"We're headed South, child. You goin' with us?" Vi asked as I slipped into my chair at the dining room table. She handed me a paper napkin and gestured that I should put it on my lap, ever the genteel Southern lady and always insistent that I practice good manners no matter where I was.
"What about school?"
"It will keep," she replied, slicing a thick piece of Glory's delicious pot roast onto my plate and then handing over the bowl of mashed potatoes.
"How long will we be gone?"
"As long as it takes," she answered enigmatically. "Max has family there and family's more important than anything, even school." She arched a delicate brow as she spoke and I knew it wasn't in my best interest to question her further. Vi never raised her hand or her voice to me but I had seen Max cross her once and trust me when I say volcanic eruptions are calm compared to Vi's temper.
"You goin' with us, right?" Glory announced as she took her chair, her words more a statement of fact than a question.
"Will you get in trouble if I leave the state with you? I mean we're not legal as it is and..."
"Don't you worry none, Sar. Them social people ain't gonna know where you are and by the time the school figures out you're not there, we'll be settled in Nawlins and it won't matter nohow."
"Will I go to school there?"
"Lord!" Glory snorted as she filled her plate with mashed potatoes. "Didja ever know a child who loved school like this one? Girl, you're a smart one. We'll be back in a month or so and I'd bet my jambalaya recipe that you'll be all caught up before they even realize you was gone."
"Were gone," Vi corrected and then clucked her tongue at Glory who was adding more butter to her mashed potatoes. "You're not goin' to fit into those new sweaters Max bought you if you keep eatin' like it was goin' out of style, Missy!"
"Oh bother!" Glory huffed and told Vi to mind her own "P's and Q's" and that was all she was going to say about that.
As a rule, Glory and Vi never argued but they had been constantly snipping at each other for a few days and the only reason I could come up with was the trip they were taking to New Orleans and that they couldn't leave me behind. I knew they wanted me with them but I didn't know what the ramifications would be if they got caught taking me across the state line. Officially, I wasn't their foster child; I just happened to live with them and social services had tried to remove me from their home on a number of occasions. Lately, the caseworker was too busy to pay much attention to my whereabouts and that was fine with me. I liked living with Glory and Vi and Max. They cared about me and treated me well. I couldn't ask for more than that.
"I'm going," I announced.
"Of course you are," Vi replied.
"Good," Glory added and took a buttermilk biscuit, caught Vi's disapproving stare and put it on my plate instead.
"Where you goin', girl?" Max asked as he came into the house and sat at the head of the table.
"You go wash your hands, Mister Man!" Vi said with a slight frown, making Glory laugh at the expression on Max's face at this directive.
"Woman, you gonna be the death of this here man," he grumbled but he went into the kitchen to wash his hands.
"You leave any food for this hard working man?" he asked me when he came back. "You ever see a girl child this size eat so much food? She gonna eat us out of house and home."
I hid my smile behind my napkin. Max had scooped another dollop of mashed potatoes onto my plate as he spoke. Most days he complained that I was too skinny for a girl child and needed to eat "nuff to keep a body alive." Other days he told me "if you keep eatin those chocoloty bars, your skin be turning a sweet shade of brown jus like mine."
"Now where you be going, girl?"
"New Orleans, with you and Vi and Glory."
"Course you are," he said matter-of-factly. "Where else you be going? You is family and family is all that counts in this crazy world."
And that was that.
I know New Orleans.
I knew Gretna and Metairie and Baton Rouge and Shreveport and Slidell but I really knew Nawlins.
Tourists will remember the hansom cabs...
"Look Glory! Horses! How come they're wearing those funny hats? Can we feed them?"
"We'll bring sugar cubes tomorrow, Sar. But you ask the driver first, you hear?"
Visitors to the Crescent City will remember the vendors crowding Jackson Square and hawking their wares...
Sit, little girl. Let the man draw your face. He ain't had such a pretty face to draw before now. This be givin him somethin' to 'member."
"Did he draw Vi's picture for you?"
"No, and doncha be tellin her. That woman's gonna bury me some day and I wants to be buried face up."
Tourists will remember the beignets at Café du Monde...
That's your fourth beignet, Sar. Ease up there, Missy. You don't want to grow fat as a cow."
"Cows ain't fat," Max chuckled. "Course they not be drunk neither. How many cups of that chicory coffee you drink today, girl?"
People will remember the wonderful jazz pouring out of Preservation Hall...
"You set nice and quiet and 'member your manners and I be lettin you meet Bones Lehume. He be one mighty fine sax music man, yes he is."
"Can we invite him over for coffee later?" I asked, eager to meet the jazz saxophone player.
"We could do that but 'spect Bones would ruther have a bourbon neat, girl."
"I don't know what that is, Max."
"And that be a good thing, child. Now go set over there by Glory so no white man thinks I be messing with you."
Some tourists enjoyed a jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters on a bright sunny day. Some bragged that they got the best table in the house at Antoine's or Broussard's and a few lucky ones were able to get reservations for the Sunday buffet at Commander's Palace. If they were "in the know," they sat *upstairs* so they could see the tree...
"What's that funny sauce all over the eggs?"
"That's Hollandaise sauce, Sar. You're goin to love it."
"Why do they call it Eggs Benedict if the sauce is Hollandaise?"
"You ever know a girl child to ask so many questions?" Max remarked. "Just eat up and be happy."
"Can I have some chicory coffee?"
"Wait till Vi leaves to go do what ladies do when they leaves the table," he whispered. "Then you kin have some of mine."
"Who's this pretty young thing?" an elegantly dressed woman asked as she came to our table and dropped a kiss on Max's brow.
"This be Ella Brennan," Max announced as he stood to kiss the woman's hand. "She be the owner of this fine establishment. And this here be Sar. She be family."
"I like your food," I told her.
"And I see you've eaten a lot of it. Save some for the other customers, child. There'll be more tomorrow. Has she had my special apple fritters?" she asked Max.
"Well come along, then. I'll take you to the kitchen and feed you right. You eat with me and you won't stay skinny long."
Max hailed from Jamaica but had a multitude of "cousins" in New Orleans. I don't know how many were actually relatives but they all seemed to like each other a lot. He and Vi and Glory lived in the "Big Easy" for a few years before they decided to settle in Chicago. We stayed in one of the houses the cousins owned in the Garden District and I spent a lot of enjoyable times exploring all its secrets.
When Glory was "working," Max would stay close by and Vi and I would go to Mother's Cafe and get Po' Boy sandwiches. Then we'd ride the streetcar through the entire Garden District. Vi was on friendly terms with all the conductors and we'd ride up and down the route several times over just to marvel at all the old Victorian houses. The other passengers would watch us eat our overstuffed sandwiches and their mouths would water. Vi thought it was a very sexy thing to do - eat a sandwich dripping with goodies and watch the men squirm when she'd take a bite. I was oblivious to her teasing antics but later, when I told Max what she did, he said Vi was a very naughty lady.
"I thought Southern ladies didn't do naughty things in front of other people," I told her after Max said she was naughty.
"A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do," she replied.
"A girl's gonna be settin on a hot bottom if a girl's gonna be doin what I be thinkin she be doin," Max snorted.
"Is that so, Mister Man?" Vi arched that delicate brow.
Max arched his and I decided I needed to leave the room before those two got into it. Vi was a "working girl" but the love of Max's life. I didn't want to know what was going to happen next.
Glory loved the French Quarter and that's where she always headed when she was "working." One night Vi and I were going to Preservation Hall by ourselves. We'd meet up with Max and Glory later but first, we decided to walk down Bourbon Street. And there was Glory! Dressed to kill and leaning over the wrought iron railing on the 2nd floor of a rooming house, the kind where you rent the room by the hour. Max was down on the street looking up and he yelled at her because you could see her garters!
"Any Tom, Dick or Harry kin see what you got, girl. Cover that sweet stuff up and make 'em pay up front for it. Don't be showing it off for free."
Max - always the businessman.
Max didn't want Vi out "working" at night in the Quarter so she'd do her thing in the afternoons. When she and Max were out, Glory and I would tour the University District or have an early supper on the beach at Lake Ponchartrain. There weren't too many people on the beach during the week and it was a special time for us. Glory would fill my head with stories about how she and Vi met and how Max came into their lives. I knew they both adored the man and that he was in love with both of them, but even at a young age, I knew their families would be shocked that two beautiful white women lived with a black man. Just about anything was acceptable in New Orleans and I wondered why they later moved to Chicago but I never asked.
"You have a Southern accent now that we're in Louisiana," I told her one afternoon while we walked on the beach. "I thought you were born in Chicago."
"South side of Chicago," Glory laughed. "It's easy to be Southern in the South. Easy in Chi town, too. Nice smooth drawl that's easy to fool the tricks. They don't want no hard talkin Yankee woman under them when they're gettin their money's worth. Give 'em a sweet Southern gal and the tips get bigger."
"Really and it ain't nuthin you're ever gonna know, sweetie. When you're all grown, you're gonna be a lady through and through and what's more, you're goin to college. Max said so and you know you can't cross that man no matter what you do. And doncha be tellin him what I told you, you hear?"
"I hear, but Vi was born Southern, wasn't she?"
"Born and bred down Savannah way. That's in Georgia. She graduated high school, too, before she ran away from home and that's all I'm gonna say about that."
"She ran away from home? How come?"
"Not my story to tell and doncha be askin her neither. It was hard times for her in that house and you don't want to get her goin on about that."
As a child, the folks in New Orleans sounded southern to my ears but the more time I spent there, the more distinct the New Orleans accent sounded - a lot like Brooklyn with a little crawfish thrown in.
I know a little about Biloxi and a lot about Gulfport and Ocean Springs but I don't know Mobile at all. I suspect the sweet Southern folks of "Bama and "Mizzippi" are pretty much the same as the ones in "Looziana" - Southern through and through, family folks, and filled with American pride and patriotism.
And they go to church - regularly.
St. Louis Cathedral is a big gray stone building on the "Quarter" side of Jackson Square. From the top of the church steps you can see down both sides of the square and if you have binoculars, you can see the edge of the Mississippi River on the other side. Vi was Southern Baptist but Glory thought she had been born Catholic so we'd go to church now and then so she could appease her guilt. Max didn't care which "God" anybody prayed to; he had a "Creator" in his head and he kept his beliefs to himself.
St. Louis Cathedral had a back door. It had several back doors and I discovered all of them and explored surrounding back streets and alleyways while Glory tried to remember the words to whatever prayers she felt she needed to offer. The priest would often sit with her and hold her hand and offer encouragement for her efforts. Thankfully, he concluded I was a lost cause and mostly ignored me. Once, Max and I went with Glory and he took a nap on a back pew while I sampled the "wine" and some awfully dry crackers. Max snores... so Glory only recited a few prayers.
I don't mind telling you... it was really awful wine.
I have sweet memories of Nawlins. I visited the city several times when I lived with Max and Vi and Glory and each time we were there, Max's family embraced me as one of their own. They tried to fatten me up and fed me royally - crawfish étoufée, red bean gumbo, jambalaya, hot beignets, coffee with chicory, and po' boys. Breakfast was often dim sum and spiced green tea at Chinese restaurants owned by their friends. Lunch was generally fruit and cheese with croissants and sometimes omitted because dinners were always the most delicious and lavish Creole and Cajun meals in the southeast.
At day's end, after I had explored all the nicks and crannies of old Nawlins and peeked into boarding houses and other places a young girl has no business in... brothels and bars and the busy shipping docks... and when I finally ran out of steam, they tucked me into a feather bed, held my hand and sang me to sleep.
I have very sweet memories of Nawlins.
In these past few days, I've spent a lot of time on the phone with Max and Vi and Glory. They're in Chicago and we are grateful that Max's relatives are safe - most still in the upper Garden District that received minimal damage from Hurricane Katrina. Today... Max called me.
As I write this, it is September 11th.
September 11th, a day of infinite tragedy, a day of infamy.
Eighteen months after the Towers went down... after the Pentagon was attacked... after those airplanes filled with heroes crashed in New York and Washington, D.C. and in Pennsylvania... after all those people died because they lived in America... Eighteen months later... when public mourning for the attack on American soil and loss of life was relegated to the back pages of the "A" section of our nation's newspapers... when political rhetoric took precedence over personal loss... I wrote "Danny Boy."
It took all those months to be able to put thoughts and emotions and bitter memories on paper.
It had been a personal loss for Cowboy and for me. It had been a personal loss for other military families we knew, people we had known when we had been billeted in the same places... here and overseas.
It remains a personal loss to every man and woman and child who lost a loved one, a dear friend, a neighbor, a business associate that day. And it remains a personal loss to all who cherish freedom.
Our television screens are filled now with the horrendous damage caused by Mother Nature. Families are uprooted from their homes, many of which no longer exist, the diaspora of thousands to shelters elsewhere. So many have lost everything, so many will never return. Their lives are changed forever. This isn't America's first tragedy and it won't be her last.
Worldwide, I have discovered that no matter our nationality, no matter our religious beliefs, no matter our different value systems... we all suffer personal loss in the same way.
We mourn and we cry.
Today, Max told me... "Grab your man, girl. Hug him and kiss him and tell him how much you be lovin him and then you coax him into your bed and show him that love. Life be short and you best be 'preciatin it for all it be worth."