So my daughter Gladiola announces she and her friends are wearing body paint on Mardi Gras.

“Sweetheart, body paint will rub off and ruin your clothes,” says my mother-in-law, Ms. Larda.

Gladiola just smirks.


She means body paint only.

It is a Gunch tradition for the entire family to go out together, dressed more or less alike. We been mirlitons; we been sequined roaches; we been white trash bags; we been apples-on-a-stick; and right after Katrina we wore blue tarp capes and went as the New Orleans skyline. The one thing we always were was modest.

When my son Gargoyle started LSU he stopped going with us. He and his college friends spend Mardi Gras drinking beer and looking for places to relieve themselves. This is how you have a good time in higher education.

But Gladiola is still in high school.

After the initial shock, I realize this body paint business is what you call a red sardine. She wants me to get all upset and negotiate a compromise: she will wear clothes if I let her run the streets with her friends instead of her family.

 I tell her if she’s looking to negotiate, she can go to the United Nations. I am her mother. And she isn’t going to run the streets and get snatched up by some pervert without me.

“We live in the French Quarter, Ma,” says Gladiola. “We got more perverts than roaches. No big deal.”

“Pervert? I ain’t seen nothing like that around here,” says Ms. Larda. That will change once she has her cataract operation, I think to myself.

But then she says something that knocks off my socks.

“Body paint … the Gunches ain’t never done that, have we, Modine? Tell you what, Gladiola, you invite your little friends to come along with us, and we’ll all dress in body paint. Save me sewing a bunch of costumes.”


I open and close my mouth, but no sound comes out. Then I notice Gladiola’s face. She looks like she just found out the “People of Walmart” would make up her bridal party.

Hmm. Ms. Larda has raised more kids than me. I realize she’s raising the ante – just like in Texas Hold’em poker.

But she raised it too high: naked Gunches. Now, not only is this family novena-making, God-fearing, naked-disapproving Catholics, but they’re as svelte as the Macy’s parade balloons. They are the kind who wear sweatpants for everyday and stretch pants for weddings. If the Gunches was on the street in all their glory, people would be struck blind right and left. I don’t even want this picture in my mind. I want to wash out my brain with soap.

 But, I rearrange my face – I should get a couple of Oscars for this – and I look straight at Ms. Larda and say, “Good idea.”

“You’re bluffing,” says Gladiola, but her voice is shaking.

“We can paint ourselves black and gold, like Saints players. Underneath we can wear thongs and pasties, to make it modest, ” says Ms. Larda.

“Stop it, Meemaw!” says Gladiola. She grabs her cell phone and runs to her room.

I thought we had her.

But I guess Gladiola has watched Texas Hold’em too. Or her friend Pristine has, because after she blathers on the cell phone she marches back in with a whole new attitude. She has decided to call our bluff.

“OK. If everybody goes out in body paint, me and Pristine and Amy will hang out with you guys,” says Gladiola.

“Deal!” says Ms. Larda.


This wasn’t going to happen. But we had to pretend it was. And we had to get the whole family involved, in case Gladiola got to talking to them. Everybody had to act like they were going out in paint and pasties. My brothers-in-law Leech and Lurch kind of like the idea. It would save time in the port-a-potties, they say.

Now, in secret, we get together some clown costumes, so we can go out as  candidates for mayor.

But we’re in a high stakes game of chicken. Gladiola calls me from this costume shop on St. Ann Street and tells me she’s charging the black-and-gold body paint on my Mastercard. How much will it take to cover the Gunches – five gallons? I say OK, even though I realize I may have to start up a face-painting career outside Saints games.

The tension increases, parade after parade, as the big day gets closer. It is the final Sunday, and I’m letting myself in the house after the Bacchus parade when the phone rings. It is Pristine’s mother, Lysolla. She wants to know if I’m out of my mind. Just like she expected, now that I’m living in the French Quarter with my “gentleman friend,” (she skips the part about how we’re in separate apartments) I have sunk to a new low (I wonder what the old low was) and do I mind if she escorts the girls out this Mardi Gras, fully clothed in the Frog Princess costumes she spent two weeks making out of her old green kitchen curtains – and me and my “family” ( I didn’t know you could put quotation marks around words over the phone, but Lysolla does it) can flaunt our bodies any way we want, and catch our deaths of swine flu, as long as we don’t corrupt the girls.

I could kiss her.

Gladiola has had a backup costume all along. And if she had told me about this in the first place, we never would have had this body paint stand-off.

I could tell Gladiola that she can go with her friends, and the family will come meet them, the whole bunch of us, in our black-and-gold body paint.

But I ain’t that mean.

So I just tell her to have a good time.