As a young Tennessee girl, I knew Louisiana was a Southern state, but in my mind, New Orleans was a separate entity entirely. I heard the stories of the Crescent City citizens who celebrate with spectacles, where folks throw beads and act strangely. Their floats looked nothing akin to my type of parades where homecoming queens and Santas wave to crowds. The tales regarding this city of jazz, crawfish, muggy weather, bayous, and crooked politicians played in my mind like a mysterious backdrop for a novel.
Funny how I recall my original thoughts of New Orleans as if it was a portent of what was to come. Little did I know that forty-eight years later, my last name would change to Gendusa.
A group of immigrants landed in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century from Sicily and began their pursuit of the American dream. They were bakers by trade and opened a bakery where the smell of fresh bread wafted down the old streets wooing Italian, French, Irish, and Cajun customers. The Gendusa Bakery became known for the invention of the Po’ Boy bread used for the famous sandwiches initially created during the Great Depression.
Yes indeed, I married the most Italian (with a bit of French thrown in) Crescent City-born guy I could find. A few months after our relationship began, I met David’s mother when we went to New Orleans for his high school class reunion.
My first impression of Doris Gendusa was how adorable she was. Perfectly coiffed bleached hair, long dangling earrings, polished pink nails on fingers where diamonds sparkled just like her eyes. When she walked, she danced, and when she talked, I finally determined that the GOLF of Mexico meant Gulf. She was joyful, funny, and could create delectable dishes which I knew nothing of yet, become ones I would never forget.
David was a former student at a private Catholic high school for boys. At the reunion, folks were reserved and proper as we sat for dinner and listened to the music of a classmate famously known for playing classical Chopin like Chopin. Doris sat with us because parents are invited to class reunions. What?!
I began to doubt we would listen to Chubby Checker and dance the Twist as my classmates do at our reunions. Were we in New Orleans, or had we taken a cultural detour?
After we dropped delightful Doris off, we joined a group of David’s friends and their wives at a local honky-tonk down the street from the school. By the end of the evening, trust me, I knew we were in the heart of New Orleans.
My first parade in the Mardi Gras city was the Irish-Italian Parade, which is held every year in March. Floats filled with the Irish throwing beads, and the ingredients for Irish stew. I was shocked as I heard my voice pleading for cabbage and potatoes as my arms flung in the air!
When the Italian men in black suits and red ties walked toward every girl in Jefferson Parrish who lined the parade route, to give them a rose and a kiss, Doris began to roar with laughter at the fool I made of myself.
Doris told me a story that when David was five, he sat down to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television. A short time later, he told his mother he was going outside to play.
“Honey, don’t you like watching the parade with all the floats?” She asked.
David answered, “Mama, that parade is no good. Those people on floats don’t throw anything!”
After fourteen years, I have learned more than a textbook could teach about the mysterious, spirited New Orleans, and its diverse citizens. I understand they live for food because they thrive on companionship. They have parades because they love experiencing joy and celebration, bringing folks together on their streets. Their history runs deep, and they keep their various heritages and customs close to their hearts. New Orleans residents band together as one to defend their plot of American soil and trust their strength to survive any wrath Mother Nature decides to deliver.
Doris passed away the other day. The New Orleans daughter, whose bright smile and dimpled cheeks, showed a daughter-in-law the ways of a culture few understand.
As we departed the service, two family friends who previously sang a hymn and played the guitar suddenly began performing, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” When the Big Easy natives hear that song, they immediately form a line and wave handkerchiefs.
I swear I saw Doris at the end of the line waving goodbye to her mysterious, amazing Crescent City and the people she cherished.
For: Doris Mae Gendusa: 1928-2020