My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewalby Peter M. Wolf
The Wolf family had been in New Orleans for generations. They were Jewish but—as Peter Wolf’s grandmother put it—“not in an obvious way.” In fact,/b>/i>
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A “charming” memoir of growing up Jewish among New Orleans high society—and finding a place in the bigger world (Winston Groom, The Wall Street Journal).
The Wolf family had been in New Orleans for generations. They were Jewish but—as Peter Wolf’s grandmother put it—“not in an obvious way.” In fact, they threw lavish Christmas parties to entertain Peter’s father’s friends in the cotton business and even put up a tree. But despite their success and their philanthropic work, the Wolfs were always excluded from NOLA’s inner circles, elite clubs, and high-status Mardi Gras krewes.
It took a detour to New England—where Peter attended Exeter and Yale, and met friends like Calvin Trillin—to put the young man in touch with his cultural roots, and an adventurous adult life beyond the Big Easy to see the corruption, insularity, and racism that lurked beneath the cultural and culinary delights of his home. With a fond heart and a clear, candid view, Wolf offers this reminiscence of his childhood in Metairie, Louisiana, and the unique social hierarchies of New Orleans, with its old Creole families and residents both rich and poor.
A meditation on place and identity, this is “a loving and beautifully written portrait of New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s” and a look at a landscape that was shifting and disappearing even before Hurricane Katrina altered it forever (Booklist).
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My New Orleans, Gone Away
A Memoir of Loss and Renewal
By Peter M. Wolf
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Peter M. Wolf
All rights reserved.
Dad didn't know I was afraid to try the swing. I hoped he'd never find out. When no one was looking, I'd lie across the wooden seat on my belly. I was sure Dad would be ashamed of my timidity.
Even late in the afternoon, when I'd been out of school for two hours, it was still hot. I hadn't told Mom or Georgie, our housekeeper and cook, that I was going to walk down our street, Brockenbraugh Court, to the empty lot at the corner of Metairie Road, the principal street leading into the city. They might have said it was too close to dinnertime. Dad had never been in the lot, but he drove past it every day on his way to work. So did Mom, on her way to play canasta or golf. There was no other way into town. My parents didn't know that the neighborhood boys met there every Saturday morning. When I looked down my street from the lot, I could see our one-story, light yellow ranch house two blocks away.
Metairie, where we lived, was a growing suburb in Jefferson Parish, adjacent to the city of New Orleans, which was in Orleans Parish. Our house was about four miles from the Seventeenth Street Canal, the parish line. So technically we did not live in the city of New Orleans, but Metairie was so close to the parish line that everyone considered it part of New Orleans.
Now I was at the swing. No one was around. No one was walking down the sidewalk. I was alone. The swing hung empty and motionless. Its long, fat ropes seemed to fall out of the gloomy moss and dark overhead branches of the oak tree; they smelled like old hay. The dry dirt beneath looked like a tan-and-brown finger painting stamped into the earth by the soles of our sneakers.
I approached, looked around again to see if anyone was watching, and listened closely for footsteps. Still no sound; no one was coming. I felt the worn-smooth board and tested its strength by pushing down hard on its center. It looked dangerously high off the ground. I examined the coarse hemp ropes. They seemed okay. I could see no signs of fraying where they rubbed against the holes that had been drilled into the seat.
As I had before, I doubled myself over the skinny wooden plank, my belly flat against it. My toes almost touched the ground and my arms dangled in the air. When I stretched my legs and extended my fingers, I could touch the dirt on both sides. There I hung: everything held steady. I lifted my head once again; no one was watching. Very gently I pushed with my toes. The swing started to sway and lift. I was losing control and was scared to do more.
That day I decided I had to sit on it. I wanted to know how it felt to be up there off the ground, like the other kids. After a few more minutes of lying across the board, I stood up and stepped back to my usual place at the edge of the clearing. I could picture my father's stern face, the way he would look if I got home late. I could see my mother recoil at the sight of my dusty shoes and hands. I knew that when I got home I needed to remember to take off my shoes and clean up before going inside.
I sidled up to the seat again and turned it upside down to check for cracks. I reexamined the two big rope holes and the knots. They were so tight that I couldn't begin to pry my fingers inside. So far, so good.
The giant oak was special, even in New Orleans, which had so many old ones. Its massive branches spread through the air in every direction, some arching over Brockenbraugh Court. Silvery Spanish moss mingled with shiny green leaves, filling the spaces between the massive, elongated limbs like knotted, curly beards.
Always, while the other kids were swinging, I only observed. None of them asked me why or when I was going to try. They ignored me as I stood out on the edge of the lot. I knew they called me a "pipsqueak" or "chicken" behind my back when they thought I couldn't hear.
The older guys did amazing tricks. Some of them would swing hard and then, once in the air, twist their bodies until the ropes intertwined one way, then unwound the other—all as they continued swinging, back and forth, back and forth. This was "the spin." The younger guys had their own, easier version, winding up the seat with both hands, squeezing through the ropes to sit, before twirling in all directions.
Thinking about their fun, how they looked at me and called me "chicken," and how Dad would be ashamed if he knew I only stood around watching, I ventured to touch the swing again. It felt as if I were approaching a dangerous, sleeping animal. I stood next to the motionless wooden plank, judging its height above both the ground and my knees. I glanced at the scooped-out dirt below and at the fresh sneaker patterns there. They looked like the flounder impressions I saw at low tide on the shallow edge of the Gulf of Mexico when I was at Gram's house in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Someone must have been here yesterday.
I looked around the clearing again. There was still no one coming, so, with my backside pressed against the hard wooden seat, I grasped the ropes as high up as I could reach. I rose onto my tiptoes and jumped up and backward. When my butt hit the board, it wobbled much more than I expected. I tightened my grip. My palms were sweating.
But I'd made it—I was on, sitting. My feet were off the ground. I squirmed to get balanced on the seat while the board swayed every which way. I was nervous and tense sitting way up there.
My legs, however, knew what to do. They bent backward at the knee. My body remained rigid, hands tight, knuckles white. As my lower legs swung backward, the board moved slightly. Thrusting my legs forward, I glided out into space; the horizon moved. I looked down. The earth flowed beneath me. I was under way!
As the swing rose and fell, the ground came up so fast I felt paralyzed. Then my grandmother's smiling face crossed into my mind's eye. Her steady gaze seemed to hang in front of me, her eyes sparkling with approval and applause. My stomach stopped trembling and my legs began to feel light, almost separate from my body.
I kicked out hard and pulled back with my arms. I leaned into the void. I let my body go. As the ground zoomed away I was propelled into space. Moments later, the earth raced up to meet me, then was gone again. I did it again and again, went higher and higher, farther up and faster down.
At the peak of my trajectory, the overhanging boughs and mossy shadows disappeared, giving way to deep, boundless, late-afternoon blue. The ropes shrieked in time with my motion. Wind rushed against my face in the warm southern light. I opened my mouth and let the air fly inside. The breeze filled my chest and the wind washed my face. With my mouth open wide, I arched my neck and looked up at the sky. The whole universe rocked and spun to my rhythm. I was not afraid.
I thought about jumping but didn't dare just yet. Instead, I stopped pumping, and let the swing glide slower and slower until it came to rest.
Back on the ground, I realized that it was nearly dark and I might be late for dinner. I jumped off the swing, which was now at a standstill. As I hit the solid earth, I felt dizzy, as if I were still in motion. The land felt hard and unsteady, as it did when I got out of Grandpa's skiff after fishing all morning with him in the Gulf.
I ran home, thrilled with my triumph, racing down the block and hop-scotching over each crack in the sidewalk. In the fading light, all of the bushes seemed in bloom, a path of gardenias and azaleas lining my triumphal route. I imagined the other kids smiling.
At the back door, I washed my hands under the hose bib and unlaced my sand-filled shoes. Georgie was at her regular place at the stove, stirring a steaming pot with a long wooden spoon. Probably shrimp stew with rice, I thought, because the kitchen smelled of Tabasco and bay leaves.
Georgie smiled at me, her light Creole skin crinkling around her mouth. The cloudy, scratched lenses in her yellowing plastic eyeglass frames made her hazel eyes look so dim that I could barely see their outer rim of amber. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes," she said. "Better wash your hands. Your mom and dad will be going out tonight."
I walked down the narrow hallway past my parents' bedroom. Their door was closed as usual. They liked to have a drink when Dad came home, without my younger sister, Gail, and me around. I walked through the living room, past the dining room, and back into the kitchen. When they were home, my parents always had supper in the dining room after Gail and I had finished our meal in the kitchen.
The radio was playing gospel music, Georgie's favorite. I liked the sound of the passionate, syncopated singing, but the words seemed strange to me, all about Jesus and punctuated with shouts of "Oh, yeah, Lord!" After filling our plates, Georgie sat down with us in her usual spot at the end of the brown, speckled, Formica counter, near the stove.
As we started to eat, Georgie flashed an amused smile my way and asked, "How come you were out of breath when you came in?"
"Well," I said, "I ... uh ... got on the swing in the lot near your bus stop. You know, where the big tree is?"
Georgie's eyes lit up. "You got on that high swing down there?"
As casually as I could I said, "Yeah, but it got late, so I ran all the way home."
We'd nearly finished eating when Mom and Dad walked in, all dressed up. Dad had on a tuxedo and Mom looked dressed for fancy cocktails. Even before they stepped into the room, I could hear Mom's raspy smoker's cough and smell her thick Joy perfume. It always smelled sour to me, since it was mixed with the cloud of cigarette smoke that accompanied her.
My parents stood behind us and off to the side near the sink. From my chair at the counter, it was hard to see them without twisting my head all the way around in an awkward and uncomfortable way. It was even harder to report my big news with them standing behind us, all dressed up and so obviously eager to leave. This is what they both lived for: to go out to restaurants, to gamble at Beverly (the casino along the river), and to visit late-night jazz joints in the French Quarter.
My father took a deep puff on his cigarette, exhaled, turned on the tap, flooded the ash, and then threw the butt into the garbage can. The smoke from Mom's unfiltered Camel spiraled near my face. That night their smoke seemed especially strong. My mother jotted down a telephone number. "We should be home by midnight," she said. "That's where to reach us, Georgie. Good night, kids."
I wanted to tell my father all about the swing and my victory but couldn't manage to say one word about it. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and, looking down at us, said, "Mind Georgie, and go to bed when she says it's time."
I wanted to shout, Wait a minute, Dad—I did it! I imagined his face lighting up with that big smile of his, the one I saw mostly when company was over. I'm proud of you, son, he'd answer beaming.
Dad glanced over. "Peter, how did your neck get so dirty?"
Without making eye contact, I replied, "I was down at the empty lot playing."
"What were you doing down there so late in the day?"
"Oh ... nothing much," I mumbled.CHAPTER 2
Separate and Unequal
When I was seven years old, I got hooked on fishing "across the lake" with my grandfather, my father's dad, Albert J. Wolf, as he was known downtown. Spending time alone with my grandparents at their weekend house in Pass Christian was the happiest time of my childhood. In 1942, the war was raging abroad, but you wouldn't know it in Pass Christian, which was situated sixty-five miles east of New Orleans, beyond Lake Pontchartrain, past the swampy Rigolets passageway connection to Lake Borgne, then over the state line into Mississippi.
During the war years, while my father was overseas, my mother and sister never went with us to "the Pass," and my mother never went there with friends, either. She needed her allotment of rationed gas just to get to and from work, first at the Higgins P.T. boat factory and then at Godchaux's store. Years later I learned from my mother that she was always bitter that my grandparents somehow had enough gas to continue their routine right through the war, and didn't invite her and Gail to share their weekend house. I also came to understand in later years that she resented my grandparents' interest in me, their lack of admiration for her, and their meager attention to my sister.
When my father got back into a postwar working routine, my parents still never went across the lake with his parents. My mother and Gram did not get along. Mom considered her selfish, and Gram thought of my mother as superficial. Dad was not interested in being with his parents over an entire weekend. Before the war, Mom and Dad did sometimes take friends to the Pass for the weekend when my grandparents were traveling in Europe to visit cotton mills, as they did every summer while Grandpa was in the cotton business, before he became a stockbroker.
My grandmother, Carrie Godchaux, became Carrie Godchaux Wolf when she married Grandpa. She was my link to the huge New Orleans Godchaux-Weis family. It was she who introduced me to her family members by telling me stories long before I met any of them. I got to know the characters in the drama of her life from their modest beginnings. She told me about two penniless young boys, unknown to each other, named Leon Godchaux (born 1824) from Herbeville in Alsace, France, and Julius Weis (born 1826) from Klingen, a small village near Landau in the Palatinate, Germany; about how they scraped together the fare, and crossed the Atlantic in steerage to New Orleans, arriving in 1837 (Godchaux) and 1845 (Weis); about how their separate families thrived, as these onetime peddlers became prominent businessmen, and eventually intertwined when my grandmother's mother, Henrietta Weis, married Paul Godchaux in 1884. These founders, I learned, became large-scale business successes in sugar plantations, cotton brokerage, and retail. They were also charitable icons involved in the founding of Temple Sinai, the first Reform Jewish congregation in the city; a home for orphans; and the principal hospital in town, Touro Infirmary, so named because its first location was on property originally donated by Judah Touro. But she told me so much at once about people I'd heard nothing about ever before that a lot of it didn't sink in.
Grandpa, on the other hand, was from out of town. He was born in Bayou Sara, a tiny warehouse and trading community that clung perilously to the east bank of the Mississippi River sixty miles upriver from New Orleans. He never talked much about his family or his childhood, so what I learned about him came from Gram. My grandparents, Carrie and Albert, married in 1906. At the time, Gram was twenty-one and Grandpa twenty-five.
When I began to go "across the lake" (as we put it in those days) alone with my grandparents, they were in their fifties. They'd pick me up at four o'clock on Friday, after the stock market closed. As my grandfather was by then a partner of the nationally prominent Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane brokerage firm (his firm, Fenner & Beane, in New Orleans, had merged in 1941 with a New York brokerage to form the new company), he had earned the freedom to come and go as he pleased. However, he always stayed at his desk until the close, even on Fridays.
Going "across the lake" didn't mean crossing any particular lake. It meant driving U.S. Route 90, the old Chef Menteur Highway, east out of town. We traveled in my grandparents' ultrasleek cream-colored, four-door Packard Clipper. Before we started out, its curved sides had been polished and its windows shined by their New Orleans--based driver and houseman, Herbert. Once beyond the plants and factories around the Industrial Canal, we'd loop the southeastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain—the forty-five-mile-long, twenty-five-mile-wide watery northern boundary of New Orleans. For a couple of miles we were so close to its shore that it felt as if I could see the entire length of the lake. But in fact it was so immense that the far shore wasn't visible in any direction, even in the clearest weather. It made me think of the ocean, which I'd never seen, and of New Orleans as a sort of colorful seaside town, like the ones shown in magazines featuring the French Riviera.
Excerpted from My New Orleans, Gone Away by Peter M. Wolf. Copyright © 2013 Peter M. Wolf. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter M. Wolf is a sixth-generation member of a New Orleans family that has been long integral to that city’s culture and commerce. After Yale, Wolf earned a PhD in the history of art and architecture from New York University. Wolf is a nationally recognized land-planning, urban-policy, and asset-management authority. He is the founder of the Thomas Moran Trust, chairman of the Godchaux-Reserve Plantation Fund, and a trustee in East Hampton of Guild Hall and the Village Preservation Society. His research and writing have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the American Federation of Arts, and a Fulbright Fellowship.
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I wish that I could tell you that this was a wonderful book. It's descriptions of the author's life in New Orleans is so vivid. His heritage as a member of a family that, in three generations, rose from penniless immigrants to an economic and social powerhouse is so "American dream." His personal growth as he tries first one,than another lifestyle and career are so human. his tentative exploration of a more traditional Jewish life speaks to so many modern ethnic-Americans. But as other critics on these pages have said...his abrupt ending to a fascinating, almost wonderful, narrative is simply startling. At he end of this small book, my reaction was "Huh?, What?,Where is the rest?.
Bought back many memories from my youth-not always pleasant.
Let me know at our book when you've read this, then I will put the second half of if it up. It's being finicky again <p> Goldenstar's world remained dark as Lilywolf struggled to bring him to safety where Shadowstar plagued him with dark dreams that pulled him farther and farther into Shadowstars world, risking each time he dreamed that he might be caught and destroyed by the evil tom. Somewhere though, true memories also wove their way into Goldenstars mind as Starclan attempted to save him as well that reminded him of the best times of his life with Lilywolf. But then, Shadowstars voice reminded him how it was all fake and again he was pulled down into darkness. He watched in complete horror as Lilywolf gave all sorts of reasons why she was doing what was right, why could be trusted, and sided with Shadowstar at the same time. It was the sight of his mate bestowing a loving kiss on Shadowstar that finally woke him with a sudden jerk. His eyes flashed open and he was immediately coughing up water as his mind struggled to process it all. Thanks to Starclan's blessing some of the trauma from Velvetstars dying was cleared amd allowed him to try and think clearly although he stil felt as if Shadowstar had his claws around his neck. Hearing a weak cry for help, Goldenstar lifted his head to look at a sinking Lilywolf with a clearly distraught gaze. He was struggling to understand, what really was happening and who could he believe? In a second his mind was made however, knowing he didn't have time to think it over much. Whether or not Shadowstar had a hold on her mind, he wouldn't leave her to die. Goldenstar's icy cool gaze searched her expression for a hint of betrayal and he found none. But just as in his dream, she held a loving and gentle gaze that misled him into trust that only awaited doom at Shadowstars paws. Closing his eyes as if to block her from his sight, Goldenstar changed his mind and hauled himself upright and away. He limped off at a brisk pace and vanished into the trees, out of sight and completely silent.