It was the first real venture out "into the world" for me, when I was just a kid, with a group of other kids, from church. It was the most magical place I'd ever seen, and I only saw the beauty.
Like the statue of Lee with the Cathedral behind it.
That early trip was dominated by the French Quarter, and Jackson Square, and for me, PEOPLE. Unique, amazing people.
And on every corner, kids who "tap dance", if only in the loosest sense of the term. But they have metal taps on their shoes, and they're working HARD, and you have to give them your money. You can't help it.
I never missed taking a mule-driven tour anytime I was in New Orleans. I loved those mules. It may seem trivial in light of all the human misery going on right now, and it's in no way equal to that, but I hope somehow those mules, at least some of them, are O.K.
I will never forget seeing my first actual, real-life "Lucky Dogs" hot-dog cart, which, like Ruthie the Duck Lady, brought "A Confederacy of Dunces" to life for me in a way that none of the other scenery did. I wonder what John Kennedy Toole would think today...if the sadness that took him as a young man had not overwhelmed him then, it surely would now, I'd think. I hope that you will read, and appreciate the genius of, this book and many other Southern masterpieces.
On later trips, as a young, single adult, I was still enchanted by the beauty, the uniqueness, and the charm of this city. My friend Donna and I went once, and stayed in the "Dragon Room" of the Bon Maison Guest House. It was a charming, history-filled place in the heart of the quarter, and I returned there in later years...it seems odd to think it might not be there ever again. I remember tipping a really cute, really Cajun bartender at Pat O'Brien's $10 to call Donna "Cher" like Dennis Quaid called Ellen Barkin in the movie "The Big Easy". She ate it up, and I don't think ever suspsected the payoff.
I've ridden the streetcars through the Garden District, and attended Christmastime services at the beautiful First Baptist Church of New Orleans.
I've ridden horses through Audobon Park, and the beauty and perfection of those moments are crystal-clear, and live forever for me.
And then, years later--the real magic happened. And Bella, this is where it all becomes relevant for you. Your Daddy and I had met, and fallen in love. By golly, we'd already gotten our first "joint" poodle (that would be your little buddy Reggie)! I had, as I'm sure you'll hear plenty about over your lifetime, one of the most serious cases of endometriosis anyone had ever seen. No doctors in Arkansas could help me, even though I had operations for it here. Then I discovered Dr. Andrew Cook, who at the time was at an innovative, amazing hospital in New Orleans--Omega Women's Health and Hospital. Dr. Joseph Bellina, Omega's founder, Dr. Cook, and others were specializing in a new surgery--a different surgery for endometriosis. With the encouragement of my family and Alex, we set up a consult at Omega. Up to this point, I had been given up on by the medical community, and my only doctor was a pain-management specialist who kept me on "walking Demerol" every single day of my life, just so I could function. I dearly hope and pray that after this current disaster, Omega is able to continue to offer the hope and relief to women that they have for all these years.
So--your Daddy and I planned a trip. The surgery frightened me to death, and I think it was your Daddy's plan to do as much as possible to take my mind off that part of why we were there. We went a week early (my parents to meet us the day before the surgery, and stay throughout--you come from, my dear, a most wonderful family), and Alex very good-naturedly allowed me to "show" him so many of my favorite things, since this would be his first visit to "The Big Easy." We stayed, of course, at the Bon Maison, in a lovely, 2-bedroom suite with a kitchen, that opened onto a beautiful courtyard.
We went as far as I could walk every day. We visited Jackson Square, had beignets at the Cafe du Monde, and bought ice cream at Ben & Jerry's. The lush verdant glow of everything was just amazing.
Your Daddy humored me by stopping with me to listen to every street jazz band, and giving them our money.
We meandered slowly through the town, browsing, watching, shopping...we bought art, jewelry, and a ridiculously expensive but gorgeous stylish chain-woven straw hat that I've worn exactly once. You will probably inherit it.
Alex humored me again with a leisurely day at the French Market...little did I know at the time that your Daddy managed to slip away from me and procure a surprise for later...
And throughout our pre-surgical odyssey, we ate. And ate, and ate, and ate. New Orleans is the only destination I've ever known that is worth the trip just for the food. Paul Prudhomme's and Emeril Legasse's restaurants were our favorites...
...and I think we both agree to this day that the finest meal we've ever had the pleasure of consuming was at Emeril's "NOLA". We spoke of the crawfish pie for YEARS to come, and the thought of it can still make your father salivate.
And then, the night before my Mom & Dad were to arrive and I was to check into the hospital, Alex took me for an evening of enjoying my all-time favorite part of the New Orleans experience--PRESERVATION HALL. I'd been a couple times before, and I could have happily spent every night there. It's cramped, hot, muggy, dark, and you have to sit on the floor...but to hearDixieland Jazz of that caliber, I'd happily sit there every single night of my life. We bought every recording of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that was on sale there, so I could listen to them in the hospital. Bella, I really hope you will appreciate and embrace the wonder that is Dixieland blues and jazz.
Later that night, your Daddy pulled a ring from his pocket--a smooth band made of polished stone--and asked me to marry him. I was so much in love with him at that moment, because there was a very real chance that I would come out of this surgery unable to have children (I was already missing one ovary at this point), or otherwise handicapped in some way. What he was telling me by doing this beforehand was, "I am with you, come what may." He said he was still shopping for the perfect diamond back home, but wanted to be sure I had a tangible symbol of his feelings for, and commitment to me when I went into that operating room the next day.
Here's the funny part of this story that I'm sure you think is getting way too mushy by now: I was so emotional that I was shaking when I took the ring from Alex, and I dropped it on the stone floor--and it broke. I cried, "Oh, no, I broke my engagement ring!" Your Daddy smiled, reached back into his pocket, and pulled out another ring, and said, "That's O.K., Sweetie--they were three for a dollar at the French Market, so I have a spare." I laughed until I cried, and then laughed and cried some more. I loved your Daddy so very much. As I am sure you will hear many more times in the course of your life, God gave me the perfect man with whom to make a perfect little girl.
The morning of the check-in at Omega, we met Mom and Dad and all went to the hospital. I was so scared, and your Daddy and Grandparents were so wonderful to me. There was so much testing to be done, and then the surgery itself was HUGE. It lasted over 6 hours the first time (that's right, they couldn't fix me all at once, I had so much wrong!), and Mom, Dad, and Alex all watched the operation on closed-circuit T.V. They even had a sound system so that they could ask the surgeons (there were three working on me) questions. Alex wrote everything down, because he knew I'd want to know exactly what had happened. We still have a video of that surgery, if you're ever REALLY bored, or just want to gross out your friends.
While the surgery went well, my recovery did not go smoothly. A baseball-sized endometrial tumor was removed from me that had incorporated itself into much of my "guts", including my bowel. Several inches of that had to be removed, and the rest pulled down and "tacked" together. This is why nowadays, when you peek your head into the bathroom when Mommy or Daddy are in there, you ask Daddy, "Are you pooping?" while what you ask Mommy is, "Are you trying to poop?" Anyway, they got all the endo out, and excised everything down to clean tissue with a microscopic laser. And the bowel resection was a success. But somehow in the process, I got dangerously dehydrated, and while not in a coma, I was mostly unconscious for days, and apparently frightened my whole family, and Alex, quite a bit.
During this time, my parents and my husband were wonderful to me. All I remember of them is love. Alex scoured the town of New Orleans for things he knew I loved, and that he hoped would help me wake up. He found my favorite essential oil and perfumed the hospital room with it. He found Ray Charles CDs with the old recordings, and everyone swears that while I didn't wake up, I did smile in my sleep when the opening strains of "Hit The Road, Jack" filled the room. I remember having to have an awful, painful test of some sort to make sure my colon hadn't developed any holes since the surgery...my Dad sat in the recovery area with me and asked if there was anything he could do. I said, "Yeah, my butthole hurts. Will you kiss it?" My dad laughed like he'd thought of it himself (and believe me, he would have). As you will hear many times in your life, I loved my father more than I can bear to try to explain.
I wound up staying at Omega for nearly two weeks--much longer than had been anticipated. During that time, what I remember most is being surrounded by love from my family and Alex--and even friends from far away. The room was so full of flowers that we were giving them to other patients. Every time I woke up, someone was there, usually holding my hand or stroking my hair. I remember my Dad's big, rough, warm, gentle hands holding mine and stroking my face--treasure the love of your father, Bella, because he feels no less love for you than my father did for me. I remember Alex sleeping in the gosh-awful Murphy bed in my hospital room all the time except on the rare nights that my mother could convince him to let her stay instead.
I think your Daddy and Granddaddy sampled gumbo and bread pudding from every restaurant in New Orleans. Mom stayed with me most days, and her hands were as cool and soft as they ever were when I was sick at your age. Dad had a minor fender-bender in Metairie, and there is a now-infamous family incident in which your Daddy and Granddaddy went through a Burger King drive through, ordered Whoppers, and were told, "Sorry, we're out of Whoppers." Response: "Um, what does it say on your sign? HOME OF THE WHOPPER? And you're OUT of WHOPPERS?" We heard this story retold for YEARS, and your Dad will still talk about it, so don't worry, you'll know of the Great No-Whopper-Incident.
I went back a few weeks later, just me and your Grandmommy, and had a double-hernia repaired (this after being told by local doctors, even one hernia "specialist" that "women really just don't get hernias"--Bella, ALWAYS be a guardian and advocate for your own health) and my gall-bladder removed. This was uneventful, and I think we were on our way home 2 days later.
The best thing that ever happened to me in New Orleans was when I asked Dr. Cook if I had any chance at having a baby now. He smiled, touched my hand, and said, "As good a chance as anyone else, I promise." And he was right, and you are here. And I learned from my mother during that experience that a mother's love never fades, and that you will be my baby for as long as I am alive, no matter how old you are. And as I am sure you will hear many times in your life, your mother could not have had a more perfect mother of her own, and I hope I do half as well for you, Darling Girl.
And I really, truly, hope and pray that, one day when you're old enough to appreciate such a thing, that there is some form of the New Orleans I knew, for you to get to know.