Burned Roots

He looked at an

old photograph

and commented:

Life and love were

so uncomplicated

back then.

Yes, I said.

How did we manage

to complicate it so?

I think that

I’ve over-fertilized

my garden

and burned the roots.

I think I have

a lot of shit

to shovel out.

rhonda lee richoux 2009

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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