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The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

Rebecca Wells

  The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

  A Novel

  Rebecca Wells

  This book is for Tom,

  who ran many marathons,

  with the many changing finish lines.

  This book is for Tom,

  to rest.

  The glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.





  I know the moon and the moon knows me. I…

  Part I

  Chapter 1

  My name is Calla Lily Ponder. I was born in…

  Chapter 2

  Sometimes at night, lying in my bed, I could hear…

  Chapter 3

  My friend Sukey had thick, short, straight black hair. And…

  Chapter 4

  Every summer morning I woke up early, pulled on my…

  Chapter 5

  On the day it happened, I swam in the river…

  Chapter 6

  I remember the day that I began to feel that…

  Chapter 7

  In summertime, I had to wake up early. In Louisiana,…

  Chapter 8

  A few hot weeks later, I was sitting with Tuck…

  Chapter 9

  They told us it was stage-four cancer. It was why…

  Chapter 10

  I had been so worried about M’Dear. I kept waiting…

  Chapter 11

  The day of the funeral I could barely get dressed,…

  Chapter 12

  Everybody knew we were going through a lot with M’Dear’s…

  Chapter 13

  One time, for World History class, we had to write…

  Chapter 14

  It was our senior year, early autumn, and still hot.

  Chapter 15

  The class of 1971 was getting ready to graduate! So…

  Chapter 16

  Right after graduation, I got a job as a waitress…

  Chapter 17

  The next day, when I went back to work, I…

  Part II

  Chapter 18

  In 1972, as far as I knew, you could have…

  Chapter 19

  I was at Godchaux’s semiannual shoe sale when I learned…

  Chapter 20

  I was so excited to see Sukey, I waited for…

  Chapter 21

  A day came when a huge beauty lesson just fell…

  Chapter 22

  On Fat Tuesday, the last day of the Mardi Gras…

  Chapter 23

  A few weeks after Mardi Gras, Sukey and I were…

  Chapter 24

  One afternoon I was working particularly late on a dye…

  Chapter 25

  Sukey laid low for a while. Ricky guessed that she…

  Chapter 26

  It had been almost a month since I’d seen Sweet…

  Chapter 27

  After we’d pulled her out of Simmy’s bar that night,…

  Chapter 28

  There was a spot uptown where Sweet and I loved…

  Chapter 29

  After I was married, I started to go to La…

  Chapter 30

  I hadn’t told but two people that Sweet and I…

  Chapter 31

  Sweet and I had been trying our very best to…

  Chapter 32

  One fall afternoon, I was doing a coloring job on…

  Chapter 33

  I didn’t feel ready to get out of bed, but…

  Chapter 34

  Steve did some investigation for our case against the oil…

  Chapter 35

  I had been back working at Ricky’s for almost six…

  Chapter 36

  The day I was supposed to move, I was slow…

  Chapter 37

  After kissing our house good-bye, I climbed into my Mustang,…

  Chapter 38

  The whole town had pitched in. It was like a…

  Chapter 39

  As soon as the Crowning Glory was open for business…

  Chapter 40

  How I love October in Louisiana! It is, hands down,…

  Chapter 41

  Olivia was the one who found him. Though she was…

  Chapter 42

  The postfuneral cochon de lait was filled with good food,…


  The breaths of my daughters and sons are the notes…


  About the Author

  Other Books by Rebecca Wells



  About the Publisher


  The Moon Lady

  I know the moon and the moon knows me. I am the moon and the moon is me. I am life itself. I am not who they think I am, that old white man with the long white hair whose judging eyes try to force fear into their very pores. I am the moon mother, and I hold my children on my lap, night and day, in the heat and in the shade. When they wake and when they sleep, I whisper to them: Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid. The ones who feel my lunar light pause before they walk out into the day. They take a deep breath, greet the morning with love, and invite grace to enter them at every moment. All have pain, but not all suffer. The body might ache, loss might occur. But for those who embrace my light, there is dancing.

  There is a hamlet named La Luna in the center of Louisiana, on the banks of a river with the same name. It is a piney-wood river town of 1,734 souls. I watch them as they try their best to live each moment in their little town named after the river, on this fragile spinning planet. This world is made up of stories—every person’s story, those that are hidden, and those that are outright and clear. This is the story of one named for a flower.

  I danced with her mother on an old wooden floor where rhythm was queen. I danced with her father as he held her mother. I danced with her mother when her belly was big, a sail blown full with the wind. I held her mother as she let go of the earth’s pull, as her family did its best to let the sweet dancing mother come home to me.

  The sun shines hard and bright on my people. The air hangs heavy and humid in this swampy state where the quiet La Luna River flows into the Mississippi. That wide, robust river carries life and dreams, commerce and poisons out into the Gulf of Mexico. There I watch the Louisiana coast recede, losing a football-field piece of land every twenty minutes. Saltwater rushes in through canals cut by the oil companies into the fragile, freshwater marshes that struggle to nurture life. I see crazy flames dot the coast from gas and oil rigs that extract from deep in the earth what, eons ago, were once living plants. All that oil provides energy, and carries a cost. It both gives and takes life.

  Whether or not they see me, moonlight bathes my raggedy, tender people. Sometimes they are capable of unimaginable kindness. Other times they are filled with near-paralyzing fear. Even when it is dark, though, when all light seems to be eclipsed, there is light on them. Light in them. I see it. I see it every day under the sun, every night under my lunar glow.

  Oh yes, I know the moon and the moon knows me. I watch my children as they dance in La Luna, the hamlet named for me, in the beating of the heart of the crazy, holy state of Louisiana.


  Chapter 1

  My name is Calla Lily Ponder. I was born in 1953 in La Luna, Louisiana, on the banks of the La Luna River. That is where my mother cut and curled hair, and my father and mother together taught tango, waltz, and the Cajun two-step. They said they named me for their favorite flower because they wanted me to spiral open into radiant beauty, inside and out. Even when I was born, a red, tiny, hollering th
ing, they claimed they could see the beautiful, creamy-colored, velvety bloom of a calla lily.

  My eyes are blue like my mother’s—I call her M’Dear—and my complexion is olive like Papa’s. I guess the only thing that resembles the flower I’m named for is my long, strong legs. They’ve served me well so far, and I’m grateful for that. I was taught not to care much what other people thought, unless someone said you were mean to them, and it was true. Then you better pay attention. My big brothers and I learned this at an early age: That it is kindness that makes you rich.

  I also learned very early that I loved my mother’s hair. Family stories have it that when I was young, nothing soothed me more than being held in M’Dear’s arms, playing with her long, shiny chestnut-colored hair. It fell down to her waist, but photos of her at that time show how she held it back in combs so only part of it fell forward. I’d reach up, let it fall over me, then part it, pat it, and curl my fingers in it. I’d play with it the way other children did with new toys, only my mother’s hair was new to me over and over again. After a spell of playing with it, I would settle in and just gaze up at her. She would look back, and when she did, she let me see myself reflected in her eyes. It was as if she held this little mirror inside her, just for me, to see me, to know who I was.

  M’Dear was the owner and sole practitioner at the Crowning Glory Beauty Porch. The name of her business came from two sources. First, the Bible. Second, the fact that we had a porch that ran all the way around our house.

  M’Dear taught me about the Bible early on. “‘A woman’s hair is her crowning glory,’ the Bible says. It’s a beautiful quote. Along with the Beatitudes and the Commandments, it’s one of the teachings I hope you and your brothers will learn. And don’t just learn them, let them into your heart.”

  Papa said, “Just be kind. Period.”

  When M’Dear and Papa first moved into our house, M’Dear had the big side porch enclosed and turned into a beauty parlor. It was there that she washed, dried, curled, dyed, bleached, permed, and gave manicures—but not pedicures, and I don’t blame her. Down off the porch was the Beauty Patio, with a fountain that had a lady with mermaids swimming under her like they were holding her up. The Crowning Glory Beauty Porch was where most all the La Luna ladies came to catch up on the latest news. Even ladies without appointments stopped by in the afternoons for coffee, bringing some sweet baked goods to share with everybody. As Papa put it, “Lenora has made her beauty porch the Crowning Glory Gathering Place!” I always got goosebumps and felt slightly disoriented when I heard my mother called by her name. It reminded me of her life that was separate from being my mother. As close as M’Dear and I were, it was good to be reminded. It kept things in balance. In their classes, I watched her at Will and Lenora’s Swing ’N Sway, Papa and M’Dear’s dance studio. I’d see her cha-cha, swirl and dip, waltz, fox trot, and samba with other men on a regular basis. She had two chiffon skirts, and when she dressed up in one of them, she looked so different from the M’Dear I knew in her cotton dresses, or shorts and a starched white blouse. On the nights when she was demonstrating dances and teaching certain moves, I was both proud and a little jealous. When I told her that, she hugged me, and said, “Oh, little Calla, there’s enough of me to go around. I have enough love for you, and other people too.”

  On the days that M’Dear washed her hair, she called them “Days of Beauty.” She spent the whole day pampering herself, and she taught me how to pamper myself as well.

  “If cleanliness is next to Godliness,” M’Dear said, “then pampering is next to Goddessness.” My mother would say those kinds of things and then give a little laugh and a wink like we had a secret club.

  On Days of Beauty, we had fans made of vetiver root so that when we fanned ourselves we smelled the wonderful, spicy, of-the-earth smell that is the vetiver plant, grown on the Clareux plantation not far from La Luna. M’Dear made it a game for us to create facials from ingredients out of the kitchen and the garden. This was all before I started school, and was graced to spend days on end with my mother, so rich and private that even now I can close my eyes and relive them. I do not mean to say that those days were perfect. Even at that age, I heard the edge in M’Dear’s voice when she and Papa sat at the kitchen table, at night, talking about money. Sometimes we had very little, and that was scary, although I didn’t know then what it all meant. It was just as well, since it all worked out. In the world of La Luna, my parents were too creative to go broke.

  During the wet, cold months that make up a Louisiana winter, M’Dear’s hair was so long and thick that drying it could take all day. On those days we’d stay inside, cleaning, ironing, and cooking up huge pots of gumbo. I’d climb up onto the big soft chair next to the fireplace in the kitchen, and shine shoes or sew on buttons or do the other tasks she was teaching me. I’d sit there and watch her work, watch her go in and out of the washroom like a breeze was blowing her in.

  On hot Days of Beauty, we’d put on our swimsuits and stand outside on the wooden platform of the outdoor shower. It was my happy job to scrub clean buckets and other containers and set them outside to gather rainwater to wash our hair. M’Dear would undo my braid, pour the rainwater on my head, put on a little Breck shampoo, and wash my hair. The sun shone down, my mother’s hands touched my head, and her fingers lathered love into me. Never has my hair been so soft. Sometimes I still wash my hair in rainwater, to remember.

  After our hair was clean, M’Dear would leave hers down, and, still in our swimsuits, we’d hang clean clothes outside to dry on the line, with me handing her clothespins out of a small apron she had sewn for me out of flower sacks. I have a photo of us by the clothesline, doing this very thing. We were working and smiling, squinting slightly in the sunlight. I was just about to enter first grade, just about to leave behind those mother-daughter days of intimacy, of little maternal baptisms. M’Dear prepared me for that leaving so that it was smooth and felt natural. Not all leavings are that easily prepared for.

  After finishing chores and when our hair was dry, M’Dear and I would go down to our pier, just before sunset. These memories are so vivid to me that I don’t need a photograph to see them. I carry them inside me.

  In one memory, it is growing toward twilight. We are sitting on the pier with the La Luna River flowing by.

  “M’Dear,” I ask, “can I brush your hair with the hundred magical strokes?”

  “Of course,” she says.

  And as the sun sparkled off the cocoa-red water and the wind stirred in the tall pines, I stood behind my mother, my legs on either side of her, and brushed her hair. I lifted her long chestnut hair up off her neck, twirled it up on top of her head, then let it fall, watching its weight settle back down around her shoulders. Then I’d lean my face into her hair and smell it. I can close my eyes and smell it now: sun and vanilla.

  What I first learned about love, I learned on that dock with M’Dear. The La Luna River flowing by with its river sounds, the riverbanks with their lovely sweet citrus scent of jasmine, the scent of M’Dear’s hair, the oils of her scalp, the fullness of her thick, long curls against my hands, our breathing together, the closeness, her love for me—all of this knit my soul together. When the fading sunlight hit the river, it bounced up to form iridescence, like a halo, around M’Dear’s head. She is the most beautiful person in the universe.

  On clear nights when the moon was out, we’d return to our pier. On the way, she’d point out fireflies. I’d hear a screech; M’Dear would stroke my hair, and say, “Calla, that’s just a barn owl, and nothing to be afraid of. Oh, she’s a beauty of an owl, with a white, heart-shaped face.”

  I remember the first time she introduced me to the one who would keep me company forever. She must have told me even earlier, because my big brother Will later told me that as a toddler I used to waddle around in diapers, saying “Moolay, Moolay.” And Mama told me, “Your Papa and I held you up in the moonlight when you were barely six months old. Everyone else in La Luna ta
kes their one-year-olds to dip their toes in the river. But we held you up to the moon as well.”

  That night M’Dear said, “Calla, now look at the moon!” Her voice was filled with love for me and delight in what she was witnessing. “You see how beautiful She is?” M’Dear always called the moon “She.” “See how bright She shines! See Her light on the water? Here, let me hold you while we look. Tell me, Calla, what do you see up there?”

  “I see a lady.”

  “I do too, little darling.” Then M’Dear wrapped her arms around me and whispered in my ear, “She’s the Moon Lady.”

  We were quiet as we watched the Moon Lady’s reflection dance on the river.

  “Remember this,” M’Dear said. “When the sky and everything around you looks dark, and you feel lost and alone, the Moon Lady is still there, watching over you, whispering: ‘What do you need from me now, little darling, what do you need from me now?’”

  Then M’Dear lightly touched the crown of my head. “The moon is our mother, sweet daughter of mine. Call on her when you need her. Call on her.”

  All my life I’ve remembered those words. Or tried to.

  I miss seeing myself reflected in M’Dear’s eyes. I thought I’d lost the reflection when she died. But then I learned that it is not permanently lost. That if you wait, like she told me, then you can lift the gauze, lift the veil, and see her eyes again.