Surrounded by saints

Thirteen years ago today, Dan and I were on our first trip together, just a few short months after we met.

We both wanted to explore New Orleans. He thought Halloween would be fun. I agreed, but mainly because I wanted to be in the city on All Saints Day.

We spent the first five days at a guest house in Treme – an old downtown neighborhood between the French Quarter and the city’s impoverished 9th ward. We had to board a bus called Desire whenever we wanted to ride into the French Quarter. The streetcar had long since stopped running.

The fact that an area with such stunning poverty would be labeled with a name like “Desire” still strikes me as the heart of the city’s nature. It’s a place so well-acquainted with death and disaster, and so strangely able to burlesque tragedy, particularly its own.

Among the tourist attractions in New Orleans are its above-ground graveyards. Because of the high-walled, narrow walkways that the graves create, a few of the most famous sites can be ripe picking for armed robbers. Every travel book I read recommended that they only be visited with organized bus tours on any day of the year, save one: November first.

On All Saints Day, the city’s cemeteries fill with fresh cut flowers, handwritten notes to loved ones who have passed, gifts, sticks of burning incense, people whispering secrets into crypts. The chapels are warm with candles lit for the dead. The graveyards are so populated with people honoring loved ones that your purse and camera are more likely to be safe as you go searching through the outdoor corridors for the real tomb of Marie Laveau because you heard the locals whispering that the one that the tourists are shown isn’t real.

There are a few sights from that trip that have never left me: The glassy, yellow-red possessed eyes of the Voodoo priestess as she danced with a snake in Congo Square, and the way that they became pearly soft and kindly, like a schoolteacher’s, as she ate forkfuls of cake with pink frosting moments later. The houses on stilts as Dan and I drove out of town to Delacroix on a quest to see the End of the World together. (The adventure ended with little more than a painted sign: “The End of the World Marina.”) Dan decided to be a mime for Halloween, which was awkward not only because people really do seem to hate mimes, but because by total chance, we ran into a local musician who was walking through the Quarter with jazz legend Diane Schuur, who is blind. There were several moments of wild gesturing before Dan realized that this might be the one point in the night where breaking character would be best.

Above all, though, I remember the prosthetic limbs that lined the walls of the side room of the chapel at St. Roch cemetery on All Saints Day. The were crutches and braces surrendered to “the patron saint of invalids,” who was said to have miraculously healed Italian plague victims in the 14th century. The room also had a statue of St. Lucy, patron saint of blindness, holding two eyeballs on a dish. I remember how this cemetery, more than any other – and we went to five or six that day – swelled with colorful blossoms and banners and cards and people who flattened their palms against mausoleums, eyes closed, remembering.

I was raised protestant, so saints weren’t much of a part of my religious vocabulary growing up. And yet, somehow, it was my grandmother’s wish when she died that a brass band would play “When the Saints Go Marching In” as her casket was taken from the church to the hearse. We made that happen, and it was beautiful.

As I understand it, All Saints Day is about remembering the people no longer with us, who still live under our skin — the ones that we look to for guidance, even if we can only imagine what they might say to us now. I try to think of those people in my own life often, but work and trick or treaters and traffic and phone calls get in the way. Today, I will make a point to remember them, one by one.

Life soundtrack: Louis Armstrong, Live, “When the Saints Go Marching In”: Launch

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