New Orleans, Early October, 1972 — The four o’clock sun filtered through the yellowing leaves of the Japanese Plum onto sheets of construction paper, spread out on the porch. Working from a crafts column in Ladies Home Journal, my job was to cut orange squares to fit envelopes, while Mom fashioned fences with pinking shears. She lost patience with the instructions when she got to the black cats, and instead freestyled felines with shock straight tails. I dabbed the cats with Elmer’s mucilage and glued them to the fences, then the fences to the cards. “You’re Invited to a Halloween Birthday,” dots of amber sealing sweet moments in my amygdala. Mom and I, lost in parallel play, in the failing light. A Greek-Italian girl from the Bronx, Mom met Dad at Tulane and stayed. Tennessee Williams wrote at least two plays about unhappy Italian women in southern towns, but Mom’s years in New Orleans spent studying, tumbling in love, and raising tots, were joyful—and from my immature perspective, nothing seemed to bring mommy more joy than throwing parties. Connie Newsom’s “pre-inflationary” fetes were known for their creativity. Several hours into one bash, my brother Robey and I crept halfway downstairs in pjs, and poked our noses through the spindles. The dining room table was spread with ten-boy curry: a creamy, inscrutable mound, surrounded by bowls of coconut, chutney, lime pickle, and seven other condiments that, in an earlier, oppressive era, would have been served up by ten adolescent attendants. I remember my fascination for the brass Buddha, incense smoldering from his navel, and the belly dancer who slipped on the Oriental rug and fell on her fanny. The games, guest lists and menus are all gone, but that feeling, the tingly anticipation—that giddy state that precedes actualization—that was set, like the stains in the carpet the next morning.
Just days shy of November, the weather was still mellow, so we held the whole thing outside.
My party was set at the standard time and day for children’s birthday parties: Saturday afternoon. Early that morning, we set up wash basins with apples imported from states North, and a line of musical chairs that ran the whole length of the yard. Mom baked a sheet cake and we piped vampire bats with icing that came out of the can like Cheez Whiz. We smiled for the camera. Dad took a picture with his Praktica. For fifty-eight years of marriage now, Dad has documented all of mom’s birthday, dinner and graduation parties, bridal and baby showers, send-offs and sweet sixteens. Therein lies his creative expression.
At this point, the party prepping swerved from standard. There was a tool shed in the back yard that was left furnished by the previous owner. Mom saw its potential and sent Dad and me to Audubon Park with old pillowcases. He boosted me up into the branches of the live oaks, smothered in Spanish moss. I tugged at the delicate tendrils, like the hair at my temples on a humid day, which in New Orleans is every day. I dropped the air plants to Dad, who stuffed six sacks’ worth. Returning home, Dad again boosted me skywards, this time into the rafters of the tool shed, from which hung hacksaws, garden shears, and an antique birdcage. I draped wisps of moss long enough to graze the shoulders of my guests as they entered the spooky shack. Anticipation. That delicious sensation which decorates the imagination with happy possibility, learned here on my father’s shoulders.
And I don’t know where Mom came up with the spider web treasure hunt, but before the masked class of third-graders from Isidore Newman School swooped down, Mom and I had tangled the garden into one monstrous cobweb with a skein of black yarn. Starting at the camellia bush in the center, each kid was offered a free end of yarn to follow through the knot of other threads, over and under thornless blooms, around the low branches of the fig tree to its destination, where, to each child’s delight, was tied a wrapped gift. It was a game with a pay-off for every player, and contributed to my unflagging optimism today. There are small treats to be found at the end of life’s tangles.
The Fortune Teller
Our neighbor, Mrs. Winston, had agreed to tell fortunes. This New Orleanian was everything a child could hope for in a clairvoyant: odd, mysterious, with supernaturally blue eyes, and a real crystal ball that shone from a stand in her parlor. Hovering just above eye level, a brilliant ball, as big as a cabbage, refracted light from the chandelier overhead, causing rainbows all over its surface. Descended from a pampered nobility, Mrs. Winston was, as my mom put it, “Old French.” Her family, along with the rest of Haiti’s colonial aristocracy, fled the island when the slave insurrection looked like it was gonna stick with some muscle behind it from Toussaint L’Ouverture. “They came with just a few sticks of furniture on their backs,” Mom said. Apparently their crystal balls too. Displaced and near destitute, Mrs. Winston had an air of lostness, but also of graceful acceptance of her reduced circumstances.
She once had a husband. Now it was just Mrs. Winston, her bandleader son, “Stuff,” with the waxed moustache, and an overweight dachshund, in a camelback shotgun surrounded by sunflowers that reached the roof. She was a registered nurse and a Rosicrucian, which was “something like a Catholic,” Mom explained, then Dad corrected, “It was a cult. ” “Yes, but a tender-hearted cult,” Mom insisted. “They don’t believe Jesus really died on the cross. They think he was taken down and transported to Egypt, where he continued to preach brotherly love and lived to a ripe old age.” The gentleness and unconventionality of this revised outlook on Christianity informed Mrs. Winston’s approach to everyone and everything. She served guests heaping suppers on turkey platters instead of dinner plates, and had an extensive collection of orphaned clocks she couldn’t part with. “None of them told the correct time,” Mom recalled, “but they all rang anyway.”
One by one, my friends broke away from the games and ventured into the shed, and one by one, after a good twenty minutes, they came out. They didn’t return to the festivities right away, but hung on the sidelines, thoughtful behind their face paint. As junior hostess, I waited until all of my guests had had their small palms read, then I entered. Dad had angled a clamp light to bounce beams off the hanging tools. I crept under jagged shadows as musty coils of moss tickled my nape. I had been complicit in crafting this creepshow, and now I was scared. The gypsy queen held court behind a table fashioned from two sawhorses and a plywood plank. Twilight seeped through the slats of the louvered doors and glinted off the glowing ball, nestled in moss on the two by four. Mrs. Winston’s steely hair was twisted into a turban with a scarf of Hungarian rose print, and a chunky crucifix swung from her throat as she waved healing hands over the orb. I don’t remember a word she said. I just remember that I both wanted to be there, and was afraid to be there. I was compelled by her soft speech and the twinkly crystal, whose light source was now a mystery, as the sun had sunk behind the house. Mom remembers my classmates asking Mrs.Winston about Vietnam. They wanted to know when the war would end. I’m pretty sure though, on my special day, I wasn’t asking about Vietnam. It’s more likely I asked if dreamy Douglas Downing liked me back.
It was about six when parents pulled up in their Plymouth Valiants, but no one pulled out. Games over, cake eaten, we did cartwheels in the dark, candy apples bobbing in our bellies. Ghouls, goblins, the caped-crusader, I Dream of Jeannie, and an Evil Knievel or two, all draped the Jungle Jim, like drunken revelers on a Mardi Gras float, high on candy corn, and so happy together. I looked over to the patio where the grown-ups were. Mom had laid that patio herself with bricks and sand the summer before. All the parents were sitting around knocking back bourbon and bottles of Jax beer. “I don’t think we were drinking,” Mom defended when I mentioned the adult after-party. “It was New Orleans, Connie,” Dad laughed, “I’m sure we were all drinking.” I saw Mrs. Schneider come out of the shed and Mrs. Kenwood go in. Like their children before them, I imagine these tipsy parents who tiptoed in and sat before the spiritualist on that balmy night in a subtropical state asked that same divining ball if it was prophesying peace.
The Pear Tree
The next morning I climbed the pear tree and surveyed the mischief: apple cores on overturned basins, cake smearing the screen door, and crimson camellia blossoms, beheaded from the bush, ushered in the Day of the Dead. Robey loved to climb that tree and think boyish thoughts, but that morning those limbs held space for me. I felt for my whiskers, painted with Mom’s eyeliner twenty-four hours earlier, faint, but still there under the freckles, because I had refused to wash my face. Despite the hype, I wasn’t feeling the hangover of a December 26. I wasn’t crawling under the tinsel for more. This time, my excitement had given way to full and phenomenal gratification. I was eight.
For some time now, Maria’s world has been densely populated with adolescents. An amicably-divorced parent of two teenagers, she works as a teaching assistant in Brooklyn public middle and high schools. Since March, her teen world has moved inside and online. Now all these adolescents converge at her oilcloth-covered dining room table—her Verizon WiFi sweet spot—where she supports remote learning and serves up three square meals daily.
These days, apart from collecting the mail and watering the ponytail palms of her neighbors who fled for the Poconos, Maria’s been thinking about how else she can be purposeful—what she can contribute to these remarkable times. She keeps returning to a verb favored by educators: “to model.” Maria has learned first hand, at home and at work, that adolescents don’t so much listen to what you say, as they watch what you do—what you “model.” So for weeks now, whether it be the young people she interacts with in Google Classroom, or her own two sons set up with their devices on a folding bridge table, Maria has tried to define her own values, then model them: empathy, humility, passion, courage, creativity, adaptivity, humor, persistence, resilience, activism, optimism, grace under pressure. It’s a long list and a tall order, but she’s committed to it. Right now, Maria feels watched by younger humans. She wants to be an older human worthy of their gaze.
Maria may also be the oldest regular attendee of The CCNY MFA Reading Series.
She contributes to Bklyner.com, TheFix.com and The Good Men Project. She publishes through Medium and maintains two personal blogs: Mush on parenting, and Happy Hour on recovery. This is her first publication for Global City Review.
All of Maria’s writing, as well as casually-measured recipes, and a link to sign up for her newsletter, live at marianewsom.com.