In the days when my sister’s health was first starting to fail, we constantly urged her to move back to New Orleans from her home in Shalimar, Fla.
“Think of the muffulettas,” we said, knowing her weakness for food. “Think of the veal at College Inn. Think of the cheese fries at R&O’s.”
What we really meant, of course, was: “Be closer to us so we can monitor your drinking and your smoking. Be closer to us so you don’t die alone.”
And she almost certainly knew that and didn’t want that, didn’t want us interfering in her life. Because her response was always the same and always meaningless: “I can’t; I’m a Floridian.”
Well, actually, who knows if that was meaningless to her or not? Maybe being a Floridian did mean something to her. At any rate, we left some of her ashes there, in the same bayou where she’d scattered her mother’s. But we brought the rest of her back to New Orleans.
And then my family converged. We’re small, both in number and stature, but what we lack on those fronts we make up for in absolute insanity.
We spent all last Friday night going through old photos: my sister graduating high school, my brother holding me as a baby, me 3 years old and naked on a tractor, my cousin and her daughter at my dad’s fourth wedding, my aunt and me at Myrtle Beach on the log flume, my brother wearing two party hats and grinning at my fourth birthday party, my brother and sister and their friends raising their wine glasses in a toast at some dinner table in the 1970s. Prom pictures. Glamour shots. Goofy black-and-whites from those machines that give you a strip of four.
It was heartbreaking going through all of these pictures –– my dead sister smiling, my dead brother blowing a kiss –– but we picked out the best and then tacked them up all over my dad’s house in Mid-City.
We made my youngest cousin decorate a bunch of tiny envelopes, and I wrote my sister’s name and dates (Brett Ashley Kidd, Nov. 16, 1960 to May 22, 2010 –– I had to stop and ask my dad, “What day are we using for date of death? Just the day she was found?”) on each one. Then we spooned her ashes into each one to be handed out at the service. I thought this was a morbid idea, but by father found it comforting, so it’s what we did.
And then we spent the rest of the night making gumbo and red beans.
On Saturday, my dad’s house was packed. Everyone brought flowers. Everyone brought food. There was beer and wine and brandy. There was spinach-and-artichoke casserole and muffulettas and pasta salad. There was, of course, gumbo and red beans. It was exactly the kind of party Ashley would have loved, exactly the kind of party we used to have for her whenever she’d come home to visit. I kept looking around for her, hoping she was having a good time, only to realize, again and again, that although she was the guest of honor, she wasn’t there.
As the food and drinks disappeared and the night wound down, we all watched the video of Ashley making gumbo and then everyone said a few words. My sister’s lifelong friend Bruce, a sweetheart of a guy with the best New Orleans accent in the world, tried to read the eulogy he’d prepared, but he couldn’t do it without crying. Luckily, we had an actor in the house –– Don Brady, a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Big Easy Awards, took Bruce’s beautiful eulogy and gave us a spot-on dramatic reading.
As Don finished reading Bruce’s message, in which he confessed to being in love with my sister for his entire adult life, we all were in tears.
When there was nothing left to say or eat or drink, we all milled around hugging each other and sniffling. And then, because this is New Orleans and we either don’t know how to behave at funerals or we know just how to behave at funerals, we put on my sister’s favorite Steely Dan album as loud as it would go and we second-lined around the living room, handkerchiefs and all.
As people left, they did all in fact take the packets of ashes. One woman said she was going to take the ashes to next year’s Jazz Fest and scatter them there. Another woman said she was going to leave them in the French Quarter. An old family friend said he was going to take her in his pocket to Carnival. My cousin planned to bury her packet of ashes in the plot where my brother is buried in North Carolina.
I don’t know that funerals give closure exactly or even if I believe in closure in the first place. I do know that I believe that funerals are for the living, not the dead.
My sister might have thought she was a Floridian, and she might well have been. But we gave her a perfect New Orleanian sendoff.