Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Down to the river

"We're going down to the river,
Down to the river, down to the river to pray.
Let's get washed by the water
Washed by the water and rise up in amazing grace."


The best laid plans don't always come together.

Just ask any bride. Any mom. Any coach.

But when they do, it really is magic.

When my Mama left this earth after 84 years of living her life to the fullest, my sister and I were left to face a challenge. Mom didn't want a funeral. No wake, no service and certainly no viewing.

I understand that she didn't want a bunch of mourners passing by her casket saying, "Oh, she looks good!" She wasn't religious so she didn't want a bunch of prayers over her body. She didn't want a bunch of ballyhooing. As loud and as boistrous as she was, she wanted to just slip out of this world peacefully and quietly. She really didn't want to be a bother, so she wanted nothing. She wanted to go just as she went -- quietly and peacefully and without any kind of fuss.

We used to argue over this a lot. I'm one of those people who believe you have to have some kind of closure. My father's funeral and its aftermath is one of the enduring memories of my life. And it's actually a good memory.

"We have to have something, Ma," I'd say. "The way you'd have it, we wouldn't even get a day off of work! And you'd deny me flowers and pretty plants? Really?"

"Yes," she'd say.

Occasionally she would concede.

"Have everybody over to your house, in your yard, then go throw me in the River," she'd say. A lot.

So that's what we did.

Six days after Mama went wherever she went peacefully and quietly in the middle of the night, The Coach and I hosted a party.

Y'all know I'm no stranger to parties, now. I host a parade every year. I've had a good dozen or so toddler, kid and teenage birthday parties. I turned my house into Hogwarts and a refrigerator box into a Tardis. Yes indeed.

But I'm not so adept at hosting a funeral.

OK. It was a memorial service. And I had a vision from the start. I wanted simple, elegant, but Mama. So I took down some of the Christmas decorations, made a little memorial table with pictures and mementos and ordered myself a big bouquet of flowers.




I didn't want a sign-in book, so I ordered memory cards for guests to write their favorite memory. And as a keepsake, I ordered Forget Me Not seeds and envelopes. (And spent hours filling them!)

Throughout the day a steady stream of family, friends and complete strangers made their way to and through our little cottage, grabbing a chicken tender or a piece of catfish along the way. A big gang gathered in my tiny kitchen to drink and talk about those who were and weren't there. (You know who you are.)

Meanwhile, the kids ran around the backyard, testing the strength of my hammock and miraculously avoiding the dog droppings.

Then about 4 p.m., my husband got everyone's attention and explained what would happen next. We were going to the Mississippi River, where there would be a nice (we hoped) sunset.

And we took Mama and her dog, LulaMae, with us.

A caravan of about 20 or so cars followed us to the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which is about a mile from our house. Most people know it as the big Army Corps of Engineers project that has to save the City of New Orleans from flooding every once in a while. We also know it as a huge, wonderful recreational area where local folks fish, camp and play in the mud. It also offers a spectacular view of the Mississippi River and some gorgeous sunsets.

This day was no exception.

First, we gathered in a circle, each offering a memory of my Mama. How funny she was. How strange she was. How unforgettable. How stubborn. How bigger than life. How she often told people that she wanted to go into the river.

And even though she wasn't very religious, we all held hands and said one for her anyway.

Just at that moment, a lone Bald Eagle decided to fly over us. I had never seen one in my life.

Then we made our way to the water's edge, small waves rippling toward the shore, and let her and LulaMae go, riding on the little waves and taking their sweet time about it.  A dozen red roses followed her -- the color of her ubiquitous lipstick -- and one beautiful flower garland handmade by one of her dear French Quarter friends.

And behind it all was a perfect sunset. Some even saw a cross in the clouds in the sky.



There were tears. But there also was laughter.

And peace.






Lettie Lee French

Obituary
Lettie Lee French, a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and eccentric character passed away Monday, December 4, 2017 after a brief illness. She was 84. Fiercely independent and a mistress of reinvention, she had careers as a comptometer operator, restaurant hostess, hotel night auditor, office manager and hobby shop owner in Houma and New Orleans. She was a talented painter who studied with well-known American artist Henry Hensche. After moving from Bay St. Louis, Miss., to Norco, La., she spent 10 of her final years as a Tarot Card Reader at The Bottom of the Cup Tea Room in New Orleans. She loved her family, her poodle, Lulamae, and the casinos. She is survived by her daughters, Jo Lee Catton (Abby "Nick" LeBlanc) of Baton Rouge; and Lori Lyons (Marty Luquet) of Norco; daughter-in-law Louella Pitre Lyons; Grand children Lee Saunier (Regina) of Prairieville, Beau Saunier of Baton Rouge, Casey Catton of Baton Rouge, Lena Lyons Brunet (Clayton) of Houma, Marti Lyons of Houma, Kevin Lyons (Samantha) of Houma, Daniel Luquet (Cori) of Luling, Courtney Luquet of Destrehan and Lora Leigh Luquet of Norco; and 10 great-grandchildren. She is preceded in death by her parents, Martin Behrman French and Evelyn Himel Cross French; her son, Rhett Martin Lyons. Friends and family are invited to a casual gathering to be held on Sunday, December 10, 2017 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the home of her daughter in Norco. In lieu of flowers, donations to are preferred. The family wishes to thank the staffs at Oschner Hospital in Kenner and Ormond Nursing and Care Center in Destrehan for its thoughtful care in recent weeks. Arrangements made by Samart Funeral Home of Houma.



Wednesday, December 6, 2017

No tomorrow


"I'll see you Monday," I said. "I'll bring my book and sit with you all day. I'll need the rest."

It was a promise I made and fully intended to keep to my Mama on Saturday as I left her surrounded by my nieces, the great-grandkids and my sister-in-law. I brought coffee. They brought Popeye's.

It was the day before the big Christmas parade that literally ends at my house. Every year we host a big Open House for family, friends and some parade participants. I had a million things to do. The Coach and I were headed to the grocery store for vittles for the party. But I was already exhausted from a week of house-prep and Mama.

She had been in the hospital since last Friday, complaining of not feeling well. She had been lethargic. Nauseated. Weary.

Turns out, she really did need that oxygen they sent her home with a few years ago but she sent back. That day her oxygen levels were so low the triage nurse thought the reading was wrong. No, they really were in the 40s.

She was released on the following Thursday and moved to the nursing home near our home for a temporary respite. "Skilled nursing," they call it, for the patients too well to stay in a hospital but not really ready to return to their little room in their daughter's house. She had up to 20 days paid for by her insurance to get stronger, get some more physical therapy and get used to the idea that she really did need that oxygen.

She had spent a week at another facility in August. That one was more of a hospital though. This was a nursing home, the same one where my mother-in-law spent her last week. Where many others do too.

"Do these people stay here all the time?" she asked me on Friday.

"Some do," I told her. "But you're only here temporarily until you get stronger so you can come home."

I had been there every day, getting her settled. Getting her TV set up. Bringing her clothes, makeup, toothpaste and a daily thermos full of my husband's coffee -- which she loved.

She was doing OK, I thought, but not great. She didn't look so good. She still didn't feel so good. My sister went to visit her after the parade.

"She didn't look good," she said. "She said she didn't feel good."

A little after 2 a.m., the phone rang. I've come to know that a middle-of-the-night phone call is never a good thing. That's when your mom calls to tell you your big brother has died in a car wreck on a lonely stretch of road. That's when that same nursing home called to tell my husband that his mother was on the way to the hospital she would not leave.

To me they simply said, "There's been a change in status. Can you come down to the facility?" Then she gave me a code to get in. I had to call back to get it repeated.

I was in my closet getting dressed when I realized it. Mama was gone. They didn't say she was being taken to the hospital. "Change in status." That can only mean one thing.

An eternity later (really only 15 minutes) we drove up and saw the ambulance idling and the Sheriff's Deputy's car. I knew.

Inside, a lovely lady named Claudette stammered as she tried to say the words I already knew were coming. The nurse, making her rounds, found my mom in her bed. She was gone.

I wanted to see her, but I was asked to wait for the coroner to come. About 30 minutes later they decided he wasn't coming and I could go in.

Her body was there, but the fierce, fiery, sassy, force of nature that was my Mama was gone. Stilled. Poof. Just like that.

That's the hard part. I was supposed to see her tomorrow. But tomorrow came and she was gone. There will be no more phone calls asking me when I'm coming to fix her TV or her phone or bring her coffee or her glasses. There will be no more arguing over something stupid. We did that a lot.

While she was in the hospital, I rearranged her room at my house. She had only been there since August and we were still trying to get her settled. A fabulous painter, she brought many of her artworks with her to my house, but in her depressed state she never let me hang them. I put as many of them up as I could while she was out so they would be there when she came home.

She never thought of this as her home, though. It was my home to her. It was my kitchen. My refrigerator. My cabinets. I told her once, "I bought you the cookies you like." She replied, "I'm not going to go through your cabinets looking for something to eat, Lori." No matter how many times I tried to tell her, "This is your home now," it never was.

I had hope for our future, even though I knew it would be somewhat short. I had no idea it would be this short.

When my mama lost her mama in 1988, she told me, "That's a champion you lose forever." She was right.

I really did plan to go to the home on Monday and sit with her and rest my sore feet and legs. I would have. But when tomorrow came, she was gone. Instead, I packed up her few belongings and brought them home. Then I went to the funeral home to make arrangements and fill out her death certificate.

Hey. Not everyone gets to put "Tarot Card reader" in the occupation box.

I got to see her one more time. Still still. And it broke my heart in pieces to know that was the last time we  would be in the same room. Forever.

I won't get to see her tomorrow.