Sousaphones vs. the Suburbs
My dad is, by default really, the patriarch of our tiny, crazy Southern family, and, as such, he dispenses a lot of advice. Some of it is good. Some of it is questionable. These days, he prefaces his advice to me with: “But listen, I had three kids, and two of them are dead. So what do I know?”
But when I was growing up, my dad gave me four pieces of advice that have always stuck with me.
No. 1: “After someone unlocks your car door on the passenger side and lets you in, lean over and unlock his door for him.” Keyless entry systems have, to my great sadness, rendered this one largely moot, but when I can do it, I always do.
No. 2: “It’s always good to look nice, but men see a lot of value in a woman who can be ready to go in 10 minutes.” This fit nicely with my mother’s advice to only occasionally wear makeup: “If you rarely wear makeup, then when you do, everyone will say, ‘Oh, you look wonderful!’ But if you always wear makeup and one day you don’t, everyone will whisper, ‘Oh, she looks like shit.’” On a day-to-day basis, my biggest vanity is contact lens, and my only must-have cosmetic is Chapstick. If I’m given more than 10 minutes to get ready, I will just change my clothes repeatedly.
No. 3: “New Orleans will always be home. Nowhere else will ever feel quite the same. You might go away for awhile, but you will come back. Trust me on this one.” I felt certain this one would prove to be untrue. I got my head turned by New York, and of course no one could have anticipated Katrina. But sure enough, I found myself lugging moving boxes back up the steps to my dad’s Mid-City home after a decade away.
No. 4: “No matter how poor you are, always tip the street musicians.” My dad hammered this home every single Wednesday, the afternoon I spent with him per the custody arrangement. Post-divorce, he lived on Burgundy Street in the Quarter, and he and I would always spend the time the same way: Ice cream at Swensen’s in Jackson Square (Swiss Orange Chip, every time) and then whatever live street music we could find. I favored a woman who played the hammered dulcimer by the A&P; my dad liked a guy who played the washboard farther down Royal. Whatever we found, my dad would always dig out his battered leather wallet and hand me a few dollars to drop into the hat.
I am trying to continue this tradition with Ruby, and so far, I think I’m doing OK. That kid is crazy about live music. In fact, aside from St. Aug at Bacchus when she was 9 weeks old, Ruby has loved any and all live music she has ever heard.
This past winter, just before Carnival, Ruby and I were sharing a lazy Saturday morning on the sofa. We had both just taken baths and then promptly gotten back into our pajamas, and I was carefully combing out her snarly wet curls when we heard music outside. We jumped up and ran to the porch just in time to see the Pierre Capdau band marching past–and without stopping to dry our hair, put on shoes, change into real clothes or lock the front door, we took off after them. We followed them, barefoot and wet-headed, around Mid-City in our PJs for at least half an hour.
Now it might sound, from the above, like Ruby and I have some idyllic mother-daughter relationship, but I rush to assure you that that’s not true. We adore each other, but she is still a 5-year-old girl, and she very often just likes to screw with me. Usually this takes the form of her saying, right after I buy an enormous bag of chicken nuggets from Sam’s, “Oh, I forgot to tell you: I don’t like chicken nuggets anymore.” Sometimes it’s a bit darker, with her saying things like, “I don’t think I’m actually pretty or smart at all, Mom” or “You love the baby more than me” or “Why didn’t you give me a better name, like Victoria of the Valley?”
And sometimes it’s even more insidious. Last week, just before she left for Thanksgiving with her dad’s family in St. Louis, she told me, thoughtfully, “I don’t think I belong here in New Orleans. I belong in St. Louis.”
“Of course you belong here,” I told her shortly. “You like parades, don’t you? St. Louis has crappy parades.”
But considering all of the handwringing I did (and still do) over moving her from safe, wholesome, bland Middle America down here to never-boring NOLA, this chewed at me all day. St. Louis, where Ruby’s dad grew up, has nice suburbs, good schools, a free zoo – and most of all, a huge loving family that embraces Ruby fully. “I took that away from her,” I thought. “I took it away and replaced it with parades.”
Later that night, I was driving the girls downtown to see Santa. I was stuck in traffic again in that god-awful Canal Street construction, and the baby was howling again, and I was in a terrible mood again. Ruby, in the backseat, started rolling her window down, and without thinking, I immediately snapped at her, “What are you doing? Leave the window alone!”
“But Mom,” she said in the tone of the deeply aggrieved, “I saw a guy out there with a sousaphone – and, yes, I do mean a sousaphone and not a saxophone, and yes, I do know the difference – and I was rolling down my window because I thought it might be nice to hear some live music.”
I looked slowly to my right. There was a guy with a sousaphone on the corner. I laughed and let her keep her window down. I suddenly felt a whole lot better.
“Ruby might not know it,” I thought to myself, “just like she doesn’t know about the extra vegetables that I sometimes hide in meatloaf, but just as I know vegetables nourish the body, I know that New Orleans nourishes the soul. And no matter what she thinks, she absolutely belongs here. So there!”
“What are you laughing about?” she demanded.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “It’s just that New Orleans will always be home. Nowhere else will ever feel quite the same. You might go away for awhile, but you will come back. Trust me on this one.”