“Gonna Lay Down My Burdens” (Traditional Negro Spiritual)
New Orleans is a land of many surprises. She never fails to amaze. Such was the case Sunday morning, January 7th during services at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Claiborne Avenue. Congregants from the three area Unitarian churches gathered for the annual enactment of a New Orleans-style jazz funeral to bury regrets from the previous year wth resolve to begin anew in the coming year. The host minister opened the service with an explanation of the traditions of a jazz funeral with alternating recitations by the visiting ministers. After the lighting of the Unitarian chalice, the wake service began with the brass band playing Negro spirituals as the congregation sang along: “Gonna Lay My Burden Down,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” ” Precious Lord Take My Hand,” “Nearer My God to Thee. ” The singing and the doleful brass sounds that enveloped the entire church emitted an emotionally charged feeling mixed with both sorrow and joy. The hymn that gave me goosebumps, and always does, was “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” a favorite of the Rev. Dr. King that was sung by Mahalia Jackson at the march on Washington in 1963. Although it was a Unitarian service, it had the feeling of being both a revival and a celebratory musical ode to life. The order of service with historical context of the meaning and purpose of jazz funerals is at this link.
At the minister’s invitation, we wrote our 2017 regrets on paper, and as the band played a soulful dirge, we marched in procession toward the sanctuary to place them in a coffin. My regrets were about the social and political angst endangering our country: President Trump’s tweets; the spewing of white supremacy hate; anti-immigration anger; racism; religious intolerance; gay bashing; congressional partisan stalemate and bickering. Melanie’s regrets were of a personal nature.
After the wake, the band played a mournful dirge as the coffin was wheeled out of the church by the pallbearers, a young mother and father and their four-year old son. The mourners followed solemnly behind. In the symbolic burial, the minister burned the regrets in the church’s courtyard. Then, as is the custom, the band led the departing mourners in a spirited Second Line dance in a celebration of life. Umbrellas opened and handkerchiefs waved as the mourners danced to the syncopated beat of the brass sounds: “Oh! When the Saints go Marching In, I want to be in that number!”
A jazz brunch followed the services, where we had the pleasure of meeting and dining with an ex-patriot from La Rochelle, France, a refugee from Honduras who told a horrifying story of his journey on foot to the United States in the early nineties, and a generations-old Louisiana French Creole. It was the latter who invited us to join him the next day for the monthly meeting of the Causeries du lundi, a French speaking group of ex-pats and local Francophones that sponsors activities to promote French language and culture. There, we heard an interesting lecture in French on Cajun culture by the cinematographer, Glen Pitre. And, not surprisedly, the lecture was followed by a light luncheon of wine and finger food.
The other grand surprise of the morning was the shock of seeing at the service Michele Lankford of Thyme of Grace, the owner and proprietor of one of our favorite restaurants in South Bend. We were dumbfounded to see her so far from home. There is obviously truth in the adage that the world is a small place, and a reminder that one must always be on one’s best behavior. Michele was in New Orleans with friends from South Bend and Houston to celebrate the Houstonian friend’s birthday. Unfortunately, they could not stay for the entire service because of lunch reservations. From their telling, Michele and her friends were having a grand time in my native city. As we natives say, “Love New Orleans and she’ll love you right back.”
While Michele and her friends are here to savor the city’s charm, we’re here to celebrate my mom’s 92nd birthday, January 11. The following Sunday my four siblings, nieces, nephews, and several friends celebrated the grand birthday with a New Orleans feast of pot roast, grilled salmon, jambalaya, sweet potatoes and pumpkin (topped with Louisiana pecans), mac and cheese, potato salad, green beans, yellow and green squash, and many diferent salads. Surely, I must be missing something. I stuffed myself and had little room for the ice cream and cake that followed. Home cooking is almost always an epicurean treat as any New Orleanian can attest. In every New Orleans home, family stories abound of gourmet cooking by a favorite aunt or grandmother.
The “pièce de résistance” was watching the Saints and Vikings football game. The first half was a disappointment, but the Saints came roaring back only to lose 29-24 in the waning seconds. Imagine the noisy elation in my mother’s house when the Saints took the lead and then the mournful woes of despair when they lost. If only that third and one running play had been successful! Oh well! We can follow the script of a jazz funeral by burying this game and keeping hope alive for next year.
Sunday family visits are long New Orleans traditions. Each Sunday, my siblings gather at my Mom’s home. Below are pictures of my brother and me with his grandsons and my niece with her three boys.
Whenever, I am in New Orleans I try to eat at least one po-boy and this visit was no exception. With friends, Tom and Judith Bonner, we lunched at the famous Rib Room of the Royal Orleans where I enjoyed a delicious turtle soup. After lunch we visited the Historic New Orleans Collection, a repository and museum of New Orleans historical artifacts, where Judith is a curator of art. Since I will be teaching a one-hour graduate seminar on Southern Louisiana Culture at IUSB this spring, I wanted to visit the museum. Tom is a scholar of Southern literature and he and Judith suggested resources that would be helpful for my course. While touring the museum, we unexpectedly came across a large painted portrait in one of the halls of the Rev. Theodore Clapp, the founder of the First Unitarian Church in New Orleans in 1833. What is significant about him he welcomed people of color as members of his congregation, something uncommon during that time in antebellum Louisiana.
Later in the week, we dined with friends Johnny and Anne Barron at a very popular neighborhood uptown café, Superior Seafood, There I enjoyed one of New Orleans’ traditional drinks, a Sazerac, rye bourbon with absinthe and bitters, followed by a flavorful crab and crawfish bisque.
After a week and half here in the Crescent City, we originally planned to leave today, but icy road conditions from a wintry storm across the Midwest delayed our return. Hopefully, road conditions will improve by tomorrow morning. We’ll be back in April for my nephew’s wedding, another occasion to “Let the good times roll.”
As we welcome in the New Year, there is much to celebrate. To many, including me, our national politics seems chaotic. Thankfully, there are the smiles and laughter of little children that remind us that life is full of joy and that people of goodwill still abound. Those little ones keep us anchored; their simple gestures bring light to the world and hope for the future.
The old adage that it is more fun to be a grandparent than a parent rings true on so many levels. First, we don’t have the primary responsibility of rearing and educating our precious little darlings. Second, when they are upset or moody, we are more than happy to hand them over to their parents. Having raised children of our own, we are wise in the ways of childrearing, at least we deceive ourselves in thinking so. As we observe our progeny in parenting their own, the temptation to offer advice lingers on the tip of our tongues, but we wisely refrain. However, if asked, we’ll gladly oblige.
Our wisdom, such as it is, is the product of raising four children, two each from separate marriages. All of our children are doing well in their chosen careers living in exciting places, Boston, Washington, DC, Portland, OR and Las Vegas. We love them dearly. But our heartstrings are pulled by four beautiful grandkids, Eliot a month shy of 5, Michelle 3, Theron and Juliette both 1. Unluckily, vast distances separate us as they live on both coasts. Two grandsons are in Portland, and two granddaughters in Washington, DC. Happily, FaceTime, Skype and Google Chat keep us connected. During the autumn and winter months, we had the happy occasion to see them in the flesh, a car trip to D.C. and a lovely train ride to Portland. Whenever we visit, we marvel at the parenting skills of our sons and daugthers-in-law. As parents, they are sensitive, caring, thoughtful, seemingly perfectly in tune with their children. They listen attentively, comfort them calmly in their distress, and assure them of their love. Melanie and I are amazed at their calm demeanor, even when everything appears in turmoil. As a young parent, I can recall my frustrations when little tempers flared or stubbornness surfaced. Sometimes we think our own children are handling parenthood more skillfully than we did. Or are they? Reflecting on our time as parents, we readily admit the mistakes we made. We shudder thinking back on some of them. In spite of our parenting errors, our kids have grown up to be responsible adults, pursuing interesting careers. We’d like to believe that they acquired the art of parenting totally from us. But obviously, that is not the case. We’re certain that as they reflect on their own upbringing they do not want to emulate all of our parenting techniques.
I remember as a new dad that I wanted to parent differently from my parents. I know now that my obstinacy blinded me from learning helpful parenting tips. In parenting, my dad was what you might call “old school.” He believed firmly that sparing the rod, spoiled the child and that there was a proper time when children should be heard. Once when I refused to spank my firstborn toddler, he and I became embroiled in a heated argument about the “proper” way to raise a child. I felt that his arcane ways were no longer relevant. Truthfully, I could have been a more receptive listener. At times when I tried to discipline, I overly compensated between being too harsh and too lenient resulting in total ineffectiveness. When I did not achieve the behaviors I expected of my children, frustration and anger gnawed within for not being the controlled disciplinarian my father was. Overall, I muddled through and like to think that my sons have forgiven my parenting shortcomings. And even as I have grown older, and wiser, I appreciate my dad’s disciplined parenting, understanding now his earnestness in protecting my siblings and me from lurking dangers in New Orleans’ segregated society. A misstep could be consequential. As “Negroes,” he did not want us to be labeled in stereotypical images falsely held by the majority.
Melanie and I reached adulthood in the sixties, she in the Northeast and I in the deep South. Those were turbulent and troubling times–the fight for Civil Rights, the war on poverty, the Women’s Movement, protests against the Vietnam War. Our grandkids live in a different world, full of opportunities, but the incidents of the last year from the Charlottesville protests to the #MeToo Movement teach us that the challenges of equality, fairness, and justice remain in their future. Because of the way our grandchildren are being raised, we, as grandparents are optimistic that they will prevail in overcoming these obstacles and be part of the solution for a more equitable and just society. Our children are already moving in that direction, and our grandchildren will build on that progress.
For the moment, we pause in the present and bathe in the happiness these four little ones give us. Their smiles and laughter and their cheerful playfulness in fanciful imaginings lighten our hearts. The beauty of grand-parenting is the thrill of rolling on the floor with them, running around the room as they chase us, or we them, in gleeful mirth, taking walks with them to the park or around the neighborhood. On the swings or slides their energy seems limitless. When they shout “Push me higher Papi” or “Read to me Mamie,” we gladly respond to these angelic voices. Grand-parenting gives new meaning to our lives, a supreme joy we treasure deep within our souls. We enjoy too watching our own children interact with theirs. They embrace their children with love and tenderness. It’s moving to see a little one give a spontaneous big hug to his/her mom or dad, to listen to the cooing sound of a baby nursing, to appreciate the calm voice of a parent comforting a child in distress. And there is unparalleled joy in watching comedy unfold as a little one struggles to put on his/her sock, or one of their younger siblings eating messily. And yes, there is the inevitable drama when a hungry one distressfully cries to be fed, or a scraped knee demands immediate attention, or pouting and shrill voices require a disciplined response. At such times, grand-parenting skills yield to the parent’s deft and appropriate handling. In grand-parenting lore, it’s called “time for the parent” to takeover.”
When we are home, our conversation often drifts toward the memory of those special moments of a sweet phrase uttered, a happy song cheerfully sung in play, a meaningless, but somehow magical, babble of repetitive sounds. Some of our favorites are: Eliot’s response as a two year old watching a train go by, “Train, heart boom-boom,” or when he placed a toy football on my legs in shorts, “Ball brown, Papi brown, what color is me?” And one of our gems is his response to Melanie calling him her sweetie pie, “I’m not your sweetie pie.” Then there is Michelle who used to attend a Spanish language daycare and now attends a bi-lingual pre-school, seeking help shouts out to Melanie, “Ayudame (Help me) Mamie. And Theron’s and Juliette’s singsong babbling are delightful treats, Theron’s chanting of ba-ba-ba-ba and Juliette’s dit-dit-dit-dit.
At the birth of our firstborns we imagined no greater happiness, that is until the birth of our second-borns. That immense joy and excitement has been repeated fourfold in the births of our four grandchildren. We are proud and grateful grandparents. A collage of photos follows.