever it was she had been for the past few years. He felt she gave a nod of recognition and reassurance.
Graham’s poetry and Goddard’s Facebook posts started my thinking about Alzheimer’s and diasporas, about dementia as diaspora, and that is about as close as I can get to thinking of those conditions as artistic, alternative states, but I am not going to determinedly follow that thread of thought here. What I am going to do instead is focus on my memories and trace my parents and my adult relationship vis-a- vis their relationship with New Orleans. Both were instrumental in seeing me and my daughter settled in the city in 1995.
My mother had always had a love affair with New Orleans--its sights, its sounds, and its seafood. She purchased the pictured yo-yo quilt clowns
and the Red Riding Hood/Wolf doll in the French Market for my sister and me when we were in grade school. Her seminary roommate and life-long friend settled in New Orleans, so mother went regularly, if not frequently. She and my grandmother would take bus excursions to tour the gardens, or she would go alone to spend time with Corinne and do some sightseeing and shopping. Although it did not pan out, the two of us even discussed going to New Orleans in 1977 to see the King Tut exhibit, a widely-promoted event in the region.
When I finally visited the city for the first time—for the 1988 December MLA (Modern Language Association) Convention, my parents’ responses succinctly portrayed their stances. My father sent me a newspaper clipping about the city’s inability to mow or keep up the medians (neutral grounds to locals). My mother mailed me a list of her favorite restaurants and asked me to go by Hove Parfumeur on Royal.Dr. R. drove the U-haul with my father as navigator while I followed in my blue Mitsubishi Mirage with my daughter’s turtle burrowed into the nesting materials of his terrarium. Although New Orleans was only five hundred miles, about nine hours, away, this felt liked a cross-country commitment.
So Mother was the one who flew to New Orleans in June 1995 to find an apartment for us, because I was still completing the formalities of graduation. Although she was already ill, mother felt well enough to make that weekend trip. She stayed with Corinne and took them to all of her favorite Quarter and Uptown eateries. She found an apartment that she felt was both safe and picturesque, and she also enrolled my daughter in elementary school. She even stayed several extra days just to hang out with Corinne and visit her favorite quarter haunts and the Longue Vue mansion in Metairie.
The last time I saw my mother as herself was when she last came to visit me in New Orleans in 1997. Two months later, her multiple myeloma reoccurred, four months shy of a five year remission and what she thought would be a clean bill of health. (I should point out that this particular cancer is not yet curable and that her fighting it for as many years as she did showed a remarkable character and perseverance.)
What was striking about my mother’s visit that last time was our hanging out in our mid-City apartment and eating in the neighborhoods nearby—an experience available mostly to locals. Instead of going to Café Du Monde, we had coffee at Plantation Coffee House off of Canal. She fell in love with the white pizza from Mona Lisa’s on Harrison Avenue. In the course of a week, we ate there twice. She ate her first po’ boy. At Parkway Bakery and Tavern. Shrimp for her, of course; oyster for me. Dressed. We sat on the front porch and watched birds. We ate at Brunning’s in West End and Fitzgerald’s on the lake. We walked around City Park. We ate Trout Meniere at Mandina’s on Canal.
I would have liked to have made that an annual affair.
When Mother found out about the return of the cancer, she had very little time left. She died a year and half later, after losing her ability to stand without the support of a manufactured turtle-shell device and spending the last months of her life in a coma. It was a hard death.
My father had also helped me with the move to the Crescent City. Delighted that I landed a tenure-track job in an economy he saw as weak, he was thrilled I had taken any job after my long stint in graduate school. Because my mother was not feeling well in August, he offered to help me with the loading and transport. When I accepted, he convinced another retired doctor to help out. They employed other graduate students to load the van, and they themselves swept through our apartment tossing everything that they could into large trash bags. Dr. R. even swept the apartment “broom-clean” while I checked out with the supervisor.
We didn’t pull out of the apartment’s parking lot until eight o’clock, so we stopped in Houston overnight. The next morning I could not keep up with the two septuagenarians on Interstate 10, and whenever we stopped for lunch or snacks, I accused them of speeding.
“I had to hit eighty-five to catch up,” I fussed.
“Pshaw,” was their response.
As if to confirm my dad’s opinion of the city, our directions had us veer left from I-10 to I-610 and take the Filmore Avenue exit, forcing us to drive by the dour St. Bernhard Housing Project to get to the lakefront UNO/SUNO area. Although my new job had promised to have students meet us to help unload, no-one showed; so the three of us unloaded and returned the trailer somewhere off of Claiborne Avenue. Both men noted that more folks were leaving the city than coming in. We all noted that the neighborhood looked rough with lots of abandoned and run-down buildings.
We only ate out twice. Lunch at a neighborhood Popeye’s made both men swear off fried chicken.
“How often do you clean the tables?” Dr. R asked. I did not hear the employee’s response, but both men insisted the woman said once per shift.
“What is a shift?” Dr. R. then asked, unable to let the subject die.
“Eight hours. They clean every eight hours.” He turned to me as if I could fix the problem. He was upset, and the famous biscuit remained untouched in his paper dish.
Dinner at Windjammer, another lakefront restaurant, was more successful, but it was a steak and seafood place—more Houston than Louisiana-style. After dinner, the two slept in home-made pallets on my living room floor—this to save time, not money, and probably to avoid any more exposure to the city. At the airport the next day, both men boarded Southwest with relieved expressions.
The last time my father came to New Orleans was after my mother’s death. This trip bore striking similarities to his first. His second wife drove him into town like a batty and bad Mary Poppins with her recalcitrant charge in tow. Sans umbrella, directions, or speedometer.
They dropped off some stuff my mother left to me, toured the house in Gentilly we had recently purchased, took us to Commander’s Palace for lunch—his wife’s choice, and left to drive back to Baytown, Texas to stay with her family. In all, including the time they spent filling up with gas, their stay lasted three hours.
Dusting off these memories made me realize how diametrically opposed were their views. My mother got New Orleans. Her love of food, fashion, pop culture, family, holidays, and entertaining made her a natural. My father was the opposite. My dad had always disliked New Orleans; he found the city hot and dirty: climactically torpid and morally turbid. Organization and order, sanitation and cleanliness, rules and regulations dominated his world view. It is only now, perhaps, caught in the circuitous routes of Alzheimer’s that he has had to slow down and loosen his task-oriented and timed reality.
I spoke to him on Valentine’s Day. I read a poem he used to recite to me, “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer. I noted how it marked the seasons. He said he thought he remembered the poem. I said I knew he did. He said he thought he might be out of the nursing home in a week or so. I said I hoped that he could go home. He told me that a woman visited this morning with her husband. I said that was probably Holly (my sister). Then, as we sat in whatever a compatible silence can be called on a phone call, he suddenly blurted, “How is the new with you?”
I wish I had formulated a suitably Suessical response, but I could only muster, “Well, there’s a lot going on.”
“Something new,” he prompted.
“Hmmm. You mean my house?
“I’m not sure.”
“I moved several months ago. Should I tell you more about it?”
“Whatever,” he mumbled. Then he roused himself and asked forcefully, “Whatever do you think of the new?”
I should always answer that question, as I did in that moment, “Oh. Well, thanks for asking. I think it’s good, Papa. I’m trying to embrace it.”
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