A Southern Woman’s Myth

These stories and reflections are from growing up in the south, in the 1950’s, as a Caucasian child in a segregated society.  Some stories are easier than others to remember and to share, however, with each story I tell, more courage I gather. 
Thank you for reading. And I’d like to hear from you.        
A memoir- a series of stories with truth and imagination mixed in.

 

I like telling stories because they come alive in the telling, and I’m there again.  Also, I have an opportunity to change my heart and thoughts about the story, as well as adapted to a more informed opinion.

 

Piece 13.

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“In a cherished way, the storyteller and the listener bond.”

Two Women from The Deep South Meet

A mutual friend in Seattle introduced us since both of us were from Louisiana; she was from Baton Rouge La., but spent a lot of time as a child and later as an adult where I was from in New Orleans. After our initial introduction, I invited her to my house for lunch to get together and share stories of New Orleans and growing up during the 1950’s and 60’s, even though I knew we came from different backgrounds, and the line of divide existed razor-sharp in those days.

Our day seems more like a typical New Orleans day, hot and humid, not usual for Seattle. Even our speech was very southern as if the heat waves blew on us a slower speech, and match our body rhythm, a kind of fluid laziness to conserve energy, yet efficient, which is characteristic of a New Orleans summer day.

I love the smell of New Orleans, that shellfish smell,” I said.

 “Because everyone’s eating it all the time,” she said.         

Then I chimed in with how I liked walking through the open market along the Mississippi River on Decatur Street and hearing the vendors shouting, like rhythmic mantras.”

“We got fresh shwimps, oysters, crawfish. And got clean catfish, flounder too,  come-aw rit-here!”

“Get your okra, fresh tomatoes, green beans.”

New Iberian Lou-ze-an-na juicy strawberries fur-yu! Now come-an-getum!”

Another story I shared was how my family on a Saturday night would cruise down Bourbon Street in the family Buick to hear the doorman barkers.

“Come right in see the show of your life! See the Pretty Little   Ladies Dancing!”

If we were, lucky sometimes the traffic would stop right by a barker that would open the door for us to get a peek of a stripper dancing. My favorite was Alouette, the famous exotic tassel twirling dancer. How did she make those tassels spin around in circles on her nipples? I still can’t figure that out. Maybe, muscle control awareness?

We laugh as I make circles with my eyes as her tassels did. We continued, sharing our love for other sounds of New Orleans, the boats tooting on the Mississippi River, and of course, the music of Fats Domino, Professor Long Hair, young Dr. John, and the Dukes of Dixieland.

New Orleans is a city with music so sensuous that it takes you down to meet your soul, then rips you open and ascends you into life’s destiny in full drag. New Orleans uniqueness is in its seductive nature. It can unleash that primitive self in you.

The New Orleans Declaration- You’re in the big easy darlin! Do your thing, whatever it is! 

American culture depends on New Orleans to provide this indispensable part of its psyche.

Touching Our Wildness!” I shouted out.

“A conduit for The Love of Life!” Monica blasted!             

And we laughed so hard.

After lunch, we sipped New Orleans French coffee with chicory, as our conversation turned to our differences since she is African American and I’m not. Our stories set us apart, yet bound us too. I go first with a story about myself at age twelve.

“It’s spring in New Orleans with hot pink Azalea bushes lining the street of Esplanade and the bus route to my dance class. I was looking forward to my first bus ride on my own. I practiced taking the bus with my Mama, and I’m ready. I felt the adult in me, as I entered the bus, gave my money to the bus driver and walked to get a seat, but as I walked to my seat, I saw that sign.

(On top of the back of every seat was a metal bar frame with a moveable wooden sign that has two metal short poles that fit into the metal frame.)

The sign reads, “Colored Only” and that sign is in front of the seat I wanted to sit in. You see, the rule is- that I was to move the sign and put it behind me in the next seat; because no white person has to sit behind that sign, only colored folks have to, but no whites would want to sit behind that sign. As I reached out to move the wooden sign, somehow and for reasons I only came to understand years later, my arms and hands froze, refusing to touch and move that sign. So I didn’t. I sat behind the sign.

 The bus rode on, stopping and starting as I settle in looking out the window. I suddenly felt a presence that makes me turn away from the window toward the inside of the bus. There at my eye level I saw this flowered dress, and I followed it up to its face. Staring down at me was a colored lady with the meanest face on. She picked up that wooden sign with its metal poles and slams it down into the metal bar behind my seat. My ears rang with the shrill of metal on metal.” 

When I got home, I told my Mama, and she told me, I was wrong for doing that.

“You can’t do that. You could get that colored lady in trouble

 if she doesn’t move that sign. It’s bad enough she has to sit

behind it, and behind a child no less. Please don’t ever do that again.”

I didn’t do it again, but I never moved that damn sign either. I stood for four years until I left to go live in New York.

I know the reasons now why I never moved that sign. I was trying to save myself. When you witness oppression and couldn’t do anything about it, then you’re oppressed, and carry its shame.

Monia says she has a story to tell me from when she was twelve.

“I’m going to visit my surrogate mother, Mary Beth, and her family in New Orleans. It was my first train trip on my own. I had made the trip from Baton Rouge to New Orleans before but only with my family. When I got on the train, I was assigned to a train conductor. He’s to look after me until I get off and meet my New Orleans family. I was given a seat behind the conductor’s seat because I was too young to sit along in the colored section. I had my lunch basket and was excited. The conductor man seemed real nice, too.  

After the conductor man had finished taking everyone’s ticket, he came back and started talking and playing a kind of train tag with me. I was able to run up and down, crossing under and over the seats, because there was no one else in our car.

That summer, maybe 95 or 100 degrees, and with no air-conditioning began to get to me. I was real hot, then I spotted a drinking fountain and ran over to get a drink. But the conductor man grabbed my arm, not letting me drink. I looked up at him with surprise. He motions with his head, almost in slow motion, motioning upward to the sign above the drinking fountain. It reads, “White Only.” He then let my arm go. I went back to my seat, opened my lunch basket and drank my drink and ate my lunch, and just sat there waiting.   

Soon after, the train slowed and pulled into the station. Once again, I was excited looking out the window for my family. As we departed the train, the conductor sees me to my family, but doesn’t just go off, but he turns and spoke with Mary Beth,

‘Tell the little girl I’m real sorry.’”

Monica told me that years later in New Orleans when I went to hear Martin Luther King speak, I knew what I had felt back then as a child. Of course, that experience wasn’t the last, but when Martin spoke, there could be no denial- Shame is what I felt- and I continued to feel that while living in the south. That same year I moved to Seattle.

I imagine that’s what that conductor man felt as well.

The next time Monica and I met, it’s at her house. I was comfortable in her home, familiar even. In a large living room, one area is filled with fabric and a sewing machine. My mother was a wonderful seamstress, and she always had the sewing machine open and fabric out to touch and delight the senses. I think this is why I love color so much.

Monica, now seeming like a new friend, mentions that she is looking for sewing work. I was excited by the possibility of her make something for me. We agree on the types of fabric, and she’s going make me a vest and two covered pillows for my house, which turns the focus of our conversation to my house. She asks,

 “Who do you have that keeps up the cleaning?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not easy to find someone who cares and

knows how to clean.”

“Well let me do it. I’m a professional. I’ve been cleaning

houses for years until I began sewing professionally.

I learned from my mama how to care for a home.”

“Wow! I didn’t know you knew how to do that.”

“My Mama taught me. She was a domestic all her

life for rich white families in Baton Rouge, and she often

took me with her. Sewing can be spotty and now is a low

period, so I like to do it.” 

“Well, if you’re sure,” I reply.

We got started the next week. Her work was great. She knew about products that worked, and she did the very deep cleaning, but more than clean, my house felt calm. She came every other week. All went well. Sometimes I was home and working on my Master’s degree, and we’d chat and have lunch together, then we’d go back to work.

Once we had a conversation regarding education, and how she always wanted to get her formal education. Her oldest daughter was in college, and very proud.

She cleaned for about eight months, but it all changed when once my husband came home from work to pay her because I had a class that day. He did this two more times, and the third time he was a bit late, so she had to wait for him. When he walked in the house, she went off on him, how she didn’t have to wait for any white man to pay her. My husband said he was sorry that he meant no disrespect, but he had a patient that was late, and he couldn’t leave. Of course, if she knew my husband, you know how true his story was; we all have waited for him to finish his patients at times. The next time he came home to pay her, on time, she again made remarks under her breath, but he could hear, about white men and their superior attitude with their money. My husband was upset and felt very vulnerable. I told him I’ll talk to her and clear the air, and find out what was going on.

With my quarter over, again I was home when she came to clean. But the moment I mentioned my husband’s concern of her misunderstanding, she went off on me about how we were exploiting her and not paying her what she was worth, and that she was tired of white Honkies. I was shocked. I kept saying that was not our intent and how sorry I was that she felt this way. She finally calmed down, then said she should never have taken the job to clean. She finally said,

“ Look, it brings up too many negative memories from

cleaning with her Mama and the white men owners,” I replied,

“I’m sorry too. I never wanted to hurt you.” 

The line of divide continues to exist razor-sharp and continues to divide us. She stopped cleaning, and we did manage to remain friends, yet that history never left us. Throughout the rest of our friendship, until she died of lung cancer, ten years later, both of us were slightly guarded, putting a strain on the friendship. I might think before we met-

“What if I say something that I’m unconscious about, and hurt her, or worse, remind her of the past, of an event she wanted to forget?”

I have no idea what was going on in her head, but I could feel her guardedness as she felt mine. We never talk again about the South or our blow up in my living room.  However, she did tell me a story that she said she wanted to bury, but it might give me a better understanding of her behavior with my husband and me. I certainly would have wanted to bury that story. Just maybe telling me, it was like giving it to me for me to carry, and she buried it in a way. I was so disturbed by the story, that week in my poetry class I wrote this piece.

Southern Daughter

Part 1        

What does a southern daughter think when thinking about her mother?

Does she remember the lessons taught or the time spent together?

Maybe a scolding or a tender moment when scraping a knee,

as a mother tends her pain and calms her fear.

I remember all those things, but now that my mother is gone, I think about how she was something special, a single mom in the 50’s making here own way in a world that kept telling her to marry again.

“Now honey, put on your white gloves and hat, and find yourself another husband.”

She never put on those church gloves and hat again, and never married either.

I wish she had been allowed to become who she wanted because she could have.

Part 2 

What’s in a Name?

In the Deep South, a girl child is given her mother’s name or grandmother’s.

If you’re lucky, you’re given a little second name in the middle.

Like, Beth, Sue or Ann.

And when you ask,

“Why’s everyone calling me by your name?”

Always your mama says, “Why honey that’s the way it is.”

 

Not the boy children, they’re given titles.

The II or The III, even some The IV or V, My godchild’s son is The V, and my brother, The IV.

That’s why the boys never ask,

“Daddy what’s my name, and why’s everyone calling me by your name?

You wouldn’t ask if you had a title “because that’s the way it is.”

Part 3 

I know their secrets too

In the Deep South, the girl children are vulnerable to the power of its men.

Even a white girl child that’s trying to tell on a white boy,

Or on a family member, that’s trying to get into “Your Private.”

I don’t know why they call it “Your Private.” Anything but private.

In the Deep South, for the black girl children, it’s even worse.

An African American woman friend that when she was 12 years old, she was given to a powerful white man to have a virgin for his birthday gift, in 1956.

No protesting, never protection, not even from her Mama,

Not even comfort, because as her Mama said to her, “Honey, that’s the way it is.”

Part 4 

I wish all girl children are allowed to become who they want,

because “That’s the way it should be.”

 

 

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About The Piece 12.

Today is the anniversary of my first husband, Richie Varola, who passed 42 years ago. He was a wonderful person, sweet, kind, and a great Organist and Pianist. He had a great laugh; I like to think that a bit of him stayed with me. At times when I laugh, I can hear his laughter, and then, I sometimes can hear him laughing. Thinking about him is a comfort.

So enjoy this piece,  I wrote about Richie and me, and my life currently. And I hope you have gotten to know Richie a bit. I was honored to have known him and be loved by him, and it was easy to love him.

Death is tricky, that last week, so much confusion. I saw the Area of death, that white veil engulfing him, but I immediately when into a denial; why shouldn’t I? He was only 30 years old, healthy, and had his whole future ahead of him. It’s like that for some when they leave here. They just leave, fast and not messy.  Of course, for we left behind, emotions run wild. A franticness set in with me. First, where was he? Was he OK?  

12.  Christmas Mass at St Louis Cathedral 2006

I realize there are many ways to convey a story

Another New Orleans story that took place that highlights the theme of New Orleans keeps working me and calling me back is “Christmas Mass at St Louis Cathedral 2006.”

It’s not surprising that the New Orleans Christmas mass service music was great. The St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, the center of the Quarter, is the oldest Cathedral in the US. Since the Cathedral was in walking distance of our hotel, we decided to walk. As we turned the corner at St. Peter and Charters Street, we see in front of the Cathedral, TV cameras, two police officers, and several homeless people, who stood behind the police. I assume they’re waiting to be allowed entry. Of course, after the presentable folks have taken their seats in the church,  and the TV cameras are gone. Ironically, as we settle in the third row behind a well-dressed couple, I notice in the very first pew this disheveled guy with scruffy hair and tattered clothing, obviously arriving before the TV cameras and police. I’m pleased he got in before they appeared. I thought the church and media were nonaligned?

Since we only go to church on Christmas, it’s the music and especially the sing-along of Christmas Carols that I find uplifting, but this year the music is especially transforming. There are the traditional church instruments, organ, strings, and winds, but when you add a New Orleans jazz band of percussion, clarinet, and a brass section, wow! The choir and soloists sounded like angels. As the cliché says,  I felt I had died and gone to heaven.

The cliché proved its truth the night before my husband’s funeral. I’m at my mother-in-law’s house, and family and friends of Richie, his name, are dropping by to offer their condolences. We sat at the kitchen table, and people are telling Richie stories, but I can hear only parts of these remembrances because their story sends me off into my memories. Someone started talking about when Richie went into the National Guard. I remembered him telling me that story.

“When the plane started into the flight, I began to cry I was so  afraid

that something might happen to my hands, and then how could I play

the organ or piano.”

Luck would have it that at basic training, Richie met Dennis, a drummer from New Orleans. When Dennis heard that Richie was a jazz pianist he organized a band. Rich told me that Dennis said in his duck like voice,

“Don’t worry Rich, I’ll get us gigs playing for the Officers Club. We’ll

be too busy practicing and playing to get our hands messed-up.”

I met Dennis in New Orleans, where at the time I was living, and Dennis and his family lived in the same apartment complex on Burgundy Street. In fact, Dennis introduced us.  Richie was coming to town to play at Al Hurt’s Club on Bourbon Street, and Dennis invited me to come along. I said,

“No thanks, ” his reply,

“You gotta meet him; you’re gonna marry my friend Rich.”

We married six months later. At the last moment, I decided to go.  The music was great, and after we all went to the Court of Two Sisters for food; after Rich and I stayed up all night talking.

All night around the kitchen table, in and out of memories, and constantly thinking, “Rich where are you? Are you OK?” Finally, all the company leaves and Richie’s Aunt Sue and me, sharing a room, go to bed.

In the middle of the night, I’m awakened by this vociferous organ music and a room filled with light, as if theatrical spotlights were on full power. I turned and looked at Aunt Sue, but she was sound asleep. As I sit up in bed, then lighting a cigarette, there in front of me at ceiling level, I saw Richie’s face and what looked like Angels singing all around him. I couldn’t hear what he’s saying, but I can read his lips as he said,

“I’m OK. I’m where I should be, doing my thing with my music.”

After a time, I put my half-smoked Lark cigarette out and slid down under the covers to enjoy the music, until the music stopped and the lights went out. In the morning, I wake with a memory of this dream in my head, and then I saw my half-smoked cigarette and realize what had happened. Richie was here! The mystics would say; I had an experience with the other side. 

As people began arriving that morning, I wanted to shout- “Good News,” the Angels, and Richie appeared to me last night- Rich is OK! But I didn’t; How could I?  

The Cathedral music allowed me to drift off into the celestial spheres, to get in tune with the powers of the universe and the energy of the music.  At that moment, I wanted to escape the mundane, and live daily in a state of ecstasy? But suddenly I was back, grounded in my seat, looking at the altar as the Archbishop walked up to the podium.

He’s a short man with an ancient quiver in his voice, yet delivered a powerful sermon.

The Archbishop implored us to give generously to the Katrina relief fund and praised one of the local priests for his Katrina work. Last, he asked us to pray that the city and its people will rise again. I appreciated his message, but what I enjoyed most about an Archbishop’s presence was all the pomp that he brings to the service. The gold-brocaded garments, pointy hats of red satin, and regalia of all kinds, even the alter-boys, and newest priests draped in their finest green silk, and because it’s New Orleans, there’s just a bit more gold and theatrics. The Cathedral looked more like a French castle or an elegant brothel having a festive event. So much pausing, and incense that waves from out a container on a chain hanging from their arm, like a grandmother’s purse. There’s also a lot of attitude with heads held high, turning around with a swish movement as their gowns swirl trailing after them. Oh no, not just a turn, all theatrics, and I loved it!

As mass concluded, the congregation stood, and we all sang Deck The Hall, then in a  procession the archbishop, the bishop, and priests paraded down the main aisle. As the Archbishop and his retinue passed us, the well-dressed, tailored woman in the pew in front of us turned and said,

“Thank you for your lovely singing; I enjoyed it so.”

Dirk and Iman had already left, but  I was slow buttoning my cloth-covered buttons on my cape coat, so I turned to the tall woman in her Christmas sweater next to me and said,

 “Thank you for your singing,”  She replied,

“Thank you, but your voice was lovely.”

Smiling, I nodded my head as a thank you and turned away, but she touched my arm and asked,

“Are you from New Orleans?”

            “I grew up here, but live in Seattle now.” Then I ask her,

How did you fare with Katrina?” I see her eyes tear-up.

            “I did fine, but so many didn’t.”

“My elderly friends in their eighties still cannot come home.

They want to so badly.”

I nodded. We stood for several moments looking at each other, wanting to talk and tell our stories, but our families were waiting outside. So we spoke only through our eyes, but if we could have, if we were wild and free, as that’s what our eyes revealed, we would have clutched each other and weep unashamedly.

No words could resurrect those perished in Katrina. I know grief from Richie’s passing,  and I recognize it in her, as she did in me. Our moments passed, we smiled, wished each other,

“Merry Christmas!” And we turned away.

By the time I reach Dirk and Iman, I remembered Carl Jung’s idea that people can have a meeting as if their souls had met, and an encounter had taken place with each other. This experience has no length of time, and can even happen with a stranger.

That’s New Orleans, doin’ its Voodoo on me!

 

  1. “Cultural fashions influence fast, Evolution slow.” 

Cowgirls are for all Generation

At age six pretending to be a cowgirl, wearing my hoop skirt dress, and dancing I felt exuberant, and my passion. As a cowgirl, riding my two-wheel bicycle with training wheels and saddle bags, and streamers hanging from the handlebars. My outfit made it authentic with pearl buttons, fringe on the sleeves, and on the skirt, rodeo roping girls on horses, and to complete the outfit, a Dale Evans scarf that’s tied around the neck knotted on the side. Wow!

My Dale Evans look, got me in a lot of trouble with the nuns at school. Because our school uniform was a blue pleated skirt, white blouse and a scarf in front like a bib engraved with the school emblem, but I liked to wear it like Dale Evans, then I was a cowgirl all day long. However, the nuns didn’t see it that way.

“Otto.” (then my last name)

“Turn that scarf back to center or I’ll turn it, so your neck remembers how to wear it.”  Said Sister Rita.

And she did it one day; she was right. My neck felt like someone tried to twist it off. She had a reputation for the rules as law; they all did in degrees. It didn’t stop me; I just got faster at turning it back when I’d hear a nun coming. As a cowgirl at school, I listened for the whooshing sounds of their heavy cotton dresses and the click-click of those thick-heeled shoes.

 

The nuns had a mystique about them too, plus a lot of judgment with little forgiveness once you or your family did something wrong- sinned. What sins does a child have or why does the child have to suffer for a family sin? A family means that all included under this heading in a specific way is connected.  I remember going to confession and making up a few sins because I must be bad. Even today, I fear that others will judge me harshly.

I had an opportunity as a dream therapist to see the idea I held in my psyche about what a nun is when a friend asked me to assist her to analyze her dream. I don’t recall what the dream meant to her, only the image and its irony; a nun stands for pureness and their devotion to God, and God’s laws. As a dream therapist and a Catholic school girl, I was intrigued by this Shadow Nun. My friend made a painting of the nun in her dream; her face was sweet, innocent with a touch of red lipstick, holding white and yellow roses, and a Red Satin crinoline slip, showing at the bottom of the nun’s black thick cotton long to ankles dress.

Also so at six, I was a girl when I wore that hooped green, black pock-a-dots dress, turning, turning catching a breeze in the hot summer heat. My other passion was dancing and performing with my tap teacher, Anthony, in our song and dance act. It was my first ballet class that did it for me; I knew that day what I would do for the rest of my life. Such a visceral experience, I was going to be a dancer.  I officially retired at age 45 when my husband and I adopted a baby. Three years later, I reenrolled in college to complete my formal academic education. There, I often used theater pieces for college assignments versus writing another paper. My first poetry class the teacher said to me,

You’re a poet now; you dance with words.”

My memories of being a cowgirl, dancing with Anthon, and turning madly in that green poke-a-dotted dress are exhilarating. Today’s women have more opportunities to experience what it means to turn madly as a dervish as I was in that dress. Today’s 60-year-old woman has the energy and presentence of a woman 40. And more choices. In 2016, we have a woman running for president, as well as a mother, grandmother, and wife. Hillary Clinton. I’m voting for and proud that she’s the best candidate running. Hillary Clinton is a hero to me. Though she’s my age, I look up to her. In our day growing up, we heard you had two choices: a mother and family person or a profession woman. Of course, when I first heard those words there was no doubt and no other decision for me. I was going to dance. Hillary had to have heard that same statement, but a lot smarter than me, she push ahead, and the world changed, and I am so happy about all the different choices girls and women have today.  Yes, I had a career, and became a wife and mother, but I was unconscious and struggled. Hillary, on the other hand, was conscious that those standards were wrong. She consciously went about politically to make that change.

So when I feel life going dull, mindless, unimaginative, I remember to do as Rumi; the thirteen, century poet says, “Stay Awake!” I like the idea of staying awake; it calls on my imagination, bringing me to a more mindful consciousness.

So I pledge-  as a senior to ride on the wind of my imagination, not as Dale Evans or in that hoop poke-a-dotted dress or a Tutu and toe shoes. But to turn as a dervish on the toes of my mind, and to spread joy and ecstasy for all that come into my orbit. And I’m still up for receiving more applause too. I want to live each day with my higher self and to live with a consciousness and a world where Beyond War exists. All these feelings, I want to capture again and again. Now that sustains me!

Chaitania_Dance_Black and White Sm 10. A story remembered from my life implies its significance, as nostalgia is a longing for the experience

A Trolley Ride

When I return home to New Orleans to visit in the summer, I have this nostalgic tug on me to take a trolley ride. A St. Charles Ave. Trolley with its sun streaming through the live oak trees that fold over the trolley path, a tunnel-like-embrace with flickering sunlight, and along the way a groundcover of tiny purple blue-bell-flowers dazzling my eyes to dizziness.

The trolley goes not fast, but just right to catch a breeze, and with a hint of lemon scent coming from those majestic white flowers on the big old magnolia trees that sit in front yards of white-columned homes, dripping with wealth and antiquity. With the sounds of the city, the trolley car repetitively hitting side to side of wood on metal tracks, and as my mind drifts off it becomes just me riding that trolley. I’m soaking it all in, getting into its rhythms as it rocks my mind and my humid, hot body, a soft breeze cools me, as copious feelings rise in me, and it is as if I’m the most sensuous woman in the world.

Who could resist that, and why would you? New Orleans, always seducing me back.

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there was no trolley running.  It had taken two years before the trolley ran again with no dazzling purple-blue flowers, fewer magnolia trees from standing in high water for over a week, and the wealth and antiquity slimmer. I haven’t had a ride since it started up again, but I wonder if its ride continues giving such delicious moments of desire?

The word desire reminds me of the Tennessee Williams play, “A Streetcar Named Desire” with its primary character Blanche DuBois. The play begins with Blanche arriving in New Orleans on the Desire Street trolley, going to live with her sister, Stella, and of course where Blanche meets her demise, her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

Desire Street still runs along the river, but no longer has a trolley nor is that same street Tennessee Williams is writing about of the 1940’s, with its bordellos, clubs, the cheap poor, and sleazy action men. Now,  mostly tourist visit Desire St., and cheap shops with ugly souvenirs.

Well, that’s New Orleans for you!

9. The places I call home, tells me about my values

 New York, a place I call home, where my father was from,
You’ve gotta have The Right Stuff, to be a New Yorker or else!
Chewed up, spit out- piece by piece.
I was lucky in that way, but I had my unlucky, too.
I put my career in the hands of the Ballet Rouses De Monte Carlo,
The year it was my turn to join the company, it folded.
I had to start over and cultivate Ballet Theater, then an injury.
Despair, I turned to B’way, road tours, studying acting,
But I didn’t finish. Fear, no support, didn’t like it enough.
With no father to guide me, I left.
For it’s the father that teaches the child how to understand and navigate the world.

New Yorkers are strong, and when I get weak, unsure of myself,
I remember, I’m from New York!
I claim my heritage and my time there.
I left wanted, turned down that B’Way show, to find myself, and
Ride that new wavy I heard about, called, The Hippy Movement.  

8. My childhood keeps following me 

                                          My First New York Show   

My first New York show was “To B’Way with Love” at the NY World’s Fair in the early 60’s.  My dance partner, Dudley Williams, who went on to join the Alvin Alley Dance Company and I were right in the front for the TV appearance. I called my mother to tell her, and of course, she told the family. The day after the TV appearance, my mom and I talked by phone, and in conversation she asked-

“Why didn’t you tell me your partner was colored? If I had known,  I could have prepared the family.”  My reply, “I didn’t realize that.”

She quickly dropped the conversation, continuing with how we were the best dancers. I could count on my mother; art was much more important to her than any fake southern values. I can only imagine what they said to her. She knew how to let it slide off her shoulder. She had a lot of practice, coming from a good Catholic family, and the first to divorce, not once, but twice, then deciding never to marry again.  My mother’s story is for another piece. I want to tell you now about something that happened to me during the show, which took place in the dressing room.  

One of the dancers asked me where I grew-up. When answering New Orleans, several of the other cast members began telling their New Orleans stories. The atmosphere was fun as cast members chimed in-  Oh wow, what a great place to grow-up.”

“I love New Orleans, too.”                                                                                                                     

I worked there when it was Mardi Gras time; what fun.”

 Being the youngest member of the company, I felt proud that the older women were interested in me. Immediately, I expounded about New Orleans with its eccentric lifestyle, and what a great artsy place to grow-up. However, the fun didn’t last long, when another cast member, a black woman, in her early 30’s shouted-

“Oh, a great place!  Well, my husband and I went to New Orleans for our honeymoon. There wasn’t a nice hotel that would have us.  We could only stay at Colored Only hotels, run down with no atmosphere for honeymooners. And for eating, the Colored Only places were certainly not in any of the brochures we read. For us to experience any of the restaurants food listed in the brochures, we had to go around to the back and get the food as take-out. So you think you’re so hip and cute, coming from such an exciting place.” 

As she was talking, I began to feel as if I was disappearing and trying to keep the tears from falling, when another black woman spoke up.

 “What are you doing, leave her alone. She’s young. She’s just talking about what she knows, and so are the other white girls, and what they know about New Orleans. They don’t know what it’s like to be colored.”  

Later in the Pavilion cafeteria, I saw the woman who defended me. As I thanked her, I could feel shame rising in me. She could feel my shame too, and comforted me by telling me about her brother, the poet, Leroy Jones, who was angry with white folks. He used his poetry as a way for him to get it out of himself, and in the hope to make a difference for black people.  

I began to read Leroy Jones’s work, and it led me to another black writer, James Baldwin, who gave his black perspective on these issues, but from the artist voice of what it means to grow up with signs like, For Colored Only. As a child, what I heard that sign say to me-  Keep Out!                                      

My dressing room experience got my attention, turned my head a bit and realized I didn’t want to live permanently again in the south. Yes, I did go back many times to visit my mother and family, even lived there for two short periods. There’s a saying, New Orleans is always calling you back. But once my mom died, I realized that a trip back would mean for a funeral. Of course now after Katina, I want to go back more often, and not just for funerals.  

Sadly, denial didn’t stop, nor did my shame and fear of the world go away.  Maybe like, James Baldwin and Leroy Jones, by getting my stories out, it can awaken others to their denial, and for my shame and fear of the world, can it be replaced with- Repentance- and have I done enough?

7. The places I call home, tells me about my values

 New York, a place I call home, where my father was from,
You’ve gotta have The Right Stuff, to be a New Yorker or else!
Chewed up, spit out- piece by piece.
I was lucky in that way, but I had my unlucky, too.
I put my career in the hands of the Ballet Rouses De Monte Carlo,
The year it was my turn to join the company, it folded.
I had to start over and cultivate Ballet Theater, then an injury.
Despair, I turned to B’way, road tours, studying acting,
But I didn’t finish. Fear, no support, didn’t like it enough.
With no father to guide me, I left.
For it’s the father that teaches the child how to understand and navigate the world.

New Yorkers are strong, and when I get weak, unsure of myself,
I remember, I’m from New York!
I claim my heritage and my time there.
I left wanted, turned down that B’Way show, to find myself, and Ride that new wavy I heard about, called The Hippy Movement.    

6. What I think tells me about myself   

In 1991, I retired from my post as a faculty member of Cornish College of the Arts, as a dance instructor, to adopt our son from Thailand. While raising him, I had the opportunity to ask myself, What’s Next? I had always wanted to complete my formal academic education. However, the decision to go back to school stirred old ideas I had about myself that weren’t conducive to completing graduate degreesAs destiny would have it, that springI attended a workshop where the Sufi Master, Pir V. Inayat Khan, said,

            The pull of the future is stronger than the push of the past
                                                                                                By Pir V. Inayat Khan

 As my psyche took this in, with my best attempt, I embarked on my Education- 

Changing The Ties That Bind Me                         

                       In my mid-life, finishing what most do in their youth,
                        Finishing what I thought I could not,
                        When thinking I cannot, then I must.
                        I danced my whole life; I knew what They say about dancers,
                        “Dancers can’t think!” I heard that!
                        What I think about myself tells me about me,
                        I’m changing the ties that bind me.
                        I have been dancing all my life, turning, turning on my toes,
                        Wearing those toe shoes with pink satin ribbons,
                        Wrapping tightly round and round my ankles,
                        So tightly wrapped, finishing with a bow,
                        Neatly tucking the bow in under the pink satin ribbons,
                        Looking soft as a princess; and bound feet.
                        I want to dance in my mind, to report all that I feel,
                        I want to begin turning, turning on the toes of my mind.
                        Five years later Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in hand,
                        On that graduation day, gave me the courage to do what makes me
 shine,
                       May always- The pull of my future be stronger than the push of my past,
                        I am turning, turning, on the toes of my mind,
                        Filled with images and words-
                        A princess with pink lanterns and bells on her crown,
                        and feet, not bound.

5. “In the south- Illusion is for real.”

               The They People 

                    I’m askin, Who are They?
                    These They people who -are always lurking around,
                    Ready to do almost anything you can think of,
                    And They can do it to you, too.
                    You hear it all the time:
                    “I can’t! They will be mad.”
                    “I really can’t, They won’t let me.”
                   “They will do something to me; I know it.”
                    Who are these They’s?
                    And They must come from a gigantic family, too,
                    Because so many people know the They’s,
                    But have you ever heard anyone say who They are?
                    My childhood filled with They people,
                    Kept me boxed, neatly tied in knots. 

                   Maybe, the They’s are our Shadow Self!
                   Who are They?
                   And have you ever heard anyone say who They are?

4. On the road to Self- Realization, I began to write. 

                                               

In Search of Myself



After I had written my first poem, Catchin A Breeze, I thought I had nothing else to say. To my surprise as if neatly tucked in the corners of my mind, there were stories and poems from my childhood just waiting to unfold, to vociferously inform me of my childhood growing up, and ultimately enlighten me about myself.  

From my studies in psychology, I know the power of the unconscious mind. The stories remembered from childhood are not only nostalgia and depictions of important events out of our lives but are also opportunities. The stories recalled allow us to re-experience past events, as these memories have an emotional hold on us. These opportunities can give us clarity and openness for healing, thus propelling us further on our path of Self-Realization.

3. Childhood stories verify our childhood.

                                    Catchin’ A Breeze

            Drivin on the highway with my parents at age three to six,
            Goin to Maw-maw and Paw-paw’s house in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi,
            For our summer vacations.

            Passin houses along the highway, row after row, shacks mostly,
            Black people, sittin’ on front porches,
            Sittin so still in the heat,
            Sittin with legs wide apart, elbow-on-knee and head-in-hand,
            Sittin’ so still in my mind, men mostly,
            Just tryin to catch a breeze, coolin off,
            That’s all.

            Passin those shacks every summer, comin and goin,
            Always seein them, men just sittin,
            Then feelins of sadness come over me,
            Heart heavy, my heart, their hearts,
            I can feel them- all that sadness.

            Faces so strong and peaceful,
            How come they look so peaceful,
            Feelin their pain, pain of life passin them by,
            Nothin but hard work for nuthin,
            No white folks could do.

            Swimmin in the Gulf of Mexico,
            Paw-paw makin peach ice-cream,
            Him in his wicker chair rockin, with us around him,
            Listenin to Paw-paw tellin his stories,
            Waitin for the ice-cream to freeze,
            Just tryin to cool off,
            That’s all.

           On the front porch swingin on the oak swing,
           Maw-maw and I in the heat, lazy speech,
           Wearin’ flower printed dresses catchin the air,
           With each swing coolin off,
           Maw-maw and I, just tryin to catch a breeze,
           That’s all.                  

           All these images and feelins of sadness,
           “What you want from me?”
           “Just wantin to bring you back home,
           That’s all.”

2. Through my stories, I didn’t get free of the past, but I did get clear and found gratitude.

Introduction
I’ve been an artist most of my life with my first professional job, as a dancer, at age 14. Though working on this memoir about growing up in a segregated New Orleans in the 1950’s, I became aware that an inner quest drives the artist, an inner desire that waits to come into the light and craves expression. However my resolve to complete this memoir I owe to Hurricane Katrina because it changed me, by changing my heart to an open heart, and allowing my story to becoming a whole story.

I was living in Seattle at the time of Katrina. The impact of the shock awakened in me a new relationship to New Orleans and my childhood growing up there. Fear came over me that there may not be any visual signs of the memories I hold. The possibility that the New Orleans family I love, and friends I grew up with might have perished, unraveled a layer of my psyche previously closed to my love and attachment to growing up there. Before I could write only about the hurt, sadness, and humiliation. Because who wants to show pride in the south, risking being portrayed as a racist, bigot, and even a hypocrite?

After Katrina, I’ve made it my mission to allow all my feelings and memories to come out into the open, even the good memories for my love of New Orleans, its beauty and customs, and my childhood. I might say that my memoir correlates to the word pentimento. The term refers to the phenomenon when the artist paints a picture, then, changes her/his mind and paints over the original picture to create another, and over time the underlying image begins to show through, sharing two pictures to tell even another story, the whole story. The word comes from the Italian, pentire, to repent. I first heard this from the book Pentimento, by Lillian Hillman.  

I ask then, after all, those years filled with repugnance for growing-up as a Caucasian girl in the Deep South in the 1950’s, with segregation that kept me unconscious and numb- is this memoir enough? And have I repented?

The inception of this memoir began years earlier in a psychology class, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Childhood with the assignment to write a childhood story. As I sat down to write a poem, it was as if the assignment unleashed feelings of sadness, anger, shame, fear, and ultimately revealed to me my fear of the world. You can imagine my surprise. I had no idea I had all that in me. 

My hunch is as a witness to people filled with sadness and seeing irrational and cruel behavior perpetrated on those individuals, made me fearful. How could I have known that those same kinds of treatments weren’t going to befall me? Of course, those people were the black population, but I didn’t get that it was because they were black.  I believe children are color blind and that the color difference of our skin means something else.  To hate is a taught behavior towards black people. As I grew up, I began to see the color, but without an ability to change anything, a denial set in, a quietness came over me,  I could be the next object of their wrath. White people that took up for black (Colored people during my childhood) would be ostracized or even worse. 

The surprising thing is I would have thought the fear and denial would have left me when I left the south so many years ago, but it followed me and embedded itself in me insidiously with no discretion. I realize only now, I lived in and out of denial, leaving me in and out of consciousness and not knowing myself, my family, or the world.

  1. As I remember the stories from my childhood, I assemble my life saga.

                          The Prologue

                        My Mind Spiraling,
                        Round and Round the Girth of Time
                        Casting My Own Shadow
                        Oh Light Casting Shadow
                        Restore Me To
                        A Being of Light
                        I Have No Place to Go
                        Return Me to Where
                        I Have Always Been,
                        ChangedYet The Same.