Although I grew up in the Arizona desert, in many ways mine was a Southern childhood. After my parents' divorce, a few plot twists worthy of a Carson McCullers novel delivered me at the age of 4 into my grandparents' care. My Grandmother Maye, originally from Arkansas, still spoke with the thick drawl of her youth, and cooked as if she still lived in the Gulf Coastal Plain.
Despite working full-time as a jewelry saleswoman, she fixed me a hot "plowboy's breakfast" every morning, and fried up chicken, pork chops, or chicken fried steak almost every night. Every Sunday she served roast beef and gravy for 12 or more guests gathered around two dining tables: friends, relatives, and occasionally a stranger who'd told her a sob story at the gas station.
Nobody else in Scottsdale talked like my grandmother, nobody cooked like her, nobody else wore mink to the grocery store, and nobody, not even my grandfather, seemed to understand the place she'd come from. Perhaps that's why Grandmother always took an annual birthday trip to the South, in sweltering August, usually to New Orleans, to meet up with her sisters, cousins, and old friends. My grandfather wasn't one for traveling, so I got dragged along.
As a kid, I didn't particularly enjoy those Southern jaunts. Even The Big Easy failed to charm my younger self. I was 24 and cranky the year we took our last New Orleans trip together. Maye and her sister, Virgie, both in their 70s then, mandated a geriatric schedule: early to bed, early to rise, with eating and drinking at Pat O'Brien's in between.
If not for the company of Maye's niece, Paula, I might have been truly miserable. Instead Paula and I laughed together as we steered the old ladies safely to a cab as each day of partying slurred to a close, having slightly more fun than we'd had as kids, when we'd been left alone in a hotel while the adults laissez les bon temps rouler, poor Paula my unpaid babysitter.
After my grandmother's death, I felt no impulse to return to the South — until this year, when the Zatarain's company invited me to come to New Orleans for a crash course in celebrating Mardi Gras "like a local." My grandmother had loved New Orleans so much that she'd sometimes lied and claimed Louisiana, not Arkansas, as her home state. So nearly 20 years after her death and more sentimental than I used to be, the idea of seeing NOLA again seemed like a grand idea. Of course, I knew I had to sneak away to Pat O'Brien's at some point.
Located on St. Peter Street deep in the French Quarter, Pat O'Brien's is best known as the original home of the Hurricane, a sweet and strong rum cocktail served in a shapely glass, inscribed with an enthusiastic reminder to "Have Fun!" For decades those souvenir glasses and the bar's classic black-and-white party pictures have meant brisk business, but when I stepped out of the Tuesday afternoon sunshine and into the darkness of the famous piano bar, I encountered an empty room that smelled of old-fashioned sin and excess.
Drinking alone in the dark was never my grandmother's style, so I made my way out back to the courtyard. As soon as I grabbed a seat with a good fountain view, I had a sense of déjà vu, because, of course, the courtyard is where we'd done our day drinking that last trip so many years before.
If the ghost of my grandmother had appeared right then, she'd have found the place exactly as she remembered it, right down to the shamrock green jackets worn by the waitstaff. I'd be the only part of the scene that had changed, the only thing showing undesired age. Maye probably would have told me to put on some makeup.
When my frosty, fruity drink arrived, it stood a foot tall — and tasted more delicious than I remembered. I took a few sips and leaned back in my chair, trying to recapture a feeling of good times past. Instead, I felt myself getting tipsy and a little sad. I'd wanted to honor my grandmother, but drinking alone at Pat O'Brien's felt almost like visiting her grave, although I'm sure that if she was looking down on me at that moment, she felt annoyed.
Grandmother always hated funerals and pointless melancholy, which is why when she died I turned her memorial service into a party at Baby Kay's Cajun Kitchen in Phoenix, a stand-in for Pat O'Brien's. Coming back felt inevitable, but returning with loved ones to laugh and reminisce would have been wise.
I didn't want to finish my Hurricane, but the waiter insisted on dumping it into a plastic to go cup for me, reminding me to turn in my glass for the $3 deposit. I asked him to box up the glass for me instead. And, on the streetcar headed back to my hotel, I savored the lilt of Southern voices around me, the accents slightly different from Maye's Arkansas drawl, but still a familiar note.
I found myself chatting with the strangers sitting next to me, an instant rapport I rarely find in reserved Seattle where I live now. Was it the South or the rum that loosened my tongue? It is a potent combination.
Want to move to New Orleans? I texted my husband. I'm serious. Also, I'm drunk on the streetcar.
He said no. But I told him we're coming back for Mardi Gras next year, both of us, with the kids, even if they resist being dragged along. I'll never be as fun-loving as Maye, and I'm fine with that, but I'm so glad I had her example.
And I can't wait for my next Hurricane.