I wrote this piece on an airplane returning from my first visit to New Orleans since I lived there when I was 8 years old.
October 18, 2009
My sister and I attended St. Maurice Catholic School – a red-brick structure in the Lower 9th Ward, just a few blocks from the Mississippi River. I remember buying cheese popcorn during recess and attending mass in the circa 1850 church next door.
I try to recall Mardi Gras- the memories are in there somewhere. What I do vividly remember is the box of bright beads in the attic of my aunt’s shotgun house. My sister, my cousins, and I played for hours with these cheap necklaces tossed from parade floats. At other times, we leapt out the attic window or pretended to be the Mandrell sisters of country music fame. It was 1979 and my oldest cousin owned a book on disco dancing. I tried to learn the footwork illustrated in the book and know I was worse than awful at it.
Some weekends we ate beignets with powdered sugar on the outdoor patio of Café du Monde while my parents drank café au lait. Afterwards, we walked across the railroad tracks to gaze at the ships on the murky Mississippi.
My father befriended some Cubans in the neighborhood and they stole our van. It broke down and was abandoned, and Dad had to travel some distance to retrieve it. Dad was always too friendly and too trusting. I remember the van because I took refuge in it one dawn while my father fished on a bayou. The mosquitoes were too fierce for me to venture out. On an outing to Lake Ponchartrain, it’s the image of dragonflies sailing across the water that remains in my mind.
We were poor during our time in New Orleans. I have no memory of desperation per se, but do remember the inch-long cockroaches in our small rented house and the blocks of government-issued cheese. I can’t recall that the sweltering heat or frequent moves bothered me either. Children can be fragile and resilient at once.
I have a wispy memory of the place where the neighborhood ended and the levee separated us from the river. If a hurricane had danced through back then, who knows if my parents would have had the resources or where with all to evacuate. Parents can be fragile and resilient too, and mine have been both at times. That recollection is as clear as the Louisiana sky after a storm passes.