In 1967, I was taken to New Orleans to visit my grandparents. What a strange, exotic city it seemed to my ten-year-old eyes! I lived in a dull, all-white neighborhood south of Seattle, in a split-level so new it still smelt of sawdust and paint. By contrast, New Orleans was a zesty old lady–a warm, exciting, Aladdin’s Lamp of a town where my mother’s fun-loving relatives lived–relatives very different from my father’s stern midwestern family.
My aunt and her two sons lived a few blocks from my grandparents’ house on Milan Street. My parents–normally overprotective–trusted my cousins enough to allow my brothers and me to run around New Orleans with them unsupervised. We’d leap delightedly on the streetcars and rattle around the city streets, leaping off again when we spotted a snow cone stand.
Mother was the youngest of four children growing up in the Big Easy amidst the poverty and occasional pleasures of the Great Depression. She remembers buying tamales from tamale wagons, visiting the zoo and the parks, “which were nice in those days,” and being taken for swims in Lake Pontchartrain on hot summer evenings. They played tag with the neighborhood kids and caught lightning bugs in a jar. In the thirties, going to “the pictures” cost a nickel–a price my grandparents frequently could not afford. Now and then, my grandfather brought home a box of ice cream from the drug store as a treat.
Mother graduated from New Orleans High School in 1949. Her class picture shows a smiling, dark-haired girl with glasses. She looks impossibly young. Returning to New Orleans nearly two decades later, she was disturbed by the racial tension, the high crime, and the deterioration of the neighborhood in which her parents lived. But to her children, the city was an intriguing cacophony of voices, sights, smells, and colors.
In the mornings, we visited the French Quarter, where we ordered beignets–hot, square, deep-fried doughnuts doused in powdered sugar and served up to us children with hot chocolate. One evening, after a day of sightseeing, we went to my aunt’s house for a dinner of shrimp gumbo over rice, hot bread, and banana pudding. The gumbo was from a family recipe which instructed the cook to first “Buy and peel ten pounds of fresh shrimp.” (When I make it myself now I commit the sacrilege of using frozen, peeled shrimp, canned tomatoes, and frozen okra to save time.)
Over the years, my mother made several solo visits to New Orleans. When she did, she always brought back gifts. One year it was a little music box that played “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Another year it was one of those dolls that had two heads and a big skirt. Flip the skirt one way, and there was the black doll with its calico head scarf and red dress. Flip the skirt the other way, and there was the blonde plantation belle in a pink flowered gown. Do they still sell dolls like that in New Orleans?
Sadly, my parents were never again able to take their children to the city of my mother’s birth. But New Orleans drifted into our lives several times a year. Each Christmas my grandfather sent a huge box of pralines from a French Quarter shop–thin, brown-sugary, and studded with pecans. We were allowed one of these mouth-watering treats for dessert each night until they were gone.
Every year, a week after Mardi Gras, I received a small parcel filled with junk jewelry thrown off the floats, which my grandfather had gathered up for me. I carefully kept the plastic beads in a jewelry box, and have them still, in a box in the basement.
These past two weeks, as we watched on television the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, my mother recalled the New Orleans of her childhood–a New Orleans that has been gone now for 70 years. She especially recalls the Mardi Gras parades. “I remember that Mardi Gras was an all day event,” she told me. “We found a good spot downtown in front of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The floats were beautiful. Each float had a black man in costume carrying a flaming torch, announcing the theme of the float. The people who got to be on the king and queen floats were high society people. They were usually weaving around in their seats since they had been partying all day.
“They had black-only parades, too. They were pretty lively with lots of jazz. Sometimes Louis Armstrong would lead them, playing his trumpet.
“After we watched the parades we ate lunch and looked at everybody else’s costumes. I especially remember the year I had a Scarlett O’Hara costume, complete with a hat and stiff petticoat to hold my skirt out. I was probably about five. My parents usually wanted to get us home before the night parades since people were getting pretty drunk and rowdy by then. But we could usually get them to stay for a while.
“Sad, if they never have another one.”
In the aftermath of Katrina, my fun-loving New Orleanian aunt–now nearly 80–is missing. So is her older son–one of the high-spirited boys who bought me snow cones nearly 40 years ago. We hope and pray that they have survived, even if the city they love does not. Even if rebuilt, it will never be quite the same. And like their siblings and cousins who moved away, they will know what it means to miss New Orleans.
– Anne Morse is a freelance writer living in Unity, Maryland.