University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik celebrates her son’s college graduation alongside her ex-mother-in-law.
Though I have neither superpowers nor a signature form-fitting costume, I do have something in common with comic book heroes. I have a historic nemesis. Mine is a 72-year-old Italian lady from Philadelphia.
This defender of decency, aka “Grandma Grace,” has strong opinions and she sticks by them. Mickey Mouse, Marriott hotels, Jesus and Coca-Cola are in. Barack Obama, Pepsi and Marion Winik are out. New on the blacklist, I learned during our recent New Orleans visit, is that ancient symbol of the French monarchy, the fleur-de-lis. I was admiring one in an abstract assemblage by one of the artists who hang work on the iron gates of Jackson Square.
“What a cool painting,” I said.
“I hate that floor-de-less!” she retorted in her squeaky Marge Simpson voice. “And look! It’s everywhere!”
“But it always has been,” I told her. “It’s, like, the official symbol of New Orleans.”
“Only since 2004!” she replied heatedly.
Grandma Grace and I got along for about a half-hour in the mid-90s, both stoned on grief and somewhat delusional after the death of the young man who was her son and my husband. Before that and ever since, she has found little to appreciate in my character. Perhaps I seem to her to be a nasty cross between a controlling Jewish-American Princess and a self-indulgent smartypants. Perhaps I am. Still, you might think the fact that I produced and raised her darling grandsons would redeem me.
On the contrary, she has tried to protect them from me as best she can.
In recent years, as the boys have grown up, our run-ins are fewer and farther between. The last was at Hayes’s graduation from Georgetown in 2010, for which she came down on a bus from her home in the Poconos. The ceremony went smoothly enough, but Grandma Grace does not enjoy celebrations of the chaotic, alcoholic sort my offspring and I go in for. She spent most of Hayes’s graduation party in the basement reminiscing about Catholic school with a guest who’d unwittingly admitted having attended one. When I returned her to the Greyhound terminal, she leapt from my car with her rolly bag and fled.
The stressfulness of this occasion was a chilling preview of what might go down in 2012, when Vince would graduate from Loyola in New Orleans. He would walk across the stage with his best friend since age three, Sam Shahin, whose parents have played a major supporting role in our lives. They were the family I wanted to be with — the family that likes me, for God’s sake.
The significance of this graduation was even greater because New Orleans was the city where I met the boys’ father. My encouraging my son to go to college there had been a way of strengthening our bond to a place I loved. From the moment I arrived at Mardi Gras in 1983, I had recognized this tropical mutant of a city, this mecca of Sodomites and Gomorrans, as my spiritual hometown. Among the misogynist gay guys, the drunken yet genteel Southerners, the skinny black people in kitchens, the fat white people on porches, the characters out of Tennessee Williams and Ellen Gilchrist and Anne Rice, I somehow fit right in.
Of course that was in the years before the accursed fleur-de-lis took hold.
Ever since Georgetown, I have been strategizing the Big Easy commencement. I had to accept that my usual approach to Grandma Grace — saccharine toadying punctuated by flashes of rage — would be no more successful than it ever had been. Any suggestion I made would be unwanted; any decision simply wrong.
The good news was that some of her other family members would attend with her, making arrangements, sharing flights and hotels. This was excellent. I could rent my own car and stay out in Lakeview with my friends, swooping in only for key events. To further increase my chances of emotional survival, I decided to take not only my children Hayes and Jane but our dog Beau. (Ever since Southwest started letting small pets travel in the cabin for $75, I have become that nutty old lady who won’t go anywhere without her dachshund.)
Vince’s graduation was held in the Superdome, now the pimped-out Mercedes-Benz Superdome, having put its 2005 nightmare of semi-televised raping and thirst in the past. When I arrived with children and cousins in tow, I learned both the Shahins and the Grandma group had saved us seats.
What to do? Well, Jane and I had joined Grace at the baccalaureate mass the day before, the only ones who had. I know she must have liked it, though she didn’t go so far as to smile or hug us or anything. And what if she was annoyed now? How much more annoyed could she be? I sat with my old friends, who had been through so many of the joys and trials of the last 20 years with me, and we launched into the nostalgia and boohooing.
Little Loyola New Orleans put on quite an extravaganza, complete with a medieval-castle stage set, Jumbotrons, confetti explosions and a jazz band. I couldn’t help teasing Hayes about the contrast between this and the commencement at Georgetown, which had been of the high school gymnasium variety. The only diversion from name-droning was provided by the school’s mascot, a bulldog, who lounged on stage during the proceedings.
After the ceremony I met Grace in the aisle.
“That was amazing,” I effused, “wasn’t it?”
“No,” she told me. “Hayes’s was way better!”
I don’t think the cake and champagne on the plaza convinced her either. But if things had ended at that point, I would have had the moral victory of keeping a smile on my face no matter what.
In the morning, it was Mother’s Day and the kids had suggested Cafe du Monde. As the hour approached, I was still driving around town trying to scoop up the sleeping partiers, so phoned Grace. “Yeah, Mar,” she said grimly by way of hello. Her use of this nickname never seems affectionate; it’s more like the other syllables are just too much bother.
Finally the nine of us clustered around pushed-together tables at the crowded cafe, waiting. It occurred to me to try to organize our order in advance. Since the beignets come three to a plate, I could figure out how many orders total and simplify the process. Like an idiot, I asked Grace and her group what they wanted.
“We each want one,” she said.
“One beignet or one order of beignets?” I said. “They come three to an order.”
“We know that,” Grace told me. “We were here yesterday! We each want one.”
One. One what? Now the aunt and uncle joined her, pointing to the table and chiming in. Perhaps I should have been able to understand that they each wanted their own order, but I could not. I snapped my head in the other direction and stared into the napkin holder, breathing heavily. My children watched me with trepidation.
The elderly Polish waitress arrived just in time to circumvent the violence.
In a matter of hours, we would all be fleeing with our rolly bags.
Goodbye, dear New Orleans, goodbye. I take with me my college-educated Saints fan, my Tabasco-swillin’, bass-playin’ crawfish addict. I take with me two large plastic cups, once brimming with the finest of Bloody Marys. I take as well my Mother’s Day gift, purchased by the kids from an artist in Jackson Square. The fleur-de-lis would have been good, but they found something better still: a painting of google-eyed aliens with the motto IT COULD BE WORSE lettered across it.
As they say in New Orleans: Yeah you right.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.