She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother (2 page)

BOOK: She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother
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The Spring Fiesta or Rites of Passage

T
HE RITE OF PASSAGE
for most Southern boys entails hunting and killing a deer or a duck or another random woodland creature. Mine involved pink satin, a glittering papier-mâché float, and a dozen young girls in hoop skirts. I didn’t think it was odd.

After picking me up from school, my mom would often stop by my aunt Vilma’s house on Fontainebleau Drive for refreshments and a visit. This was her old family homestead, a modest but impeccably kept three-story columned structure nestled among a few glorious live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss. Now it was under the management of her elder sister, Vilma, and Vilma’s husband, Stockton, aka Uncle Bru, a warm, kind gentleman and a proud Virginia-born descendent of Thomas Jefferson. His accent occasionally reminded me of the cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn. I’d often hear, “Brannnnnn, ha aw ya sun I say good ta seeya.” The dwelling was graced by their three beautiful redheaded daughters, each completely different
from the other two, and each the object of my wild childish crush.

I always had Chek Cola or Barq’s root beer, served in a freezing aluminum mug, and my mother always had steaming hot black coffee, even with the temperature sweltering in the upper nineties, and the air syrupy with humidity. But one day in early September would prove to be special. One of my favorite cousins, Alyce Leigh Jefferson, was in town from college.

For generations in our family, it has been the custom to substitute the letter
y
for
i
in first names. Gail was Gayle, Alice was Alyce, and Brian was Bryan. Nobody could recall when this practice started, or why we did it, but no one dared buck the system, no matter how impossible it made it to purchase manufactured personalized bicycle license plates, pencils, or stickers at the TG&Y dime store.

LeeLee, as Alyce Leigh was affectionately called, was the typical good girl, and with her parents’ encouragement she decided to take a semester’s leave from Spring Hill University to return home and make her debut. Nobody questioned this arrangement. Many young Southern ladies of a certain ilk actually believe college credit should be given to those who dutifully and with great aplomb embrace the archaic practice of the “coming out.”

The age of the
juenes filles
bow to society is customarily during the junior year of college; any older and the peaches are often bruised. Certain customs vary by region, as does the length of the debut season. The longest is in New Orleans. It spans from August clear through to the stroke of midnight on Shrove Tuesday, months and dates changing
annually due to the irresponsible placement of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter. This tradition is so firmly entrenched that for those families whose fortunes have been squandered or lost over generations, inconceivable sacrifices are made to continue or, in newer families, initiate the proper debut. In some instances mortgages, both second and third, have been sought, children denied college educations, and family heirlooms sold at auction at a fraction of their monetary—not to mention their sentimental—value, to afford the rite. Wherever, however, and whoever, at some point the girls are gussied up and primped into white gowns, then paraded with great pomp, thus signifying their position, virtue, and availability for matrimony. Most of these privileged young ladies curtsy graciously, grow up, have careers, raise families, and move on with their lives, although some are doomed to glance constantly back throughout their lives, desperately seeking to recapture the glimmer of a tinseled fleeting moment.

The current season was mounting into full swing; the big extravagant soirées at the country club would soon follow, not to mention the lavish Mardi Gras
bals masques
. And, although she would be invited to many of these functions, LeeLee would have a simple, elegant ladies’ afternoon tea at home, hosted by her mother and grandmother, whom we all affectionately called Moozie. Vilma saw to it that her daughters had what she never did nor could have, whether they desired it or not. So the sprays of yellow roses matched the pale yellow silk of LeeLee’s hand-sewn gown, and when she was to be queen of a carnival ball, she would most definitely have the pristine white canopy
from front door to curbside, even if Vilma had to sew it herself on the Singer. I always admired her graceful determination of will. Like mother, like daughter, like daughter.

Moments after Mom and I breezed into Aunt Vilma’s parlor, a bright red Volkswagen bug barreled into the driveway, the horn tooting a high-pitched “shave and a haircut, two bits.” A few seconds later the kitchen screen door was flung open by my miniskirted cousins, Paula and Debbie. Paula, with a wickedly bawdy sense of humor and an infectious laugh, was my favorite babysitter. Her older sister, Debbie, was Twiggy-thin, high-strung, and artsy.

Not a minute later, as if on cue, the front door opened and in sashayed Moozie, a zaftig but handsome woman with the silverest of silver hair intensely teased to create the perfect asymmetrical swoop, framing her heavily powdered face. Affixed on the bridge of her delicate nose—about her only physical attribute that could be described as delicate with the exception of her ankles—were glittering, rhinestone-encrusted, cat-eyed bifocals that she wore religiously until the day she died, thirty years later. Frantic kisses, bear hugs, cheek pinching, long legs, flaming red hair, and waves of Shalimar perfume filled the room as the iced tea, hot chicory coffee, and soft drinks were poured. We all gathered around the kitchen table as if assembling for some monumental news.

Vilma, tapping her spoon aside a cut pressed glass, called the meeting to order. Mother sat up straight at attention and gave us the tilt, “Yes, Madam Chairman,” to a burst of giggles, which prompted Moozie to exclaim, “Now come on, y’all are just playing ladies.”

This was Moozie’s usual response whenever anyone was goofing off or being silly, practices for which she had little or no patience. Moozie was a strong but loving woman who, at a very early age, worked to support her family during the Depression and on through the Eisenhower years, in a time and place where “ladies” didn’t labor. Singlehandedly she became the foremost dance maven of the Big Easy, at one time practically teaching all of the city’s children in one of her several successful studios. The iron-clad rules and regulations that she initiated for her schools reflected those she instituted for her family as well as her life. In keeping with her German heritage, they were to be followed and never bent or broken. She never really had the luxury to play, “ladies” or otherwise. I always adored the fact that the German translation of my beloved grandmother Moozie’s name, Hazel Nuss, is “hazel nut,” and adored my great-grandparents even more for having the rare sense of humor to name her just that.

The room finally settled down long enough for Vilma to announce that her daughter, Alyce Leigh Jefferson, had been asked to reign as Queen of the Spring Fiesta the coming season, and although not a Mardi Gras social club, it was one in which some very “fine” families still participated.

Annually, on a sultry spring evening, New Orleanian ladies and their daughters of age would, and still do, don antebellum costumes and, with their Ashley Wilkes–attired escorts, parade through the gaslit, decaying, narrow streets of the decadent French Quarter, fruitlessly attempting to revel in the traditions of the Old South. Girls on papier-mâché floats wearing hoop skirts trimmed
with polyester synthetic blended fabric, lace and bows, would wave and toss daisies and gladiola stalks to the oblivious, inebriated tourists, the stoned, love-beaded hippies, and the sequin-pastied strippers of Bourbon Street. An odd combination of procession and audience at best. However, beneath the radiant sparkling of a flower-festooned rhinestone diadem, the view can be so much altered. Oh yes, the grand splendor of our long-lost Dixie was recaptured.

In addition to LeeLee’s invitation, her sisters were asked to wear sherbet-hued gowns and be
des demoiselles
(ladies in waiting) in the court. But there was more. The monumental, life-altering information was yet to be dispensed. A hush fell over the bustling kitchen for a second time, as all the lightly mascaraed eyes in the room softly shifted and set their gaze upon me. Ceremoniously my mother rose, and I slumped as she announced, with a lump in her throat and a tear in her eye, “Dahlin, now it is my pleasure to announce that you, my sweet gallant son, young Bryan Mackenroth Batt, have been invited to have the honor of being the first-ever male page to the Queen of the Spring Fiestaaaaa!” Her voice rose to an effervescent cry of elation. Hugs from all the fair family femmes followed, as if I had just been inducted into an ancient, mysterious secret sorority. And I most definitely had, for as soon as the proclamation had been made I was instantaneously, and with gravest solemnity, sworn to absolute secrecy. Such information was considered top secret, hush-hush. The slightest slip of the tongue could render these illustrious invitations rescinded, annulling the social coup for
which my aunt and mother had covertly campaigned, of having four family members in one court. Nevertheless, it was a court and a coup, and I accepted with pride.

At school, I skipped through the checkerboard linoleum corridors with an impish grin that declared,
I’ve got a secret, and I’ll simply burst if I don’t tell someone
.

The pressure of attempting to contain such vital and valuable data filled me with a fresh feeling of importance and belonging, but as the months gradually crept toward the blessed event, the desire to share my extraordinary information grew from a smoldering simmer into a raging, bubbling boil. But I kept my ever-flapping tongue from uttering a single syllable of my secret through Halloween, Christmas, and Mardi Gras.

The single incident that propelled me over the edge took place at the home of Miss Inez, my grandmother’s confidante and seamstress for decades. The very moment I gazed upon the sketch of my glorious costume, a mid-nineteenth-century azure satin evening suit with a cutaway coat, a rhinestone-buttoned vest, a frilly white ruffled lace jabot, and a jaunty, deep velvet ankle-length cape, I was a goner. Mr. René, who was an old family friend and had designed numerous costumes and evening gowns for the ladies in our family for years, had created this vision for me. This was my first introduction to the fabulous world of art, fashion, and theatrical pageantry.

As we sat in Miss Inez’s modestly decorated living room, cluttered with plastic statues of every Catholic saint imaginable, from the blissfully ecclesiastical to the absolutely tortured, the only audible sounds were the breathy
whispered
oohs
and
ahhs
that accompanied the anticipated revealing, until Moozie broke through the wordless smolder.

“I hate to tell y’all this, but that Mediterranean blue will just not show up under the dim gaslights of the French Quarter, no, it simply will not. We don’t want him to get lost against the night sky, not our boy, and since LeeLee will be wearing white, naturally, as will the two little girl attendants, I think Bryanny boy should wear the palest of blush pink satin. Yes, yes, yes. That will match the pink papier-mâché roses on the Queen’s float, and the little girls’ pink sashes. We really should phone Mrs. Fitzmorris and Mrs. de La Verne and get samples of the fabric so it all coordinates, there’s nothing I hate more than pastel color clash. Oh, and instead of daises they could toss baby pink carnations, they’re not that much dearer, and there is nothing I hate more than the stench of old daisy water.”

I don’t recall any form of protestation. Why shouldn’t a six-year-old boy be dressed as a powdered pink pimpernel? Moozie’s vast knowledge of costumes and color palette was indisputable, as was her will. Therefore, Miss Inez mumbled her accord through a pin-filled mouth, and Mother, not one to dissent frequently from her mother’s judgment or the grave lapse thereof, graced us with her signature tilt and smile of concurrence.

Now there was no stopping me. I just had to tell someone about the parade and my costuming. I had to tell Leann.

One of my most lasting childhood friends is Leann Opotowsky, a sharp-witted girl whose last name was forever
unpronounceable by my parents. Aesthetically, we could have been siblings. She unfortunately shared my wide-mouthed cartoonish countenance. Luckily time and providence allowed us to evolve into more attractive young adults, with the obvious omission of puberty.

Resolved to impart my most cherished confidence, I concluded the ideal moment would naturally be recess, as opposed to the silence of nap time or the furor of art class, in which I’d been painting crude yet colorful primitives of crowns, flowers, and hoop skirts for months. In retrospect, had Miss Fife, my teacher, been more of a climbing daughter of the Confederacy, she might have detected the glaringly apparent signals. Nevertheless, during cookies and milk I whispered to Leann that I had to tell her a GREAT BIG SECRET and to meet me at the beginning of recess at the top of the monkey bars. Because we were the most fearless scramblers in class, we could be assured of privacy. Secrets and the ability to both keep and share them are of great importance in kindergarten, as I was soon to find out. The hand bell rang out, recess was declared, and we raced to the jungle gym and began our ascent from opposing sides so that we would meet at the very apex, leaving the other children behind and below. There was precious little time for me to spill, so breathlessly I rattled off as rapidly as possible every last detail of the illustrious anticipated festivities, my majestic involvement, and the imperative call for confidentiality. It’s a strange lesson to learn so young, but one man’s fortune is sometimes another’s fertilizer. Leann’s wide-eyed, incredulous stare met mine as she shuddered.

BOOK: She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother
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