Within the one square block I freely roamed in the spring of 1956, the world was safe and predictable, as tidy as the boxwood hedges that lined the walkways of virtually every house on our suburban New Orleans street. My parents and grandparents, pleased at last to have a bit of ground, planted it with fruit trees, vegetables and flowers. For my brother and I, there was a swing, a slide, and, very briefly, before the cats caught on, a sand box with a cheery green and yellow striped awning to protect us from the sun.
Grandma worried that life in this little Eden, wouldn’t prepare me for the perils that awaited in the real world, and so she spun out cautionary tales for every possible risk. She told me, for example, about a boy named Joe. “He lived down the street from Uncle Frank and Aunt Lena.” Joe liked to jump trains that chugged near his neighborhood by City Park. “And you know what happened to Joe?” she asked me with her face close up and sorrowful. “He fell and got his HEAD CUT OFF.” It was an effective, if ghastly, story. To this very day, you will never catch me jumping a train.
Most of her stories, like the ones about children who came down with polio after playing in the flooded streets after a rainstorm (a common New Orleans pastime) were meant to keep me safe, but others were just sad stories to prepare me for life’s Vale of Tears. Accordingly, I wasn’t spared news of children who died and left grieving mothers, or of mothers who died and left grieving children. Grandma was a kind of Sorrow Artist. She could bring grown men to tears with her rendition of Please Mr. Conductor, Don’t Put Me Off of the Train. On the other hand, there was Mother, who hated all things lachrymose. “You’re going to warp the child!” she would scold, to no avail.
But despite Grandma’s best efforts, I was not prepared for Lulu Lapeyrouse.
I heard her before I saw her, heard her as I played along the back fence where Grandpa’s Cucuzza vine thrived and lizards roamed like miniature dinosaurs among the fresh green leaves and tendrils.
My first response (oh, shame!) was amusement at her wobbly, high-pitched wail. I thought someone over the fence was playing a joke, maybe doing a parody of the seals at Audubon Zoo. But in an instant I knew better. It was truth, that sound, and it rose up again and again in moans, wails, at times, shrieks that made my knees go weak. For a moment, I felt a wave of panic, as if it wasn’t the world, but my perceptions that had become broken. I put my fingers in my ears and cried out, and in an instant, felt Mother and Grandmother near. “It’s just poor Lulu, visiting her Mama,” Grandma said. Mother took my hand and suggested we go inside and do something really fun. Bake cookies!
But Grandma was already leading me in the opposite direction, into the Lapeyrouse’s back yard, where I came face to face with a young woman in a wheelchair, her limbs tied down, her head lolling, her mouth drooling. “Hello, Lulu,” Grandma said, “This is my granddaughter.” Lulu’s twitches slowed, her cries quieted, her head held almost still. I looked in her eyes and she looked in mine, looked so hard into mine that I could not help but know that there really was a person, just like the rest of us, living inside Lulu’s shriveled, spasm ridden body.
For a few more days, Lulu’s cries were the background music to life in our safe and sanitized suburban back yard. Then she was gone, returned to someplace called “the home.” How hard I tried not to imagine her life, but the echo of her cries stayed in my mind and broke my heart. Grandma’s worries for my naivete were over. Lulu’s wordless eloquence had done the trick.