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The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, Page 2

Rebecca Wells

  I see her now as she held me above the La Luna River, her long hair lit by a waxing moon. I see my mother as she held my baby body up to the lady in the moon.

  Chapter 2

  Sometimes at night, lying in my bed, I could hear the sounds of the La Luna and picture all that water and where it went. I’d get goosebumps just thinking that I lived on a river that mixed with waters from worlds far, far away. In Louisiana, the town of La Luna is thought of as having a little cuckoo magic to it. Papa says that calling La Luna cuckoo is saying a lot, since Louisiana itself is pretty out of the ordinary. I lived an enchanted childhood in our cuckoo magical little town, but my childhood ended sooner than any of us thought it would.

  My parents were Lenora and Will Ponder, and they taught dance at their studio: Will and Lenora’s Swing ’N Sway. We were a family of five. Papa was tall, with dark wavy hair and hands that were so beautiful. He played fiddle and squeezebox accordion for Cajun tunes, and trumpet for his 1940s music. It’s no wonder he was such a great musician, with fingers like his. Long, tapered fingers.

  My mother, with her long hair and blue eyes, seemed to be dancing even when she was still, like there was a dance always going on inside her. My oldest brother was Sonny Boy, who was big, loud, and happy. From the time he was little, his favorite thing to do was building things. He was never happier than when he had a hammer, a nail, and a piece of wood. Will, my other brother, was just a year older than me. He was slender, with beautiful hands like Papa’s. He could play just about every kind of instrument, and he was always at Papa’s side, learning something new about playing. When Will was six, Papa gave him a fiddle made by one of Papa’s buddies, and he was screeching along in his room for what seemed like an eternity, but in a year he was playing in front of Papa’s band, the other musicians clapping him on and teaching him more.

  My parents taught ballroom, swing, jitterbug, tango, and every other style of dance you can imagine. Grown-ups and children alike came to Swing ’N Sway. Little kids got taught the Cajun two-step, since contrary to some folks’ belief, kids in this part of Louisiana are not born knowing it from birth. Wednesday nights were Ladies’ Nights, and not even Papa was allowed in sight. The most popular was the first Saturday of the month, which was family time at the dance studio, when we’d open as early as nine in the morning. M’Dear and Papa and all our friends made a big pot of gumbo that they cooked in a big cast-iron kettle over a fire that Sonny Boy helped tend. Big ones, little ones, mamas, papas, grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, or friends visiting from out of town—everybody was welcome. Papa’s band, Willy and the La Lunatics, played Cajun music on and off, all day long, with different fiddlers, accordion players, and other musicians from all around sitting in. My brother Will loved when these Saturdays would roll around, because he had the chance to sit in with the older Cajun musicians.

  Dancing didn’t just mean “lady and gentleman” couple-type dancing. It meant any combination of people that wanted to happen. Grandpas dancing with their little grandchildren, old people dancing together, little kids running around causing trouble. People brought picnic blankets and lawn chairs. I always liked seeing the little babies taking naps in their mothers’ laps, right under the live oaks outside. I’d go over and visit, and end up holding the baby so the mother could get up and dance—that is, if she didn’t want to dance and hold her baby on her hip at the same time, which was a sight you always saw on Saturday mornings. At the Swing ’N Sway nobody felt left out.

  No matter what kind of music or people or group, everybody was influenced by my mother’s belief in dance. She called it dancing “from the bottom of your heart,” or De plus profond de ton coeur. Both my parents taught that everything in the world dances, in its own way. Trees dance, stones dance, hats and dogs and candles dance. Pencils dance, flowers dance, telephones and peaches dance. And if we listen, we can dance to the same music.

  It was because of M’Dear and Papa that people in La Luna danced so much—not just on those Saturdays, or at a fais do-do, our Cajun country dances. Much more than that! People in La Luna danced on their way to the post office if the spirit moved them, and it was not rare to see bankers lock their money drawers and then do the Watusi. Mister Chauvin, the barber, tap-danced regularly in front of his barbershop. He was asked by Mister Bordelon, the druggist, simply not to tap-dance while he was giving haircuts. But Mister Chauvin insisted that’s how he got his exercise. Pregnant mothers danced, and old people danced with their canes. And everyone knew that the biggest dancer was the river herself.

  Some of my happiest moments were during dance lessons. I was content to lie, head in hands, on the edge of the perfectly polished dance floor, studying my parents as they danced by, illustrating different types of dances. My mother’s strength and beauty captivated me as she swirled across the dance floor in my father’s arms. Her long, flowing hair, her wide open eyes, her power as she swung out and back in, the muscles of her upper arms like no muscles I saw on the arms of the other women in this country town. Her back, so tanned and muscled like the swimmer she was. Above all were the times my parents waltzed together. Watching them waltz made me feel that nothing in the world could ever go wrong. I was so young when I thought that. Yet, it is how I see my mother now—still dancing with strength, power, and grace.

  When they weren’t teaching at the studio, Papa taught music at La Luna River School, and M’Dear ran her beauty salon, the Crowning Glory Beauty Porch, which was on the side porch of our house. Papa and M’Dear planted a wisteria vine there, and in the spring those cascading clusters of pale lavender blossoms made the whole porch feel like a giant, sweet-scented bouquet.

  Aunt Helen was M’Dear’s older sister, and the town seamstress. She was married to my uncle Richard, and they lived two blocks from us. Aunt Helen was a big part of our lives. She was not as tall as M’Dear, but almost as pretty, and the two of them loved to cut up.

  Aunt Helen had to work after my uncle Richard came back from World War II. M’Dear said he looked just as handsome as when he left, but his mind was still at war. He screamed at night; he could never sleep. Sometimes he cried. We’d often all be eating supper together when Uncle Richard would start to cry. Through his tears, he would say, “Won’t you all excuse me, please?” And then he’d go out on the porch alone. Olivia, who came to help Mama sometimes, would come carry his food and ice tea out to him. Olivia was taller than anyone else I knew. And her skin was the color of ice tea once the tea bags had been sitting in there for two whole days. We all loved Olivia and her husband, Pana. Olivia helped M’Dear with cooking and cleaning twice a week. She worked next door at the Tuckers’ pretty much all the time. Pana sometimes helped Papa with yard work and fixing gates, hauling brush, and things Sonny Boy and Will couldn’t do. Pana was Mister Tucker’s right-hand man.

  Uncle Richard always carried a book with him everywhere he went. He said it was the best drug he knew of to ease pain. With his full head of thick reddish-blond hair, nobody would have guessed that he was so banged up inside. I suppose that’s the way it was with everyone, really, that line between what’s inside and what’s out.

  When I was six, a little bit older, I started asking people if I could fix their hair. I loved to touch it and smell it and feel it. It soothed me. It also fascinated me, this line between our insides and our outsides. We have to take very special care I thought, or people’s heads could just crack open like eggshells, and everything would come spilling out. So M’Dear’s work was important work, like being a nurse, maybe.

  M’Dear said the first time I saw a bald man, I thought the world was coming to an end. I must have been around four or five years old. I had never seen anyone who had no hair on their head. It looked like a full moon on top of a man’s body.

  We were at Kress’s Five and Dime Store, where M’Dear was buying me a Coke at the soda fountain, when that bald-headed gentleman walked in. M’Dear said I took one look at him and grabbed her arm so hard she thought
I’d break it. “M’Dear,” I cried out, “that man hasn’t got any hair!”

  When M’Dear finally calmed me down, the man was standing over by the gumball machine, and I could not take my eyes off him.

  M’Dear said, “Excuse me, sir, but my little girl hasn’t ever seen a bald-headed gentleman before. Would you mind if she looks at you?”

  “Go on ahead and look, honey,” he said.

  I saw the light glinting off his shiny scalp and asked, “Can I touch your head please, sir?”

  I looked at M’Dear.

  “It’s all right, baby doll,” she said. “If it’s all right with the gentleman, it’s okay with me.”

  He just squatted down and leaned his head over to me. I rubbed my palm across his bald head, which was smooth and cool. I never realized that there was something like that underneath people’s hair.

  “Thank you, sir,” I said. “Thank you for letting me touch your pretty head.”

  The man grinned at me. “Thank you,” he said, “for calling my head ‘pretty.’ Been many a moon since I heard that word having anything to do with me.”

  After that, I saw people differently. Their hairdos protected their delicate skulls! I wanted to be part of making hairdos that might help protect the full moon that sits on top of each person’s body.

  M’Dear once told me, “Calla, every day, you have to try to improve your angel-eyesight.” She always taught me to believe in angels.

  Well, to this day, I think that man was an angel. A bald-headed angel.

  Sometimes I wondered if my mother was an angel herself. Well, except when I misbehaved. Then she gave me the eye and yelled, and banished me to my room. An hour away like that seemed like an eternity. When I’d get home from school, the first thing I would do was go out to the side porch to see if M’Dear was fixing someone’s hair.

  When she turned our side porch into a one-chair beauty shop, the ladies started lining up with their pocketbooks dangling from their wrists and scarves on their heads, just waiting for a cut, color, and curl. Papa had put in a beauty parlor sink and a little counter too. The Crowning Glory Beauty Porch was screened in and faced a pretty patio where the ladies could go down during good weather and sit and visit. M’Dear always liked to set out pitchers of ice tea and lemonade, and I took care of that. Louisiana never gets a snowy winter, but it does get bone-chilling cold and wet that calls more for hats than hairdos. But that didn’t stop the traffic at the Beauty Porch. Papa would bring in the big heater from the fishing camp that kept the Crowning Glory open and comfortable all year long. During those times, I made big pots of hot chocolate in the kitchen and brought it out to the ladies. I’d stand there smiling, waiting for a tip, until M’Dear shooshed me.

  One day, M’Dear was giving Miz Lizbeth a curl. Miz Lizbeth was married to Bernard Tucker, and they were our family’s dearest friends. He ran the cotton gin, where farmers took their cotton crop to have it removed from the seedpods and baled. This made him a pretty important man around our neck of the woods, which was full of cotton farmers. Papa knew a lot of them too because everyone danced at the Swing ’N Sway, even farmers on Friday evenings, still using their pocket knives to clean the dirt from under their nails. We called him Uncle Tucker because our families were so close.

  One day I asked M’Dear if I could watch her with Miz Lizbeth up close. I was spellbound the whole time. M’Dear was putting Miz Lizbeth’s hair into pin curls, and she explained what she was doing as she went along.

  The pin curl method is not as easy as you might think. You’ve got to divide out square sections of the hair with a comb. Then you have to place the curls in exact rows, so that one curl covers up the part made by the comb before the next curl.

  Well, Miz Lizbeth looked just lovely when M’Dear finished. Her white hair looked full, all thick and fluffy. Now, not a lot of ladies in La Luna had silver hair. They all came to M’Dear to color it on a regular basis.

  When M’Dear was all done with Miz Lizbeth, I asked if I could come back and watch her make someone else beautiful. M’Dear tapped her fingers lightly against her lips and said, “Well, all right, Calla. You can watch me this Thursday after school.”

  So Thursday I got to watch a session with Mrs. Gaudet. Poor Mrs. Gaudet. Her husband, Mister Gaudet, had died three or four months ago, just before school started.

  When Mrs. Gaudet came into the Crowning Glory, M’Dear went over and gave her a big hug. “Angie, how are you, sweetheart? Come on in, let me get you a Coke. Go on over there and have yourself a seat.”

  I said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Gaudet,” then stepped back out of the way and peeked in like a church mouse. Looking back, I would have to say her hair was washed-out gray. If I had to name her hair color like on the color bottles, it would be Exhausted Gray, or Grieving Gray. She was still sad, you could tell. She had that sort of extra-tired look, like there wasn’t any amount of sleep that would make things better. I wondered what it would be like to have your husband die. I didn’t like to think about it. It was too scary. So I just concentrated on her hair.

  M’Dear came back with a Coke and said, “Let’s just start with a basic wash today.” Then she gently walked Mrs. Gaudet over to the chair at the sink.

  “I feel like every single hair is sad, you know what I mean?” Mrs. Gaudet asked my mother.

  “Then we’re just going to take it hair by hair, okay, Angie?” M’Dear laid her hands on Mrs. Gaudet’s shoulder, then very briefly touched her on the forehead. I got the feeling that today’s session was one M’Dear wanted me to watch closely. I’d never seen such a sad person have their hair washed before. And then she reached over to get the shampoo, and I watched M’Dear close her eyes first and take a deep breath. Then she leaned Mrs. Gaudet’s head back, gently, and got it wet and sudsed it up. “Is that water warm enough?” M’Dear said.

  “Well, it could be a little warmer.”

  “You tell me, Angie. You tell me if everything’s all right, okay?” And M’Dear started washing her hair. I could see M’Dear’s hands just working up against the back of Mrs. Gaudet’s neck, up the sides of her temples, and around her head. And then M’Dear opened her eyes. It was not as if she was looking at the different bottles of hair color on the shelf, Copper Penny or Sparkling Champagne, or as if she was looking at me, or as if I was even there anymore. M’Dear was there but she was also somewhere else. She stared in front of her as she continued to rub Mrs. Gaudet’s hair.

  She looked down at Mrs. Gaudet’s hair, and I sensed that something was traveling from Mrs. Gaudet’s heart to M’Dear’s. And it was happening through my mother’s hands. I didn’t really know how long it took, I just know that it happened. I saw M’Dear frown for a moment and tilt her head slightly down, and I could see her take a deep breath. M’Dear kept rubbing and then finally she said, “Ready for a rinse?”

  “Yes,” Mrs. Gaudet said.

  As M’Dear rinsed, I could see her watch closely as the water from Mrs. Gaudet’s hair became more and more clear until finally it looked clean enough to drink. The frown passed from my mother’s face, and a small smile replaced it. M’Dear began to hum, very lightly, something that I’d never heard before, just a little tune that she’d made up. And then she softly whispered, “How’re you doing, Angie?”

  Mrs. Gaudet said, “I’m doing a little better, Lenora. I’m feeling washed clean.”

  “Good.” And M’Dear wrapped up Mrs. Gaudet’s head with a towel, up into a turban, and she carefully helped her up and into the beauty chair in front of the mirror and towel-dried her hair, and said, “All right, what should we do with your beautiful mane of hair?”

  “How about this?” M’Dear said, when Mrs. Gaudet didn’t answer. “I’ve got a fresh new batch of pink sponge rollers. Haven’t even tried them out on anybody, so they’re not dented in.”

  “Those sound good,” Mrs. Gaudet said.

  “Well, while I do it, how about I get you another Coke?”

  “Oh Lenora, you’re fussing
over me too much.”

  “No, I’m not.”

  And so I got up without M’Dear asking me and I brought Mrs. Gaudet a Coke in a small bottle, icy on the outside because it had been in the Frigidaire in the back.

  She took a sip. “Thank you, Calla.”

  I watched M’Dear as she began to roll Mrs. Gaudet’s hair in a perfect roll all the way back and then on the sides. All the while M’Dear kept humming until Mrs. Gaudet began to talk, just a little bit, very softly.

  “The other side of the bed just feels so empty, Lenora,” she said, her voice all quavery. “Why did they build beds so big?”

  M’Dear just nodded and said, “They do, they build them just too big, don’t they? You would think that they’d just automatically shrink to fit to your size so you wouldn’t have to keep reaching over so much.” That made Mrs. Gaudet laugh. And M’Dear said, “I think we could make a living doing that. Because Angie, just think of it. How many people have people they love die, and when they reach over to the other side of the bed, it’s empty.” She paused. “You’re not alone, Angie. You remember Jolene?”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “That was five years ago, you remember?”

  “I do.”

  “Jolene comes to the Swing ’N Sway on Saturday mornings, she’s one of the ones that helps us cook gumbo. And she dances up a storm with her nieces and nephews. Time passes, and it heals like nothing else, except for maybe a new hairdo.”

  And M’Dear was right. The new style looked very elegant on Mrs. Gaudet, and when she saw herself in the mirror she actually smiled so big it lit up her whole face. She didn’t look quite as tired and sad anymore, she actually looked pretty.

  M’Dear was usually worn out after sessions like that. She would go and sit down on the swing on our family porch and just swing, back and forth, back and forth, and I could hear her breathing, in and out, her feet sore, barely touching the floorboards. Sometimes she would reach her hand out and I would go and sit on the swing with her. And we would hold hands. I could always feel the heat in her hands then. And I knew that something was passing, not just from Mrs. Gaudet to M’Dear, but something from M’Dear to me.