You Should Probably Thank Sherie

She had this dirty blonde uncombed hair, and was wearing a plaid wool skirt and combat boots.  In August.  I wanted to be her friend.  I can’t remember how our friendship came about.  Most probably in the awkward ham-fisted way I begin most of my friendships: “You’re [enter desirable characteristic here].  Let’s hang out.”

At least once a week, that was her plea for me to grow an afro.  She was working on locking her hair, but would always tell me how she wished her hair could grow “up.”  (“Please?! Seriously! It would be awesome.  Come on *huge grin* do it for the white girl.”)  My refusal to let her live vicariously through my follicles was deemed selfish.

When she bought her first car (a 1976 Skyhawk), we ditched school perpetually (every class except English, and – oddly enough – Russian History).  Mushroom Records, Ted’s FrosTop, The Fly, and Taco Bell were the preferred destinations.  My senior year was the most tumultuous, since that was the year my mother’s health really began to decline.  My mornings and evenings were dedicated to setting up for nurses, cooking dinner, cleaning and church.  She worked not one, but two jobs on evenings and weekends.

I had plenty of friends who I would have considered “closer” at the time, but when I think of the best times of that year she was right there.  We’d trade stories loaded with events far too heavy for our adolescent selves to rightfully carry.  Climbing into that old Buick and blasting 90s alternative and punk was the only real opportunity we had to feel like normal 17 year-old girls.  Neither of us were terribly preoccupied with sex (though I was the only one of us who still had my v-card).  We just wanted to feel like kids.

In high school, you think your friends will always be there.  You’ve been young forever, so forever is the only concept you truly understand.   I saw her once after high school.  And that’s it.

It’s weird when people impact your life in such a way, then vanish.  I’ve searched for her here an there over the years, but no luck.  Not through high school friends or Facebook.  She’s just in the ether.  I like to think that I’m “okay” after Katrina, but when people just disappear, avoiding morbid thinking is hard.  So I try to think positively.  She’s married somewhere in the Midwest, to a big, strapping corn-fed husband and a couple of kids.  She’s still wearing combat boots and refusing to brush her hair.  Everyone has that thing they can’t bear losing.  My thing is hope.

When I moved here, I decided that finding a new stylist to relax my hair was my line in the expatriate sand.  I’d been toying with the idea of going natural for years.  As I looked in mirror and weighed my options, I thought, “Maybe Sherie was right.  An afro would be awesome.”  As the sections of shorn hair fell around my face, I couldn’t help but giggle and think about her.

Even now, when I’m choosing whether to go for ringlets or a blow out, I hear her voice in the background.  Come on.  Do it for the white girl.  On those days I reach for my pick and style the afro that you guys seem to love so much, thinking about my friend smiling the whole while.  I bet she loves Nebraska.

“The greying afternoon…”

“…the diary that ends too soon.”
– Phoebe Snow “Majesty of Life”

Lynn (20), Lou (21), Marion (29) , Eugene (32)

On several occasions I’ve discussed the emotional roller coaster I’ve been on this year, due in large part to missing my mother.  I’ve mentioned how hard it has been for me to reconcile myself to the fact that she has been gone almost as long as she was here.  There aren’t any words that can express what that does to me.  I say all the time that the pain subsides a bit, and is more often than not replaced with memories.  I still believe that.  But there is this weight that spreads through my chest, that sometimes feels a bit too heavy to bear.

Coincidentally, this is the exact week, to the day (June 27, 1994 also fell on a Monday), that she almost slipped away from us the first time.  Her condition had gotten so serious, rumors that she died were already beginning to circulate.  (For years I would have dreams that her funeral was just a big mistake.  She would walk into my room, or my office and say, “They were wrong again.”)  Even in that time, she was so concerned about me having some sense of 17 year-old normalcy.  It’s funny how mothers manage to think of their kids first, regardless of the circumstances.

I’m now seventeen years older, and I’m nothing like that girl who had life and death staring her in the face.My mother was far from perfect.  Our relationship was far from easy.  We were both very fiery creatures who didn’t understand each other until the end.  The day after I graduated from high school, I tried to “run away.”  She refused to give up on me, despite having every right to do so. I always measure my humanity against her.  Would she be proud of the way I embrace people?  Would she understand my need to search my own spirituality and soul?

Mommy at 19

Sometimes I cry, because I have to rely on memories and water damaged pictures of her smile. Other times, she peeks at me through my son’s oddly shaped fingernails, or the point and flair in my daughter’s nose.  Still others, I can hear my voice saying her words.  I felt her spirit give me the gumption to move to a place that I’d never been, and carve out my own destiny.

Seventeen years later, I still have so much to learn.  I’m openly flawed and seeking to be a good person. I can only hope that good feeling I feel ever so often – that radiates through my eyes, smile and fingertips – is the sign that I’m doing my mama proud.

 

My best writing lesson

…came from an American History teacher.

When I heard that Mr. Bronson’s AP American History class was comprised entirely of reading, discussions, multiple choice tests and essays, I was sold. These are all things that I excel at.  Reading? Talking? Writing?  I DOES THIS SON!  And with multiple choice tests, the answer is right there.  Additionally, I was simultaneously taking a creative writing class, which would further aid me in padding my essays with flowery language.  How could I lose?

Easily.

Because I discovered that the book we were reading was one of the most boring books known to man.  I can’t remember the name of it, but for me to call a book flat out boring, is saying something.  I read cereal box ingredients to pass the time.  My strategy was to take notes, read those, bluff my way through essays and get what I could from the multiple choice.  (Yes. I was precisely this dumb at 16.)  So, I took my first multiple choice test.  Have you ever had the answer to something staring you in your face, and you STILL couldn’t hit it with a bat?  Fifty multiple choice items, with four answers that looked like the same answer. Meh.  I’ll knock it out with the essay.

I used flowery words and my best prose.  The essay referred to Native Americans and my thoughts on manifest destiny.  It was a masterpiece of bullshit.  But bluff writing is what I do.  I accepted my graded essay the following day with a smirk.  I knew it would average out that whopping D I received on the multiple choice portion. “D- – Be more diligent.  This class moves fast.  Keep up with your reading.”  Was the “-” really necessary dawg?  A “D” would have been totally sufficient.

So, I tried…a bit.  I’ll be honest, gaining information comes to me rather easily typically.  When it doesn’t, I’m not always good at dealing.  Another test rolled around, and I tanked yet again.  Another D, minus the minus this time.  Another warning:  “You can articulate very well in class, and you’ve got the ability.  What happened in this essay?”  As time marched on, for some reason, it became a test of will.  He was determined to bring out the best in me, I was determined to ace by coasting. I managed to eke out an A- (with a note which said “Great work. Let’s make this habitual.”) on one test, and it fueled my lazy resolve.

By the end of the first semester, we were equally tired of one another.  For the first semester final, along with my straight up “F,”  I got a more pointed note.  This was 18 years ago, but along with tiny question marks in the margins, it ended with this general sentiment:

You’re too smart to provide me with this four pages of BS. Did you do the reading?  I know you can write. Show me that you can write informatively.

Yeah. He went there.  And he was right.  I really wasn’t putting forth the effort.  I’d decided that my writing was a tool for coasting, not a skill to develop.  Yet, I still couldn’t get into that class, but refused to drop it.  At the end, when I was ineligible to take the AP test, which would have provided me with college credit, he assigned a book to me: Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character.  I rocked the shit out of it.  I agreed, disagreed and challenged effectively.  I researched and poured everything into that essay. He was so over me and my big bag of bullshit, I knew he was going to pan it and give me a C.  Irrespective of my complete lack of effort, I’d convinced myself that he flat out didn’t like me.  So I thumbed through the essay looking for the familiar “??s” and “Don’t BS me here. Substance.”  I saw none of that.  A few sentences were underlined for emphasis, and I saw the unfamiliar, “GREAT OBSERVATION!”  I remember what I saw on the last page, I remember as though it’s right in front of me:

A++ AMEN!  This is what I knew you were capable of all year, and would have loved to see you try.  Write like this, informatively and with substance.  It’ll take you far.

I still get misty when I think about that.  I’ve always loved words, and had a knack for writing them down, to the point that I’d come to take my talent for granted.  But I always look back at that time in my life as the period when I actually became a writer.  I’ve been in love ever since.

Tig Ole Bitties

Or How I Had to Talk Myself Down From Jumping Off The High Rise

So every morning, my parents would proceed  on the LOOOONG trek of bringing my father to work, then dropping us off at school Uptown.  Every day, we passed the dreaded entity, known to all New Orleanians as “The High Rise.”  The mere act of getting on THR was a major feat.  It often meant the difference between getting a ride and being told to kiss someone’s ass:

“Can you drop me off?”

“Um…I’ll see.  Where do you live?”

“On the other side of The High Rise.”

“SHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

It was high, it was fast, and people had this habit of driving like the other side might not be there once you reached the apex.  (Either that, or the entire city was filled with morons, completely unaware of the laws of physics.  ACCELERATE!)  It was basically the bridge to Downtown, and Uptown, and Mid-City, and anywhere else that wasn’t New Orleans East.  Of course, this made it prime ad space.  There was always some huge billboard or another.  Around my sophomore year of high school, Hooters advertised there.  We passed it daily for months sans incident.  Ultimately, it was too much for my mother to handle.

“So…what is this Hooters?”

“It’s a restaurant,” Daddy replied, CLEARLY not wanting to continue the conversation with my three sisters and I in the car.

“But…Hooters? What’s that name about?  It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“It’s something about the women that work there.”  He really wants this to be over.  He REALLY doesn’t want her to ask another question.  But Mom isn’t letting up, and at this point, she’s giving him the complete Scooby Doo “ruh?” face.  “Hooters is a slang term.”*

“Slang?  For Women?  Like ‘yahoo’?!”

At this point, my sister and I look at each other in horror.  What in the name of all the fuck shit are they doing in that bedroom?   Yahoo? Bruh…bruh…my damie.  No.  I guess Moms Duke didn’t get pregnant five times playing gin rummy, but still.  Gross.

At this point,  Pops is over it, so he sighs deeply and says, “Lou, Hooters is slang for BREASTS.  All of the women who work there have extremely large BREASTS.  [How YOU know, my n-word?]  So they named it Hooters because of the theme – BREASTS.”  (Yes, he emphasized it each and every time.)

And Mom, cool as a fan says, “Well I guess they won’t be hiring me.”

There are things you can never un-hear, and the fact that I did not slide open the door to our Aerostar and make my peace with Jesus is really a testament to my ability to survive anything.

That’s also probably why, when I started driving myself around, I took the long way, aka the Danzinger Bridge.

*Yes, my dad said “slang term.”  He also says relations or intercourse, and refuses to use the word gay, it’s always “homosexual” – for men and women. He has no time for your fancy talk.  Sometimes, I really just can’t with that dude.