Sunday, May 10, 2015

New Orleans Lady

As I've mentioned here before, my goal has always been to use this blog to write about more than just music.  It being Mother's Day -- and almost 10 years since my own Mom died as an evacuee from Hurricane Katrina -- I realized that I've never published the piece I wrote about my Mom here on How Strange It Is...  I've always meant to.  I've written about New Orleans a little, about my son, autism, and my Dad.  Family and New Orleans... those have probably been the two most important things on my life.  This piece pulls them both together.  And of course, it's still a little about music (as it would have to be, given the subject).  Happy Mother's Day Mom, wherever you are.
My mother, Carol Chatelain Guerin, was merely one of countless individuals whose lives were affected when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.  But my mother’s life in New Orleans was as much a personification of this city as anyone’s.  A Catholic mother of four, she graduated from Mount Carmel High in 1957, worked at D.H. Holmes on Canal Street, and married a Tulane graduate.  Of course, it was music that brought them together.  She was a young piano player, and he was a singer who performed in many a show with his deep baritone.  It was after one of his shows that she introduced herself to him, so impressed was she with his performance.  I seem to also recall hearing of wild post-show parties at the Napoleon House, and dancing on the tables. 

While New Orleans can be a wild city, awash with music and parties, she is also undoubtedly a Lady… a mother and a creator.  My mother took her role as a New Orleans Lady to heart.  She was a masterful creator of food, family, and joie de vivre.  With the rekindling of her Catholic faith, she sometimes worried about her imperfections.  But no one among us is perfect, and imagine how lifeless New Orleans would be without its “imperfections”.  She was, however, so perfect in so many ways.   She was loyal and faithful to a fault, and worked through whatever difficulties life threw at her with grace and strength.  She had a stellar track record as a mom -- going “4 and 0” with her kids -- raising a neurosurgeon, a dentist, a scientist, and a teacher.  Her example has resulted in four wonderful families, and 10 grandchildren who will impact the world in countless positive ways that cannot be underestimated.  They are, rightfully so, her pride and joy. 

In her spare time, Mom used a masterful green thumb to cultivate a menagerie of plants, the likes of which could only thrive under her delicate care and in New Orleans’ steamy clime.  She also thrived in the city’s steamy clime.  If she wasn’t in the garden of her West Bank home, she was tearing up the tennis court, or walking around the French Quarter enjoying some festival or other.  In recent years, just downriver from the Quarter, she had become somewhat of a fixture herself.  She was the Saturday “headliner” in the piano bar of a little Faubourg Marigny establishment, Feelings Café D'Aunoy (my father often providing vocals). 

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, my mother evacuated to safer ground, along with my father, Roland Joseph Guerin, and a million other New Orleanians.  In their case, they traveled up to Shreveport, to take refuge in the loving home of my father’s brother Wilfred, and his wife Wilda (for which I will be eternally grateful). 

Although she was never able to return (except of course in spirit), my mother’s imprint on New Orleans will be felt for generations.  In this small way, she may even help this great city to live on.  It lives on in her children, her children’s children, and the traditions and values that she has passed onto them. They will always remember their deep New Orleans roots, imparted to them by Granny, Papá, and by the sheer scope of family history, which has paralleled the city’s growth from its earliest times.  New Orleans will live on in the memories that her many friends have shared with her there, adding to its magical aura and to their impression of it.  It will live on in the thousands of people throughout the country, if not the world, who retain a memory of that one steamy night, listening to the piano in a beautiful courtyard in the Marigny. 

            In the same way that my mother’s life has added to the anthology of New Orleans traditions and memories, New Orleans will perpetuate her spirit.  When anyone she ever knew sits in a misty garden and hears the rain pattering on leaves, or soaks in the atmosphere of a small bistro, or once again enjoys café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde, she will be there.   No matter where they may end up or what they may do, her children and grandchildren will always remember the New Orleans Lady that was Granny.  They will remember the piano, the crazy Mardi Gras hats and glasses, the toy robots, the grillades, and the turkey gumbo.  They will remember walks through Audubon Zoo, the swamp, and the Quarter.  But mostly, they will remember the love, and the love of life that, like her city, she has always embodied and imparted to others. 

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, my mother had been fighting her own storm.  Lung cancer had recurred some months earlier, and had spread to her brain a few weeks before the evacuation.  Shortly after arriving at the sanctuary of my aunt and uncle’s home, her condition worsened, and she moved into a nearby hospice for better care.  My father, family and friends were with her every day.  My brother and his family were there day in and day out, despite their own incredible loss (their home was four houses from the levee breech in Lakeview, and they were forced to relocate to Shreveport as well).  In this hospice, appropriately named Grace Home, my mother lived out her remaining days, as gracious and strong as she always had been throughout her life. 

Carol Chatelain Guerin died in Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 27th, 2005

Some say New Orleans died on August 29th, 2005.  But New Orleans will live on, through her people and their families.  Perhaps in a different form, sometimes even in a different place… but it will live on.  Likewise, my mother will live on… through her family, and through the city.  She will live on through memories made in this wonderful place, a place made more wonderful by her presence. 

I know that my mother has gone to a better place.  My hope is that New Orleans will end up in a better place as well, and I believe my mother’s life has added to that goal.  I know that she has certainly made the world a better place.  

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