Jazz Funerals and Journal Entries

This is my notebook/journal entry for today, September 26, 2008, about Coleen Salley's funeral. It's rough. S'okay... yes? Just want to connect, today.
I'm in my pajamas at 4pm, at the Lafitte House, sitting in the parlor, which is next to Walter's and my bedroom (we are the only room off the parlor, so it's like having a private parlor, very nice). I have cried and laughed and have had such a full day and a half, and there will be dinner tonight at Irene's, one of Coleen's favorite restaurants, a bunch of us including Joan Stevenson, Walter Mayes, Kimberly Holt, Terry Young, Traci Todd, and I'm not sure who else.

It was a marvelous, magnificent funeral. I can't get over it -- it was so sad, and it was so funny, and it was even joyful -- I am uploading photos to Picasa, but my connection here is slow, so I'll post just a few for now, but oh how I want to share these short movie clips with the band playing and the pageantry of it all. Soon, maybe.

Meanwhile, in the photos I've managed to upload (well, I'm uploading as I write... we'll see how successful I am), you'll see Walter in the red boa, Kimberly Willis Holt, Ellen Ruffin, and many others -- I loved seeing Lori Benton, Jeannette Larson, Jen Haller, Joan Stevenson, Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel, and Coleen's children and grandchildren... that's her grown twin grandsons at the front of the cart... and yes, that's a grocery cart -- it was Coleen's "hearse."

For 34 years, Coleen was part of Mardi Gras with her own "Krewe," the Krewe of Coleen. In the last photo, you'll see a picture of her in the grocery cart (it's on the mantle) with her crown next to it. Coleen was cremated, and the urn was placed in the grocery cart on top of several quilts, including one for "Who's That Tripping Over My Bridge," her first book. On top of the urn was the crown she wore when she was Queen of the Krewe de Vieux in 2004.

The service was a mass. It was good we got there early, because there was standing room only -- Walter and I estimate there were well over 500 people there. Coleen's son David gave the eulogy. It was so very funny and moving, and there was a song about God being a river and the river is me, there was communion, there was more music, and there was lots of laughter, and also tears.

David's remarks included the many names Coleen was known by: Coleen, Mrs. Salley (to her thousands of library students in the seventies and eighties), Ya-Ya (to her grandchildren), Aunt Coleen (to so many blood and honorary kin), Mama, and names that were unrepeatable in church. Ha. David was just under a year old when his father died in an automobile accident -- in fact, Coleen's kids were 4, 2, and 11 months when she became a widow. David called Coleen's colorful language "expletives of endearment." hahahaha. He framed his talk with three words he used to describe his mother, all starting with "F" and none of them "that F." They were family, friendship, and fun.

"She was a gift to New Orleans," said David, "to children everywhere, and to her family and friends." And, I would add, to children's literature and its creators, publishers, readers. She knew how to nurture relationship while being true to her self and we are all the richer for having known her.

When the service was over, Coleen's pallbearers and "Krewe," those who had marched with her at Mardi Gras for years (most of them wore special tee-shirts that said, "Queen Coleen: 1929 - 2008: What a Ride") and the Krewe -- and all in attendance -- chanted a lusty "Hail to the Queen!" and then the band came in to a jaunty tune, marched to the front, turned around and marched out playing the old hymn "Oh, For A Closer Walk With Thee," and folks left the church in tears. Sad, sad, sad...

But. As soon as we were all outside, the band started playing bouncing, happy tunes, including "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and those who had white handkerchiefs began to wave them in the air (the symbolic wiping away of tears). Several people brought the traditional decorated umbrellas, and some folks dressed in outlandish costumes -- Kitty-Kat took the cake.

We marched the 11 blocks back to Coleen's -- a long, luscious march, because the crowd was huge, and the band was having a good slow time, and onlookers took tons of photos, and some joined in as second-liners. Overheard: David said to George, "We don't have enough food at the house!" but they did, they did.

The streets were completely blocked off along the parade route, and we stopped to deposit Joan in a police car at one point because she ran out of steam (it was a long walk!), and then we caught up. The police took Joan on to Coleen's. Chartres Street in front of Coleen's was blocked off, and good thing, as they needed the space -- people were everywhere.

In front of Coleen's home, there was one more raucous "Hail To The Queen!" and then Genevieve took the urn-avec-crown inside the front door, where she did just what her mother had asked for, and what David announced from the lectern: "Many times Mom said, 'when I die, I want a GOOD PARTY -- a GREAT PARTY -- and I want to be there. Prop me up in the corner so I can enjoy it, too." And that's what they did. Amazing.

The inside of the house had been turned into a museum. The furniture was gone, and along the walls and on shelves, mantels, bookcases, were mementos of Coleen's life, and photographs galore, and it was just... lovely. If you have been to Coleen's during an ALA or IRA and you have signed her walls -- your signature was prominently displayed for all to admire. Two televisions screens played videos of Coleen telling stories. In the courtyard, Coleen's famous milk punch (ice cream melted somewhat and Jack Daniels, mostly) was served along with wine, beer, and Cajun food from Mother's, a NOLA institution.

It was ebullient, I loved it, and yet there were just so many people it took my claustrophobic breath away, and I couldn't stay too long in that loving-but-close crush of stories and people. I paid my respects to Genevieve -- could not get close to David and George; I heard they were in the back of the courtyard, hosting a storytelling-about-Coleen event, which was a lovely thing to do, so people could tell their stories.

Walter, Kimberly, and I caught a cab and skittled outside the Quarter to a fabulous dive, Willie Mae's Scotch House, at St. Ann's and Conti, that Walter had long wanted to frequent. Good food, he said, and it was -- fried chicken, pork chops, butter beans, red beans and rice -- as well as a respite from the emotional atmosphere of apres-funeral.

Coleen would have been thrilled with this party. Well done, George and David and Genevieve and all. Thank you for being so gracious, so welcoming, to all who loved Coleen. More to say but words are inadequate.

So now... a short nap. Home tomorrow late. I'm staying in the Quarter tomorrow morning and will write for a while before heading to the airport. You can catch up on my blog posts about Coleen here and here and here.
Okay -- it seems I've been able to upload some photos from today here. There are several short (ten to twenty seconds) recorded clips, all at the end of the batch -- you can hear the band and watch the weaving, waving crowd and be part of this celebration, even if you weren't able to be there... although because I'm not able to figure out a few quirks, you'll have to watch a couple of the recorded clips sideways.

Be sure to watch the very last recorded clip: "Hail To The Queen!"

Long Live The Queen.