The following is a work-in-progress that began as an image during one of my summer nostalgia tours in south Richmond and became the beginning of a fictional family saga inspired by a trip I took to New Orleans a few lifetimes ago… I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The river has always sustained me. Always flowing, whether calm and sparkling in sunshine or roiling with a winter storm amid the chaos that so often threatened to engulf me, it continued its path just beyond the rise behind our house. It was the refuge to which I escaped when there seemed nowhere else to go.
The sound of the river could drown out my mother’s rage and still the fear in me, as it rippled past our house. I don’t know if the others felt the same way about our river, but in some ways, I think of it as one of the family.
We didn’t always live beside the Fraser River; Mama was a bit of a nomad during our earliest years, but when we finally found the house by the river, we all knew we’d come home. It was then I could feel my real life begin.
I was the youngest of five kids, born of four different fathers – my mom is a champ among single mothers. She has a lot of love in her heart – she loves each of us in different ways, according to who she was at the time of our birth. My sister tells me I got the best of her, and she’s probably right. I remember my mom crawling into bed with me when I was young, as was her habit, and whispering to me, thinking I was asleep and only my subconscious could hear.
“You are my anchor. No matter what chaos the day has brought, I can come to you, lie here and it all drifts away. At the end of the day, my anchor keeps me safe until the morning when I can lift it up and take it with me on my journey once again. But at night, my anchor keeps me from floating away with the chaos.”
I always wondered if she said that to all of us, or just me.
Big Sis, or Elzie, is more like Mama than Mama is. Her name is Elizabeth, but I didn’t even know that till I was about 6 or 7. We always called her Big Sis. Elzie kinda runs things. Mama always says we’re mirror images of each other, but I don’t see it. We’re nothing alike, me and Big Sis. She is the oldest, I’m the youngest, she has this massive head of big beautiful ringlets, the colour of copper and eyes that flash hazel-brown with specks of gold around the middle. Her skin is smooth caramel, the melted kind for dipping apples in, and she would be the most beautiful girl in the world if her lips weren’t always pursed and her jaw tightened with anger. She’s got a fierce temper when things don’t go her way – which seems to be most of the time and she can really let me have it, if I don’t listen when she’s telling what to do. I used to fight with her alot when I was younger, but I don’t bother most of the time anymore. There’s no winning with her and I can tell it upsets Mama. So mostly I just hold my tongue when she gets all wound up.
Elzie’s had it the hardest of all of us. It was just her and Mama in the beginning. You see, Big Sis never knew her Daddy, and I know that bugs her. She’d never say it out loud, but I know she’s lying when she says, “I don’t think about him – can’t miss what you never had.”
Mama says she met Elzie’s Dad on her first trip to New Orleans.
“The Big Easy – just like me!” Mama says with a laugh, everytime she tells the story… usually when Big Sis is out of earshot.
“Mardi Gras may be fine for all those Spring break college kids, but the best time to go to N’Awlins is during the Jazz Fest. It isn’t just Jazz you know – there’s so many flavours of music on that playing field – you’ve never heard such sounds! Blues, gospel, cajun, folk, bluegrass and jazz – and how many kinds of jazz are there?”
We’d all start blowing our imaginary horns and parading around the living room waving our pretend umbrellas in the air. Mama loves New Orleans jazz.
And while she was whooping it up on Bourbon Street, she ducked into a bar to escape a sudden spring rain. No sooner had the bartender brought her a bloody caesar, but this smooth talking man sidled up to her table.
“Cameo’s the name and blowin’s my game,” he says to her.
“Blowin’- playin’. Jammin! Lady, you’re in the jazz capital of the world during High Holy Days my dear. What do you think I do?”
And right there at the table he put his hands to his mouth and mimed the keys of the saxophone solo that was playing on the stage by the open window.
At this point in the story, Mama would get this far away look on her face as she described how music filled the streets of the French Quarter. Every bar and cafe had a live band playing with their doors flung open so the music spilled out for everyone to hear. A grand cacophony of jazz smashing together in the air.
And she was instantly smitten by this charismatic jazz musician with the crazy name. Cameo.
Now Elzie doesn’t play any instruments and she’s not big on jazz music either, but there are times when she’s had a few drinks and my brother Andy puts on his country tunes that Big Sis will throw her head back with those wild ringlets flying and I think I can see a little fire from that jazzy sax player from New Orleans.
Elzie doesn’t talk about it much – Mama’s the story teller. She loves telling us all tales from before we were born, but sometimes in the quiet of a long sleepless night when Jaron’s up to no good or we’re all worried about Calla again, Elzie will tuck me into bed and tell me the parts that Mama only told her.
“It might have only been a week, but they loved each other,” she whispers as though sharing secrets of the Pyramids of Egypt.
“I know Mama laughs it off now as just a vacation fling, but they were soulmates and she never forgot the way he made her feel.
That first night, they sat for 3 hours drinking bloody caesars and talking about how much they loved New Orleans and why they’d both come that week. Later Cameo invited Mama to listen to him play all the way Uptown at a place famous for its Cajun gumbo and dance rhythms. She’d never heard anything like it before – Cajun music has its roots in French Canadian folk. “It’s this fantastic blend of French, Spanish and Black American jazz – it’s got a sound all its own.”
And then of course she carefully pulled a box out of the closet we shared from way back of the top shelf, where Calla nor I would ever think to look, and from this box, she’d produce a cherished recorded album, ‘Live from Tipitina’s.’
Where she’d found it, I have no idea, but with this she would play the soundtrack from her parent’s first date.
“While Mama was listening, she couldn’t help but tap her feet and bounce her head in time to the tune. There she was, this lone young blonde girl clearly in thrall, so it wasn’t long before some boy asked her to dance. Well, Alma only had eyes for Cameo, but this was such a polite young man with the cutest Georgian accent, so she accepted, protesting that she didn’t know how to do a two-step. This perfect gentleman from Georgia patiently showed her the steps and before long she was swinging around the dance floor while Cameo wailed from the stage on his saxophone!”
At this point, Elzie and me both pause and grin at each other. We can see so clearly our mother, 23 years old dancing a Cajun rhythm in New Orleans. What a sight she must have been!
“When the band was done, Cameo came sailing down from that stage and scooped Mama up in his arms, twirled her around and planted a kiss on her right there in front of her southern gentleman dance partner. He was so gracious though. Just nodded his head and politely took his leave.
Cameo was so high after playing the set, and Mama was lit up from listening and learning a new dance. They ordered some gumbo with pints of beer and laughed the night away. Cameo teased Alma because the Cajun spices burned her tongue and made her eyes water. She washed it down with beer and gobbled up some more!
Mama was enchanted with Cameo and the city and the music. It was like her life finally began that night, far from the boredom she’d known at home in suburban Canada, and the pressures she felt after making the move to Toronto. She was on her own in this magical place yet found her heart’s desire.
From Tipitina’s they stumbled out into the wee hours of a humid New Orleans night, too drunk to worry about the dangerous neighbourhood; Cameo determined to walk his new lady back to her hostel. They had the fearless bravado of young lovers swept away by their unexpected romance and surely a protective bubble surrounded them as he serenaded her softly through the still streets. They gradually made their way from the commercial area of Uptown, through industrial lands and finally entered the gilded residential opulence that was the Garden District.
Mama was floating along under the enormous trees, oblivious to everything but this beautiful, tall dark man charming her with his music that he improvised just for her. Until suddenly her attention was caught by a low brick wall running the length of the block and the haunting collection of crumbling brick mausoleums contained beyond it. Mama gasped.
“That’s the Lafayette Cemetery.” Cameo intoned with a grin.
“I knew it!”
“From those books you loved…” He remembered the reason she was there.
“Let’s go see whose lurkin’ about in there, shall we?”
Alma’s peals of laughter pierced the hushed quiet of the night and the two of them skulked off into the famous cemetery.”
Big Sis is convinced that’s where she was conceived, just as Mama told her.
It would explain her dark moods.
I think Elzie blames herself for everything – and tries to make up for it by being a second mother to us all. That way maybe Mama can have some kind of life besides being a mother. She has quite the burden on herself, Big Sis does, trying to make up for Mama’s shortcomings.
See, Mama returned from her vacation pregnant with Elzie and couldn’t finish school. She’d been training to be an actress, but her unexpected pregnancy kept her from completing her diploma. Instead, she started working full time at the restaurant where she’d been waiting tables and dropped out of school.
Big Sis thinks if it weren’t for her, Mama would be a famous actress by now – and sometimes Mama thinks so too, when Elzie’s being a real pain in the ass.
One time Big Sis was singing in the kitchen while washing up the dishes, singing along to an Etta James CD. She’s got a beautiful singing voice. We all try to tell her that – well, except Andy who tells her she sounds like hyenas mating in winter – whatever that means. Mama was drinking red wine; she always pours red wine when she listens to classic jazz singers and she started in on Elsie about singing lessons again.
“Oh Mama, I’m not taking any singing lessons – they’re too expensive and what’s the point?”
Well that just set Mama right off.
“What’s the point?” she shrieked. “To DO something other than washing up the god-damned dishes all the time!”
“And who’s gonna do them if I don’t?”
“Well, maybe there’s more important things in life than washing dishes!”
“Like what, Mama?” Elzie sighed. She knew what was coming.
“Like using the talent that God gave you! My God Elizabeth, if I’d been able to sing like you… if I’d had the choices you do, I wouldn’t waste them washing dishes!”
I think Elzie just reached her breaking point that day, because usually she just shrugged off Mama’s harangues, or locked herself in the bathroom for awhile. This time though, she hollered right back.
“You did, Mama – you did have choices! You didn’t have to have a baby – it was Toronto for God’s sake – clinics on every street corner; you didn’t get pregnant in the 1950s – why not just get an abortion – or 3!”
“I tried to!” Mama screeched back. The room lost all sound. We all just stopped, simultaneously shocked. This was news. We had not heard this story before.
Mama took a big gulp of her wine, realizing what she’d just said in front of all of her kids – except Andy – he was out with friends.
She took a deep breath, then continued, quieter, more subdued – embarrassed by her outburst.
“I went to one of those clinics. I even filled out one of their forms. Then went and waited in a crowded room with all the other young women. They all looked so dejected and ashamed. I was so scared and disappointed. Heart-broken. Cameo hadn’t answered my letter. But I couldn’t get the picture of you out of my head, baby-girl. I could see you already in my mind’s eye and knew you’d be this amazingly beautiful and rare girl. I just knew – even though I barely felt you yet – I was only 8 weeks at that point. But I couldn’t let you go. So I left and never looked back.”
She smiled at my sister then, and an understanding passed between them that almost made up for all the resentment my mother had hurled at Big Sis in anger over the years. Almost.
The next day Elzie signed up for singing lessons and Mama said she’d never been so proud.
A year later, Big Sis announced that she was going to New Orleans just like her Mama did before her.
“I’m going to sing in all those jazz clubs on Bourbon Street!”
“Well, you better give a kick-ass audition lady-girl!” Was Mama’s tart response.
And then the two of them dissolved in a fit of giggles the likes of which I’d never seen before, or since, for that matter.
Elzie had secretly saved for months, tips she’d earned at Pizza Hut waiting tables just like Mama had 20 years earlier.
She bought herself a little green Honda Civic and before we knew it, Big Sis was heading south. I couldn’t believe it. What would we do without her bossing us around, anymore?
Calla was overjoyed.
“Hallelujah and good riddance!”
Calla hated Elzie, but Calla could find something to hate about most people. She just didn’t like being told what to do… “By my stupid sister!”
“Well, somebody’s got to put a rational thought in that thick skull of yours!”
“You’re not my Mama, Elzie! Big SIS – hear that? Sis!”
“Big Sis. Hear that? BIG!”
Elzie towered over Calla, till Calla squirmed and called for Mama.
“Work it out yourselves.” was always Mama’s reply. “I’m not a referee for God’s sake.”
Calla would storm off dramatically and slam her door. She had her own room because no one could live with her.
“I’ll send you postcards the whole way, and then when I get there, I’ll send you my address and I’ll write to you the whole time, so you’ll never even know I’m gone. You’ll write me back, right Squirt?”
Big Sis did have a way about her that always comforted me, even though she was so bossy. I was going to miss her.
I nodded and she gave me a big hug, while I fought back tears. I knew how much this meant to Big Sis, and I didn’t want to make her feel bad by crying.
“That’s my big girl! I’ll send you lots of pictures, too.”
She winked and smiled then – something I don’t remember seeing her do before. It was like she was a whole different person now that she was going someplace new. Her eyes sparkled with expectation of what lay ahead and I could tell she had no doubts whatsoever.
How could she do that? How could she know without a doubt that she was doing the right thing? In that moment, Elzie was the most amazing creature in the world to me. I envied and loved her at the same time. And I wondered what my adventure would be some day.
Before long, the postcards began to arrive. Pictures of ornate metal balustrades lining the streets of the French Quarter, the enormous clock tower overlooking Carre Square, the oak-lined streets of the Garden District, beignets at the Cafe du Monde, Preservation Hall, and of course, Tipitina’s… the renowned Cajun dance hall where it all began.
Big Sis made her pilgrimage to Tipitina’s and to Lafayette Cemetery too. I wondered if the real places lived up to the mythology that Elzie had built for herself – there was no way of knowing then from the brief notes that accompanied her postcards. It would be years before I heard Elzie’s story – as we sat in my room talking like we had done so many times in our youth. This time, it was her own story she told me, not Mama’s, tinged in stark black and white instead of the fanciful technicolour of Mama’s trip to New Orleans.
Elzie arrived for the first weekend of the Jazz & Heritage Festival. It had grown considerably since the days that Mama had been there, with numerous big name headlining acts.
“Less jazz & heritage, more mainstream hype,” as Big Sis put it. But the small local flavour was still there with tents showcasing music of such variety that Elsie had never even heard before… bluegrass, rockabilly, dixieland, traditional jazz and Gospel. All alone, Big Sis traipsed those hallowed fairgrounds from tent to tent and stage to stage more inspired than she’d ever been by music (or anything else) before.
And then she found herself sitting in a Gospel tent, watching a family of singers that rocked her to her very core. The mother was a big old black woman with a voice that soared to the sky, while her husband was a David Crosby look alike, crooning and strumming along beside her with his rhythm guitar. Together, they sang a version of God Bless the Child that sounded like the angels themselves. But it was their back up singers that mesmerized my sister. Two fair-skinned black women just about the same age as Elsie, who looked as nearly like her as anyone she’d ever met.
Back home, Elsie had stood out as being different. She’d never seen anyone who had quite her physical traits. She was unique, and had always known it. Now here, singing before her were two women, who looked as she did.
Big Sis let the words of God Bless the Child resonate inside her. Never before had she let any defining labels in and now somehow she could, in this Gospel tent in New Orleans. Tears streamed down her face as they never had before. The dam broke and Elzie let bear a bruise that she’d held for as long as she could remember, without ever realizing how deeply it had been held.
That was my sister Elizabeth’s introduction to New Orleans – the city of her conception.
She emerged from the Gospel tent into the bright hot New Orleans sun, wiping away the tears and feeling reborn into herself, at last. Her love had come along… a self-love that she’d never known in her brief, troubled years. As Elzie made her way through the milling crowds of festival revellers, her spirits bourne amid the great cacophony of music, she found herself moving in time to the exquisite rhythms, entranced with the beauty of the moment. And then, the skies opened with a decisive crack, and suddenly, the freed young woman was dancing under a deluge of heavy, tropical rain. Laughing joyously with the rest of the exuberant dancers, she danced her freedom dance, throwing her arms wide to the sky and letting the rain and the music wash her life’s sorrow away.
I smile when I picture Big Sis like that, soaked to the skin, finally catching the streetcar back uptown, water pooling on the seat from her dripping clothes, giggling and sighing happily to herself.
It was some time after that, Big Sis met Aaron and Marilyn.
She was staying at the youth hostel on a weekly basis, and had befriended her roommate there, Marilyn. Marilyn was a feisty young woman from Washington, DC who was ready to experience everything the Big Easy had to offer. She was street-smart with a fierce confidence that was belied by her diminutive stature. Yet there was a happy-go-lucky side to her that offset the bravado and made her an extremely appealing companion with which to explore the city. Marilyn and Elzie discovered the French Quarter together. Bourbon Street teamed with people as it always does, the special energy made it all the more glorious during the Jazz Fest. The girls floated along from club to club, catching a set here, kicking up their heels there, and well-lubricated with the signature Hurricane cocktails so freely poured on this famous street of excess and pleasure.
Marilyn delighted in the sheer debauchery of it all. She was a tourist and this was her two week vacation – solace from the business of DC, and she was determined to make the most of every second.
Marilyn was a woman who drank in life and shied away from little, so it came as small surprise, when caught up in a moment of wonderment with each other and their heady surroundings, Marilyn reached out and impulsively planted a quick kiss on Elzie’s parted lips. The girls drew back and melted into a fit of giggles. They linked arms and danced on through the crowded street, pausing moments later to try one more lingering kiss.
Peals of laughter lit the night again, as this electric kiss just struck them both as impossibly funny. Funny, that is, until Marilyn caught the eye of a man casting a disapproving glare in their direction. Marilyn was not about to let the moment pass.
“What?” she bellowed above the din. “Never saw two women in love before?”
The man just shook his head and replied, “That’s not natural.”
“Oh really?” Marilyn shot back. “And that is?” She pointed to the GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS sign over the doorway of the strip club from which the man had just emerged.
“Hell of alot better than what you two was doing, that’s for damn sure.”
“So, it’s alright for you to pay women to stare at their naked bodies, with no feeling for them at all, beyond the size of their tits, but us being in love with each other is a sin?”
“Lust in any form is a sin – but I’m just lookin – I ain’t touching.”
“Yeah but I said we’re in love – not lust.”
“That’s just sick.”
“So are you buddy. We’re all sick!”
“Bible says you’re an abomination.”
“It also says, ‘Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.’”
And with that, Marilyn turned to Elzie and gave her a long, deep sensual kiss. As the two of them trotted away hand in hand, she flipped him the bird behind her back, and the two erupted into laughter yet again.
The next morning, groggy from too many Hurricanes, the two girls hauled bags of laundry around the corner to Igor’s Pub, Pool Hall and Laundromat. They threw their loads in, settled onto the sunlit patio overlooking St. Charles Avenue, and promptly ordered two highly recommended Bloody Caesar hangover cures suggested by the friendly bartender.
It was the best Bloody Caesar either of them had ever tasted and Marilyn knew her caesars. Liberally spiced and spiked with vodka, it quickly worked to lift their spirits and they chatted happily reminiscing about the night before.
It was at that moment that Aaron appeared, slouching into the table next to theirs. Looking equally groggy himself, with unkempt, straggly hair loosely tucked up under a newsboy cap, Aaron had dark brown eyes and the face of the old country, contained within the costume of mid-90s grunge rock.
Big Sis was immediately fascinated by Aaron, which Marilyn instantly recognized, prompting her to strike up a conversation. Soon, Aaron was joining their table, more caesars were ordered and the three were laughing together like old chums. Marilyn’s boyfriend, Rich, was arriving that night so she invited Aaron with them for a night on Bourbon Street.
“Let’s stay away from the Hurricanes tonight though,” Elzie instinctively cautioned.
“Oh we won’t have a problem, there,” Aaron replied. “There’s a lot of alternatives to those over-priced, over-hyped tourist drinks.”
Within about an hour, the trio had returned their freshly laundered clothes to the hostel and spruced up for another night on the town. They met back at Igor’s where Marilyn nearly lost her shoe running to catch the streetcar. Leaping on just in time, they were off on their next adventure in the Quarter.
Rich already had a table at a Cajun seafood restaurant where crawdads were the house special. Big Sis had never tried crawdads before and she wasn’t too sure she’d like them. Up welled the fear remembered from her childhood beside the river. When the plate of steaming red shellfish were plunked on the table, Elzie flashed back to the fear she felt wading in the shallows of the shoreline and stumbling upon a crayfish. She gasped a little, and shook her head regretfully.
“I don’t know if I can eat those,” she said in a measured tone.
“Aw come on – they’re great!” Aaron encouraged her.
“Just try one,” he said, graphically snapping the tail from the shell.
“I’m sure they taste delicious,” Elzie replied. “But snapping them apart like that… They’re just too creepy piled on the plate like that.”
Aaron shrugged and popped the crawdad in his mouth whole.
“Mmmmm – so good.”
Rich and Marilyn were digging in hungrily and their sighs of satiated taste buds tempted Elzie’s curiosity.
Finally giving in, she snatched one of the frightening looking delicacies from the top of the pile and deftly snapped the shell off just as she’d seen Aaron do, a moment ago. With a deep inhalation of breath in went the meaty shellfish, quickly chewed and swallowed down.
The salty taste lingered on her tongue and it wasn’t altogether unpleasant, but the sensual experience of the whole bodied creature was too much for Big Sis, and she declined anymore.
Aaron grinned affably at her with a wink and a nod, then ordered a pitcher of beer.
The group of four young people celebrated with a hearty toast and when the last crawdad had been slurped down, they headed out into the New Orleans night to see what the city held in store.
Four shots of Patron lined the bar, topped by four slices of lemon. In a simultaneous motion Elzie, Marilyn, Aaron and Rich tossed back the tequila and sucked on the lemon slices.
“Salt is for wussies!” Rich exclaimed to no one in particular.
“Line ‘em up, Bartender – 4 more please,” chimed in Aaron. They turned back toward the dart board and resumed their game.
The Bourbon Street scene was in full flow and Elzie was having the time of her young life. She felt as if she’d known Marilyn and Aaron forever, instead of less than a week. They felt like her best friends, and she never wanted this night to end.
Tossing back another shot, Aaron planted a spontaneous kiss on her lips – just as Marilyn had the night before. The light in his eyes warmed her, and music suddenly lit up the stage. A saxophone player had launched into a solo – announcing the beginning of his set with a practiced flourish.
Elzie returned Aaron’s kiss, responding to the intensity of the moment. The sound of the saxophone grew insistent and familiar. She could hear Marilyn’s laughter by the dart board.
“It’s your turn, Lover,” she crooned.
The music on stage slowed, as Aaron’s lips slowly separated from hers – she looked at him in astonishment; he grinned back with an intimacy that felt like an embrace and as the saxophonist wound down the final notes of his solo, a voice intoned into the microphone.
“That’s right, folks. Welcome to The Absinthe on Bourbon St. Cameo’s my name, and blowin’s my game.”
Time stopped as Big Sis turned to the stage and saw her father for the first time.