Last night, I ate the leftovers from my family’s trip here; red beans and rice with andouille, corn hush puppies and sweet potato fries with maple syrup. Wonderful. And it brought back all the joy and flavor of our visit. Our second day together, last Sunday, my mother, my niece and I went across the longest bridge over water in the world, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, to visit my aunt, Norma.
I always love watching mom and her sister together. Each is funny and charming in their own ways, but together, they’re a hoot. Norma met us at the house with a friend and bags of fried fish and side dishes for a paper bag picnic. We sat around the table, 3 generations between 14 and 84, telling the truths of women’s bodies. I felt part of that ancient passing down of wisdom from women to girls. Between Twitter and Facebook and texting, we are more accessible and communicative than ever and yet many of us don’t actually talk anymore. Sure, it’s scary to wonder what’s appropriate, to talk about embarrassing changes, but all 3 generations have to deal with being female and I, for one, was glad to get some idea of what lies ahead.
Later, my mother and Elle, my niece, and I headed over to the marina to join my cousins and some neighbors for a boat ride down the Tchefuncte River (pronounced chuh-funk-tah). The nearly 50 mile river is absolutely beautiful and we’ve spent many afternoons boating, swimming, knee boarding and water skiing on it.
After riding around for awhile and finding a nice place to anchor, my cousin, Jean, Elle and I jumped in for a dip. We didn’t tell Elle that it was the area where the local big gator lives. A nearby party barge was bar-b-quing on a grill and Jean made jokes trying to get herself invited for a bite. She said several times that after Katrina, she’d sworn she’d never get back in the river. The water was so churned and polluted by the storm that she just couldn’t see herself getting in again. As we floated on our noodles, noticing that the water had a dark red hue, we both wondered how much longer we’d be able to do these things. Maybe Tony Hayward can get on a plane and escape to somewhere else to spend a day yachting after promising to stay here until this matter was resolved, but this is where we live, this is our water.
My cousin Ann’s adorable grandson was along for the ride, bundled in an oversized life preserver. I couldn’t help but travel back in time to a visit at my mother’s, back when she was living in Ponchatoula on the Tangipahoa River. It was Winter so we were all bundled up for all of our boat rides. Elle was 2 or 3 and had to wear her oversized lifejacket over winter bundles. Here she was now, a young lady in cute, sporty swimwear next to another bundled baby. Life is long and funny.
We had a quick bite at the Sonic, a fast food drive-in where they bring your food to you on skates. Very fun and 50’s, very American Graffiti. Mom and Elle dropped me back at the boat and Jean and a neighbor and I went out for a midnight cruise on the river. I love the river at night. Yeah, the sounds of giant fish are scarier, seeing a gator’s orange reflected eyes or a spine snaking past the boat sends a thrill up the spine, but there’s almost nothing as beautiful, as serene, as magical as the moon reflected on the Tchefuncte. The black silhouettes of the trees reflect on the surface of the river, smooth without all the recreational vehicles zipping around. It really is heaven on Earth. I was walking up to the Tchefuncte a year and a half ago when I had the epiphany that I had to move here. I saw my family and their friends sitting near the water, the sun setting behind them, and realized that they already had the life everyone I knew was struggling to get. They were happy.
We had the radio cranked, of course, and Don McLeans’ American Pie came on. We all sang loud and proud, “So bye-bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.'” Great music, cold beer, family and friends and moonlight on the Tchefuncte – perfection.
The next day, we had lunch with my aunt Norma at Rags, a po-boy shop in Mandeville. I’m guessing it’s family owned as two of the overwhelmingly charming staff who helped us had the same blue eyes and chiseled chins. It was a Monday and Elle did us all proud by getting the red beans and rice. I’m still eating shrimp like it’s running out, because, well… and Mom isn’t interested in heaven if they don’t have oyster po-boys there. The oysters really are beginning to run out. Businesses that survived the industrial revolution, the Great Depression and Katrina are shutting down left and right.
We said goodbye to Norma and headed out for Oak Alley Plantation.
The set for many movies including Interview with a Vampire, Oak Alley is one of the most stunning homes in the South in large part because of the Live Oaks leading the way to its doors. The trees were actually there first, the home being built to live up to their grand promise. The oaks are so old that they call the ones in the back of the house the young oaks – only 150+ years old. The plantation was the country home of a couple wherein the wife was younger and more interested in city life in New Orleans. The furnishings are beautiful but some are hard to cram into my brain. I can picture living in a home with a rolling pin bed of horse hair, but it’s hard for me to imagine having someone stand in a corner pulling a rope over and over to fan the table while I dine – a human air conditioner.
I kept pointing out to Elle that, for me, New Orleans is like a person who is willing to own all of their history, the good the bad and the ugly. Sure it can be painful to think of how this place came to be, but it’s the gumbo that created everything I love about the city now and like a person who is richer for all they’ve weathered, what didn’t kill this region seems to have made it stronger. Until I pointed it out, neither Elle nor my mother had thought about it, but the state of Louisiana is the most politically diversified state in the United States with the nation’s first Indian governor, Bobby Jindal, black mayors including Cedric B. Glover, Shreveport’s first black mayor, (as well as our recently departed Nagin) and female senator, Mary Landrieu. We’ve come a long way, baby.
We finished our day with a walk through the Garden District and some fabulous gelato at La Divina.
It doesn’t matter how many times you tell someone something is amazing, until they experience it for themselves, there’s really no way to convey how amazing amazing can be. Mom and Elle were properly amazed at the gelato, despite the fact that they didn’t have my favorite flavor – Chocolate Azteca.