Down here in the Big Easy much of what we do bears explaining. But it seems almost as customary to not explain anything.
It’s Sunday morning. Across my white marble bathroom floor, tiny specks of gold shine. It’s the end of a gold path that begins at my front door, round the staircase, and down the hall into the master suite. Where the gold stops, a corset, ribbons, and buttercream tulle is heaped over a pulled out drawer. Nearby is a headpiece placed on a mannequin head, gold tights in a pile, and bobby pins scattered everywhere. The gold is glitter, fallen from my hair, loosened as its hold wore off, and a key player in the aftermath that consumes my house--the remains of a single night in a city that finds itself again and again through excess.
For every float parade in New Orleans, there is a handful of clever marching or dancing krewes. Most are year-round, either charitable or to enhance charity benefits, and almost all involve costuming. Outsiders may find it weird to see middle-aged men, executives by day, leave the house in roller derby shorts at night to strut at hospital fundraisers. It may appear odd that the PTA is comprised of moms who know where to find the best corsets and how to tease a bad wig into something badass. Well, it is completely ridiculous and begs explanation, but the fact is, that’s just how we live here. No further explanation.
In a previous life, one where parents were healthy and each day didn’t involve emotional breakdowns, that carnival crime scene in my bathroom was a fairly regular occurrence. Some moms in other cities let loose in dressed up joggers at Chili’s Happy Hour. Here, we second line in warehouse galas. But I stopped all that back in July when Mom had emergency vascular surgery, followed almost immediately by Pop’s tragic battle with pancreatic cancer. And while the thought process of “What’s more important? Costuming at a gala or nursing Pop?” did run through my mind, I didn’t excuse myself for six months because some greater perspective was gained or my priorities suddenly straightened out.
In New Orleans, costuming is practically a gut reaction, an instinct. It’s open to everyone and embraced everywhere from bar crawls to festivals, Saints games to school fairs. It’s Mardi Gras Indians, The Running of the Bulls, Red Dress Run, St. Catherine’s Day Hat Parade, and a hundred other opportunities to go overboard. It’s not a day, nor season, nor class, nor race. It’s a way of life. Nothing succeeds like New Orleans excess, and the mask--the costume--is the greatest showman. Even if you aren’t that person with a guest bedroom that shares space with five bins of costumes and a rolling craft cart of beads and feathers, you know someone who has one. You understand them. You get that they are acting out their role in this nutty city whose priorities appear to be as messed up as a teenager skipping the SAT to buy a concert ticket, but in reality, are precisely aligned with who we are.
And in the midst of the most unnatural moment of my life--losing my father--nothing came naturally anymore. Every action required effort because when the ordinary course of nature unravels, the most vulnerable feelings are the first to go with it. I couldn't sing lullabies at night to my kids without choking on tears. And I couldn’t paint my eyes with glitter and show up to an event with a third of a heart. I couldn’t do what came naturally when my world was suddenly so unnatural. But we’d been down that road before.
After Hurricane Katrina and contrary to outsiders who called us frivolous, Mardi Gras went on as scheduled. It was a sign that we were still alive. Katrina had taken our houses, treasures of memorabilia, and entire neighborhoods, but it hadn’t taken our identity. That was something to be celebrated through the streets because Mardi Gras is more than a parade on some foolish holiday. It’s the carnival season, for starters, and a declaration that our cultures, traditions, and identities matter. The parade is the cherry on top. The communion on the streets, in the ballrooms, and in line for king cakes is where it’s at.
Costuming is no different. It’s the same as a big pot of gumbo--a spirit of sharing our innate promise to keep a lifestyle, born from people who made that lifestyle, alive. It’s showing that the traditions handed down never died off. They only bloom brighter. Masking, carnival, brass bands, and our kitchens display that in excess, as does the rise of a football team that was the ultimate symbol of how far we’d come back after Katrina tried to wipe us off the map.
During the NFC Championship game Sunday, I pictured Pop in the stands. Pop was cheated in life by cancer, but he wouldn’t be cheated of a big Saints Super Bowl that we’d celebrate in his honor! I wasn’t alone in this crazed grief-ridden wish; other Saints fans were in my position too. Pop was cheering alongside all the Who Dats gone from this earth. The Dome was packed with the spirits of your MeeMaw, another’s Na’Nan, Tom Benson, and all the sons and daughters of New Orleans--actual saints marching into victory. When we lost, we wept real tears. But they weren't over a game. When the refs blew the call, they didn’t just screw over the Saints. They blew a call on the family. Here, players aren’t just a Sunday pastime. Like all the other symbols in this city, we love them with excess because they are part of us.
Sure it’s messed up to spend entire days worked up over a lost game. We know it’s ludicrous to put important matters like the government shutdown and crime behind conversations on how to settle a matter with the NFL. I know it’s crazy to compare the Saints being cheated by the refs to Pop being cheated by cancer. But, I’m a New Orleanian. Our priorities are just that messed up. To the outside. And you know what? We’re okay with that because at least we know who we are. No further explanation.
I’ve finally costumed again, encouraged by my husband who said I need to choose life over death. And here, to costume is to be alive. I don’t know how to live with grief. But, I know enough to know that even though cancer has taken my father, I needn’t let it take my identity with it. Like my city, I need to find myself again through excess.
Friday I descended the stairs in 18th century attire to little fanfare from my kids. Saturday I entered the living room with a furry mask and antlers. My kids were sitting on the couch and merely looked me over. Only Michael spoke.
“Hey, Mom, do you think you can make me two fried eggs before you go?”
The other two, with just a slight shrug of the shoulders, went back to their games. I was dressed as a damn forest nymph and they weren’t even phased. Mom was just doing her thing.
No further explanation.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.