Summer felt the bumps of ancient tree roots beneath her thin ﬂip-ﬂops as she balanced the containers holding the French king cake and chocolate pecan pie through the maze of trees. On her way to the picnic table, she passed the Hens, her father’s twin sisters, Evelyn and Rose, joined by her Aunt Joy, her mother’s sister. There they were, perched on their thrones, ﬂuttering church fans, near the murky bayou. She was tempted to tell all three of them to get off their royalties and help unload some of the other bags out of the car. But she was raised to be a lady, a Southern lady, no less, and to always respect her elders.
She couldn’t help but think they were quite beautiful in this setting, each one in her own pastel linen sundress and oversize round sunglasses. Rose and Joy wore opulent straw hats, but not Aunt Evelyn. She refused to cover the latest selection from her extravagant wig collection, no matter how beautiful, ornate, or regal a hat could be. This piece was her “one of a kind” Lola Folana look. So instead of donning a crown, she held a bright yellow parasol, shielding herself from the vibrant sun.
“Summer, get those lazy teenagers to tote the rest of those bags. I don’t understand these young people, Generation Next or whatever y’all call them.” Her Aunt Evelyn hiked the bottom of her rufﬂed dress to the top of her slightly parted knees, unashamed of the white bloomers peeking beneath. Her ﬂabby arm swung like a shutter in the wind as she cooled herself with a faded church fan. Rose and Joy engaged in their “catching up” as they would call it, because Ledouxs and Rousseaus never gossiped, of course. Rousseau was Hannah’s maiden name, and she’d always managed to keep both sides of the family in check.
In an instant, eight little feet scurried by Summer with Frisbees, a hula hoop, wifﬂe balls, and other games in tow. Her Grandmother Hannah, or Grandmere as they often called her, had banned all electronic games and gadgets at family reunions. “Those games will zap your creativity, fry your brain, or give you cancer,” she’d say. Hannah thought everything could give you cancer. The family still kept Hannah’s rules despite her passing several years ago. Summer’s cousin Reese had four adorable “crumb snatchers” despite her constant proclamations that she was “about to leave her husband, Efrem Joseph LaSalle, M.D., any day now.” That day had stretched to seven years. Summer eyed the next generation, wanting to drop her bags and run away with them.
As the wave of youthful energy encircled Summer, one of the children bumped into her knee. Before she could yell he sped past her, leaving only a trace of giggles as she resumed her mission to get her treasured desserts to a safe resting place. “Finally,” she huffed. As she reached the closest picnic table, it became a challenge to ﬁnd a home for her prized possession among the spread of potato salad, grilled shrimp, barbecue chicken, briskets, coleslaw, catﬁsh, baked beans, sock-it-to-me and red velvet cake, banana pudding, and a host of other desserts and dishes. Adjacent to the picnic table were her uncles and several other men engaging in their barbecue sauce preparation, a Ledoux family ritual.
“I told you, you will never, ever
get the family recipe. I’ll take it to the grave,” she heard her Uncle Sunny say as the dripping sauce sizzled when it hit the coals. He dipped a spoon into his concoction and savored his own masterpiece.
“Already know it,” Uncle Friday taunted as he lifted the bottle of cream soda to his puckered lips. They called him Uncle Friday because every payday Friday he used to go to the gambling boat. Now he was saved, sanctiﬁed, and delivered, so supposedly his gambling days were over.
Summer watched Uncle Friday’s Adam’s apple bob with each gulp of soda. He slammed the bottle on the table and rubbed his protruding belly, outlined in suspenders. “Too bad they stopped making the glass bottles...soda just don’t taste the same in plastic.”
“For true, for true,” her other uncles chorused.
Summer suppressed her laugh but could not help but release a chuckle as she studied Uncle Friday’s outﬁt. Hmmm, dress shoes, ankle socks, and shorts
. . . and he wears it with such conﬁdence
, she thought.
Taking in the atmosphere made her realize how things change yet seem to stay the same. When she was a little girl the same scenarios played out, but she’d never paid attention to details. All she remembered was playing with her cousins, laughing until it hurt, swimming in water she’d never even touch now, and almost losing her virginity. Well, it was just a kiss. Luckily I discovered he was my distant, distant cousin . . . no Jerry Springer action here.
Each year the voices around her got louder and clearer. “So-and-so’s daughter got her period the other day...My Nathan got a scholarship... So-and-so bought a house, pledged, got a bra, got a divorce . . .” Lower voices. “You know Julius is stepping out on her, and she’s just ﬂaunting around here like she was Queen Esther... But you did not hear that from me, because you know Ledouxs and Rousseaus don’t gossip...”
When Hannah Ledoux would come within earshot of the “catching up,” everyone would hush. The only sound would be lip smacking from eating Uncle Sunny’s barbecue or her Aunt Joy’s homemade pecan pralines. Hannah would just cut her eyes and point her precut ceremonial butt-whipping switch (because some-body’s child always made it necessary) and say, “If folks will gossip to you, they will gossip about
you! Now quit all that messiness and whip out the cards. I need to beat somebody down with some spades.” A wave of laughter would break out, and in two seconds there’d be a heated card competition going on. In the backdrop would be dominoes slamming the table and a bunch of trash-talking that to this day Summer never understood. Zydeco music blaring in the background charged the open air with a festiveness that followed everyone back home.
As the years went on, young and old folks died. The most painful loss for Summer had been her mother, then Hannah a few years later. They were the most prominent women in her life. Nevertheless, the family cycle continued, both in and out of wedlock.
“That mess started after Hannah passed,” Aunt Rose would say.
“Hannah never tolerated ‘children out of wedlock’; the same thing’s goin’ on at Mt. Calvary. Can’t just be saved anymore–you got to be saved, sanctiﬁed, and delivered!” she would declare, and then turn her nose up to the heavens.
When Summer was old enough to better comprehend what was going on, she’d hear bits and pieces of Ledoux business leaking out. Broken conversations and whispers would drop hints about threats to the beloved Ledoux name. Hannah had been very protective of the family name, and now so was Summer.
“Summer, no family is perfect. Trust me,” her sister, Misa, had said one year. When Misa had turned thirteen and Summer was eight, Misa quickly grew tired of the simple children’s family reunion games. Suddenly Misa became a stranger to Summer. She spent hours at the mirror, putting on makeup just to go to the park to see her cousins. “You never know who will be there,” Misa’d say, tossing her glossy jet-black ringlets away from her mahogany face. Summer would just stare at her sister with her arms folded. She’d look down at her baggy shorts and tennis shoes and eye her sister’s halter top and neon mini. She would shrug her shoulders, vowing never to be so “girly.”
That same year, Summer had caught Misa in the woods with a neighborhood boy. Although they were fully clothed, he was on top of her. Misa probably lost
her virginity that year, Summer thought.
“Summer. Summer! Didn’t you hear me?”
She blinked as her father’s voice snapped her back to reality.
“I said I’m about to whip up on your Aunt Joy in some horseshoes. You want to come play?” Her eyes shot up to her father. She took in his tall frame. Each year the gray at the edge of his neatly trimmed sideburns crept up higher. She still thought he was the most handsome man on earth, setting a high standard for any suitor
who crossed her path.
“I’m sorry, Daddy, I was just thinking.”
“Well, get your butt over here.”
Summer happily agreed because that was her favorite game and her favorite memory (outside of watching her Uncle Groovy, who she later discovered was not her real uncle, try to do the latest dances). It was the one thing she would always play with her mother and father. That was their game. The only image more familiar was seeing her mother and father smooching like teenagers and walking through the woods on their private excursions. Summer promised herself to always remember her mother in that way. She blocked out everything else... even the questionable tragic end. The Big Easy
Summer pressed her body against the metal rail, lukewarm to the touch, as her eyes studied the paddle wheeler creeping toward the pier. She found comfort gazing at the ﬂoating mass. Inching near, it greeted her like an old friend. Louisiana is still a good place
. She gazed out on the “Mighty Mississippi,” inviting the old mystique of New Orleans to dance in her soul. Each time she returned to the Big Easy, her love of its history, music, food, and ﬂavorful people grew even more.
Above all, she savored the music. At any part of the day, somewhere music was playing in the birthplace of jazz. From Bourbon Street’s oozing blues and Preservation Hall’s brassy, rustic jazz to the homeless man horn-blowing for change, music was the air. She inhaled deeply, drawing in melodic elixirs to soothe her spirit. But the hunger pains dancing inside her stomach then took over. A craving kicked in for homemade pecan pralines from Aunt Sallie’s, the famous storefront in the French Quarter. She swallowed, pressing her mouth together, then bent down to scoop up several pieces of gravel. She tossed them one by one into the water, watching each stone’s quick disappearance into the dark liquid abyss. Staring at the river always gave her a peace, the peace that had often eluded her in the past. The quiet state of mind others took for granted became hers at such a price.
She walked away from the water toward a nearby bench and sat down, smoothing the white linen fabric of her sundress over her thighs. Despite the light, airy material, she felt a small layer of sweat accumulating on her back. She tucked her hair behind her ears, leaned back, and crossed her ankles. Summer relaxed, discreetly eyeing the parade of sightseers through her shades. She could see how people came from all over to the “City Without a Care,” a place she’d come to love.
Shortly after she’d settled on the bench, last night’s vision crept into her mind. She recalled images of her mother balled up in a corner, weeping, crying, and rocking back and forth. People kept walking by her, staring, pointing, and telling her to get up. Yet no one would bend down and help her. Not the way I remember her. Only the good, remember only the good.
Early in life, Summer had quickly realized the ways to deal with mental illness, both her mother’s and her own. Counseling, medication and prayer... she’d been a witness to her mother’s treatments and tried counseling and medication herself. However, her relationship with God and many hours of prayer had ﬁnally released her from pain and prescription drugs.
Her mother hadn’t been so fortunate. After years of suffering, she’d lost the battle. Eventually, Elizabeth Ledoux had succumbed to an accidental overdose, with some question as to whether it was truly an accident. Although Summer knew her mother was ﬁnally at peace, her premature death still haunted her.
The kind of depression that hit the Ledoux women wasn’t your everyday blues or the once-a-month PMS. It was a deep, life-altering darkness. When getting out of the bed is an achievement. It’s a life in which happiness is abnormal and sadness is effortless. It’s the type of depression in which laughter breeds guilt and smiling is painful. It prompts outsiders who don’t understand to ask, “Why can’t he or she just get it together?” The darkness was so thick, and the glass was neither empty nor full. There was no glass.
Every event, day, idea, hope, or person was shrouded in negativity.
Since her mother’s death, Summer’s hunger to understand this disease had become an obsession. What was this dark spirit that destroyed my mother’s chance for a normal, healthy life? she questioned. It was a deep-rooted desire that gnawed at her insides. When she reached her early twenties, the disease began to threaten her own life. But she fought and fought until she ﬁnally overcame.
She inhaled deeply and released her breath. Exhaling, Summer wondered what could have triggered her most recent nightmare. Maybe the old black-and-white photos Aunt Joy showed me yesterday
, she thought, staring blankly at the sky. The pictures stirred up emotions she hadn’t felt in a while. Sensing the negative energy, she immediately propelled her thoughts to a positive place. She became excited, thinking of all the joyful events the weekend had in store.
Summer extended her legs, offering them further to the generous light. She deﬁnitely didn’t need a tan, but basking in the amber beams felt good on her skin. Again, she took deep meditative breaths to calm her spirit. Thoughts of the big weekend slightly overwhelmed her. Summer’s muscles tightened, moodiness and fatigue taunting her serenity. The sight of freshly manicured nails deterred her usual nail biting.
Ledoux family reunions always seemed bittersweet; this one was no different. Summer ﬁgured having a wedding during this time was logical. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
she’d thought. Although she loved her extended family, they could be a handful. What could I have been thinking?
She sighed, wiping a bit of moisture off her forehead.
“Excuse me, miss, I don’t want to interrupt. I couldn’t help but notice you. Do you mind if I join you?”
She paused, eyeing from head to toe the clean-cut man holding a box of kettle corn.
“Well...normally I wouldn’t entertain such an invitation.” She sat up taller. “How-ev-er
,” she enunciated as she slid her shades down with her index ﬁnger, “you seem like such a gentleman. I guess it couldn’t hurt. Please, have a seat. I have to warn you, though, my ﬁancé will be back any minute. I can’t be responsible for what he might do,” she said coyly, inching over.
Excerpted from Sweet Magnolia by Norma L. Jarrett. Copyright © 2006 by Norma L. Jarrett. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.