Toni Morrison said: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” I can’t help but think that there is something in this story from Gisele Perez of Pain Perdu Blog that keeps her heart flowing back to the roots of her childhood home. New Orleans has mythical allure, once its waters flow through your veins– dams and levees are pointless. Keeping Cool on St. Anthony Street.
Many of my childhood summer vacations were spent in New Orleans- the city my family left when I was 6 years old- visiting my father’s family. All of my mother’s family had already moved to Los Angeles. When I asked her why they left, she responded: “I was the last one in my family to go.”
We stayed between the two houses my grandfather built next door to each other almost 100 years ago in the Creole section of the city. My Aunt Leticia and her family lived in one, and my unmarried aunt, Nanny Marion lived in the other.
Aunt Leticia married the boy across the street, my Uncle JuJune, and after their wedding, he moved into the house where she had grown up. Uncle JuJune’s sister stayed in his childhood home with her family, so in the evenings, after washing the dishes, Aunt Leticia would sit on the front porch, cooling off with a glass of lemonade and talking across the street with her sister in law and the other neighbors.
Aunt Leticia spent most of her days cleaning, and cooking for her family, and any other of my uncles and cousins who might drop by. Her only regular outings were to 6 A.M. Mass at Corpus Christi Church on Sunday mornings and the Saturday trips to Schwegmann’s, the big new supermarket on Airline Highway. She’d get dressed up, and Uncle JuJune would pile all of us kids in the back of the car and off we’d go.
When the California cousins were visiting, Sundays brought a large gathering of extended family for supper in the big unpaved yard between the two houses. There were huge feasts of gumbo, fried chicken, ham and potato salad, with ice cold watermelon to finish.
Summers in New Orleans were (and still are) steamy enough to immediately fog up my glasses when I stepped outside the air-conditioned house, but there were plenty of treats to keep us cool. Sodas were delivered by the crate load to Aunt Leticia’s house, the way that bottles of milk were delivered to our house in Los Angeles. Nehi, in orange, grape and strawberry flavors, Barq’s root beer and of course, Coca-Cola, which flowed at meals there like wine does in the French countryside. In Los Angeles, sodas were a holiday-only treat in the household headed by my dentist father. There was also a neighborhood specialty called huckabucks, a fruity punch mixture frozen into paper cups, sold by one of the neighbors, and the ubiquitous NOLA specialty, snow balls, paper cones filled with shaved ice and topped with sticky sweet syrups- my favorite was bright red strawberry, but sometimes I’d go for a half and half with spearmint. And Aunt Leticia made a pineapple sherbet that my mother still longs for to this day. Unfortunately, none of my cousins learned to make their mother’s sherbet, but I decided to try my hand at it this week. I hope Aunt Leticia would be pleased with my results.