Burying the Past – 2017
“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.”