Your laughter was my first happy memory, and when I fled the womb and heard it full, it filled my soul and became the song of life!

What a life you gave me!

I heard your angel voice singing every day as you cleaned the house. I saw you smile at every new thing your children mastered. I listened as you read books to us, and taught us nursery rhymes, and silly songs.

Your model of love, patience, empathy and kindness were things I wanted to emulate and absorb. I know I absorbed your sassy mouth. Ask anybody who knows me.

I’ve never been able to sing or dance like you, the dance hall queen, but the memories of your young voice and your impossibly graceful body will stay with me forever.

You filled our summer days with picnics and lake houses and our nights with old movies and tea. I still watch those movies on TCM. Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to watch them with you.

Time was so kind to us back then. It moved slow, like the bayous. But lately, it’s been forcing its way through us like the Mighty Mississippi in spring. And we’re worn driftwood, helpless.

As I bathe your tired body, I see the arms that cradled me, comforted me, and held me up. I see the beautiful hands that never let go of me until I was older, and wouldn’t be held back. I remember the spankings they delivered, too, but let’s not rehash my misdeeds. This is not about me. This is about you.

I scrub your back, once sturdy and strong, now unwilling to bear much more. Your backbone made all of us strong. That back held up your family.

Your legs were always so beautiful! Now weak and stubborn, they still look beautiful to me. The lap I sat on. The legs that danced. The feet we stood on as you taught us to waltz. All beautiful to me.

My sweet, strong, stubborn, loving momma, you are still the most beautiful woman in the world to me. I count it as a privilege to be able to pay back the tiniest bit of the debt I owe for the work you put into making me a strong woman and a decent human being.

When the time comes, I will count it as a privilege to be holding your hand when you go home to God and the rest of the family. My heart will break for not having you here with me, but some of you will always stay behind in all of us. Words cannot express how very much I love you.



Summer’s End

Today is the last day of the last weekend of my summer vacation. I work at an elementary school, so I get a nice break every year when school is out. This summer, however, didn’t turn out quite as I had planned. Marked by family and friends passing, and taking care of friends and family who needed me, this summer was not the carefree holiday I remember from my childhood days. Today, I feel like becoming an adult was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done!

Our family was poor, but we are large and loving enough that as a child, I took no notice that I was missing anything in life. We gathered together often, and enjoyed one another immensely. My cousins were my best friends, so when the neighborhood kids and I had a falling out, all I had to do was call on my cousins for playmates. I liked my cousins better, anyway. They understood me and my moody ways.

During summer vacation, Great Grandma Rosie would rent a camp on Lake Pontchartrain for two weeks, and the whole tribe would stay there. She said it brought back memories of her own childhood at the Filipino shrimping village called Manila Village. She and my Grandma Lillian told stories of how hard the life was there, and how wonderful the times were when the work was done. They told us that family is the most important thing in life, and we were told it often enough that it became our own mantra.

The camps at Little Woods were awful, now that I see them with adult memory. They had no screens on the windows, or if they did, there were holes in them. At night, we went through the ritual of being slathered with a toxic potion called 6-12 oil, and my Parran (whom I called Ranzy) would fog the room with some stuff that I’m sure contained DDT to keep the mosquitoes at bay. How we survived that, and lived to be senior citizens, is beyond comprehension.

Our sleeping arrangements were horrible! The adults got the beds and cots, and we had to sleep on blankets on the floor. We stayed up talking during the nice, breezy part of the night, but by the time we got sleepy, in the still of the night, the heat suffocated us and gave us an uneasy rest. But we were young and hit the floor running at sunrise anyway!

The plumbing was…nasty! The toilets flushed into the very lake we swam in. But, we didn’t care. We just made sure we avoided the brown mullets floating bye. Yeah, I know. But you can’t keep a kid out of the water in the summertime.

We’d set out crab nets every day, and had a crab boil every evening. Aunt Joyce taught us how to throw out a cast net as soon as we were tall enough to hold one, and we’d catch bait for our fishing enjoyment. Each night, the boys went gigging for flounder. We learned how to live off of the bounty of Louisiana’s waters during those summers.

I remember Grandma Lillian teaching us to play poker with pennies – or matchsticks during the lean years. I remember learning conflict resolution because the adults were set on enjoying their vacation and never interfered with our childhood drama. I remember feeling a hole in my heart the first time we went to camp after Grabdma Rosie died. But Grandma Lillian made sure we kept up our summer tradition well into my adulthood.

I had crushes on every one of my big brother’s friends. I and my girl cousins acted like total idiots whenever they came to spend the night at the camp. We had not a worry in the world in Little Woods, and that’s as it should have been on summer vacation.

After Grandma Lillian died, and we all grew up, and the world got complicated, we forgot what summer vacation was supposed to be. Every year, our kids and now, our grand kids, come home on the last day of school with summer reading lists and math packets. Hurricane Katrina scattered us far and wide, and the current generation cannot experience the safety net of extended family that knit us so tightly together. My summers are filled with adult responsibilities, with a day of fun here and there. Sometimes, adulthood sucks.

So here I am, about to begin another school year without having had much of a vacation. I’ll survive, I’ll enjoy being back in the classroom, and I’ll vow like I always do to make the best of my vacation next summer. But I’m full of sadness over the direction our society as a whole has moved in over the years.

We are in too much of a hurry to get things done. Some of those things don’t even need doing, but we do them anyway, losing many opportunities to relax and enjoy one another’s company. Children are so stressed over a false sense of urgency TO DO that they don’t get to enjoy just BEING a kid.

I don’t like what life has become: a manic race to the grave. But I realize full well that if I expect anything to change, I have to change my own priorities. I have to enjoy every day off, I have to make family time part of my routine, and the enjoyment of life part if my daily schedule. I am often heard saying, “There aren’t enough hours in the day!”, but that’s a lie. My great grandmother and my grandmother had the same 24 hours, but they knew how to use them better. I have to remember them, remember how they did it, and model my life after them.

It’s called “LIFE”, and ya just gotta live it.

I like to tell stories.  I get it from my great-grandma Rosie. Rosalie Borabod Martinez Lamm.  Grandma Rosie had a difficult but very interesting life, growing up in old New Orleans, spending part of the year with her father in the fishing village of Manila Village, and part of the year at the Wilkerson plantation in Myrtle Grove during the sugar cane harvest.  She knew English, Spanish, some French, and a enough of her father’s native Filipino dialect to know when she was in trouble.

Grandma Rosie told the absolute best stories, and it’s thanks to her stories that I’ve been able to form the framework for our family history.  I’ve been researhing our history since 2004.  It began as a project to gather info for my family reunion in June of 2005, but it grew into something so much bigger.  I’ve reconnected, through my published work, with long-lost family members all over the country.  And I feel I’ve contributed in some small way to the uncovering of Filipino history in America.  There are so many historians before me whose kindness and generous sharing have helped me with my research, and I thank them.  I’ll post some of our family history here….and then…

Our current generation is in a unique position of understanding what our ancestors went through long ago.  The fishing villages that fed our family were destroyed and rebuilt so many times after storms ravaged them.  My first ancestors were probably given up to the sea, as one of my aunts told me that the bodies of the dead were put in shallow graves near the village until they could be transported for proper burial in New Orleans.  But a storm came, and many of the bodies were washed out to the Gulf of Mexico.  We have never known if our first ancestors were brought to New Orleans before that happened: I’ve not yet been able to find them in any cemetery records. I’m still trying, though.

Life after Katrina is the other category under this group of writings.  We are a part of history right now. We are making history, for better or worse.  If nothing else, I know now (never knew it before) that I am as strong as my ancestors were, and I am able to face my fears and overcome them, lose everything and recover, lose normal and create a new normal.  It makes me feel good about myself.  Katrina broke some of us; it made many more of us stronger, better human beings.

I hope you enjoy some of what I write here! ~ Rhonda Lee Richoux

I have to admit, it’s getting better…

…it’s getting better all the time! (Thanks, Beatles!) 

Life here in Southeast Louisiana is beginning to resemble civilized society again.  Politics aside (they’re still unbearable), the people are waking from the long sleep.  We’re coming off of auto pilot and making conscious decisions about what to do to make our lives, and the lives of our loved ones and neighbors, better in this brave new world.  It IS a new world: the old has been washed away, the new has come on the sweating, breaking backs of the people who were brave enough to return and do the work.  I’ve never been prouder.

That’s not to say that there are not tragic stories: our most frequent social event post-Katrina is a wake/funeral.  Our second most frequent social activity is hospital visiting.  But happily, running a close third, our favorite social activity is attending the multitude of festivals we have in New Orleans and the surround areas.  Our mild weather makes festival going nearly a year-round event.  We have festivals for everything.  Shrimp, Oysters, Tomatoes, Strawberries, Alligator, Sauce Picante, the French Quarter Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Essence Festival, the Gay Pride Festival, the Indy Movie Festival, the Jazz Fest, the Voodoo Fest, The Crawfish Festival, the Cinco de Mayo Festival, The New Orleans Indy Film Festival, and the mother of all festivals, Carnival, a two-week long festival that culminates on Mardi Gras.  Even in-between the festivals, there is always something going on: Pyrate Week, Christmas in the Oaks, Christmas on Fulton Street, Free Music Wednesdays in Lafayette Square, concerts, theater, the best music you’ll find anywhere in our local nightclubs and taverns, and music in the streets at any given time.  Yes, we really do dance in the streets down here, and thinik of it as a birthright.

I’ve been crawling out of my hole (my personally owned ex-FEMA trailer) and joining the world of the living again.  I feel close to normal.  Okay, so I’ve never been even remotely “normal” in my life, but I’m feeling closer to Rhonda than I have been in a long time.  That’s a victory for me.

I want to get past the pain, but I never want to forget it. And, I hope that the rest of America never forgets, either.  The cavalry was not ready, but the people came in droves.  Our fellow Americans came from far and wide to work with us, shoulder to shoulder, to dig (literally) our way out of the refuse of our past lives.  We will be forever grateful, and I don’t ever want to forget the love and gratitude, the smiles and the tears that dominated those days when the volunteers hugged us, kissed us, and made the bo-bo on our hearts feel a little better.  It was during those times that I was TRULY proud to be an American.

I’m grateful for the wealthy who sent money to help: it really did help.  I’m even more grateful for the Brad Pitts and the Sandra Bullocks and the many other celebs who actually came down here, and came back, and came back, and who bought houses so they could stay longer to get the job done that they have started.  There are others, you know, who don’t get the news coverage because they don’t want it: they’re here, too, quietly helping where they can.

Thanks, also, to our team, the New Orleans Saints. Yeah, really.  That first game after Katrina in the Super Dome…I cry when I think of it.  It seems a silly and trivial thing, but the spirit of the team and the fans and of everyone in the region saw the victory as our victory, as a symbol that we would, one day, be okay again.  The team members have visited schools, donated shoes, clothes, anything they could to help local children.  Their charitable efforts has endeared them to their already insanely devoted fan base.  And, we’re having a pretty good year so far!

I can’t forget to thank my online friends.   All of you kept me sane when I thought I was going to lose it totally.  You were so gracious to read my very personal poems and come away from it understanding and befriending me. You were my therapists back then, you know?

I have to admit, it’s getting better.  We still have so very far to go, and I’ll post photos in the coming months to show you.  We’re in the fourth year PK (Post Katrina), and we should be safer, but we’re not.  But, that’s for another post. 

Love from down da road ~ Rhonda


Promises Kept

New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2009

New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2009

Back in January, just after the holidays, I brought my mom to visit our aunt Eiola and then her cousin Al.  Al was special to me. My godmother’s son and big-brother figure, he, his sister Roselyn and my Uncle Carroll were the youngest of their generation and never forgot what it was to be a kid.  They were good to us and treated us like we were important, and we kids loved them.  

We were late leaving Aunt Eiola and when we got to Al’s, I was showing him some things on my laptop he’d wanted to see.  Suddenly, he started acting weird.  I called his daughter, also named Rhonda, and told her what was happening. I thought he was having a stroke or something.  She called 911 and came to Al’s apartment.  When the EMT’s got there, I looked through his meds, and saw diabetes meds.  I said, “We got here late and never had dinner yet, I think it’s his blood sugar!”  Sure enough, his blood sugar was only 45.  They gave him some glucose and he as flirting with the female EMT’s in no time.  None of us thought it was anything more than that.  Rhonda went to get him some pizza and mom and I went home.

A day or so later he called me and told me to call Mac, because he wanted some photos of my Uncle Carroll.  I called Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, to ask him about the photos.  He said that a book was being written to benefit the Musicians Relief Fund, and it would be about all the clubs our local musicians played back in the day.  My mother’s brother, Carroll, also known as Anna Mae Wong, was one of the drag queens Mac had met at the My-Oh-My Club, an all-male review that was popular with tourists and locals alike.  He met Anna Mae through Al.  Al and Mac had known each other since school days, and had remained friends through the years.  We discussed the photos and then he started telling me one of his “Sedillo stories”.  He and Al did some crazy things, and he loved to recall those days.  I love to listen.

When our conversation was coming to a close, I told him this: “I’ll see you at Jazz Fest, and I promise I’ll drag Al’s ass to see you this time, no excuses!”  Mac said, “Tell him he better come or I’ll come up to his place and bang up his wheelchair!”  That’s how they talked about each other.  Once when Mac put on some weight, he said Al told him, “I think I’ll call Goodyear and tell ’em I found their blimp!”  It was always like that when they were together.  Mac said, “I know Al’s vibe and he knows mine. We don’t even have to explain anything, we just understand.”

Years earlier, after Al had a stroke during a softball game and was confined to a wheelchair, he tried hard to get through his rehabilitation.  But then he got pneumonia and ended up in the hospital again.  He was ready to give up.  He said his life was over anyway.  I sent a message to Mac, who called me from back stage in Atlanta and talked to me for an hour.  The next day, he called Al and pulled him out of his funk.  I don’t know what they talked about, but Al’s spirits picked up, as did his health, and he never wanted to give up again.  After Hurricane Katrina, he ended up in Jefferson Parish, because the apartment he lived in near me was destroyed.  I didn’t get to see him as often, and when I asked him to go places, he’d usually say no because he knew it was getting harder and harder for me to pick up his wheelchair and help him in and out of the car.  Still, I kept asking him.  This time, I told him I promised Mac I’d bring him to Jazz Fest, and he was going to go no matter what.  He said, “Well, maybe I can hang out in his trailer, and it won’t be so hot”. So, it was settled.

Meanwhile, I got an invitation to my cousin Mary’s daughter’s wedding on May 2.  I was excited about that, too.  Mary and I were very close when we were younger, and I knew she was  very happy that her daughter Jennifer was getting married, so I was happy for her and I promised I’d be at the wedding.  Then, on January 25th, my cousin Tad called me.  “Hey cuz, one of our friends called to say there are paramedics at Al’s apartment. You might want to call him to see what’s going on. Call me back and let me know.”  I figured he’d had another spell.  I called the apartment.  A woman answered…it was his daughter Rhonda’s grandmother.  I said “Is Al okay? What happened?”  She asked who I was, and I told her, and she said, “Oh, Rhonda honey, he’s gone. I’m so sorry.”  I started crying uncontrollably.  She put Rhonda on the phone and Rhonda tried to explain to me what had happened through her sobs…it was her birthday and she wanted to be with her dad…he’d eaten so she didn’t understand why he seemed to be going into one of his spells…his blood sugar was very low, he said “I think I need to lay down”, and he did, and he just slipped away.  I felt the way I did when my eldest brother D.J. died: “What is this world going to be like without him in it??”  I just couldn’t imagine.

After we all calmed down, Rhonda called me back and we started talking about her dad. It didn’t take long for us to start laughing uncontrollably.  You cannot talk about Sedillo without laughing at some point.  He had told both of us that he wanted to be cremated when his time came. I remember him telling me to spread him around town, and not to forget St. Roch Playground.  He’d told Rhonda to sprinkle some of him at all the ball parks he’d played softball in, and then throw a party to celebrate.  He looked at death as the next step in life, and felt that the end of the earthbound life should be celebrated as a special occasion.  My cousin Carey added, “He needs to be scattered at Jazz Fest, too!”

I created “The Sedillo Send-off” in three phases. Phase I:  the memorial service.  Phase II: the scattering at the ball parks and the party.  Phase III: the scattering at Jazz Fest.  Phase I went well. I’d made a DVD of Al’s pictures with appropriate music, and instead of a preacher, I said what Al meant to me, and invited the guests to come up and tell their own Sedillo stories. And they did, and it was hilarious!  The funeral director said it was the best funeral he’d ever overseen! He was working the crowd to see if anyone needed tissue, and instead heard the funniest stories and heard laughter everywhere.  The food upstairs was left untouched, because we were having too much of a good time downstairs, remembering.

Phase II was great: it was like the picnics we used to have when our lives were still intact, before Katrina, and before our grandmother died.  We played cabbage ball, and gave autographed Al’s surf board, and wore headbands in his honor.  One of the best times of my life!  I called Mac and he said he wanted to be there with me but had to go to Baton Rouge to accept a Slim Harpo Blues Legend award.  I said, “I know I promised I’d drag Al’s ass to Jazz Fest this year to see you….”  He said, “Yeah, dawlin, I remember.”  I said, “Well, I can’t promise it’ll be his ass, but I’m bringing some of his ashes to you!”  He was delighted! He thought it was so great we’d thought of him.  How could I not?  He was Al’s friend.  He called Al almost every month just to talk.  He was the genuine deal.

Then came Phase III.  I realized that Dr. John played Jazz Fest on the same day that Jennifer was getting married in Hammond, La.  I had a dilemma.  I’d promised two people I’d be there for them.  After much hemming and hawing, my cousin Mary said, “Do both! It only takes an hour to get to Hammond. So go to Jazz Fest first, and then come to the wedding!”  Okay! It was a go!

My mother was coming to the wedding with me, and I told her she’d have to go to Jazz Fest because I was leaving straight from there to the wedding.  She said okay. She came Friday night before Jazz Fest to sleep at my house so we could get an early start.  If you know my family, or are IN my family, you know that we NEVER manage to get an early start.  We blame it on our Filipino heritage by saying, “Sorry, I’m on Island time!”  So, mom didn’t come at dinner as we thought she would. Ed put away the beef stew he’d made.  When she got here, she said, “I forgot the clothes I’m wearing to the wedding, so your Daddy will have to bring them in the morning.”  Okay.  I got a bad feeling, but, okay.

I was awake at 7:30 a.m.  For $50, I wanted to go early to see as many acts as I could.   Mom didn’t wake up until almost 9:00 a.m., and her clothes made it here at 9:00 a.m.  Meanwhile, I’m trying to see if my cousin Rhonda scored us back stage passes. Turns out she’s been sick for a few days and didn’t get to call anyone.  It was the day of Mac’s performance, and I know how he likes to get into “the zone” on a concert day.  I didn’t know whether to call him.  We started getting ready. Rhonda told me to go to his trailer and ask for Mina or Half to get back stage.  My Eddie asked us if we remembered to take our meds. Being in the sun all day, he wanted to be sure we took our blood pressure meds.  I took mine, and noticed mom rooting around her bags.  Finally she said, “SHIT!”  I knew what that meant.  LONG STORY SHORT: SHE AND MY SISTER HAD TO DRIVE ALL THE WAY BACK TO PICAYUNE MISSISSIPPI TO GET HER MEDICATIONS.  I asked my cousin Carey to take her box of Al’s ashes to the festival in case I didn’t make it.

I waited and waited; Carey and Rhonda and I were texting back and forth.  I texted Carey, “Whenever I DO get there, we’ll be scattering Al’s AND my mother’s ashes!!”  They finally got back, and Darla had a plan: Eddie and our daddy would drop us off, and she’d come pick us up and go to the wedding with us. That would save us walking and parking time. Great idea!

We finally got there and it took us a good 45 minutes to buy the tickets and go through the line.  By the time we got to the Acura stage, Dr. John’s concert was in full swing.  The NAZI’S at one of the gates looked at me with scorn and would not even tell me where the guest entrance was for back stage.  I finally figured it out myself.  Backstage, they were nicer, but still wouldn’t let me through or take Al’s ashes to Mac’s family for me.  I was determined to keep my promise!! I sprinkled some of Al in the sand back stage. (OOH! Jon Bon Jovi waved at me from the car! Yay!)   I went up front to watch some of the concert.  The man’s still got it! He was rocking that Noo Awlin’s funk all over the place! Then I went back to the guest entrance. A nice lady asked me what I was there for, and I explained to her. Mac’s concert ended and I saw them going to the trailer.  I asked the guard to find Mina or Half for me and tell them to tell Mac Rhonda is outside with Al’s ashes, and he would understand.

Instead, she told Mac’s daughter, and she said, “He’s on a high from his performance, he doesn’t need to be brought down!” I told the lady, “But he wants Al’s ashes!” She said she was sorry, but I couldn’t go in. So, I called Mac.  I told him I was outside and he said, “Okay, dawlin’, let me change clothes and cool down, and I’ll call you back!”  When the guards realized I had Mac’s cell phone number, they said I could wait there until he called for me.  A bit later, he stuck his head out the door and waved for me to come in.  He said, ‘Let’s go back here where it’s quieter!” And we went back to talk.  This photographer wanted to get some photos. Mac told him to wait, he needed to talk to me!

We did talk, but kept getting interrupted.  Mac is too polite to tell anybody “no” if they want a photo with him…including me!  We talked for quite a while, and I gave him a small decorative lipstick case with Al’s ashes. He said, “I can have this?” I told him I’d bought it especially for him.  He had his favorite walking stick with him with a gris-gris bag on it.  He said, “Open my bag for me and stick it in there!”  He said “I’m taking my buddy on tour with me!”  I was delighted!  We were interrupted again by Dave Bryan of Bon Jovi, who wanted to talk about collaborating with him on an album and maybe writing some songs together. A photographer was snapping pictures as they talked. I got out of the way, but Mac introduced me to David and we started talking about Community Coffee being the best in the world, and Mac told him some New Orleans secrets to the best brew (eggshells and a pinch of sea salt in the grounds).  Dave said he has to bring his own stash of Community Coffee on tour with him because he absolutely loves the stuff! You’d have thought we were any three people on the street, except that they were stars and the photographer never stopped getting shots! Then David had to leave for his set, and I had to leave to find my mom (who was somewhere with Carey and Dane), and we had to get to a wedding! 

Problem was, I couldn’t find them. And my phone could not call her phone. Finally I called my sister Darla, who called Carey. Carey told her we’d meet at the wheelchair return booth, and Darla called me to relay that.  After watching some of Bon Jovi’s set (what, you thought I would just LEAVE without gettin’ me some Bon Jovi vibes???), I headed for the wheel chair return booth.  They were holding my driver’s license hostage until I returned the wheel chair my mom was in.  I waited and waited and waited.  Listened to Cowboy Mouth singing. Heard some blues drifitng in from another stage. Felt my sunburn getting worse. Got dehydrated.  It was 5:35.  I called Darla again, who was lost. I gave her directions and she called Carey to tell her where I was; meanwhile, Carey tried to call me and left me a message: “I’m heading for the wheelchair booth. Meet us there!”

Finally, I see Carey running with the wheelchair toward me…hugs, kisses, yeah, we got to sprinkle some ashes, Darla’s outside waiting, thanks for taking care of mom, love you-bye!!!

Me, Jennifer and Mary

Me, Jennifer and Mary

And off to the wedding we went.  Mom changed clothes in the car while we were in the Causeway Bridge crossing the lake. I just changed from sandals to high heels and threw a shawl around my sundress. We refreshed our makeup in the car.  We got to the wedding 3 minutes late and were stopped at the gate.  I got out of the car and watched them get married over the fence, then hopped back in the car and went to the reception. A GREAT time was had by all, and I was able, by the hardest, to keep my promises to two people I love, and to honor my cousin Al, who is one of the many painters who created the mural of my extraordinary life.

Copyright 2009 Rhonda Lee Richoux

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