It is curious, the landscape of memory… Some experiences stretch out like a vast desert of sand which shifts to cover footsteps left long ago as though one had never been there. Others stand out in sharp relief and have most visibly shaped and contoured our lives.
Memories of New Orleans, from my childhood and just before the death of my brother, contain many such quickening experiences. I do not think anyone who has ever lived in New Orleans (or lost their heart to it) can let Mardi Gras pass by without a small fête breaking out inside. William Faulker, who lived in New Orleans at different times, aptly characterized the old city as being “a courtesan, not old and yet no longer young, who reclines gracefully upon a dull brocade chaise-lounge, and those whom she receives come to her through an eternal twilight….” It is a city which taught me revelry and deep sorrow. It taught me the borrowed joys of a faded age.
There is something ancient about New Orleans, older than her comparatively young years, as if the history of the Spanish and French settlers seeped into her roots and the primal intensity of the Africans and Haitians who had been spirited away breathed fire into her soul. A certain darkness lurks about the seams of her festive attire; a tattered elegance. There are the genteel mansions of the Garden District along whose grand allées mighty oaks preside with their drapings of Spanish moss waving softly in the sultry air. Magic envelops anyone who is remotely sensitive to such things. It is a heavy energy laden with the earthy scent of a pouch of gris-gris and a cup of gumbo as an offering from the sea. My brother and I would make an annual pilgrimage to Lafayette Cemetery on All Soul’s Day when natives go to whitewash the tombs of loved ones and leave offerings of yellow chrysanthemums. We had no one there to mourn but we would leave our offering at a grave that looked as if it had been long forgotten, ring a stranger’s statue with our “immortelles” and weep for our own dead who were buried in or whose ashes were spread over different earth.
There were our drowsy Sunday roams through the Vieux Carré from Canal Street to the Faubourg Marigny with a café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde along the way. He had an apartment on the corner of Rue St. Phillipe and Rue Royale the balcony of which was a splendid perch from which to view the colorful displays of artful humanity. Thinking of art, who could not be charmed by a city which has a street named Elysian Fields and those named after the nine classical Greek muses: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania?
We were not Catholic by faith but by culture. We celebrated the turns of the seasons with the many festivals: All Saint’s Day, the Feast of St. Joseph, and (who could forget) Mardi Gras. There were also the quasi-pagan ones… watching the maidens of Louise McGhee Academy at the May Day celebrations or the “cross-over” Voudou/Catholic fêtes like that of St. John. There are many layers to “city that care forgot.”
Where ever I go in the world, I always take a little bit of New Orleans with me. This year I thought it fitting to pay tribute to that old queen of my memory by making a traditional Galette du Roi (King Cake.)
Laissez les bon temps rouler!