My high school sweetheart’s mother loved –– and presumably still loves –– Christmas more than anyone I’ve ever known. Starting just after Halloween, she’d set out Santa candles and mangers and ceramic elves and hand towels emblazoned with holly wreaths. She had Christmas sweaters and Christmas coffee mugs. She listened to Christmas music. She baked Christmas cookies.
I understand that kind of enthusiasm, though not for Christmas.
A friend of mine who lives along the Uptown parade route loves Carnival more than anyone I’ve ever known. Starting just after Christmas, she hangs out a purple, green and gold flag and puts up purple, green and gold bunting on her balcony. She has an open house for every parade, setting out pans of jambalaya and red beans, plates of King Cake, ice chests of beer and soda. “Carnival Time” and “Mardi Gras Mambo” play on a seemingly endless loop.
I understand that kind of enthusiasm, though not for Carnival.
No, all of my fervor is concentrated on two weekends in the spring –– Jazz Fest. I buy clothes year-round with the intention of wearing them to Jazz Fest: linen sundresses, galoshes, sun hats. The day the cubes come out is like the equivalent of Black Friday for me; I plot and plan and strategize with intensity. And the food, my God, the food.
I’ve missed very few Jazz Fests over the years, and most of them are blended and layered into a sort of generic pleasant memory of sweat and mud and coconut sunscreen and crawfish bread and dancing and sunburn.
A few Jazz Fests stand out, though. My very first Jazz Fest, pictured above, was in 1985. Moments after this picture was taken, my mom set me down, and I immediately got stung by a bee. While I wailed hysterically, some fast-thinking family friend sliced open a cigarette, put a wad of tobacco in his mouth and then spit all over my leg, which only made me cry harder. I think I was ultimately soothed with a chocolate-covered strawberry and sent to play in the Kids’ Tent. As far as I know, there’s not a picture of me at the end of this day, but if there were, it would show me covered with dirt, chocolate, snowball syrup, grass stains and tobacco spit. I’d like to say that this was because I was 4, but even 25 years later, I still end a Jazz Fest day every bit as filthy.
Then there was the Jazz Fest when I was 9 –– aka the day my dad met his fourth wife. (The quintessential New Orleanian, my dad has met his third, fourth and fifth wives at Napoleon House, Jazz Fest and Rock ‘N Bowl, respectively.) My dad and I had gone to Jazz Fest on the first Saturday, and I’d already eaten about eight snowballs and drunk five strawberry lemonades and was bored with everything. I’d brought along a Baby-Sitters Club book and a pad of Mad Libs and finished both, so I told my dad I was going down to the racetrack to play in the “sand” –– I don’t want to actually consider what it really is, but I know it’s not just sand.
Around sunset, the Jazz Fest police drove by in their little buggy and asked where my parents were.
“Oh, my dad’s around here somewhere,” I said vaguely.
Maybe 10 minutes later, they drove back by.
“The fest is closed,” they said. “Everyone’s gone. Come with us.”
My mother, furious, picked me up –– covered in dirt and chocolate and snowball syrup and grass stains. My father, apologetic, introduced me two days later to his new girlfriend, whom he’d met that afternoon at the Dr. John show.
Some things get funny with time. That story got funnier, but 20 years later, it’s still not funny. Like the bee sting in 1985, it smarts a little, even now.
Overall, though, my memories of Jazz Fest are overwhelmingly happy. I remember huddling under a black trash bag, cut open along the seams, in the middle of a warm spring downpour with my dad and aunt and uncle, all of us born in North Carolina, as James Taylor sang “Carolina in My Mind.” I remember being 22 and dancing with my dad as Paul Simon performed, hugging him tightly in his tie-dyed tank top and jean shorts and finally forgiving him, entirely, for forgetting me at Jazz Fest all those years before. I remember taking my daughter for the first time, wearing her in a Maya Wrap and dancing to the Wild Tchoupitoulas as she wiggled and clapped her hands.
This year, she’ll be almost as old as I was in that photograph, and I’m delighted but also a little in awe to think that soon she’ll have memories of Jazz Fests of her own. I hope that they’re memories of pure happiness, of music and sunshine and dancing and friendship and food.
I, of course, have been buying Jazz Fest clothes for her all year, too, and I’ve got a bright-green sundress and some tiny Crocs and a little floral sun hat for her to wear. And I’ll consider myself a failure as a mother and a New Orleanian if we don’t both return home covered in dirt and chocolate and snowball syrup and grass stains.
What’s your favorite Jazz Fest memory? What do you look forward to all year long?