Mothers and daughters on two councils discuss differences and similarities.
Clockwise from bottom left: Cynthia, Patricia, Diane, Kevi, Jacquelyn (Councilmember Clarkson, center)
Jacquelyn “Jackie” Brechtel Clarkson
Orleans Parish, Vice President
Two years ago, at the premiere of Whatever Works in New York City, Woody Allen asked to see the “crazy Clarkson women.”
“We’re all maniac overachievers,” Jackie Clarkson, Orleans Parish city council councilmember at large says when talking about her five daughters: Jacquelyn, Cynthia, Diane, Kevi and Patricia.
In a household of teenage girls one year apart, there was no shortage of chaos. Clarkson recalls on any given weekend, they never hosted fewer than 20 girls, whether it was the Chargerettes, cheerleaders, honor society or gymnastic team. “It was wonderful,” she says. Now, when all five girls return home for Christmas, she continues to cook the traditional dinner, this year feeding 50 people.
For Clarkson, her daughters’ childhood mirrored her own. “There was always excitement and confusion, and everyone was an overachiever,” she says. “We lived a very fun life.” She was immersed in the city and culture thanks to her father, Johnny Brechtel, who was a pioneer of the city’s recreation department (NORD). She recalls her father always brought home everyone he met at a meeting to eat her mother’s cooking. “My mother was the rock, and the house was the place,” she says. “The house was always a place we could bring the world, and I tried to emulate what she did.”
“I loved being a child in this city, and I love being a mother in this city,” she says. “Now I’m a grandmother of adults in this city. That is the frosting on the cake.”
“We all think that family and loving and respecting each other are the most important things in life. No matter how successful they are in their professional lives, they don’t think there’s any profession more sacred than motherhood, even the ones that don’t have children.”
“Their professions are vastly different. I have a Ph.D. who’s an environmental epidemiologist [Jacquelyn] who’s been a senior vice president of an international company. I have a lawyer and realtor who’s also a mother of four [Cynthia]. I have a school psychologist and math teacher and a mother of three [Diane]. I have a financial businesswoman and realtor and mother of three [Kevi]. And the fifth is an actress [Patricia]. How much more different can you get?”
From left: Grear, Councilmember Palmer, Josephine, Talbot
Kristin Gisleson Palmer
Orleans Parish, District C
For this young family, there is always something happening in Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s household. With dance class, soccer practice, cooking and making costumes for Mardi Gras and Halloween, they stick together. Before Katrina, Gisleson Palmer started Confetti Kids, Inc. – a nonprofit organization aimed at renovating parks and playgrounds in Algiers Point – and renovated houses as the director of Christmas in October. After the storm, she renovated houses as the director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans. She would often take her daughters, Talbot, 13; Josephine (JoJo), 11; and Grear, 8; to the warehouse where they would do their homework on the floor or travel as a family to worksites on the weekend.
“You never really drew lines between your personal life and your work life, because we were all wrapped up in rebuilding the city,” she says. “And my children got to be a part of that.”
“I don’t buy into the fact that New Orleans is not family friendly,” she says. The Palmers often ride their bikes to the French Quarter for brunch or walk to the aquarium. On the Thursday of Jazz Fest she always takes them out of school for a family day. “It’s an important part of the culture of New Orleans,” she says. “I would take them in strollers when they were younger because Thursday was always less crowded. Now, it has become our tradition.”
Although completely individual of each other, her girls enjoy helping her campaign and work in the community.
JoJo even asked for a suit to wear to community meetings. When Gisleson Palmer was deciding to run in 2009, Talbot said, “All right, Mom. I think you should run, but only if you get recycling back.”
“They’re pretty fabulous,” she says.
“Talbot likes issues and having genuine conversations and discussions. JoJo has a high level of empathy and loves making people happy. Grear is very hard on herself. We are harder on ourselves than other people are honest. That’s very remarkable for her being 8 years old.”
“Talbot is a much better artist than I’ll ever be. JoJo, that child, she doesn’t care what anybody thinks of her. I love that about her. Grear is a better dancer than I am; she’s got a good rhythm.”
Councilmember Guidry with mother, Gail
Susan G. Guidry
Orleans Parish, District A
In fifth grade, a young Susan Guidry (née Young) forged her parents’ signature on a failed test. After the school caught wind and notified her mother, she greeted Guidry when she arrived home, and they proceeded to have a talk about why her actions were wrong. After sending her daughter upstairs, she began to “laugh and laugh and laugh,” Guidry now recalls.
Gail Compagno had seven children in 10 years, with Susan being No. 3. Although Guidry grew up in a packed house, she knew she always had the support of her mother. “She’s always been a mother first,” she says. “There was always that sense that you were safe and that you could be yourself and real with her.”
Although some raised in a big family desire the same when they get older, Guidry grew up wanting a quiet home. “Growing up with nine people in a three-bedroom house until I was in seventh grade, I decided I had enough of this,” she says.
Instead of children, she has pound puppies. “I’ve always had two puppy dogs, one for each hand,” she says. Her current dogs, Maya and Jean Deaux (JD), were even in her wedding to Hervin Guidry in 2002.
Guidry and Compagno share a bond over reading and sports. Compagno was the captain of St. Mary’s Dominican High School’s 1951 women’s basketball state championship team. She even competed in the 1990s with people from that same high school team at the Senior Olympics in San Antonio and Baton Rouge, winning the national championship.
“We’re thrifty. The word waste is like a mortal sin. Hervin used to laugh at me when I’d wash out Ziploc bags, then he met my mom and she would ask him, ‘Are you going to waste that?’”
“I think that the biggest difference between my mother and me is an obvious one – we both value strong family ties as well as have professional careers, but my mother’s dominant focus was and remains her children, while my professional life continues to govern my day-to-day activities.”
Councilmember Head with Hawkins and Charlotte
Orleans Parish, District B
Stacy Head’s children – Hawkins, 9, and Charlotte, 6 – have enjoyed a few perks from their mom’s gig as councilmember, from attending inaugurations and watching President Obama in person to mingling with Hornets players at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Evans playground. “They’ve gotten to do some great things, but they also see how important it is to give back and engage in community service,” Head says.
As a family, you can find them involved in numerous outdoor activities, including sitting at the Carrollton baseball fields twice a week eating hamburgers and cheering on Hawkins. They also like to travel. The kids already have their passport stamped more times than she did at age 20. Her mother has treated the family to vacations in Mexico, Italy and a girls’ weekend in New York City, to name a few. “I’m very lucky to have a supportive husband [Jeremy Head], mother-in-law and a great mom that lives three blocks from me,” she says.
Because she had kids later than her mother, “I have a nice appreciation for how precious and fleeting the time is with my kids,” she says. Head credits the Crescent City for helping provide a childhood for her and her children like no other. “Children who grow up in New Orleans are by nature more sophisticated and more open to new experiences,” she says.
“My son is a very cautious person. He is very competitive. He’s very Type A, and I’m a Type A. Charlotte is a reader. She’s obsessed with reading, and she can’t read yet! She pretends to read. She makes us read. She and I will share books.”
“We do not know where Charlotte came from, other than looking exactly like my husband. She has the funniest personality. We’ll ask her questions like, ‘How was school?’ ‘It was great!’ ‘How was lunch?’ ‘Delicious!’ She’s just fun. It is interesting watching how odd genetics are. My son is this lanky boy who crosses his legs, just like my grandfather.”
From left: Matthew, J.P.(Jean-Paul), Councilmember Hedge-Morrell, Nicolas and Todd
Orleans Parish, District D
Having four sons in 13 years, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell was never short of excitement. She and her husband, Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, had sons Todd and Matthew eight years prior to sons Jean Paul (J.P.) and Nicholas.
“It’s so funny, because when you have two groups of sons, I’ll be reminiscing about something we did, and one of them will go, ‘wrong group,’” she says. “The thing about having a houseful of men, there was such comradery.”
Her family is now a staple in local politics. Between her time on the council and being principal of McDonogh 15 Creative Arts School, her husband’s term as state representative and clerk of criminal court, and now her son J.P following in his father’s footsteps first as state representative and currently state senator, conversations regarding social and political issues dominated the dinner conversations. “We didn’t think of ourselves as a political family, but it was always something we discussed,” she says.
Between the age difference, professional careers and eight grandchildren (five girls and three boys), the Morrell family does not spend time together as often as desired. But for Christmas dinner, Olga Hedge Pedescleaux, Cynthia’s mother, insists on everybody getting together, even taking multiple special orders from the boys. “It’s fun. She won’t let you cook,” she says. “My daughters-in-law want to learn how to make her filé gumbo, and she’ll say, ‘You can help,’ but they end up just cutting up seasoning.”
“I was very blessed [growing up]; I had a wonderful mother-in-law and wonderful mom. Growing up in New Orleans, [I had] the typical extended family,” she says. When Hedge-Morrell was younger, she took the bus one hour to school. After she got her driver’s license, her mother decided to let her drive the car, and she took the bus to work every day. That unconditional love was what Hedge-Morrell and her husband strived to pass down to their children.
“My biggest joy is watching them be the great dads that they are,” she says. “I think they had a great example.”
“Todd and I don’t sugar-coat anything. We are very blunt. Matthew is the other side of my personality. He would give you the shirt off his back. He will bend over backwards to try to please. J.P. has the gift for gab. We try to out-talk each other. Nicky is more like his dad, but out of all my boys, he is the one more sensitive to me. He can tell when I’m upset.”
“People will laugh when I say this, but in my family, I don’t like confrontation. My boys will be combative in a minute. They will let you know what their opinion is; they won’t force it on you, but they’ll let you know.”
Councilmember Lee-Sheng with Miranda and Gavin
Jefferson Parish, District 5
Cynthia Lee-Sheng captured the public’s eye as a daughter of a public official, the late Sheriff Harry Lee. “I didn’t understand quite all the issues my dad was dealing with at a young age, but I did understand the importance of him going to work for the community every day,” she says. Now, as a mother and councilmember of Jefferson Parish, her role is reversed. Since 2009, Lee-Sheng has balanced her political career with raising her two children Gavin, 11, and Miranda, 8. “It would be very hard if my spouse [Stewart Sheng] didn’t support me, or my kids didn’t support me, especially doing this,” she says.
Along with attending local events – “we go to everything” – the family spends time together playing volleyball. Lee-Sheng and her husband met while playing the sport, and he is currently the coach of their son’s club team. She is also currently taking piano lessons with the kids, something she revisited after her mother’s failed attempt to get her interested as a child. “There’s a real pride in growing up in New Orleans, and I think my kids have it too,” she says. “They appreciate all the things we have here. They get it.”
“Gavin is the type of boy who will speak up if he feels someone isn’t being treated fairly. He is very grounded and doesn’t need to have the latest toy or gadget. Gavin and I both like music and we are taking piano lessons. He likes all the old (19)80s music from my teenage years. Miranda and I really don’t have similar personalities; maybe that’s why we get along so well with each other. We’re both night owls and both of us struggle to wake up in the morning. We are a volleyball family and Miranda can’t wait until the day we are all playing on the same team.”
“Gavin is always patient and respectful no matter what the situation. He is very friendly and can start up a conversation with anyone. He gets that from his father. It’s sort of a joke in our house, but my husband, daughter and I continuously vote him to be the nicest family member. Miranda is opinionated, bold and outspoken. I wasn’t like that at her age. I have always admired her for it. She also has a great sense of humor and is extremely funny, and willing to get a laugh at her own expense.”